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).
III.A.2 The Spread of Medical “Knowledge”
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By the 1920s, Freud was the primary source of attitudes in America towards same-sex love. Where Kraft-Ebing had considered sexual orientation to be inborn, Freud blamed childhood trauma and considered homosexuality to be “curable”. Both lumped men’s and women’s experiences together without considering the differences in social context.
Broad surveys showed that romantic and sexual relationships between women were statistically “normal” and not correlated with pathology, but the medical approach now considered all such relationships unhealthy. Freudian language and concepts became part of everyday conversation.
There were stirrings of homosexual activism in Europe, mostly by men, who latched onto the idea that their desires were “inborn” but rejected the idea that those desires were a “defect”. Some popular fiction took up the themes of “no-fault homosexuality”, sometimes urging pity for homosexuals, sometimes rejecting any sort of negative framing. Those medical theories that attributed homosexuality to “nature” rather than “nurture” provided ammunition for those who agitated for acceptance. This position countered the charges that homosexuality constituted immorality.
Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) fell in the “pity and acceptance” category. Its themes of “congenital inversion” and the framing of a same-sex couple as composed of a lesbian and a “normal” partner aligned in some ways with a transgender framing. [This echoes, in some ways, earlier medieval theories that one could determine true gender based on the object of desire. I.e., that anyone who desired a woman was inherently masculine.] There is a long discussion of the themes and implications in Hall’s novel. The Well of Loneliness, despite its publication difficulties, became a significant influence on lesbian self-perception, given the scarcity of other models written by lesbians. (As opposed to the “decadent” male-authored novels.)
There was a strong contrast between the “official” psychological framing of same-sex love and the broad-based case studies of women in such relationships when the selection of examples was not driven by medical or emotional problems. In the 1920s and 1930s, some studies found that 50% of all women had experienced intense emotional feelings for other women, and half of those had recognized those feelings as sexual. Surveys of lesbians that were not biased by physical or psychological problems found them on average to be more educated and better employed than heterosexual women.
The 1920s and later decades brought a general increase in sexual freedom (outside marriage). Self-reporting by lesbians concerning their relationships show a wide range of degrees of sexual interest, although the popular view assumed that sexual activity was the primary defining factor in their relationships. Jumping ahead to a 1978 survey, it found that women in lesbian relationships valued romance, affection, hugging, and kissing, and didn’t consider “sex acts” as the focal point of their relationship. [One wonders, given this description, what would distinguish these relationships from Romantic Friendship in terms of desires and behaviors.]