Back in the Spring of 2017, I was invited to join a "girls go to Disneyland" trip by some local friends. At the end of the visit, a bunch of us took in the newly released live-action Disney "Beauty and the Beast." That got me thinking about how the B&B "script" is replayed time and again in media, even when people claim to be subverting the story, I got to pondering. And the pondering turned into some characters. And the characters turned into a story.
What if the Beast was simply...a beast? What if he was unredeemable? What if he never truly saw his interactions with people and the world around him as being a problem--except that he had been promised the possibility of redemption and now considered it owed to him?
What if Beauty never loved the Beast--not because he was a beast, but because she was aromantic? What if she did her best to placate and humor the Beast, but there was never any chance it would turn into love. Not the sort of love that could break a curse.
What if the rose was not simply and only a rose?
And what if the Beast had a sister?
So I wrote "The Language of Roses", not for any particular purpose, except that I wanted to get the story out of my head. When it was done, I felt it was (in my humble opinion) one of the best things I'd ever written.
And so I set out on a quest to find a publisher. Several years and multiple submissions later, I'm delighted and excited to announce that "The Language of Roses" will be published by Queen of Swords Press in the Spring of 2022. Queen of Swords is a relatively new press and has been putting out some highly praised (and oft-award-nominated) books. I'm proud to be in such amazing company. Expect me to be burbling over about this for some time to come.
No clever intro today, gotta run for Sirens programming.
Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2334
Chapter 2c: Classical and Hellenistic Greece – Presence and Absence
This section of the chapter looks at patterns of reference and silence across various types of media to try to interpret the absences of representations of f/f sex. Different genres had different implicit rules about what could or could not be depicted. For example, visual arts that depicted m/m sex invariably stuck to the “ideal” of a desiring older man and a passive youth. Human men were not depicted in scenes with deprecated sexual practices, such as performing oral sex, but such scenes might show a satyr performing the male role, “standing in” for the human man. Sexual scenes do not include persons identifiable as slaves or prostitutes. Female genitals are very rarely depicted and do not appear to have been a site of erotic interest for the expected male viewership. (Though the expected viewership could depend to some extent on the type of object displaying the art.)
Within the larger context, how do we interpret that extreme scarcity of depictions of f/f sex? Boehringer reviews several genres of art that have been interpreted as f/f eroticism and argues that some are regularly misinterpreted. For example, a review of artwork depicting women (or other figures) with an “olisbos” (dildo), when taken together with references to the object in textual material, undermines the theory that it is a signifier of f/f sexual activity, as opposed to solitary female sexual activity. (This discussion is extensive and detailed.)
Certain other individual artworks, such as an image of two women with one kneeling before the other touching her genitals, can be interpreted in light of other highly parallel examples where such an interpretation is impossible (as when the kneeling figure is a satyr). Scenes of naked women bathing together, or of drunken women walking arm in arm, are not clearly erotic. On the other hand, it feels like Boehringer is sometimes working fairly hard to exclude certain depictions, while silently ignoring certain features of the art, For example, a depiction of a seated woman and a standing woman facing each other, both holding garlands (previously noted as featuring in courtship scenes), with the seating woman touching the standing woman’s breast or shoulder is dismissed as difficult to interpret due to the ambiguity of which body part is being touched. An image of two maenads (characters who reject male sexual advances) holding a single cloak around them, is declared to be “not erotic” with no clear explanation, only a reference to another publication on the topic.
But certain marginal possibilities aside, it does seem to be the case that f/f sex in art is vanishingly rare. The overall interpretation of presence and absence in art with regard to sexual topics seems to be that art depicts how society chooses to see itself, rather than being a reflection of everyday reality.
Silence about f/f sex in “Old Comedy” (a genre of drama that often played on bawdy and satiric themes) is harder to make sense of, as the genre regularly indulged in sexual humor of all types, including mockery of non-normative m/m relations, and regular lampooning of women’s stereotypical over-sexualization. Even in a play such as Lysistrata where the women’s lack of access to men for sexual satisfaction is a lynch-pin of the comedy, there are no jokes about f/f sex taking the edge off. Boehringer’s conclusion is “pottery shows us the Greek men did not find sex between women erotic; the silence of comedy…shows ups that they did not find it funny, either.”
Though most genres of literature are silent on f/f sex in the classical period (history, poetry, drama, politics, law), Plato is not the only philosopher whose writings can provide information, if only tangentially. Aristotle was a contemporary of Plato and familiar with the Symposium, so any silence on his part is not ignorance of f/f possibilities. While silent on human females, he notes female same-sex courtship among doves, where he notes treading, billing, and egg laying without making a distinction of active/passive roles as worthy of note. He claims this only occurs in the absence of males, and notes that the resulting eggs are sterile. His interest seems to revolve around reproduction rather than abstract behavior.
Aristotle’s discussions on the relationship of eros and philia focus on m/m relations as the highest form, with sexual pleasure being only a means to achieve philia, not an end in itself. Eros, for its own sake, is not of interest to him. In discussing relations, he makes no distinction or judgment between m/f and m/m relationships, but does not include f/f examples in his discussions. Ero and philia are not exclusive of each other but phila is seen as a more virtuous goal. Women are considered incapable of the virtues that make philia possible (though they can engage in phila with a husband who has those virtues). But, by this reasoning, two women cannot engage in philia together.
This, then, may be the explanation for Aristotle’s failure to speak of f/f relationships: they operate only on the level of eros and therefore are not worth notice. [Note: Boehringer isn’t saying that Aristotle says this explicitly, only that it aligns with his reasoning.] Thus f/f couples are not of interest, not because the relationship is homosexual, but because it involves women.
Plato’s two references to f/f couples exist in a context where the author was developing comprehensive systems (of law, or regarding eros) and therefore chose to account for all possibilities. Aristotle, having a different purpose and program, had no similar need to be comprehensive.
Another meaningful “absence” in writing about f/f relations is the idea (present in later cultures) that there is an element of masculinity behind f/f relations. Women derived from primordial ff creatures were more feminine than women derived from mf creatures. There is no suggestion that they have a masculine appearance or behavior. In both the Symposium and the Laws, what distinguishes women in f/f relationships is their social behavior (attraction to women) or reproductive status (non-reproductive) but not any specific sexual activity. Plato’s f/f women are not “tribades” in the sense of being defined by a sexual act. To the extent that it may be meaningful, Aristotle’s discussion of doves also avoids making any distinction of categorization on the basis of specific sexual behavior.
There are classical Greek writers who describe women who adopt masculine behaviors, but no sexual interpretation is placed on this. Instead, the behavior is considered virtuous, though incapable of achieving the same status as men. Whether in histories or comic drama, Women acting in a masculine way are perceived as trying to “better” themselves, but with no sexual implications. In this, the Archaic and Classical texts are similar, and in contrast with later framings.
In the Classical era, f/f relations are not a cause for concern or condemnation because they are not seen as having any impact on social or political life. Thus, in contrast with some scholars, Boehringer proposes that the Classical Greek silence on f/f relationships, rather than reflecting a taboo driven by male anxiety, reflects and apathy due to lack of male anxiety. What did provoke anxiety are things like concerns about birth rates, as we see in the Laws.
Distinctions regarding sexual partners that were considered relevant in the Classical period included social status, the forms the sexual relations took, and conformity to gender expectations, but not the specific sex of the partners (except to the extent that at least one partner is male). But what set f/f relations apart such as to constitute an identifiable and meaningful category was that both (all) persons involved were female. This distinguished f/f relations from all other possibilities and created what might be thought of as a “proto-category” of female homosexuality in a context where neither “heterosexuality” nor “male homosexuality” were identifiable or distinct as categories. This proto-category is internally homogeneous with no distinction of behavioral role or distinction of moral judgment regarding what relations they might engage in.
Although Boehringer doesn't touch on the question directly, I wonder how badly our image of f/f eroticism in Classical Greece is skewed by having two significant textual references filtered through one specific author (Plato)? There is a brief advisory in one discussion that Plato's opinions on the topic may not have been representative of the general public. But I also wonder to what extent Plato's opinions on anything were representative of his contemporaries. One of the things that struct me when I was reading Foucault's coverage of the same era and authors is how badly messed up the human psyche gets when asceticism and the devaluing of sensory pleasures is set on a pedestal. The pursuit of competitive asceticism is a game of chicken: the first person to blink loses the game but wins by living. If a culture buys into the idea that the greatest good is the derogation of physical pleasures in favor of abstract intellectual ideals, you end up with a bunch of sour old men making the "rules for living" that everyone else is evaluated against. While the discussion of Plato's Laws in this book doesn't go into the same detail about other topics than gender and sexuality, one does get the impression that life under the system as described might be economically and politically "successful" but perhaps not much worth living, regardless of one's individual desires. And given the material culture of Classical Greece that we see, it hardly seems likely that the average person on the street would consider it a desirable state of affairs.
Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2
Chapter 2b: Classical and Hellenistic Greece – Plato’s Laws
The second topic in this chapter is another work of Plato, and once again a deep context is needed to interpret what the mention of f/f sex actually means for Greek realities. The Laws takes the form of a conversation between three men about what laws are needed for the governance of the ideal city. This is a different take than the one Plate put forth in the Republic. The Republic was more of an idealized thought experiment. The Laws is more of an exhaustive, practical plan of action (but still a purely hypothetical document).
