Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6
A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).
II.A.1 The Asexual Woman
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As we enter the 19th century, this chapter centers around the famous 1811 trial in which two schoolmistresses, Miss Woods and Miss Pirie, were accused by a student of lesbianism and successfully sued the student’s guardian, Dame Gordon, for libel. The focal point of the trial was the argument that proper English ladies simply were not capable of behavior of that sort, while the lawyers for Dame Gordon dug into history as far back as Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans to demonstrate the existence of the behavior that the two women were accused of.
One feature of the trial arguments that Faderman touches on is how the possibility of sex between women was displaced onto “foreign” women. The student who made the accusation (Dame Gordon’s granddaughter) was the out-of-wedlock child of an Indian mother, and suggestions were made that she was able to fabricate such a charge because women in places like India were more sexual and lascivious and the child had learned about things like lesbianism there.
But the main feature was the argument that decent women would not have the sexual drive necessary for sexual activity to take place in the absence of a man. The judge opined that the crime of which Woods and Pirie were accused did not exist--was not possible. Paradoxically, the romantic devotion of the two women to each other was offered as part of the evidence for their good character and virtue.
Their reputations were also protected by the vehemence with which the legal establishment chose to disbelieve in the possibility of lesbian sex, arguing, “a woman being in bed with a woman cannot even give a probability to such an inference [of unnatural intentions]. It is the order of nature and of society in its present state. If a woman embraces a woman it infers nothing.” This was contrasted in the legal arguments with the acknowledgment that sex between men was not only possible but could reasonably be suspected if the men showed similar signs of affection.
This determined denial of possibilities is present in a French example, also of the early 19th century, where the writer Flora Tristan wrote to her friend Olympe that she wanted a woman to love her passionately. Olympe wrote Flora in turn that she made her “shiver with pleasure” and put her in ecstasy, and yet their writing appears to indicate that they did not consider these experiences to constitute sexual passion. Faderman concludes, “if a cosmopolitan Frenchwoman...could ignore her own sensations...we may be sure that the general public had no conception of the potentials of love between women.” [The problem with this conclusion, of course, is that it can be demonstrated to be false. One hesitates to keep returning endlessly to the example of Anne Lister, but she managed to find an entire diffuse community of women in rural Yorkshire who managed to have a “conception of the potentials of love between women.” Faderman is taking an official public myth and presenting it as a description of objective reality.]
At the end of this chapter, Faderman jumps to the very end of the 19th century and presents examples of a medicalized view of lesbian sex as “morbid” and due to mental perversion, as well as an example from a novel of two women in love falling asleep “in the silent ardor of deep blissful joy” in each other’s arms, after having rejected “the impure advances of sapphists.” These bookend examples are meant to show that the entire 19th century in England was one where “decent women” were functionally asexual, where they simply could not conceive of sexual activity being present in a loving relationship. [It might, perhaps, be a little more accurate to describe it that such women re-defined any erotic activities they enjoyed as not being sex, just as the judges in the Woods and Pirie case repeated the theory that sex cannot exist without a penis. But I think there’s an important distinction to be made between women in Romantic Friendships not labeling experiences as being erotic and those women not experiencing erotic desire.]