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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 287 – All the Historic Lesbianisms

Saturday, May 18, 2024 - 18:35

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 87 – All the Historic Lesbianisms - transcript

(Originally aired 2024/05/18 - listen here)


One of the things I’ve been doing behind the scenes with this podcast is to develop episodes that are contributing—ever so gradually—to the goal of assembling an actual book: a resource book for writing lesbian-like characters in historical fiction. Which was, of course, the original inspiration of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. For example, the trope episodes—in addition to being fun to do for their own sake—will end up being sub-chapters in a section on themes, motifs, and tropes. The various biography episodes will be sub-chapters in a section illustrating various “ways of being” for women who loved women. And some episodes are intended to slowly build up the philosophical structure for understanding and thinking about those “ways of being.”

Today’s topic is to explore the wide range of variables that can make up the ways in which individuals or societies understand and express love between women. “All the historic lesbianisms” as it were. When modern society turned its attention to trying to define and understand homosexuality across the last century, there has been a tendency to look for a single definitive answer. Is it a psychological condition? Is it a sin? Is it a genetic trait? Is it a revolutionary rejection of normative society? Is homosexuality a waystation on the path to dissolving all specific genders and orientations? Is it about sex or is it about love? And so forth and so on.

As regular listeners have probably picked up, my own personal take is that there are almost as many different ways of being a lesbian as there are people who identify as lesbians. (And, as always, this discussion invokes the broad definition of “lesbian” as the word has been used across history.) Both individuals and cultures in the past have reflected that diversity of “ways of being.” This doesn’t mean that lesbians in history are indefinable or indescribable, but rather that they are multi-faceted. There are usually multiple understandings or models co-existing at any given time, with specific models passing in and out of prominence. But those models do have a number of definable attributes, even ones that sometimes seem contradictory.

So what I want to talk about today is some of the attributes that have, in various times and places, contributed to the bundles of features that people understood as relating to love between women. In a given context, there might be distinct “ways of being” that we, today, would group together as “lesbian” but that were seen as distinct back then. The features might shift and the groups of features that were considered to align together might change. All this contributes to the impossibility of creating a unified model of historic lesbianism—that elusive goal of modern sexology.

For historic fiction authors, this isn’t a problem—it’s an opportunity. It means that you won’t always be writing the same type of character in every setting, or even within the same setting. Today’s discussion isn’t so much about categorizing exactly which “ways of being” existed in specific times and places, but to think about the palette of options that have resonances across multiple times and places.

Impetus of Desire

First, let’s tackle the features that I’ll put under the label “impetus or motivation of desire.” What is the understanding of what drives and directs the desires that we would call lesbian or sapphic?

The version that creates the most complications with respect to modern categories of gender and sexuality is the cross-gender or “opposites attract” model. Most historic western cultures had some version of an understanding that someone assigned as female might desire women due to some degree of essential masculine nature. Under this model, desire is kindled by contrast across a masculine/feminine gradient. The masculinity in question might be intellectual or psychological—having personality qualities that were coded as masculine at the time. It might be behavioral—identified by favored activities or preferred clothing. Or it might be understood as manifesting physically. This could be a matter of physical strength or stature, or particular facial features, or it could appear as differences in genital anatomy from what was assumed to be the feminine norm.

This model of desire can complicate the very idea of love between women as one way of viewing it is as assimilating apparently female couples to an underlying heterosexual norm via a transgender lens. Many historic cultures had no context for drawing clear distinctions between gender transgression and transgender identity—and viewed them as equally problematic. So understand today’s discussion, not as co-opting all such relationships as “lesbian,” but as a set of overlaid transparencies where the same picture can be defined and understood via multiple frameworks.

(The “opposites” model can also subsume desire involving an intersex individual, but that’s a rather different topic, which I’ll set aside for now.)

The cross-gender model does not always require a physical component. In some contexts, understandings of love between women will presume that one partner must be masculine to some degree and will assign that role to one participant, regardless of how well it fits. Similarly, within a culture that features this model, female partners may feel pressured to have one woman assume a masculine-coded role within the relationship, whether in terms of behavior or simply the roles taken within the household. And, of course, this model can reflect the self-identification of the participants, where one woman identifies with female masculinity while the other is attracted to it.

A different model of desire holds that like attracts like—that people (in general) will tend to connect emotionally with those who are similar to them. While this model lies behind positive images of femme-femme couples, it may sometimes be invoked to support class, religious, or racial barriers to romantic relationships, as well as being used to argue against mixed-gender friendships. So the consequences of “like attracts like” can be negative as well as positive.

