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LHMP #137a Faderman 1981 Surpassing the Love of Men I.A.1 Lesbianism and the Libertines

Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

I.A.1 Lesbianism and the Libertines

In discussing "libertine" literature, there seems an unexamined conflict between the voracious and indiscriminate sexual appetites these women are depicted as having, and Faderman's thesis that "women in centuries other than ours often internalized the view of females as having little sexual passion." To be sure, most of the examples of literary lesbian encounters in this era were written from a male gaze, but if the argument is that women were socially conditioned to not express sexual desire, then how are these texts not part of that conditioning?

It is also easy to find pre-20th century examples of "the trope of initiation by an older, predatory woman." Hamilton’s Memoirs of the Life of the Count de Grammont is a prime early example, and there was an entire literature of "lesbians in the convent" which frequently involved an older authority figure as sexual initiator.

Another point where Faderman's conclusions conflict with more recent scholarship is the question of whether sexual encounters between women were viewed as being socially destabilizing in the absence of overtly "masculine" behavior such as cross-dressing. On the contrary, historic studies of cross-dressing seem to indicate that a causal connection between cross-dressing and lesbian sexuality is, itself, relatively recent. A certain amount of the vitriol around accusations of lesbian relationships in 18th century England seems to have revolved specifically around their potential to disrupt expected social and class relations, or to contribute to resistance to heterosexual marriage.

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The book opens with an examination of  female homoerotics in “libertine” literature of the 16-18th centuries, that is, books written almost exclusively by men that depict women in erotic encounters with each other, primarily for the titillation of the (presumably male) reader. This includes works such as Brantôme’s Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies, which deals generally with the sexual exploits of women at the French court of Henri II, and includes a special section on “donna con donna” (woman with woman). The encounters he describes follow a common pattern for this type of literature where women are seen as being sexually voracious and might amuse themselves with women to avoid either the condemnation or consequences of an affair with a man, but who are eager to turn to men when the opportunity offers.

The putative frustration of women trying to sexually satisfy each other is seen in poems such as Denis Sanguin de Saint-Pavin’s Sonnett XXXII "Two Beauties Tender Lovers" and Pontus de Tyard’s “Elegy for a Woman who Loves Another Woman.” The latter, though, acknowledges the possibility of women seeking ennoblement through such a relationship, and not simply gratification. Other poems were more satyric in intent, such as François Mainard’s “Tribades seu Lesbia” which hints at digital stimulation, but Faderman notes an absence of the same level of vitriolic attack that is found against male homosexuals.

Some of the most popular depictions of sex between women emphasized it as “preparation” for heterosexual activity, either in the sense of learning techniques (as in Nicolas Chorier’s Satyra Sotadica and John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure), or as a direct prelude to a man joining the women in bed, as in the memoirs of Giacomo Casanova.

Medical manuals of the 18th century that touch on sex between women tend to treat it as a subset of masturbation. There is a brief mention of how sex between women faced more hostility if one of the women was a “transvestite”, due to the challenge to male status, but neither “passing women” nor “female husbands” appear in the book’s index (except for the inclusion of Fielding’s book The Female Husband) and this entire topic seems to have been passed over.

Faderman notes that the women in these stories “function in an amoral universe” and that the trope of initiation by an older, predatory woman does not appear until the 20th century. “Unlike in our century, it was seldom believed in earlier eras that non-procreative sexual behavior might carry over to autonomous social behavior, unless a woman flamboyantly demonstrated the connection, by transvestism for example.

Time period: 

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