Both texts are surprisingly inclusive of women’s participation in governance, and the Laws provides for a level of equal participation (within an assumption of physical inferiority) that would have seemed revolutionary within the realities of Athenian life at the time. But the well-regulated state that Plato envisions in the Laws is autocratic and more dystopian in its regulation and surveillance than anything a modern mind would consider as ideal.
This is the context for the attitude toward sexual relations in the Laws that provide the context for the two references to f/f sex. There is a strong focus on strict regulation of population for economic and social stability. There is also a very ascetic approach to physical pleasure. These combine in proposed laws that restrict all sexual activity to that which produces legitimate children within social-sanctioned marriages. Both m/m and f/f sex are prohibited on the basis that they do not produce legitimate offspring, but so is m/f adultery and sex between a citizen and a slave. Thus, there is no conceptual category of “homosexual sex” that is being banned, but rather a category of “illegitimate sexual activity” which is defined as everything outside of a fairly narrow category.
The other context for this prohibition is an attitude that non-procreative sex represents a failure to properly restrain passions and appetites that indicate moral weakness. It’s permissible for approved procreative sex to be enjoyed, because it is otherwise licit, but with no licit purpose, other forms of sex represent a lack of self-control.
These attitudes are very much out of line with the realities of Athenian society, as well as being in conflict with attitudes implicit in Plato’s earlier writings. So does this represent a seismic shift in his own attitudes toward sex, or does the difference lie in the specific genre and purpose of the Laws as a text? Boehringer seems to lean toward the latter. She also notes that the Laws do not include unrealistic, fanciful scenarios to address – the topics covered in the text are practical, real-life subjects that would need to be considered in designing a government.
The ultimate conclusion is that despite the superficially negative context in which f/f sex is mentioned in the Laws, the inclusion of the topic, and its neutral treatment vis-à-vis other types of prohibited sex, indicate that it was a reality of Athenian life that would need to be included in any comprehensive proposal regarding governance of sexual behavior.
This chapter divides nicely for blogging into the four main topics: Plato’s Symposium, Plato’s Laws, the presence and absense of specific erotic motifs in different kinds of material, and f/f erotics in humorous literature. We really see the power of a work of this depth in how it can tease out meaning by extensive comparison among themes and sources.
Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2
Chapter 2a: Classical and Hellenistic Greece – Plato’s Symposium
One of the more intriguing classical Greek texts that includes f/f erotics is the mythological narrative included in Plato’s Symposium about divided beings and eros being “seeking one’s other half.” Following Boehriner’s standard approach, she begins by examining the historic and literary context of the work and discussing what the purpose of the passage is within that larger context. While the Symposium is presented as a conversation between actual historic figures (contemporaries of Socrates, the nominal host of the titular symposium), and while it is presented as occurring in the context of an actual historic event (a symposium to celebrate the literary achievement of one of the participants), it is vital to understand that not only are the speeches and dialogues in the Symposium not an attempt to transcribe actual conversations, they are not even necessarily intended to represent the actual ideas and opinions of the figures to whom they are attributed. Rather, this is a formal “set piece” in which the fictionalized participants represent character types, presenting a carefully designed sequence of formal speeches of a particular genre intended to build to the author’s (Plato’s desired goals and conclusions). (Keeping in mind that Plato is not one of the fictionalized participants.) Within this context, it is important to realize that the “other half myth” should not be understood as a literal philosophical position (even apart from it being a “myth”) belonging either to Aristophanes (the fictionalized character in whose mouth it is put), or to Artistotle (the fictionalized host of the event in which it is presented ), or to Plato (the author of the text of the Symposium). Rather it is a rhetorical creation intended to serve a functional purpose within the work as a whole.
The participants have been instructed/created to present speeches on the nature of eros. There is a discussion of how to understand the meaning of eros within this particular historic context, with a suggestion that it should be understood, not so much as “love” but more as “appetite, a temporary state of desiring physical fulfillment that goes away when satiated.” Several of the fictional participants make their presentations on the topic, following the formal structures of the genre, then the participant identified as Aristophanes breaks the flow of the format by telling an “origin myth” for the nature of gender and sex, which includes a recognition of f/f couples alongside m/f and m/m couples.
In Boehringer’s analysis, the Aristophanes-text is designed as a precursor and contrast to the presentation of the Socrates-character (which is presented as a reporting of the views of the priestess Diotima). Prior presentations focused on eros operating within the sexual sphere. While the Socrates/Diotima presentation views eros as the force that inspires people to move from satisfying physical appetites (such as sex) to satisfying the appetite with abstract, elevated virtues, the Aristophanes presentation takes something of a bridging middle ground, viewing eros as a driving force where unification/closeness is the goal and sex is only one path to that goal.
The myth itself can be summed up roughly as follows. In their primordial state, human beings were spherical creatures with four legs, four arms, and two faces. They came in three types: male, female, and hermaphrodite. Because the humans made Zeus mad, he punished them by slicing them all in half. Each half (now having 2 legs, 2 arms, and 1 face) wanted nothing more than to be reunited with their other half. But this reunion—locking the pairs in tight embrace—resulted in them being unable to do anything else, so they began to die of hunger and inactivity. To remedy this, Zeus moved their genitals to the front of their bodies so that they could satisfy the desire/appetite/eros for reunion via sexual activity and yet be productive and healthy beings. Each half-human longs for reunification with a being that represents their original “other half”, the half-male beings longing for another male, the half-female beings for another female, and the half-hermaphrodite beings longing for another half-hermaphrodite of the corresponding opposite sex.
Rather than being a serious and sincere philosophical theory, this should be understood as a somewhat humorous treatment of a view representing (but not necessarily reflecting) an “ordinary populace” view of eros. But while the presentation is comical, it also contrasts with the previous presentations on eros in that it treats sexual desire and gratification, not as the central driving feature of eros, but as something of a “make do” substitution for the actual goal of physical reunification. Sex, then, is something the split-humans use to give them the intimacy needed to continue living and to be productive social beings. It is not the eros-as-appetite that disappears once satisfied (or remains eternally unsatisfied). But neither is it the force described by Aristotle/Diotima that continuously pushes humans to reach for ever more abstract and elevated satisfactions.
Boehringer walks the reader through the various stages of this mythic event and the consequences at each stage for erotic categories and motivations. The feature that is most often fastened on by later analysis is how the myth sets up m/f, m/m, and f/f couples as equivalent and “natural”, depending on the nature of the original primordial being they descend from. But another feature, at the step-by-step level of analysis is a distinction of gender categories and physiological-sex categories, for at the stage after the split but before Zeus provided genitals, the longing to reunite was defined by the nature of the original primordial being but not by the presence of a specific type of sexual organ. Nor can one determine a half-being’s sex/gender based on the sex/gender of the being it desires, as all combinations exist. Once genitals are included in the mix, then the consequences of sexual union are differentiated: procreation for m/f pairs, the ability to return to one’s creative endeavors for m/m pairs, while f/f pairs are overlooked in this part of the myth. (Note: the logistics of how m/m beings and f/f beings give rise to descendants of the same nature is also overlooked in the myth.) Some of these logical consequences and contradictions are discussed.
Boehringer presents a fascinatingly detailed diagram showing the category relationships of the “primordial humans” and the “current humans” with regard to sex/gender and the hierarchical evaluation of the consequences for sexual and social behavior in the resulting state. Within this hierarchy, men resulting from m/m beings are the “most manly” and eros drives them to active lives and politics. Men and women deriving from m/f beings are driven to marriage and procreation. While women deriving from f/f beings are omitted from consideration, for the most part.
With regard to categorization, Boehringer points out that the myth begins with three types of beings (mm, ff, and mf), then produces two sexes (men and women), but belonging to three types of erotic categories (m/m, f/f, and m/f). Within this system, there is no concept of “same-sex vs opposite-sex” as categories, nor are there categories defined by “attraction to women / attraction to men” or by “attraction felt by women / attraction felt by men”. Nor is there, in essence, a clear category difference between “men” and “women” as the beings derived from primordial mf beings are treated more similarly to each other than they are to beings derived from mm or ff beings respectively.
The discussion now moves to a specific consideration of where the beings descended from primordial ff beings fit into the scheme of things. In comparison to the descriptions of the state of things for former mf and former mm beings, there is only a brief description of the state of former ff beings: “Women who are split from a woman [i.e., a primordial ff being], however, pay no attention at all to men; they are oriented more towards women, and hetairistriai come from this class.”
Despite its brevity, this description still exists in parallel with descriptions of the other two categories. It contains a specification of origin (the primordial category), a declaration of desire, mention of a subgroup displaying a particular sexual behavior associated with excess (e.g., “adultery” for the former mf beings). With regard to desire, MF beings produce “men who seek women” and “women who seek men”, mm beings produce “men who seek men”, but the ff category is the only described by negation: “[they] pay no attention at all to men” only then noting that they are “oriented more towards women.” This description seems intended to operate from an assumption that the present (i.e., post-split) assumptions about “natural” behavior must be taken into account. By default, women are assumed to seek men, and if this isn’t the case it must specifically be noted.