When this “similarity” model of attraction is featured within a culture, there can be a general acceptance of emotionally intimate relationships between same-sex pairs. Even when same-sex erotic desire is not in the discussion, there can be an expectation that women’s closest emotional relationships will “naturally” be with other women, regardless of their social and legal relationships to men. The difference and similarity models can co-exist within a culture, combining with other features to generate social categories that are considered distinct, despite both involving two assigned-female persons.

But similarity and difference aren’t the only two models that cultures have identified for explaining love between women. Women—or people in general—may be viewed as having the potential to desire people of any sex or gender. That doesn’t mean that such a culture will consider all desires acceptable to act on. The question of whether one acts on a particular desire can be thought to be constrained by intellectual or moral choice, rather than being controlled by the presence or absence of an underlying emotion. When one of the cultural models is this “pansexual” desire, it will have implications for how people interact with each other and how they interpret affectionate or potentially erotic behavior. Is everyone a potential romantic or sexual partner or does society assume that only certain categories of people can provoke desire?

A subset of the pansexual model is one in which same-sex desire is viewed as a matter of “excess.” In this model, someone with typical or normative levels of sexual desire may be expected to direct those desires toward normative objects—that is, objects of the expected sex, age, class, etc. While someone whose level of sexual desire is excessive will fail to discriminate as expected in their objects and will pursue erotic objects that fall outside the norm, including same-sex partners, but also potentially including partners of an inappropriate age or class.

While a given culture may include more than one of these models of desire, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will embrace the idea that individual people may be motivated by different models. That is, there may not be an overt acceptance that one woman may lean toward female partners due to an inherent masculinity while another woman may prefer female partners due to similarity. Cultures rarely have complete coherence in their models of the world, and contradictions won’t necessarily change a world-view, either of an individual or of a society. But certain models may be more or less prominent in a particular time and place, and that mix will shape both internal and external understandings of desire.

Context of Desire

The next angle that I want to consider is closely related to the motivation of desire, but is something more like the cause or source of that desire. Or perhaps, the context in which the reason for desire is understood. This angle lies at the heart of the great Foucaultian debate: is same-sex desire a matter of behavior or of identity? But I’d like to break it down a bit more than just that binary choice.

One type of understanding is that desire—of whatever sort—is innate, something a person is born with. This view is so thoroughly ingrained in modern models of desire that it can be hard to step back and view it as only one option. In historic societies, the idea of innate desire may be tied to theories of personality based on astrology, or based on humoral theory, or caused by something the mother experienced while pregnant, though in general these theories view it as a divergence from the expected state. The innate model may align closely with ideas that physical masculinity causes desire for a female object, but this isn’t always the case.

The other pole of the Foucaultian axis is the understanding that same-sex desire is simply a matter of engaging in specific acts. This may include an idea that it’s a taste or preference in the same way that someone might prefer eating certain foods or wearing certain colors. But the idea is that lesbianism is simply a matter of choosing to perform in a certain way rather than a matter of being a certain type of person.

But these aren’t the only possible contexts that can cause the emergence of certain models of love between women. We can also consider socialization as a factor. Regardless of whatever desires or preferences an individual might have in a vacuum, if their culture presents certain models and patterns of behavior as being acceptable or even expected, that will shape individual behavior. This is the force we see behind patterns like Classical Greek age-differentiated relationships, or the several eras of female passionate friendships. For that matter, we can look at the ocean of normative heterosexuality that we all swim in and see it as a type of socialized orientation that influences people’s romantic and sexual choices regardless of individual feelings.

We can also consider a special case of socialized desire if it becomes a matter of fashion. Particular models of relationships may be valorized in a culture to the extent that people engage in them simply for the sake of status or inclusiveness. As an example of this, we might look at early 20th century girls’ school crushes, where participation in a specific type of romantic script might be considered essential for social acceptance. If a relatively broad definition of love between women is used, we may find all manner of examples driven by fashion.


The next category to consider when analyzing models of love between women can be thought of as the medium of expression. It can be simplest to fall back on the somewhat over-used Greek vocabulary of love, distinguishing eros from philia from agape, with some people tossing in storge. Eros is a physical attraction. When directed toward a person, it’s most often thought of in terms of sexual desire and involving genital stimulation (though this is not the purely philosophical version of the term). Philia is the bond between people who view each other as equals and partners, based on appreciation and respect. It’s most commonly characterized as the love between friends. Storge is the love that develops within a family based on shared experiences and traditions, and is often described as the type of love between parent and child. Agape is love for humanity in general—perhaps one might think of it as love that forms the basis of community.

