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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #49 - Blackwood 1986 “Breaking the Mirror: The Construction of Lesbianism and the Anthropological Discourse on Homosexuality”

Full citation: 

Blackwood, Evelyn. 1986. “Breaking the Mirror: The Construction of Lesbianism and the Anthropological Discourse on Homosexuality” in Anthropology and Homosexual Behavior. Evelyn Blackwood, ed. The Haworth Press, New York. ISBN 0-86656-328-8 (Also published as Journal of Homosexuality Vol. 11, No. 3/4, Summer 1985.)

This week I'm finishing up some of the last few journal offprints in my "lesbian research" file folder. That means, alas, that they're some of the more marginal items (because I picked the juicy ones to work on first). Blackwood's article is quite useful for considering some of the problems of using anthropological studies of sexual behavior.

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This article isn’t so much on lesbianism in a cultural context as on the methodology of studying the topic, and particularly the importance of not assuming equivalence between male and female homosexuality. Please note the publication date and filter appropriately. As most of the specific cultural citations are relatively modern, I’ll be discussing the general patterns.

The focus of the article is on patterns of cultural expression as opposed to the experiences of individuals. As such, it inevitably has a social-constructionist focus rather than an essentialist one. But for a writer, this can be key in terms of understanding the variety public forms that lesbian desires can take in different times and places. It begins with a survey of how (Western) anthropology has reported instances of homosexual behavior and the methodological problems with how that data is used in theoretical studies (as well as the problems of outright prejudice on the part of researchers). Even basic observations and recording methods have been filtered through the prevalent theories of sexuality of the time, and especially through views of homosexual behavior as abnormal or pathological. An additional handicap in studying lesbian activity comes from the prevalence of male researchers in the field and their lack of access to candid self-reporting by female informants. Even studies that recognized established cultural roles involving trans-gender or non-binary-gender expression sometimes interpreted them as providing a cultural outlet for individuals who -- in an essentialist framework -- failed to adapt to gender norms. That is: a normalized abnormality. The author gives a nod to feminist and gay movements of the ‘60s in focusing on how personal experiences always occur within the context of social systems (the personal is political). Cultural approaches to lesbianism can only be understood in the context of gender systems and differences as a whole and cannot simply be extrapolated from male homosexuality. Another confounding factor is the tendency of (Western) researchers to recognize lesbianism only when it conforms to their own cultural models, especially those that conflate cross-gender behavior with lesbian sexuality.

On a cultural level, lesbian activity typically exists within a context that normalizes heterosexual marriage and childbearing. Therefore it is often expressed within informal relationships such as adolescent friendships or “women’s groups” in gender-segregated households. But even within this type of context, formal structures in which lesbian activity may occur (or even be expected) can include formally-recognized friendship bonds, sisterhoods, and initiation schools, and when cross-gender roles and woman-marriage are part of the culture, lesbian activity may be included in formal cultural structures.

Women’s economic autonomy provides greater opportunity for both formal and informal lesbian relationships. Even within polygynous households, economic clout could provide a basis for a women’s assertion of sexual choice with other women that husbands were expected to tolerate (or ignore). Formalized relationships between women in such a context might have the dual purpose of establishing mutual economic support as well as emotional support.

In societies organized around gender-segregated child and adolescent groups, same-gender sexual activity could be tolerated or even expected, whether as individual recreational behavior or as part of ritual practices. In societies with strict kinship rules regarding appropriate marriage partners, those same rules could sometimes apply to appropriate same-gender sex partners (meaning that one's female lovers would be part of the same kin-group as one's potential husband). But even in similar social structures, parallel sexual behaviors might be openly acknowledged or kept secret depending on cultural attitudes.

Cultures with rigidly hierarchical gender systems tend not to have formal structures for lesbian relationships (whether public or covert) and behavior itself is typically private and risky. The ability to engage in lesbian relationships may depend on the personal ability to resist marriage and attendant male control. But some such cultures then allow for formal associations of unmarried women, within which affectional and sexual relationships are tolerated and recognized on some level.

Gender-segregated cyclic economic migration (e.g., men migrating to cities for wage labor for much of the year while women control agricultural production) creates a context for both informal and formal lesbian relationships that fulfill economic, emotional, and sexual desires.

Formal cross-gender roles generally exist within societies with rigid gender roles and hierarchies, but conversely provide a context for formal, recognized relationships between women, as long as one of the pair is occupying a male social role. In other cultures with these characteristics, a cross-gender role may only be possible on a covert basis.

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