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(Greek origin) “One who rubs.” Tribade is actually the English version of the word, taken from Latin tribas, which in turn was taken from the Greek verb tribein. See also tribadism for the activity. A variety of words meaning “to rub” are found to label lesbian activity, testifying to the general knowledge of one common sexual technique.

LHMP entry

The focus of this article, in Andreadis’s words is “a class of women and behaviors described by their contemporaries in ways that coincide with our modern ‘lesbian’.” There is still much uncertainty within that description as to how these women and their society understood these concepts, and Andreadis’s thesis is that as such behaviors begin to be framed in public discourse as transgressive, women who engaged in the same behaviors but wished to be viewed as “respectable” developed a coded language to express sexual feelings in the language of female friendship – a shift that Andreadis labe

This article looks generally at the topic of women with “active” sexuality in a classical Roman context, as understood in the context of three grammatically-feminine nouns derived from verbs of sexual action: fellatrix, tribade, and fututrix. (Crudely translated, fellator, rubber, and fucker, but where the grammatical form of the word unambiguously indicates a female actor.) An example is given of an inscription identifying a woman as Mola foutoutris “Mola, fucker” using an agentive noun that implies the possession and use of a phallus.

One particular woman’s name crops up in relation to several references to tribades, creating a confusing implication that a specific tribade named Philaenis was part of Roman history. In this section, Boehringer dissects out the origins, traditions, and contexts that connect the name Philaenis to sex between women (as well as other sexual contexts). This is a long, complicated discussion and I will skim over some parts.

Following Seneca’s quote of the use of “tribade,” in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, uses of the term in Latin are closely connected with astrological literature, and appear in very similar formulas (some clearly deriving from each other or from a common original), such that we can derive additional context from similar formulas that use other language, as well as context from Greek astrological literature that uses the Greek form of the word. Boehringer provides a chronology of the exact sources, with their dates and the word forms used in them.

The mention of tribades in Seneca the Elder’s Controversiae, something of a textbook for arguing legal cases, appears to be straightforward. A man comes upon his wife and another woman engaged in sex and kills them both.

While earlier references to f/f relations focused on emotions, with the start of the Common Era, Roman literature introduces different attitudes. The category of “tribade,” although derived from the Greek word “tribas” (from “tribein”, to rub), has its earliest surviving mentions in Latin texts. It was clearly in use previously as it appears in multiple texts at a similar era.

The article opens with a discussion of how 16-17th c French discourse around sex between women contradictorily emphasizes the similarity of the couple (woman with woman) then describes what they do as “like a man with a woman.” (Brantôme “give themselves to other women in the very way that men do”, Richelet 1680 “a tribade is one “who mates with another person of her sex and imitates a man”.)

The existence of masculine women throughout the ages challenges assumptions about the nature of masculinity and why the connection between men and masculinity has remained so secure. While some hold that the phenomenon of the “virile woman” is recent, and tied to feminism, or as a sign of the loosening of gender conformity, these positions overlook the history of masculine women. [Note: H says, “a character who has challenged gender systems for at least two centuries”, but of course it’s been happening much longer than that.]

Introduction: Sex before Sexuality

The text opens with a manuscript illustration of the concept of sexual temptation and resistance to that temptation to introduce various themes relating to how sexual objects and desires were understood in “pre-heterosexual” culture.

This article forms the core of Traub’s 2002 book by the same name, covered in entry #69. However summarizing this original article will provide a different angle and different details than I picked up from that previous entry.


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