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Full citation: 

Brooten, Bernadette J. 1997. Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-07591-5

Publication summary: 

Brooten provides part of the conversation in response to Boswell, countering both the position that early Christian sexual mores were qualitatively different from those of the surrounding Roman culture, and that female homosexuality can be studied obliquely via male-centered data. The first portion of her book surveys a variety of evidence for female same-sex desire and how it was understood in the culture of the larger Roman empire. The second portion looks at early Christian texts and commentaries that address concerns about sexual relations between women. The ultimate goal of the work is to provide a context for understanding early Christian writings about (or that have been interpreted as being about) erotic relationships between women.

I'll be covering Brooten in three parts: the Introduction and "miscellaneous data" chapters, the chapters on specific types of written genres that form the focus of her study, and the section of the work using the preceding data to understand Christian writings.

Contents summary: 

Chapter 1

The focus on active versus passive sexual roles shaped Roman views of sex between women. Women were viewed as "naturally" passive. Thus one of a female sexual couple was assumed to be behaving "unnaturally" in an active role. This was a social role distinction, not a biological one, as can be seen by comparing with views on male sexual roles, where either an active or passive role could be considered "natural" depending on other factors. Attitudes towards sex between women show more continuity between non-Christian and Christian positions than attitudes on marriage or celibacy. Romans recognized a variety of sexual rules and orientations but they did not correspond to the modern variety. These roles varied with the gender, status, and age of the erotic object as well as that of the experiencer. These orientations could be viewed as fixed and "life-long" or as temporary (especially age-related roles).

Terminology for women in erotic relationships with women is varied and may differ in nuance. Greek used hetairistria (related to hetaira, perhaps in the sense of "companion"), tribas (plural tribades, meaning "one who rubs") and lesbian. Commentaries on the 2nd century writing of Clement of Alexandria specifically equate "lesbian" with "tribas" demonstrating a very early use of the word in a sense of erotic orientation. Latin writers borrowed tribas, as well as using the Latin equivalent fricatrix. Latin "virago" was sometimes used in this context but generally meant "a masculine woman" in a more general sense. Arabic sahaqa (also meaning "one who rubs") appears in some of the texts discussed. The terms tribas and fricatrix might be used for both partners or might indicate specifically the "active" partner. This is in line with asymmetric terminology for male sexual partners. For women this presented an interpretational dilemma, resulting in a focus on penetrative activities between women. But the animosity shown toward the "passive" female partner as well as the "active" one indicates that there was some acknowledgment of interpretations outside the phallocentic model.

The specific focus of Brooten's work is on erotic love between women and male responses to it (the latter, because female responses generally were not recorded or have not survived). Within the context of work on early Christian attitudes toward same-sex relations, the general disinterest in women's relations has led to false equivalence with attitudes toward men's relations, or an acceptance of theses that are easily falsified by female-centered data. Within the context of the historic sources, the exclusively male viewpoint (and one that generally focuses on high-status women) distorts our understanding of everyday experience. In the context at lesbian history, Brooten identifies a clear sense of a "lesbian concept": a woman who usurps male roles and is oriented toward women for sex. This concept is fairly stable across the time and cultural scope of her study. Further the reactions toward lesbian sexuality in early Christian times form a continuum with those up through the current day. The introduction concludes with an extensive discussion of the historiographic problems.

Chapter 2

The initial chapter reviewing evidence for female homoeroticism in the classical period contains Brooten's "other" category (to be followed by her core topics of love spells, astrological texts, medical texts, and dream analysis).


The "other" catch-all begins with Sappho. Sappho lived in the 7th/6th century BCE, well before the era being studied, but was familiar to Romans. In general, her poetry was praised, but there was increasing negative focus on her love for women. Roman commentary often referred to her as "masculine" perhaps both in praise of her literary skills and in condemnation of her sexuality. From the Roman era through the early modern era, Sappho's sexual reputation was used to smear women with intellectual aspirations, suggesting that female intellectuals were inherently immoral. This negative attitude in non-Christian Roman commentary becomes even stronger in early Christian critiques.

Early Greek Sources

The earliest clear reference to female homoeroticism in Greek is Plato's story of lovers seeking their previously conjoined "other half", using the term hetairistriai to describe those from a female-female pair. Asklepiades in the 3rd century BCE mentions two Samian women by name whom he condemns for turning their backs on Aphrodite and pursuing sex with each other.

These somewhat more neutral Greek attitudes are relevant because Roman society policed female gender expectations by portraying undesired activity as monstrous, masculine, and especially as foreign (and, in particular, Greek). (Of course, male gender expectations were also policed, especially for the upper class.) In this context, Brooten extensively summarizes the material and arguments in Hallett (1989) [see separate entry]. In contrast to Roman condemnation of female homoeroticism, there was a more nuanced view of male homoeroticism, as long as it involved an active-passive contrast that aligned with age and / or class in an acceptable way.

Greek writers in the Roman era took similar views but with noted exceptions. Plutarch has a passing positive comment on a Greek description of love between Spartan women. And a lost novel by Iamblichos tells of how Berenike, daughter of the king of Egypt, loved and married a woman named Mesopotamia. This is not the only reference to marriage between women. Lucian, in his satirical Dialogs of the Courtesans, describes the courtesans Megilla and Demonassa as married, though a great deal of emphasis is put on Megilla's "masculine' nature.

Less formal arrangements are described in Alkiphron's fictitious depiction of all-female erotic parties among Athenian courtesans and in a mocking debate by pseudo-Lucian asserting that if one approves of male-male love one ought to support love between women as well. (The argument seems meant to be a reductio ad absurdum.) All of these male authors begin from the presumption that women are lesser than men, therefore there is always a touch of incredulity at the very thought of love between women. But in contrast to the discussions of male-male love, which invariably involve age or status differences, love between women is mostly framed as being between equals in age and status with the distinction, if any, being in portraying one as more" masculine". This is not a strict "butch-femme" framing. One treatise on personality types catalogs a gamut of inherent desires among women where both lover and beloved may vary in leaning "feminine" or "masculine".

Greek visual art offers an assortment of erotic scenes between (usually nude) women, including a formalized courting gesture with the hand under the chin, a kneeling woman touching another's genitals, and two women in drunken embrace. An understanding of visual symbolism also points to a funeral monument showing two women (named on the monument) with right hands clasped, a gesture normally indicating a married couple.

Jewish Sources

Hebrew scriptures contain no prohibitions of sexual activity between women that would parallel those against men in Leviticus, but Roman-era Jewish writings parallel non-Jewish attitudes in viewing sex between women as appropriating a masculine role. Other commentaries explicitly prohibit same-sex behavior as "non-Jewish "and refer to marriage between two man or two women (among other combinations) as following the practice of Egypt or Canaan. This may simply stand in for "foreign" rather than identifying specific cultural practices, but other writers cite Egyptian examples of marriage between women. Other Jewish commentary discusses whether women who have sex with each other (literally "rub with each other") have committed harlotry or not. (Opinions were mixed.) Since the question arose regarding whether such women were suitable to marry into the priesthood, we aren't talking about acceptance of lesbianism as a life-long orientation but rather behavior that might involve women with otherwise typical life histories.

Contents summary: 

Chapter 3 - Egyptian Love Spells

Although these magical texts were created for specific women and contain their individual names, the language is formulaic and reveals general societal patterns rather than individual situations. What they document is the existence of love and desire between women as part of everyday life, performed in a public manner. Recipes and texts for magic of this type were collected in handbooks used by specialists who would create the specific desired artifact and performance to match a clients needs. Brooten gives technical details of the format of these spells in general as well as the specific ones used by women toward women. And, of course, these items speak to only one aspect of erotic or romantic relations, just as the same spells used for heterosexual goals represent only one facet.

The basic thing they demonstrate is that there were women of this time and place (Egypt in the first several centuries CE) who desired erotic relationships with women and took action to achieve them. Furthermore, that non-elite women were part of this phenomenon and that such desires were considered "normal" enough that they would be supported by professional magical practitioners. The spells are inherently coercive acts, using the language of violence and control, but those used from one woman toward another are functionally identical to those used between heterosexual couples (where either party might be the instigator) or by a man toward a man. In fact, the three spells that name women as the participants are, if anything, among the tamer sort. Whether this parallelism is a function of the genre or an indication that the relationships were seen as equivalent is hard to tell.

The three spells discussed here come from rural Upper Egypt, a context not typically seen in urban Roman literature. The first is rather short and states an intent simply to "attract and bind" the target. The second is much longer with more vivid imagery, demanding that the target be inflamed with love and affection and that she surrender herself like a slave to her pursuer. There is a particularly intriguing demand that the object "cast herself into the bathhouse" and calls for the intervening deity to "become a bath-woman" for the sake of the petitioner, suggesting perhaps that bath-houses were a locus for erotic interactions and that bath-house attendants were used as go-betweens. The third spell is again brief and to the point "force X to fall in love with Y".

There follows discussion of the cultural and magical context in which the imagery of these spells would have been understood. What these texts don't tell us is what the lives of the women were like otherwise. Were they married to men? What form of interaction did they hope to achieve? A clandestine affair? A partnered relationship? Short or long term? References mentioned in the previous chapter suggest that marriage between women existed as a concept to Roman writers (and in some cases, specifically associated with Egypt). Other similar love spells used between heterosexual couples explicitly desire permanent and/or exclusive relationships.

Chapter 4 - Astrological Essentialism

Astrology was taken rather seriously in the Roman world and a wide range of astrological literature was produced. Among the characteristics that one’s birth stars might determine was sexual preference and behavior, and the literature discussing this provides the most frequent references to female homoeroticism of the time. The various axes along which sexual preference could be located include active/passive (coded socially as male/female), open versus secretive behavior, and other contrasts. Female homoerotic desire is regularly framed as negative (even though considered pre-determined).

The texts assume that a horoscope is being drawn up for a man, therefore all references to women are side comments on the main text. One result of this is that it is sometimes unclear how specific astral effects on a male subject would be paralleled in a female one. More possible variations on erotic orientation are described for men than for women, possibly a consequence of this focus, but possibly as a reflection of the narrower range of socially-licensed options for women. For men, the potential axes also included the age and status of partners. Brooten reviews the various treatises that mention lesbian orientation in great detail.

The same astral conjunction might cause a woman to desire women and men to desire men, indicating a parallelism not otherwise common in literature of the time. But generally the parallel arises from following the expected behavior of the opposite gender: women actively pursuing women, or men passively allowing penetration by men. But the female counterpart of a “passive" man could also simply be a sexually voracious woman, not specifically one who desires women.

A great many different astrological conjunctions could result in lesbian behavior. In addition to conditions that generated cross-gender behavior in both sexes, ones that increased masculinity in both could increase men’s virility while turning women to lesbian behavior. So for example, a certain conjunction that masculinizes Venus makes women secret tribades, but if both Venus and Mars are masculinized, then the women will live openly in relationships with women and call their partners lawful wives. In a few cases, the texts indicate that a woman will be attracted to other women who are also tribades, although in most cases the focus is specifically on the subject’s desires. Despite viewing sexual orientation as pre-determined by one’s birth circumstance, only a narrow range of possible orientations were considered “natural" and socially approved.

Chapter 5 - Medical Texts

Modern thought tends to date the “medicalization" of homosexuality to the 19th century, but the view that particular sex acts represent symptoms of an underlying disease can be found much earlier. Several medical texts from the Roman and early Byzantine era address “deviant" female sexual behavior, including lesbianism. This “disease" could be conceptualized as mental (and treated via mental control) or as due to physical abnormality, especially the “enlarged clitoris" trope (treated horrifically by clitoridectomy).

These treatises begin from an assumption that normal, healthy female behavior is passive, and therefore aggressive female sexuality (whether towards men or women) is inherently due to a disease state. The mental illness model describes a periodic alternation between “normal" sexual desires and “masculine" ones, at which time the women pursue women sexually and partake of other behaviors framed as masculine, including excessive drinking. This is viewed as parallel to a masculine mental illness which manifests as periodic bouts of passive behavior during which men desire to be the sexual object of other men. The common thread here is the equation of “male = active" and “female = passive".

The physical model of female homoerotic desire associates unrestrained sexual behavior with an overly large clitoris (i.e., one that could function as a penis, as well as symbolizing masculinity). Not only was this condition thought to promote (and enable) sexual desire in women toward women, but it was thought to make the woman reject heterosexual activity (as a more "masculine" woman would reject being a passive object). For this condition, surgical removal of the clitoris is prescribed. The possible medical causes that were proposed for these “conditions" were various. Singers and athletes were thought prone to them, but reduction of exercise was offered as a cure. “Warring seeds" at the time of conception was one theory.