But the Greek text has another distinction between these descriptions. Former mf beings “love” (philein) each other, using the verb that carries a meaning of long-term affection and attachment. Former mm beings “diokein” each other, using a verb that carries sexual implications. But former ff beings are the subjects of an external force; they “have been turned” toward each other. (Recall that the overall theme of the Symposium is “eros”, so there is an underlying implication that these are all forms of eros in some sense.)
Each of the three categories includes a statement defining a subgroup of the class that stands out in some way. For the former fm beings, these are “moixoi” (m) and “moixeutriai” (f) which, from other contexts, we know refer to adultery or other forms of illicit sex. Former mm beings, it is suggested, may be “anaisxyntoi” (shameless men), a word attested elsewhere. But former ff beings may be “hetairistriai”—a word uniq ue in the classical Greek corpus.
Boehringer spends a couple of pages delving into the linguistic context of this word. In brief, it is a double-derivative of the root “hetaira” which, in a literal sense, is part of a gendered pair of nouns hetairos/hetaira meaning “(male/female) friend, companion” (though of course the feminine version developed a contextual meaning of “a courtesan, a mistress”). There is a case to be made that Plato invented the word “hetairistriai,” playing off of the reputation Aristophanes had for linguistic invention. The “courtesan” sense of hetaira occurs only in the context of women’s relations with men. The masculine hetairos only ever appears in the neutral sense of “friend, companion.” But the related verb “hetairein” occurs in the classical period only in the sense of male prostitution. So one can’t use a preponderance of the evidence to try to triangulate on the meaning of hetairistriai. Does it carry a sense of sex work? Or a neutral sense of companionship?
The parallelism in the descriptions of the three erotic categories make it clear that not all women-desiring-women are hetairistriai, just as not all male/female pairs are adulterous. So regardless of any further nuances of meaning, hetairistria is not categorically mean “homosexual woman”, even though later authors interpreted it in that sense. The implication from the parallelism is that a hetairistria is a woman who experiences desire for a woman that goes beyond the accepted norms of behavior.
Another point where parallelism is incomplete is in the internal structure of the erotic category. The category of former mf beings is divided into “men” and “women”. The category of former mm beings is divided into “paiderastes” and “philerastes” (lovers of boys, lovers of men) with an assumed age differentiation between the couple. But there is no differentiation within the category of former ff beings, neither of age nor of active/passive, nor of masculine/feminine. Thus, if we follow the logical structure of this set of descriptions, there is a space for a category that is undifferentiated “women who desire women” which is not viewed as outside socially accepted expectations. This category cannot be merged with former mm beings into a category of “homosexuals”, nor can it be merged with female former mf beings in a category of “women”.
Having described and cataloged the concept of “women who love women” within this origin myth explaining the power of eros, the question remains how this category had relevance to the overall philosophical program that Plato conceived in the Symposium. The mythological explanation attributed to Aristophanes is not a descriptive exposition of the state of erotic relations in contemporary Athenian society. There are a number of gaps and misalignments, particularly with regard to m/m relations, but also in regard to its unrealistic depiction of former mf beings as equivalent in nature. The attribution of this presentation to Aristophanes also misaligns in essential points with the content and attitudes of the plays of the real-life author of that name. (For example, none of his plays make any reference to the possibility of sex between women, although sexual humor is a continuing thread in his work.) Boehringer suggests that the purpose of the fictional-Aristophanes is to “set up” the improved, pure vision of eros put into the mouth of fictional-Socrates, where eros becomes divorced from the goal of sexual union and independent of biological sex. The world picture presented by fictional-Aristophanes (and thus by the authorial-Plato) cannot escape the realities and hierarchical judgments of contemporary society (thus clearly identifying a hierarchy of “goodness” among the three erotic categories). Relations between women must be mentioned for completeness’ sake, but are the most distant of the categories from anything of relevance to the social life of Athenian men—the only category of genuine importance to Plato. But this very disinterest in the importance of the category of women-loving-women makes significant the fact that it is accounted for at all, and treated in a neutral fashion.
From all this, Boehringer’s conclusion is that—despite its distance from everyday real life—the origin myth put into the mouth of fictional-Aristophanes reflects an everyday social reality in 4th century Athens regarding the existence of female homoerotic relations, the distinctiveness of this group as a category from other gender/sexuality categories, and the probable reality of the homogeneity of the category, in contrast to male homoerotic relations.
The most delicious thing about Boehringer's approach to this material -- and what I hoped I would get -- is a very detailed presentation not only of the cultural and historic context of the small scraps of hard data, but an analytical comparison of all the variant material related to each motif, with a discussion of how the variations speak to the central themes and how they can guide understanding of the accreted layers of interpretation and elaboration. The dive into the Calliso myth that forms the majority of what today's blog covers is a great example. But I also love the wealth of meaning that can be read into a single object with respect to the painted plate. I think I need to either make or commission a replica of the Thera plate. It will go nicely with my collection of reproduction historic pottery.
Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2
Chapter 1b: Myth and Archaic Lyric Poetry – Other Media
We now turn to the non-poetic sources from the Archaic era. We start with a painted plate from circa 620 BCE from the island of Thera. It shows two female figures facing each other, each holding a garland. One is touching the other’s chin, otherwise the figures are symmetric and show an equal interaction in their postures and gazes. This contrasts with the use of the same tropes for m/f or m/m couples where there is an asymmetry (in m/m couples, the person doing the chin-touching is always an older man and the one being touched is younger). But the general framework - two figures facing each other, the gifts to exchange, and the chin touch – is a universal vocabulary of an erotic advance. It is difficult to interpret the meaning of the egalitarian presentation of the women as the scene is unique. It might indicate that f/f courtship was more equal, or it might be specific to this one picture. But note that m/f and m/m scenes, which are far more common, never show an egalitarian couple.
Gaps in couple symbolism
In a brief digression, Boehringer reviews categories of depictions of erotic encounters in poetry and art. Epic poetry typically depicts male-female couples while melic poetry includes both opposite-sex and same-sex couples. But within this, some configurations are absent. Adult men love young men and young women. Adult women can love young women. But an adult man does not love another adult man, and an adult woman does not love a younger man. (Though a goddess may love a young man.)
Is there any significance to the general absence of artistic depictions of erotic scenes between women? One conclusion it suggests, given social gender dynamics, is that f/f erotic scenes were not of interest to a male audience in archaic Greece. But it’s also the case that the treatment of female homoeroticism in the Archaic period is unique relative to later eras in being celebrated similarly to other pairings and not being subject to criticism.
Callisto and Artemis
M/m relations are common in Greek mythology but f/f relations are rare – some assert absent entirely. In the remainder of this chapter, Boehringer takes a deep dive into the myth of Callisto, and teases out the themes and motifs that show it to be that rare exception.
The analysis is too detailed to summarize easily, but the overall conclusions are that the myth reflects an assumed and accepted erotic relationship between the goddess Artemis and the mortal (or nymph) Callisto which is disrupted by Callisto’s rape and pregnancy, in most versions by Zeus either disguised as, or transformed into, Artemis. This disruption results in Callisto being excluded from Artemis’s all-female community, her transformation into a bear, and her death or transformation into a constellation (or both). The myth is, in part, an origin story for Callisto’s son Arkas (who is associated with the founding of Arcadia), and is in part a symbolic narrative of the passage of a maiden in the company of other maidens, into the normative experiences of society (sex with men, pregnancy, motherhood).
There is one known classical era artwork depicting the Callisto myth: a silver vessel dating to the 3rd century CE in Spain with scenes of four of Jupiter’s transformations for the purposes of seduction/rape.
Several other aspects of the myth are touched on separately. Although there are several Greek myths with the motif of sex/gender transformation, the Callisto myth is the only one where the transformation is for the purpose of sexual access. The transformation would make no sense unless Callisto were only receptive to a female lover.
Another key motif in most of the versions of the myth is a bathing scene, during which Callisto’s pregnancy (and therefore her rape) is revealed. There is a discussion of a bathing motif being involved--in several different contexts--with the perception of essential female nature. E.g., men encountering either Artemis or Athena bathing and being punished for it. A shared trait is that the two goddesses both have external attributes of masculinity in dress or habits, and therefore these encounters reveal the contrast in sex and gender.
There is a passing note of another story similar to Callisto’s. A girl, Polyphante, rejected the sexual relations associated with Aphrodite (i.e. male-female) in favor of being Artemis’s companion. In revenge Aphrodite made her lust for a bear, which outraged Artemis who sent wild beasts to attack her. There is still an underlying theme of erotic love between women here.
I'm working on whittling down my email in-box, which included an email reminder to myself to copy this item over from Goodreads. (I often email myself "to do" items. It may not be a great system, but it's a system.) The question concerns the title of the book by Fortunatus that forms one of the first intellectual connections between Margerit and Barbara in Daughter of Mystery. I've left the question in the informal Q&A format in which it appeared on my Goodreads page.
Q: This has been bothering me for years now, and delving into Latin by way of Google got me nowhere. What, exactly, does De Mysteriis et Misteriis mean, and what is the difference between the two words? I mean, Mysteriis is clear, but I can't find anything about Misteriis.
A: What a fun question! To find the answer on your own, you'd probably need to look things up in a etymological dictionary rather than simple translation--so your confusion is understandable.
When I was first developing the idea of magical "mysteries" I was thinking vaguely of several uses of the word: religious rituals known as "mysteries", the idea of "craft mysteries" and the "mystery plays" of the middle ages, and of course the more everyday sense of "something unknown, something to be discovered." I wanted to make the title of the novel (Daughter of Mystery) a play on the various meanings: that there were mysteries to be solved, and that the characters were deeply involved in the creation and performance of religious mysteries.
But when I started poking around in my Latin sources for correct spellings and inflections, I was startled to discover that the English word "mystery" is used for words with two different origins. One is the Latin "mysterium" borrowed from Greek μῠστήρῐον which has the "secret, concealed" sense and was used to refer to religious rituals that were kept secret from the general public. (People may be familiar with the phrase "the Eleusinian Mysteries" referring to celebrations in honor of Demeter and Persephone.)
But there's a second sense of "mystery" that derives from Latin ministerium (also the origin of "ministry") that has a meaning along the lines of "work, craft, service". This is often cited as the origin of the phrase "mystery plays", which were ritual religious-themed plays put on by professional and social guilds, and may also be related to the idea of "craft mysteries" --not in the sense of something kept secret, but simply referring to "the practices of a specific craft profession."
When I turned up these two origins (which I'd originally thought were from the same source), it really sparked ideas about the tension between magical practice as a secret tradition and magical practice as an ordinary craft and profession, especially in how a parallel tradition of secular magical ceremonies might evolve in the world of Alpennia alongside more orthodox religious ones. With that in mind, I had the title for Fortunatus' treatise on the nature of miracles and the concept of mechanism--that mystery rituals could be approached scientifically, not just theologically. So the title of his book “De Mysteriis et Misteriis” means "Concerning Mysteries [as a secret and concealed practice] and Mysteries [as a form of craft and service]." That tension between the two concepts is a major theme in Margerit's relationship to her magical talents. I love embedding word-play like this in the books and I'm always delighted when someone notices and enjoys it too!
This post covers perhaps the first half of Chapter 1. (Plus a tiny bit of the front matter that I overlooked previously.) I debated over how to break up the content of this book. There are only three chapters, so doing a whole chapter in each blog post would be far too much, given the level of detail I"m interested in. But within each chapter there are a number of much shorter titled sections, which are shorter than it makes sense to cover separately. So I figure I'll break the coverage in what feel like natural places (or when I need a break). I'm on vacation this week, so I may get a fair amount done simply because I have time and I want to immerse myself in this book.
I'm finding Boehringer's approach deightful in its depth of analysis and in cutting through the layers of more recent scholarship to ask, "what does the text/material actually say to us?" For example, even if you view Alcman's partheneia poems as conventional, ritual expressions of civic performance, it still remains that they present the idea of female voices expressing the experience of erotic desire for a female object in a context that sees this as a normal, accepted part of society. And that, perhaps, says more than a poem that was clearly a depiction of an individual, personal experience of desire could ever say about the place of female homosexual desire in Archaic Greece.
Chapter 1a Archaic Poetry
I forgot to include this last bit of the introductory material. The author discusses the scope of the work and the nature of the evidence. The late cut off is to exclude Christian texts. But the types of data vary across the scope and this corresponds to different attitudes towards f/f sex. So the analysis can’t entirely be a comparison across eras or a clear picture of development over time.
Chapter 1: Myth and Archaic Lyric Poetry
While Boehringer emphasizes that male and female relations and experiences cannot be taken as parallel, a study of the Archaic era must inevitably examine male/male institutions and practices. Studies of Archaic Greek same-sex practices are often filtered through a lens of morality that leads scholars to emphasize or obscure certain aspects. But even the classical sources that commented on Archaic practices can’t be taken at face value, especially in the case of Athenian authors writing about Sparta.
We get a basic overview of the social institution of pederasty and the different attitudes and experiences of it, particularly with respect to theories that it was the remnants of an older “rite of passage” rather than a primarily erotic practice.
[Note: In using the term “pederasty” here, both Boehringer and I am referring to an ancient Greek cultural practice that has a very different connotation than the modern use of the term, which carries an inherent implication of sexual abuse and moral condemnation. Let us not lose track of the fact that a lot of historic cultural attitudes toward sex would be considered abusive and morally problematic today. So in asking that readers accept this particular term as neutral in its historic context, there is no intent to transfer that acceptance to unrelated modern meanings.]
The evidence for female parallels to pederasty is scanty and not contemporary. The evidence for female coming-of-age rituals is more plentiful, which is another line of thinking regarding the context of Archaic poetry.
The most explicit reference to a system of female pederasty is Plutarch’s 2nd century CE commentary on Spartan practices of seven centuries earlier. Plutarch was summarizing and interpreting sources now lost to us, but may also have filtered them through his own understanding and purposes. But what he describes is a system in which virtuous (the wording makes it clear these are established community members) adult women love (using a form of “eros”) maidens (parthenai) and worked to make their beloved (eromenon) a good person. There was no rivalry if two women loved the same maiden, but rather it was a basis of friendship between them.
This passage establishes both that this practice was parallel to that of men, and that the lover-beloved relationship was asymmetric and to some extent pedagogical. But one can question whether Plutarch was describing practices accurately or simply assuming them. One can also question whether his interpretation of a desexualized mentor relationship was descriptive or an imposition of his own values.
The other passage often interpreted as referring to a more sexual female pederasty is similarly of late date (first century CE) when Athenaeus says that among the Spartans it was customary to have intercourse with young girls “as with young boys”, but the parallelism is highly ambiguous. Who is having the intercourse? Adult women (paralleling both roles in m/m pederasty)? Or the same adult men who are having intercourse with boys? (Keeping in mind that m/m relations typically involved interfemoral intercourse, not penetration.)
The analysis moves on to the many historic interpretations of Sappho and how we have far more material speculating on her life then we have from her. She has been variously interpreted as a teacher, leader of a maiden chorus, leader of a “thiasos” (a religious society), or a poet who performed at symposia (drinking parties). Each theory presents different interpretations of her audience and the cultural context of her work. For example, interpreting fragment 31 (“He seems like a god”) as an epithalamium – a praise song for a bride - has different implications then viewing it as a personal expression. These questions are even more complicated when applied to the work of the male poet Alcman.
Given the fragmentary and difficult nature of Sappho’s and Alcman’s poetry, Boehringer begins by looking at the larger context of love and desire expressed in Archaic poetry. In general, the “eros” of this general genre of poetry expresses “sweetness” drawing comparisons with the experience of sleep, liquidity, and music or song. Eros is the experience of an external force, with the lover at its mercy. Eros instills desire, which is expressed as aspiring to beauty and valor. It transforms the lover against their will. Eros acts through the gaze, not by physical contact. Erotic poetry typically expresses the state of activated desire and seeking; the focus is on pursuit, but not on resolution or fulfillment. The beloved is typically elusive. The relationship is inherently and eternally asymmetric as a pursuer and a pursued.
Alcman was a spartan of the seventh century BCE whose poetry is interpreted as referencing certain Spartan festivals. His work is fragmentary but two long pieces belong to a genre called “partheneia”, songs meant to be sung by a chorus of young women. Written by a male poet, they are written in the first-person plural, meant to be understood as the voice of the female performers.
Within these poems there are two long sections that may express amorous sentiment between women. In both cases the poems praise specific named women, speak of the feelings they inspire in the singers, and express the singers’ desire to have the women notice their desire and respond to it. In one, two women are named as the subject of these feelings and, if the song is an epithalamium, one scholar has proposed it may celebrate the union of the two women. By many, the songs are interpreted as depicting an institutionalized hierarchical homosexual “stage of passage”, in which the performers are in the role of lover. Others see the performers as young women expressing the public voice of the community. Yet others see the sentiments as expressing, erotic desire but in a formalized public context rather than as a personalized declaration of love. That is, they are formal eulogy but expressed in the form of individual desire. Other interpretations, different in detail, are reviewed.
If one focuses on the “fiction” inherent in the words of the poetic texts, four things are clear. The poetic persona expresses an amorous or erotic feeling. That feeling is experienced by women. The object of the feeling is a woman. And the feeling is claimed to be the experience of the speakers. The specific imagery of the praise is relevant. The speakers describe their own beauty and virtues but protest that they feel unworthy of interest from the woman they praise. They catalog women they have desired in the past, but claim the current desire surpasses those experiences. The beloved’s gaze provokes overwhelming desire that is not answered. The self-descriptions make it clear that the “persona” of the song is female.
Another one-word fragment from Alcman further supports the image of a concept of female pederasty in Sparta: “aïtas”, the feminine plural of a masculine noun which has the same meaning and reference as “eromenos”, the younger beloved in a male pederastic relationship. There is no context for interpreting the specific meaning of the feminine word, but an erotic context can be assumed though not the social structures and rituals it might reference.
In summary, Alcman’s partheneia songs are clear expressions of homoerotic desire or attraction because they use the established vocabulary and tropes of erotic love within a context establishing both lover and beloved as female. The language is conventional, but all erotic poetry of the era is conventional. The poems cannot be taken as an expression of individual, personal desire, despite the first-person language, but the very public and formal context of its performance indicates that homoerotic desire between women must have been a normal, excepted aspect of society. The feelings the women express are an integral part of the image of social harmony and stability that is the underlying theme of the genre.
Sappho was a near contemporary of Alcman, though a direct correspondence of cultural practices between Sparta and Lesbos cannot be assumed. Little is known directly about her personal life except that she probably belonged to one of the island’s aristocratic families, that her family seems to have been involved in political conflicts, and that as a result they went into exile in Sicily. All other interpretations of her personal life are read into her poetry.
She wrote a large body of poetry, of which only fragments and one complete poem survive. Even the genre classification of her work is based on later interpretations. Many of the poems are expressed in the first person, but as we see with Alcman, although this may be intended to attribute the sentiments to the performer, it cannot be assumed they are the sentiments of the author, even when identified as such, as in the ode to Aphrodite. The Sappho-persona in such poems exists within the erotic trope of always desiring without response, or recalling a distant or past love, never a moment of present requiting. Aphrodite may promise a future reversal, but in the moment of the poem, the Sappho-persona is endlessly suffering the pangs of unrequited eros. Yet the retrospective poems offer memories of sweetness and the pleasures of love. Eros is both sweet and violently disruptive. It enters through the gaze and is provoked again by visual memories. The Sappho-persona dismisses her own virtues and attractiveness and despairs of having her desire returned.
The experience of physical desire is highlighted, but there are a few direct, unambiguous sexual images – a feature sometimes fastened upon to dismiss the erotic nature of the work. (Though some scholars have pointed to words and phrases that may be poetic metaphors for sexual experiences.) But references to sex only through euphemism is a general feature of erotic poetry of the time, so this cannot be used to uniquely deny sexual implications to Sappho’s writing.
As with Alcman, the contents of Sappho’s poetry would have been understood within her own social context as unambiguously referring to erotic and sexual love between women. And as with Alcman, there is a complete absence of concern about moral or social judgment, or that the feelings are in any way outside social norms. The sadness and despair that is sometimes expressed is an inherent trope of the genre of erotic poetry, and appears regardless of the genders of the participants. Nor is there anything in Sappho’s work that suggest eros between women was considered qualitatively different from eros in other contexts.
Anacreon lived in the 6th century BCE and was born in Ionia, but lived in a variety of Greek communities. Like Sappho, he was prolific but his poems survive only in fragments and his “biography” has been read into the subjects of the poems, often involving love and symposia. His work mostly uses a first person “persona” and often uses the fiction of spontaneous commentary on the context of performance. His expressions of erotic longing are often humorously self-deprecating and include sexual innuendo, but never direct sexual terminology.
This self-deprecation features in a poem in which the Anacreon-persona laments that Eros attracted his attention to a “girl from Lesbos” but she spurned him for having white hair (i.e., being old) and the girl directs her attention to “another”. The word for “another” is grammatically feminine, so there is potential ambiguity between “another (girl)” or “another (hair)” - hair being grammatically feminine. The girl’s attention is described as “gaping (at)” and some have seen a double-entendre for the reputation of women of Lesbos for practicing oral sex. Yet others see the reference to Lesbos as reinforcing an interpretation of “another” as indicating a woman. But would mention of Lesbos have created either of these implications at the time?
There is a brief digression regarding the verb “lesbiazein”. Boehringer points out that it has no semantic connection to female homosexuality except via common reference to the island of Lesbos. The verb literally means “to do as the inhabitants of Lesbos do” and is one of a set of geography-inspired sexual verbs that typically refer to a negatively-evaluated practice attributed to the people of the region by their neighbors. The context of use of “lesbiazein” indicates that the action was considered shameful, and that it was not exclusive to women. Furthermore, there are contexts that define and distinguish “to phoenicianize” (perform cunnilingus) and “to lesbianize” (perform fellatio). This last strongly suggests that “lesbiazein” would not be used for sex between two women. The verb seems to have been popularized in fifth century Athenian comedy when there was conflict with Lesbos.
While Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans makes an unambiguous connection between Lesbos and sex between women, that comes from a much later date.
During Anacreon’s era, Sappho’s name was not used to reference sex between women. This lack of a contemporary linkage between Lesbos and sex between women has been used to argue that Anacreon’s poem could not be indicating that the girl spurned the poet-persona for another girl. But the lack of a semantic connection does not exclude the interpretation that the girl being from Lesbos and her preference for a girl could be independent elements in the poem. The poem is deliberately a humorous “twist” but the ambiguity of that twist could easily be a design feature rather than a problem to be solved. Anacreon includes a number of references and echoes of Sappho’s work in his poems, often playfully reworking or exaggerating her imagery. Not only is the girl in the poem from Lesbos, but she is “fancy-sandaled” using a word form from Sappho’s dialect, not his own. All together, this suggests that the reading in which the girl desires another girl is an allusion to the content of Sapho’s poetry, not to an association of Lesbos in general with female homosexuality. There is no condemnation of her preference inherent in the poem, only the poet-personas self-deprecating regret but she didn’t choose him.
(Originally aired 2021/10/17 - listen here)
I have a list of at least a dozen podcast essay topics waiting to be written—and that’s not counting the series I plan about historical romance tropes—but they all require a significant amount of research and writing time. This month, my day-job has been sucking up all my surplus energy and I find myself in need of something I can write off the cuff, reusing some themes I’ve talked about individually. So I landed on the topic of single-sex communities and societies, and the myths and realities of homoeroticism that circle around them.
Ideas about women’s sexuality in women-only spaces have always been driven by the prevailing theories at the time about women’s sexuality in general, and about motivations for same-sex erotics. Eras that consider erotic attractions to be inherently polymorphous—whether viewing that as good or bad—usually default to expecting women-only societies to encourage lesbian activity on the principle of “you do what’s available.” Eras that consider women to be inherently non-sexual beings will tend to predict that an all-female society will be celibate. Individual fictional examples, or imaginative expectations of real societies, may also be driven by prejudices and stereotypes. And, of course, real societies tend to be more varied and messy than the thought experiments people may create in fiction.
Some of the literary examples I’ll be discussing touch on the question of trans identities within “single gender” contexts, and I’ll put this content note up front that historic examples of this theme are rarely handled in trans-friendly ways, particularly where they address sexuality.
A Roadmap of the Discussion
But what do we mean by “all-woman societies”? There’s a wide sliding scale. At one extreme we have fictional—one could almost say science-fictional—examples, where men have, in some way been entirely eliminated and reproduction is done by other means. At the opposite end of the scale would be cultures with a strong homosocial element where the genders are not physically segregated but the majority of socializing is segregated by gender. In the middle are institutions such as convents or schools that segregate the genders for part or all of a woman’s life. There are physical segregation institutions like the harem of Islamic societies (which existed in many different forms, but in general involved restricting the interaction of women with men outside immediate family members). And there are social organizations that women might participate in on a temporary basis while primarily living in a mixed-gender society. Outside of the science-fictional examples these concepts rarely involve complete separation of the genders (or complete elimination of men), but across much of the scale there might be a de facto separation of the genders in all but highly formalized circumstances.
There is also a wide variety of depictions of sexual expectations within these communities—an entirely separate axis of variation from the community types. It can cover everything from “what is this ‘sex’ thing you speak of?” all the way to “sex is what brings us together today.” In between there are many variations. The “planet of women” genre often takes a stance that might be characterized as “I’m horny, but I didn’t know for what until men showed up.” Up through the 18th century, a common attitude was, “I’m horny for pretty much anything, and if women are what’s on the menu, that’s cool.” Sometimes you get, “I know we’re supposed to be celibate but we slip up.” And especially in certain genres the take seems to be, “We’re in love, the rest is none of your business.”
So let’s take a tour through ideas people in the past have had about women-only communities and societies, starting from the extreme end of the scale.
The World of Women
We may think of concepts like a “planet of women” as being modern science fictional concepts, but it’s been an idea that authors have played with regularly over the centuries.
The earliest envisioning of woman-only societies include classical myths such as the Amazons or the followers of the goddess Diana. In both cases, the cultures were envisioned as a society from which men were specifically and deliberately excluded, and where sexual relations with men were either prohibited (in the case of Diana’s followers) or allowed only in limited circumstances for procreation (in the case of Amazons).
As I discussed in an earlier podcast, the implication of sexual relations among Diana’s female followers appears first by implication in the story of Callisto, when Jupiter seduces the nymph by disguising himself as the goddess. For the seduction to work, one must assume the normalization of sex between women in this group. That assumption is made more overt in later medieval and Renaissance versions of the story, such as William Warner’s Albion’s England and Thomas Heywood’s The Golden Age. In the early modern period, we see references to real-life women being a “follower of Diana” if they reject heterosexual marriage for the company of women, but it’s rare for these references to contain overt references to sexual activity, though it may be hinted at.
In the earliest stories of the Amazons, the possibility of same-sex desire is essentially ignored. The sex lives of Amazons were relevant only in their occasional encounters with men. But in medieval and Renaissance uses of Amazons in literature, we see evidence that they were perceived as engaging in homoerotic encounters, or at least they were open to the possibility. In Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, the Amazon Bradamante attracts female desire. In Sidney’s Arcadia, a man disguises himself as an Amazon to gain access to a secluded woman and persuades her that it’s ok for her to love a woman. In Shakespeare’s Two Noble Kinsmen, the Amazon Emilia is mourning her dead girlfriend. There is no explicit indication that it was a sexual relationship—as opposed to a very intensely romantic one—but such a sexual reference would be at odds with the tone of the piece. These are only a few of the literary Amazons who engage in either the reality or appearance of same-sex erotic relationships.
Aside from works playing off of classical mythology, fiction about all-woman societies seems to appear in the late 19th century. (And, of course, the theme is quite popular in science fiction from the mid 20th century on, but that’s outside the scope of this podcast.) Female-authored women-only utopian novels of the 19th and early 20th century typically reflect the gender stereotype prevalent at that time of women as being elevated, cultured, but non-erotic beings. In works such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, published in 1915, or the much more obscure 1890 work Mizora by Mary E. Bradley, an event in the past has eliminated all the men in an isolated region and the women became able to reproduce via parthenogenesis. Sexual desire, however, is assumed to be absent from these societies and the authors may not even feel the need to explain this point. In Mizora the only socially sanctioned emotional bonds are within the matrilineal line, though cohort friendships also exist and the female outsider through whose experience we learn about this society develops an intense but non-sexual friendship with one of the women. It’s worth noting that both Herland and Mizora interweave their utopian ideals with very problematic ideas about eugenics and racism, as well as concealing the violent incidents that contributed to their establishment.
A utopian short story of 1905, Sultana’s Dream by Indian author Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain follows a less extreme set-up, where a past incident has resulted in an exchange of roles between men and women, with men being kept in seclusion and performing domestic labor and only women living public lives, which has resulted in significant scientific and environmental improvements. But as with the western examples of a similar era, the story is silent on the question of romantic and sexual relations. This work falls more in the next category: societies where the genders are largely physically segregated in everyday life.
Convents and Harems
There are many different forms this segregation has taken in different social contexts. Sultana’s Dream operates within a system similar to the harem tradition, in which women are restricted to specific physical spaces and interact with men only in highly restricted circumstances. Harem culture was a site of massive cultural misunderstanding between Islamicate societies and European visitors, and the descriptions of Turkish harems that were disseminated in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries often say more about the preoccupations of the writers, than the reality of the women’s lives. We know from Arabic writings of the medieval period and later that sexual activity between women in the harem could be considered an ordinary part of life, with medical theories about whether it was driven by situational opportunity or innate preference. No significant weight of morality was placed on such activities. But European writers interpreted both the realities and their fantasies about women of the harem through their own attitudes about both gender and sexuality. Male writers of the 16th and 17th centuries provided lurid accounts of sexual activity between women in the harem, attributing their excessive lust to the unavailability of men and to the erotic atmosphere of the bath houses. Women were presumed to be sexually voracious and if men were not present they would satisfy themselves with each other. In contrast, Mary Whortley Montagu’s early 18th century first-hand accounts of life in an Ottoman harem depict a more lightly sensual atmosphere, but Montagu was clearly aware of her readers’ expectations when she writes about seeing “not the least wanton smile or immodest gesture.” And as a woman of the aristocracy writing for her female associates she may have felt more constrained in her depiction.
In a way, the closest analog in Western Europe for the gender dynamics of the harem is probably Catholic convents, another institution where women were restricted in their physical movements and limited in their interactions without outsiders to the community, though the overt motivation was different. The realities, myths, anxieties, and propaganda around lesbian activity in convents are complex. (I did an entire podcast on the topic.) To sum it up briefly: there is plenty of evidence that lesbian activity did occur between cloistered women, though how much or how widespread is difficult to know. There’s also plenty of evidence that the church hierarchy thought segregated communities of women created a potential for disruptive romantic and sexual relations among the residents—though far less disruptive than the possibilities in a mixed-gender community would be. In addition to simple regulatory prohibitions on any sort of intimate attachments (which were considered to interfere with a focus on devotion, even aside from those that fell in the category of sin), often there would be logistical regulations to make sexual encounters more difficult: sleeping clothed, not sharing beds, group dormitories with supervision. So while there was definitely a pop-culture motif of the sex-starved nun who made do with women because men were excluded, we know that this motif was treated as a real hazard by the institutions themselves. But with the advent of Protestantism, another factor comes into play. Protestant movements had serious concerns about the sincerity of celibate communities in general, as well as hostility toward Catholic institutions in particular. This came out in new tropes about lesbian activity in convents, especially with the rise in pornographic literature in the 17th century. In general, this type of literature took the stance that lesbianism in convents was driven not only by situational opportunity, but from belief that gender-segregation itself was inherently perverse. (Note that these themes are spread around the same time that stories of Turkish harems are being spread.)
Some of the same concerns were expressed about non-cloistered women’s communities, which often had a religious purpose but were not necessarily under hierarchical authority, such as the Beguines and some independent women’s communities in Italy. With these, concerns about situational desire among all-women groups were bolstered by anxiety about women who were not under the administrative control of men. With regard to sex, this anxiety came out around both the possibility that unsupervised groups of women were enjoying sexual encounters with men, and that women in groups might be having sex with each other. The evidence around these non-cloistered communities rarely documents anything more than intense emotional bonds and romantic pairings.
School Crushes and Temporary Retreats
Gender-segregated institutions may come and go in prevalence and may be only a temporary opportunity, such as girls’ boarding schools. Although institutions intended to educate girls were being founded as early as the 17th century, the heyday of the girls’ boarding school (and the resulting social dynamics) came in the mid 18th through 19th centuries. Within a community where adolescent girls were separated from their families to become part of a relatively self-contained educational community, there evolved a normalized expectation that the students would form romantic friendships that often had an obvious erotic component and paralleled the elements of heterosexual courtship. Administrative and community reactions to these relationships were largely positive and supportive until around the turn of the 20th century when psychological theories of homosexuality began to be applied to social dynamics. One could view these bonds as entirely driven by situational availability, but there was also a cultural element with new students learning the rituals and expectations from the existing culture. The faculty at such institutions—typically also all female—formed a different layer in these women-only institutions, and in the 19th century they engaged in romantic and/or erotic relationships often enough that such pairings were called “Wellesley marriages” after a popular women’s college. For these adult relationships, in addition to the simple availability of female bonds on a day to day basis, looking outside the female community for relationships often meant losing one’s teaching job.
This type of voluntary creation of an all-female community existed in other forms, especially in works of fiction. As is typical for literary depictions, the consequences of such communities for their romantic lives tends to follow the romantic tropes expected by the author’s audience. Thus the women-only retreat at the center of Margaret Cavendish’s 17th century The Convent of Pleasure enjoys same-sex flirtations and mock-courtships due to situational availability, but a seriously erotic component is introduced (and accepted) only when a disguised man enters the community for that purpose. The women are shown as being hesitantly receptive to same-sex erotics, but the audience is assured that the reality is missing.
The Club Scene
When the audience is looking for scandal, titillation, and satire, then the depictions of woman-only clubs and societies goes further. Delarivier Manley’s New Atalantis satirizes certain movements and figures in late 17th century England with a broad brush. But the example we’re interested in here is her “New Cabal,” a fictional society of women who pair off with vows of eternal love and a rejection of men. These women live within mixed-sex society but gather occasionally for private women-only events that feature feasting, the enjoyment of nature, and sexual encounters. This is no longer a matter of a situational restriction of the available partners, but the active creation of a segregated organization for the purpose of enjoying same-sex erotics.
A similar organization with a similar purpose, though described in more pornographic terms, is the fictional late 18th century Anandrine Society. This Masonic-like club cloaked its sexual activities in pseudo-classical ritual. While the sexual encounters of the New Cabal are still described with a certain amount of circumspection and innuendo (while being obvious to the reader), audience tastes and the target readership for works describing the Anandrine Society a century later were accustomed to more explicit descriptions.
The idea and reality of woman-only societies and organizations has persisted across the centuries, taking forms that emerge from, and reflect, the social tenor of the times. To some extent such motifs always provoke concerns about how women will behave with each other when they are apart from men—whether by their own choice or driven by other social forces. And whether or not people imagine that single-gender communities will automatically lead to same-sex erotics is situational as well. What do people of that era believe about women’s sex drive? How do they imagine women might act on it? Is erotic desire envisioned as gender-neutral or do people believe it is provoked only by certain types of potential partners? For that matter, what is the author’s purpose in describing a woman-only society? And how does sexuality fit into that purpose? Both chaste and erotic depictions may be created side by side, aimed at different audiences and written with different ends. And the realities of single gender communities are inherently more complex than fiction.
If you’re thinking about writing a women-only community in a historic setting, take a while to consider all the different forms it might take, and all the different expectations the women in it might have.
In this episode we talk about ideas and realities about all-woman societies, communities, and organizations in the past, and how they depicted the possibility of same-sex erotics.
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
When I blogged Dover (1978) Greek Homosexuality, I started off by quoting the author's own assessment: “That female homosexuality and the attitude of women to male homosexuality can both be discussed within one part of one chapter reflects the paucity of women writers and artists in the Greek world and the virtual silence of male writers and artists on those topics.” But the "paucity" of material isn't the only factor at play here. The more focused one's topic, the more scope there is for uncovering meaning from a deep assessment of the context that material exists within. But when a historian defines their scope of interest at a broader level, there is a tendency for the result to reflect the proportions of topics in the data, rather than aiming for a balanced coverage of the target subject itself.
In a sense, this is why the field of women's history and the field of queer history and especially the intersection of those two topics are so essential. A study of history that assumes that the past exists as a reflection of the proportions of subjects covered in the surviving artifacts is a study of history that perpetuates and amplifies the biases and erasures of past societies. While it's certainly been the case that historians have often been seduced into operating from the viewpoint of the voices that dominate their source material, a good historian recognizes that temptation and acts to counter it. Until all historians are self-aware enough to recognize and account for their own biases in this line, we need to treasure and cherish the works that begin from a principle that it is vital to put in the work of addressing marginalized topics. Boehringer's study is just such a work to be cherished--and I say that even not having read it in its entirety yet.
My very personal hope is that I will come out of this book with the same sort of brain-bending re-understanding of women's homosexual experiences in classical Greece and Rome that I had for men's experiences from Williams 2010. I want that shifting of ground where I feel like I've been allowed a glimpse of how a different culture understood their own sexual and romantic experiences, even when--especially when--that understanding feels alien to me. A history of homosexuality in any era--even as recent as the mid-20th century--will trip up if it is a quest to find exact correspondences with contemporary identities and experiences. (I often point out that the lesbian experience of the '70s when I came out is already an alien culture to 21st century understandings.) But we needn't entirely abandon the desire to find connection with people in the past. And a more diffuse “history of the varieties of gender/desire/affection” still allows us to make those connections between historic and modern experience while allowing past societies their distinct particularity and individuality.
I keep coming back to the metaphor of translating prepositions between different languages. We all share the same physical experience of up/down, near/far, contact/separtion, movement/stasis. But even apart from bundling the multitude of spatial relationships differently across languages, we assign different priorities, defaults, and cultural meanings to those basic physical relationships. Learning a language means letting go of the idea that prepositions (or whatever form spatial language takes) will translate precisely from one language to another. It doesn't mean letting go of the assumption that we live in the same physical world, but it may give us an entirely new way of thinking about that world.
Preface to the English Translation
The author discusses the reception of the original 2007 text and sexist/homophobic responses from even the French publisher who put it out, attacking the very concept of academic gender and sexuality studies—a reaction out of line with French academic traditions.
[Note: In a curious echo of centuries of cultures always attributing lesbianism to “foreign” influences, certain voices within the culture that produced Foucault derided sexuality history as an American contamination.]
This translation provides an opportunity to reconsider and update certain elements in light of continuing scholarship in the field. The author notes that she uses the term “homosexuality” as an abstract concept, rather than implying personal identity in a modern sense. She reviews the history of scholarship on Greek sexuality, colored by the era and attitudes to those studying it. Up through the mid 20th century these studies largely excluded women as a topic, with the narrow exception of Sappho studies, which often took place outside academia. The rise of women’s studies as a field changed this, alongside interest in the history of sexuality from a historical, not a psychological, perspective.
But new, more expansive studies of ancient sexuality continued to overlook female homosexuality as a topic, treating it as an afterthought or appendix. Rare breakthrough exceptions include Hallett 1989. Only since the late 1990s has female homosexuality in antiquity come into its own as a topic of serious and independent study, rather than an addition to studies of male homosexuality. Brooten 1996 sparked lively debates about the category/term “homosexuality” in classical contexts. Important works include Snyder 1997, Rabinowitz and Auanger 2002 among others. A new phase of scholarship begins around 2010 as female homosexuality appears more often in general collections on ancient sexuality.
Boehringer follows Halperin’s constructionist approach but cautions against mapping male-centered concepts like active/passive onto female experience, but rather seeks to retrieve how classical societies understood their own world in its particularity. Boehringer defines her book's focus as “ancient documents referring to amorous and/or sexual relations between women.”
Preface to the Original French Edition by David Halperin
He gives the general background to the essentialist/constructionist debate and acknowledges the attraction of identifying with cultures and individuals in the past, as well as the social and political uses of historical identification. There is a discussion of the definition of the term “sexuality” and he asserts that studies of its history often focus on eras when sexuality, as such, didn’t exist.
A quest to find a history for the specific modern experience of homosexuality (supposing there is one) becomes a teleological search for a past connection between an array of characteristics and attributes that were not necessarily connected to each other except in the present moment. The history of relations between women raises the question of “which relations?” Love? Desire? Intimacy? Sex? Masculine women? Women seeking to live outside heteronormative and patriarchal structures? Women who made personal and social alliances with women instead of men? What parts of modern “lesbian identity” are we studying when we study lesbian history?
There is a discussion of the slipperiness of the word “lesbian” itself. What has it referred to in different times and contexts? If we are looking to identify concepts and experiences in the past that can be identified as “lesbian” how is this affected by the difficulty in defining what we mean by the word today? Are we looking for a continuous, unbroken tradition of lesbianism or are we comfortable associating the term with a discontinuous heterogeneous sequence of concepts—similar to the changing understandings of concepts like “marriage” or “family”? Such identifications across time are unescapable, but also hazardous to the practice and understanding of history.
[Note: I feel this is a key thing to keep in mind. When you look at the concept/category of "lesbian" in the last half century, and how contested and debated its boundaries and definitions are, it should be apparent how complicated it would be to trace a "history of [modern] lesbianism" even if that were the goal. Even if you boil the definition down to "women who love and/or have sex with women", the love/sex branching point instantly creates more than one "history" to trace.]
Introduction (by the author)
The introduction starts by defining the topic of the book: love and sexual relations between women (including real, fictional, and fantasized women) in Greek and Roman contexts of the seventh century BCE to the early third century CE. Because the people of those eras did not view relations between women as being parallel to relations between men or to relations between a man and woman, this topic must be studied in its own context, with regard to the place and function of women within society. Due to the nature of the sources, such a study will invariably give undue weight to men’s experience and perception of the topic.
There is a discussion of gender as a concept (i.e., a cluster of social characteristics) as contrasted with sex (biological characteristics, with a nod to the fact that different societies assigned sexual categories to intersex persons in different ways). There is a discussion of the academic politics of “women’s history” and the pressure for it to include men but not the other way around. “Men’s history” is allowed to silently ignore the presence and contributions of women while “women’s history” is required to include men in order to be taken seriously.
As with gender, perceiving sexuality as socially constructed frees the historian from trying to impose modern experience on the past and allows the study of each culture in its own context.
There is a detailed review of previous scholarship on the topic of the sexual/erotic culture of Greece and Rome. The author particularly takes note of the presence and absence of interest in relations between women in prior work. There is a discussion of the author’s approach and some definition of terms to be used. She will use “homosexual” to mean simply “same-sex”, rather than implying cultural or psychological resonances.
The ways people experienced and managed their sex lives are to be understood as focusing around actions, not identities, though identities in the sense of gender, free/unfree, class, etc. certainly were significant. Sexual actions were perceived as asymmetric between partners and might use entirely different words for each one’s experience of the same activity. That means a sexual encounter could never be categorized and evaluated solely on the basis of the gender of the persons involved without regard to status. Source material that appears to judge sexual activity cannot be understood to be judging that activity on the basis of the gender of the participants. Criticism is always in regard to some other specific aspect, and should also be understood as performative with respect to the speaker’s own identity. Little can be taken at face value, especially when men are opining about women. With regard to classical relations between women, the scholar is often more like a paleontologist than a historian, trying to reconstruct an understanding from isolated and incomplete fragments.
This concludes my coverage of Skidmore's book, and of my recent mini-sequence of books on transmasculine history. I have to say that my own understanding of trans possibilities in the early 20th century was greatly broadened by Skidmore's detailed and extensive research. I knew about a few well-known biographies, like Billy Tipton, but not the utter normalness that could be the experience of many (though not all) trans men. And the surprising glimpses of acceptance, both by communities and families, in some cases. (Though far from all.) Skidmore also highlights how our understanding--in many cases our entire knowledge--of these trans lives is shaped by the dynamics and agendas of the American newspaper industry and what they felt was their role in not merely reporting events, but shaping responses to them.
Tying this book back to the through-line of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project: whether you're writing fiction about transmasculine experiences as trans men, or writing about characters understood as lesbians who are engaging in transmasculine presentation, a study of the lives of these real historic people can add nuance, detail, and realism to your fiction. Reading Skidmore's work as a parallel to Isabel Miller's Patience and Sarah could be a worthwhile experience, every bit as much as reading it in a purely transgender context. Transmasculine and "butch lesbian" themes are interwoven throughout history--up to the present day--and I think it's important to study them as such.
Skidmore, Emily. 2017. True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the 20th Century. New York University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-4798-7063-9
Chapter 5: To Have and to Hold & Conclusion
This chapter looks at the role that marriage (to a woman) played within the lives of trans men. We start with the biography of James William Hathaway (Ethel Kimball), born in 1882, whose life history primarily seems to be one of lawbreaking, with gender a minor note in the tune. While living as a woman in her twenties, she was arrested for forgery and then again for using the excuse of test driving an automobile to go on a joy-ride with a group of female friends. At one point during this general period she married a man. But by the age of 38 Kimball had become Hathaway, was living as a man, and had married Louise Aechtler. An arrest a few weeks later for auto theft made public Hathaway’s “true sex” at which point Hathaway claimed that both the gender performance and the marriage had been a “prank” while Aechtler claimed no awareness of Hathaway’s history. Over the next several years, Hathaway was in and out of trouble with the law, often returning to living as a woman temporarily after these encounters. The marriage to Aechtler had evidently been dissolved, but Hathaway took up with a much younger woman, Pearl Davis, who was told that Hathaway was in gender disguise to make a real estate deal. The two got married and within a month were arrested for criminal activity. When Hathaway’s “true sex” was once again discovered, the pair were charged with perjury related to the marriage. While laws against cross-dressing were spotty and local at this period, misrepresenting one’s identity on a legal record such as a marriage license was definitely a crime.
