Skip to content Skip to navigation

LHMP #313b Wahl 1999 Invisible Relations Part 1

Full citation: 

Wahl, Elizabeth Susan. 1999. Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, Stanford. ISBN 0-8047-3650-2

Part 1: Sexualized Models of Female Intimacy

* * *

Chapter 1: The Tribade, the Hermaphrodite, and Other “Lesbian” Figures in Medical and Legal Discourse

John Donne’s poem “Sappho to Philaenis” demonstrates how the image of sexual relations between women was contained by treating it as autoerotic (i.e., because it is based on similarity, the women in essence love themselves) and barren, while also safely locating women’s same-sex desire in the past. But works like this are part of a growing cultural awareness of female homosexuality. There is an increase in prosecutions of women for sodomy in France and elsewhere on the continent, alongside translations of classical sources mentioning tribadism, medical interest in the clitoris, concern with regulating non-procreative sex (especially masturbation), and the emergency of pornography as a literature, especially featuring sex between women.

These movements contradict the oft-cited presumption that sex between women was rarely represented before the 19th century. There is a wealth of representation in law, classics, medical, libertine, and erotic pseudoscientific texts, all of which fed into the new genre of pornography. French sources were particularly rich in these themes.

The idea that women could satisfy their erotic desires without men (which meant without pregnancy or risk of venereal disease) provoked anxiety for the institution of marriage and reproduction.  This linkage of f/f sex with fears of marriage resistance and avoidance of reproduction began to link feminism with accusations of anti-maternalism.

France had, perhaps, the longest tradition of legal prosecution of f/f sex, though early laws confusingly transfer male-specific language to their discussion of female sodomy. Both the language of laws and the prescribed punishments were often worded in ways that obscured the exact nature of the acts being punished.  Wahl mentions the medieval story of Yde and Olive as an example of anxiety about “what women do”. [Note: This seems a bit out of place in the timeline, but she’s recapitulating the entire French history of legal attitudes toward female sodomy.] French legal cases in the mid 16th to mid 17th century often revolve around gender disguise or suspicions of physiological hermaphroditism, which were interpreted under the definition of sodomy.

But the legal premise [as it had evolved by this date] that sodomy required penetration conflicted with the libertine position that female couples could not have satisfying sex because penetration was not involved. This may have contributed to the rising popular image of the “phallic clitoris” as well as a fascination with dildoes. These created a sexual transgression that was worthy of condemnation.

England stands apart in its absence of legal references to female homosexuality and a lack of prosecutions for it. One can find, in fact, a deliberate omission of f/f possibilities in statutes adapted from texts on both homosexuality and bestiality, where the originals treated men and women as potentially equally participating in both, but the English adaptation mentions women only with regard to bestiality. Various opinions are noted for this relative lack of legal interest in women’s same-sex activities. But England was also, in practice, more tolerant of m/m relations in this era, and in both cases tended to displace the image of homosexuality onto foreign cultures, locations, and individuals.

Legal discourse began to lean on medical “expert witness” to guide questions of gender/sexuality. French cases are cited where medical examination “saved” women from punishment for female sodomy by supposedly demonstrating that they were hermaphrodites.

There was a growing concern about a link between anatomy and f/f sex. In this context, a new theory arose that f/f sex and female masturbation could causeclitoral enlargement, not simply be enabled by it. This was linked to an Arabic tradition of medical writings that associated the clitoris with excess of female desire. The source of these texts then created an association of enlarged clitorises with Arabic, Egyptian, and African women and introduced the idea of treatment by clitoridectomy (though this “treatment” did not become an established European practice until later).

If f/f sex could create “masculine” anatomy that then enabled penetrative sex, then maybe it wasn’t quite so “barren” after all. When tribadism could be viewed as nothing more than mutual masturbation, it wasn’t dangerous to heterosexual institutions, but if it could replace the penis, that was another matter. This shift in imagery also created the idea that the effects of f/f sex were inevitably “visible” on the body. The idea of clitoral hypertrophy entered English texts in the 17th century but wasn’t accompanied by any call to create penalties against its supposed use. English texts often othered the phenomenon entirely and claimed that English women didn’t exhibit it. [Note: This may have been a consequence of English authors engaging in scientific observation and failing to identify actual examples, while still presenting foreign descriptions as fact.]

But with the influx of French culture at the restoration of the English monarchy, the idea of f/f desire as an “open secret” took hold in England.  During this same era, the image of the hermaphrodite expanded from an anatomical concept to an allegorical one, representing the dissolution of gender boundaries and becoming an icon of sexual deviance. [Note: My reading has suggested that the metaphorical hermaphrodite arose as an image in England in the early 17th century, if not earlier, and was well established by the Restoration.]