Chapter 6-Dreams

Like astrology, dreams are an unexpected place to find an everyday acknowledgment of female homoerotic possibilities. The Roman interest was not so much on dreams as a reflection of anxieties (although those were noted) but on dreams with prophetic meaning. In dreams of this type, sexual content did not necessarily refer to waking sexual topics, but the ways in which dreams about female homoeroticism were interpreted provide a window on how those acts were viewed. The primary text examined here is Artemidoros' Oneirokritika, which drew both on earlier sources and on the author's own analyses. Although Artemidoros wrote in a literary style, his clients were not primarily among the elite.

Artemidoros divided prophetic dreams into those that directly represented a future event (e.g., a shipwreck) and those that were allegorical. The bulk of his work is on the latter as these are the ones that required professional interpretation. His theory assumed mapping of metaphorical similarities (e.g., the head representing a father and the foot a slave) and treated as auspicious those elements that aligned with the expected natural and social order, and as inauspicious those that didn't. Within this general framework, apparent contradictions might still appear. As with astrological literature, a male client is the default so overall female imagery is rare. Only two dreams in the sexual group involve women.

To provide a framework, Brooten reviews the range of meanings given to dream motifs of intercourse involving men. As seen in other contexts, male-male sexual activity could be viewed as ether acceptable or unacceptable depending on the characteristics and relationship of the participants, but female-female sex was always defined as unnatural (and thus potentially inauspicious). In describing female-female activity that might appear in dreams, Artemidoros uses the language of asymmetric penetration. The other axes of symbolism are whether the women are familiar or strangers, but include none of the details of age or legal or social status that are presented as relevant for men.

Brooten discusses what the relative context of this discussion might indicate about why sex between women was viewed as against nature. The lack of age/status distinctions may indicate that a default woman is being imagined who corresponds to a "free adult woman, a potential wife", in which case the relationship might be disapproved because the participants are considered too similar (i.e., that "natural" relationships involve a status difference). But alternately female relationships might be considered "unnatural" due to the presumption at one woman is taking a "male" role. One common thread is that female-female relations stand entirely outside the expected sexual schema that requires a contrast of active/passive, dominance, and above all else expects the presence of a penis.

Contents summary: 

Part 2 chapters 7-12

In chapters 7-12, Brooten looks at how to interpret early Christian writings that concern (or have been interpreted as concerning) female homoeroticism, in the context of opinions and understandings on the matter prevalent in the society in which Christianity developed.

Chapter 7 lays out the plan of analysis. Chapter 8 covers the ambiguous sentence in Paul's Letter to the Romans regarding "women who give up natural intercourse for unnatural" (the only point where he may have addressed the topic) from the point of view of gender and sexual attitudes. Chapter 9 analyzes the entire Letter in terms of structure and themes. Chapter 10 places the Letter in the context of other texts with similar language that it may have been evoking or drawing on. Here there are some new, relevant texts. Understandings of "natural law" based on observations of nature were contradictory with regard to same-sex sexual behavior, but Aristotle and Pliny both record female-female courtship and nesting among various types of birds, especial doves (a potent symbol of romantic love). With regard to the nature of gendered behavior, a story is presented from Diodoros of Sicily about a hermaphrodite (or intersex person) who had been raised and who identified as a woman until, after marriage, male genitals emerged and after various legal issues were dealt with he took up life and identity as a man. [Not directly relevant to the purpose of my Project, but an extremely fascinating story.]

Chapter 11 covers the writings at the early Christian fathers, in the 2nd through 5th centuries. These, in general, confirm the interpretation that Paul was addressing female homoeroticism and that it was condemned as gender transgression, with both partners considered guilty. Unlike Paul, these texts are often explicit in describing women who have sex with women, frequently in the context of apocalyptic punishments for various classes of sins. Clement of Alexandria denounces women who marry other women. There is a detailed discussion of various forms of marriage in the Roman world that support the plausibility of practices this could refer to. Chapter 12 sums up the overall conclusions, which are that early Christian thought did not bring a qualitatively different interpretation of female homoeroticism, but inherited the mysogynistic and phallocentric understandings of sexuality that were prevalent in the non-Christian ancient world, combined with a touch of xenophobic disapproval inherited from Jewish culture, and enhanced (but not driven) by the early Christian leaning towards asceticism.