Skidmore asks the question, why—given that formalizing a marriage meant putting one’s identity under scrutiny by the state (as well as the relationship meaning scrutiny by one’s spouse)—did so many trans men engage with this risks to become husbands? Skidmore proposes the answer that it was exactly that official state scrutiny that might make it attractive. A marriage license could be the equivalent of a certificate of masculinity. Just as being publicly in a romantic or sexual relationship with a woman was a way for a trans man to gain public recognition of male status, formalizing that relationship with a marriage license was a way to gain legal recognition of it. Skidmore argues that while the larger national discussion around trans men marrying women became increasingly negative and sensationalistic in the 1920s, the local, personal responses when such cases were discovered were often mild and indifferent. This points to the need to look beyond newspaper headlines to understand the everyday responses to trans men.
Skidmore presents a thumbnail history of the institution of marriage in the US and the ways in which it was used by the state to include or exclude particular groups of people from society and to promote a particular social understanding of gender roles. In the 19th century, informal “self marriages” were common, especially during westward settlement expansion, with the local community substituting for the state in policing behavior and expectations. A couple’s adherence to the expected archetypal roles of marriage were given more importance than the marriage’s legal status and paperwork. Westward expansion also meant a highly mobile population where long-term relationships and familiarity were less important than how a person performed the behaviors expected of a good, productive citizen.
Within this context, many couples involving a trans man established the reality of their marriages by moving to a new location and simply proclaiming themselves husband and wife. This was the approach taken by George and Mary Green, and by Ralph Kerwineo and Mamie White discussed in previous chapters.
Moving into the 20th century, states developed a stronger interest in regulating marriage, both in terms of who could enter into it and the expectation that marriage was defined by formal license. Even as the state began to apply age, racial, and eugenics-based tests for marriages, trans men were not necessarily categorized as being inherently criminal for entering marriages, or as being dangerous to the social fabric in the say way that non-supportive husbands or interracial marriages were. That began to change with the eugenics movement, which saw regulation of marriage as a means of keeping “undesirable” traits out of the gene pool. And thanks to the rise of sexological theories about the inheritability of propensities for non-normative sexuality. In this context, “fitness” for marriage was also a proxy for acceptance for full citizenship.
Skidmore returns to the story of Ralph Kerwineo to show how the scrutiny of his marriage to a white woman provoked a “eugenics panic” calling for even stricter limits on marriageability. Kerwineo had passed a pre-marital blood test—primarily intended to screen for diseases such as syphilis—but the eugenicists who promoted such tests were angry and anxious around the fact that marriage testing had failed to identify Kerwineo as Black and as a gender deviant. His case was used to argue for even more stringent testing, including a physical examination to determine assigned sex. But the responses to Kerwineo’s arrest and release show a diversity of opinion as to whether gender deviancy was considered a threat to society.
Laws reinforce gender role expectations in a number of ways one type of law employed in some states in the early 20th century focused on the expectation that a husband would provide economically for his family and the expectation that without a providing husband the wife and children would become “a burden on society”. If the husband were convicted of failing to provide financially for his family he could be sentenced to doing public labor for. While the state subsidized his family in the expectation that this would induce correct behavior. These laws have no direct connection to transgender men but appear relevant in the case of Robert Gaffney who was brought before the court on the charge of being a “lazy husband” when his wife Margrethe Gaffney and her three children were found to have been abandoned by him. Gaffney’s defense was that he was not a cis man and therefore could not be expected to fulfill the role of husband. The judge excepted this argument based on the conclusion that two women could not marry and therefore without a valid marriage there was no husband who could be expected to fulfill that role. But the judge wanted to charge Gaffney with something. The state of Washington did not have any laws against cross dressing so Gaffney could not be prosecuted simply for being a trans man. Gaffney’s story did not have the broad national circulation in newspapers but was restricted to the Pacific Northwest in states where he lived at some point. The public framing of the case based on Gaffney’s explanations was that Margaret Gaffney had been unaware of his “true sex” and that he had been on the verge of returning to living as a woman but he had married Margaret to “give her a home” and did not reveal his assigned gender to save her from embarrassment. There was an additional potential embarrassment involved as Margrethe conceived and born a child during the course of the Gaffney’s marriage. Though this was left out of most press accounts. Overall this resulted in sympathetic press coverage with Margaret’s supposed ignorance removing the threat of sexuality and Roberts stated motives removing concern about his motives. Roberts motives for initiating a trans life were never explored and the context of the revelation of his assigned gender reinforced notions of female weakness and distinction between the sexes, as the story indicated that he revealed his assigned gender for fear of the burden of hard labor assigned in punishment. Margrethe life history supports the version of Roberts motives presented in the press she had a troubled marriage previously and was abandoned while pregnant with her second child. The child born during the Gaffney’s marriage may well have been fathered Play her former husband. This puts a different context on Roberts explanation that he wanted to provide a home for her and save her from embarrassment. What can’t be known from the public records is whether the Gaffney’s genuinely had a romantic relationship that went sour but was left out of the narrative in court, and regardless whether Margaret knew about Roberts assigned sex. But what comes out of the court records is that the charge of failing to fulfill the expected duties of a husband was a more serious legal offense than being transgender and marrying a woman. Skidmore speculates that one reason the Gaffney story did not receive greater newspaper coverage was that it failed to fit the narrative of deviant and threatening behavior. But there’s limited coverage both in geographic scope and reaction points out how unremarkable the stories of trans men could be considered if no triggers for social anxiety were present in the narrative.
In the 1920s the context of press response shifted with changes in the structure of the newspaper industry. Independent local papers declined with the rise of networks of newspaper chains owned by men like Scripps and Hearst and even local papers began to send more extensively on wire service response reports and syndicated news items. Within the competitive world of the wire services sensational presentations of ordinary news items became the key to being picked up for use by local papers. The results of this shift can be seen in stories of trans men in the late 1920s.
The varieties of coverage different types of papers is saying around the life of Kenneth Lisonbee born Catherine Rowena Wing, in Utah, and initially living as Kenneth Wing by age 21 in Los Angeles. After the break up of a first marriage made complicated by his in-laws moving in with a couple Kenneth changed his surname to Lisonbee perhaps to avoid connection with the initial revelation of his assigned sex. After a visit to his childhood home in Utah Kenneth took up with a childhood friend Stella Harper and the two return to Los Angeles living as a couple. Suspicions by neighbors resulted in a police inquiry and the identification of Lisonbee’s assigned sex. Skidmore reviews a wide variety of takes on the story from newspapers of different sizes and natures. This range from mild interest to amusement to human interest story and show how Lisonbee manipulated the facts of his own history to evoke the Scripps that the public would most sympathize with. Central to Lisonbee’s narrative when it was included in the new stories was gender crossing as a means of economic improvement and to move safely through the world. His second relationship was stated to have been a means of enabling his friend Harper to travel back to Los Angeles with him. The possibility of same-sex desire was entirely removed from Lisonbee’s public story, as well as the idea of cross dressing as personal expression rather than practical reality on a Utah ranch. One Los Angeles paper commented that there seem to be no longer identifiable masculine or feminine dress in a “kids these days” type of statement. Does Lisonbee’s choice of dressing in male garments was framed as being an expression of freedom and modern styles rather than as being a transgression. But other papers did present Lisonbee and Harper as threats to society by living outside normative family structures.
As a coda to both the previous chapter and the book as a whole, Skidmore traces the life of Kenneth Lisonbee after the events that landed him in the eyes of the press. Lisonbee and Harper returned to their childhood home in Utah and were subsequently recorded in census records at the same address as Lisonbee’s parents (though Lisonbee is recorded as Katherine Wing). Local Utah papers indicated that Lisonbee’s parents were quite aware before the Los Angeles arrest that he had been dressing as a man, though he does not seem to have employed a male name and clothing while in Utah. Within the next decade, all four—Lisonbee, his parents, and Harper—returned to the Los Angeles area city where he and Harper had previously lived and he returned to his prior occupation there of barber. He also returned to dressing as a man and using the name Kenneth, as documented in a 1940 arrest for a traffic violation. Despite some research, the police could not find any statute that Lisonbee was violating by his life, and for some reason his previous legal issues were never brought up. Lisonbee’s fellow businessmen stepped up as character witnesses, and the evidence suggests that his community was well aware of his assigned sex and didn’t have a problem with it.
Overall, the lives documented in Skidmore’s book trace the wide variety of trans men’s lives in the decades around the turn of the 20th century in America, with a similarly wide range in how they were understood and treated by their communities and by the press. We also see how factors not directly related to genders affected that treatment, including race, economic status, reported motivations, and the extent to which they performed acceptable and admirable models of masculinity.