Medical interest in both “normal” and “deviant” anatomy became a cover for prurient interests, and the boundary between medical texts and pornography became fuzzy. Another culturally relevant feature of these medical texts is that they increasingly appeared in the vernacular language, providing a wider reach into (literate) society. Focus on the clitoris came to replace the idea of the hermaphrodite as a representation of anxiety about lesbianism. If the clitoris gave all women the ability to satisfy themselves and each other, what of men?

The theory that stimulation caused enlargement of the clitoris turned attention to masturbation in general. 18th century texts encouraged schoolmistresses to keep an eye out for the practice among students. Such texts both denied that masturbation was common among women and spread the knowledge of its possibility. This is only one example of the generally contradictory nature of the genre.

Semi-pornographic “confession” letters about masturbation (and f/f sex, though the distinction was not always clear) tied sexual knowledge to the practice of reading, as well as well as to cross-class relationships. The framing of such activities as “masturbation” diverted attention from the homosexual nature of the context.

In the mid 18th century in England there was a rise of “female husband” stories. Images of female homosexuality expanded to include passing women and the demimonde of actresses and prostitutes. The idea of the clitoral tribade was split off to form an idea of monstrosity apart from everyday social experience.

Chapter 2 - Representations of the Tribade in Libertine Literature

In parallel with medical interest in the hermaphrodite and tribade, French libertine literature and “gallant” literature “rediscovered” the tribade via classical sources and Italian pornographic literature. Meanwhile, in England, poets such as John Donne and Ben Jonson used the images of the tribade or fricatrice in satire and erotic writing. Playwright and poet Aphra Behn used the idea of the hermaphrodite to explore f/f desire. These uses are not new, but expand on images of f/f desire in Renaissance and classical literature.

One can find several organizing themes within these literary representations, especially viewing f/f desire as a passing developmental stage that gives way to heterosexuality, or as a consequence of gender play or gender disguise, or as a mythological motif. Homoeroticism could be found in plays, romances, and poetry, with both men and women depicted as enjoying desire for both sexes.

Homoerotic themes on the stage are well studied. Wahl looks instead at the specific genre of libertine writings, that focus on explicitly erotic representations and use the tribade as a “scandalous” and transgressive figure. The authors are primarily male, with Aphra Behn being the notable exception in writing openly of f/f desire and interrogating the misogyny and gender constraints that her contemporaries were swimming in.

French libertine writers presented themselves as direct observers/reporters and took at least the appearance of a moral stance, following the tone of the medical literature. They set themselves u as judges of “natural” law to identify those who broke it. Historians often treat this genre either as erotic fantasies or as defamatory gossip while accepting the “amused tolerance” of their stance as sincere. Thus, these historians consider libertine writings on f/f desire to demonstrate its insignificance and inconsequentiality. Wahl argues for seeing a more complex reaction that reveals the men’s desires and fears around f/f sex.

Several specific texts are examined, starting with Brantôme, who pretty much catalogs the libertine views of female sexuality. He combines classical literary examples with contemporary anecdotes, depicting f/f sex simultaneously as a rediscovery of classical practices and as a foreign import from Italy. He adopts a geographic polarity: southern cultures are more passionate, northern ones less adventurous. But sexual knowledge could be transmitted between them like a disease. [Note: Of course, in turn, when English writers tackled the “transmission” theory of f/f sex, they saw France as the source of infection.]

Brantôme raises the question of whether f/f sex constitutes adultery. (A great deal of his work focuses on extramarital sex in general, in line with gallantculture.) He primarily presents f/f sex as a preferred alternative to adultery with men, but also alleges that it can be a symptom or a cause of uncontrolled desire in general. But then he sidesteps the implications of this by focusing on f/f sex as an outlet for virgins and widows, whose activities wouldn’t challenge the institution of marriage.

F/f sex is ok “in the absence of men”, but even depicting it as a “safe” outlet undermines the assertion that f/f sex can’t compete with m/f sex. He repeatedly fails to integrate the idea that f/f desire inevitably gives way to m/f relationships with the actual anecdotes he presents in which women are deeply devoted to each other.

Brantôme echoes Italian erotic literature in depicting f/f sex as an “apprenticeship” to unrestrained sex with men, linking tribades and prostitutes via voyeuristic anecdotes in which his descriptions focus on a male observer. Woven throughout Brantôme’s anecdotes are the message that women will be punished for their same-sex acts, not by an external justice, but as an inevitable “natural” consequence. Dildoes cause fatal injury, discovery brings humiliation.

Brantôme’s terminology for f/f sex is slippery. Though terms like “tribade” and “fricatrice” are used, they don’t clearly align with specific practices he describes and may be used allegorically in ways that remove actual women’s sexuality from the picture. We also see this in the poems by Donne, Woodward, and Jonson in which the female image of the Muse introduces the same-sex element. These (male) English poets, while using lesbian imagery, are not clearly speaking of f/f sex at all. [Note: And yet, even the use of lesbian imagery in a figurative sense reflects or creates an awareness of the possibilities in life.]

Wahl addresses two assumptions to contradict them: that female homosexuality was not an “available category” in early modern England, and that the few clear examples of f/f sex stand apart from other forms of transgressive sexuality. She specifically challenges Alan Bray’s assertion that female and male homosexuality were not linked in the early modern imagination.

She notes Traub’s contrast between “tribade sexuality” involving some degree of masculine performance, and “femme” desire, that had no physical signifier (whether in dress, in the use of a dildo, or in being marked on the body via the clitoris).  “Femme” modes were easier to view as compatible with a normative life path ending in reproductive sexuality. Traub’s polarities are blurred in Donne’s poem “Sapho to Philaenis” and in Behn’s “To the Fair Clarinda”. These two works also bookend a period of relative tolerance for f/f sex, prior to the rise of satirical takes in the early 18th century. [Note: Given the relative paucity of material, I’m not sure how solidly one can speak of a “period of relative tolerance” when it also included things like Jonson’s attack on Cecelia Bulstrode.]

Donne envisions an “innocent” self-loving relationship between Sapho and Philaenis that explicitly contrasts with m/f sex as “leaving a mark”. The imagery is utopian. Behn blurs the polarities by envisioning a gender-fluid Clarinda who leans “masculine” when actively pursuing desire of a female beloved, while being viewed as a safely “innocent” target of a woman’s affection. The poem praises Clarinda in alternately male and female terms: female beauty, but male-coded behavior.  She is desirable to both men and women because she is both male and female. Behn’s use of a plural subject as the observer intimates that all women might be drawn to Clarinda, and that they may remain innocent in that love as they love a woman, not a man.

[Note: It occurs to me that part of the “is lesbianism dangerous” dilemma for writers in this era boils down to a dual meaning of “inconsequence”. If f/f sex is inconsequential/unimportant then it isn’t a challenge to reproductive sex, but becausef/f sex is free of “consequence” whether pregnancy, venereal disease, or simply being categorized as adultery, it has inherent advantages over f/m sex. I think this is one of the things Wahl is arguing, but I wanted to restate it in my own words to fix it in my head.]

Behn’s references in the Clarinda poem to Chloris/Alexis (stock pastoral figures) and Hermes/Aphrodite raise the image of the hermaphroditic hybrid who can be lover to either sex while belonging to neither. But Behn can’t escape the cultural framing that views desire for a woman (or active sexual desire in general) as inherently masculine, while framing f/f relations as “innocent” and “friendship” as opposed to passion.

French libertine poets offer another angle on f/f love but one that fits securely with the assumption of ultimate m/f triumph. F/f bonds are defined within a conventional romance dynamic, but designed for a male audience. F/f love is not to be consummated, it is self imposed suffering, it falls short of “the real thing”. They do wrong to refuse themselves to men. But within this context, f/f love is depicted as tender, egalitarian, and bewildering to men.

The themes of an almost sympathetic tolerance of f/f love and an insistence on heterosexual conversion come to a point in the dramatic and poetic works of Benserade. Written for a libertine audience (both male and female) he ventures to depict happy f/f relations, as in Iphis and Ianthe (though only Iphis is consciously aware of the same-sex aspect), while still promising a heterosexual resolution. (The couple is allowed a happy wedding night as women, but Iphis’s sex-change is still required to make the marriage itself possible.)

Benserade also wrote about losing a female lover to another woman and this work sharply depicts the limits of male sympathy within the complex reasons why he finds the desertion offensive. He could bear losing his lover to a man, but is miffed that a woman’s love could be strong enough to steal her away. He consoles himself that his lover will inevitably be abandoned in turn for a man. He asserts that women are incomplete without a man and therefore two incomplete things can’t achieve completion together. [Note: In the male-authored texts comparing f/f and f/m love, one can see the underpinnings of a major motif in modern biphobia: that a woman who is capable of desiring both women and men will inevitably, at some point, choose men over women. Within the time-scope of Wahl’s study, this isn’t a question of “men can offer marriage and women can’t” because the entire debate concerns gallantrelations apart from marriage.]

In summary, these representations of f/f sexuality illustrate an increasing awareness of the potential for sexual and erotic relations between women, with a consequent concern for policing non-reproductive sexuality, represented in the form of the clitoris. Yet within this context, there are glimpses of the ability to imagine f/f love in utopian terms, even if “invisible”. The conflict is between visibility and consequent male anxiety on the one side, and invisibility and hence inconsequentialness on the other.

Time period: 

Add new comment