I bring in this set of models because if we go looking for female same-sex relationships in history and we are focused entirely on eros, then we spend our time squabbling over “did they or didn’t they?” But if we integrate all varieties of love into our models then we can see how that expression—whether in terms of what the participants experienced, or in terms of how society understood their relationship—can represent a continuum of possibilities. And here we need to look at different types of expression both as viewed by society and as experienced within the relationship.

For example, societies might embrace and support women’s relationships if and when they were understood as involving philia or storge, but look askance at ones seen as involving eros, regardless of what happened between the women in private. Other societies might consider it expected that women might feel eros for each other (while also having strong opinions about how they act on it). Social models of love between women might expect the bond to rely on eros—an esthetic appreciation for each other—or on philia—an intense friendship—or on storge—a modeling of family relationships. And the couple themselves could have the same range of understandings. They might base their relationship on ideas of marriage, or on friendship, or think in terms of being sisters or even a mother-child relationship. (And I want to remind listeners that male-female couples have historically used the same types of symbolic models within their marriages. We aren’t talking about literal incest here.)


When we’re looking at all the various models of love between women, one axis that we mustn’t ignore is how that love is expressed physically. And—once more—we can view this both in terms of how society imagines what’s happening, and how the participants in the relationship engage with it. As I regularly point out, when we’re discussing a wide swath of time and space, we can’t assume that there’s a clear, agreed-on definition of what constitutes “sexual activity” and what falls in some other category of erotic or sensual interactions. This topic needs a whole discussion to itself, but the key point is that the exact nature of the physical relations between two women could be a key factor in how their relationship was categorized and understood. So even if a society (or the women in a relationship) had clear opinions about women having sex, it also matters what sorts of acts they would categorize as “sex”. Is a kiss just a kiss, or do different types of kisses carry different meanings? Is cuddling and fondling considered sexual or simply pleasurable? Do social attitudes towards a female couple change based on what type of activities people believe they’re engaging in? I’m not going to set up some sort of menu or hierarchy here, but simply note it as yet one more facet of the variety of relationship models.


When we look at how relationships between women are integrated into other social relationships, we must consider several possible expectations, especially in terms of how women’s relationships compare to mixed-gender relationships. Do women (or the society they live in) expect love relationships between women to have the same sort of exclusivity as is expected from male-female relationships? (Which isn’t to say that they’re necessarily exclusive, but simply are the attitudes towards exclusivity parallel.) Or are multiple same-sex relationships considered the equivalent of having multiple friendships—some may be more important than others, but having one doesn’t preclude others? Do women in same-sex relationships (or the society they live in) consider same-sex and different-sex relationships to conflict or to exist in parallel? That is, do the two types of relationships exist within separate spheres with different roles? Or are they considered to be in conflict and competition with each other? In models where they’re considered to be in competition, this can increase male hostility to love between women. Conversely, in models where the two types of relationships exist in parallel, the greater social and economic forces supporting male-female relationships can make it difficult to give both equal priority. And, of course, in contexts where polyamory is an accepted practice, these dynamics shift accordingly, although historically in Western culture, those contexts tend to be limited to radical social movements.

Social Evaluation

The final set of axes I want to consider here have to do with how love between women is evaluated in relation to social norms, both by the women involved and the cultures they live in. We can see these same evaluations still playing out today in different subcultures, which should remind us that people’s experiences are never uniform. One contrast can be whether a same-sex relationship is viewed as assimilating to social norms and patterns, or whether it’s seen as transgressing and conflicting with those norms and patterns, or—as another possibility—if it’s viewed as entirely apart from the norms of male-female relationships: not the same, but also not challenging them.

Is love between women viewed as somehow pure and elevated and “better” than male-female relationships? Or is it considered degraded and debased? For example, do we have a model like romantic friendship, or one like the image of prostitutes engaging in recreational lesbianism? Both views can co-exist and align with different relationship models present in the same society. Is love between women considered something that cultured and sophisticated women engage it? Or is it considered uncultured and common (in a negative sense)? Sophistication isn’t always considered a positive trait. In some contexts, love between women is considered the provenance of the aristocracy or of decadent artistic types, in contrast to more conservative middle-class values.


My purpose in laying out all these categories of variation is to think about a system for describing and classifying all the different lesbianisms that we find in history. It should be obvious that it’s impossible to come up with any definition that would fit them all—and we shouldn’t try to come up with that universal definition. But we can look at the evidence from particular times and places to identify the relationship models that were present—all the various models—and thus to understand what sorts of sapphic characters might exist within those contexts and how they would interact with their societies. And that is an essential part of creating believable characters in historical fiction, in the same way that a character should wear appropriate clothing and inhabit appropriate landscapes. Understanding these models is not a limitation, but rather an opening of possibilities.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

  • Social models of women loving women
  • Variables and features of those models

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: