Famously, Queen Victoria didn’t believe that lesbians existed. She’s not the only one to think that, despite evidence of queer female love and sex cropping up all through history. Same-sex desire, and attitudes towards it, have changed over the course of human history, but women’s sex lives have always occupied a slightly odder place than men’s, a more hidden spot amongst the spectrum of sexuality (one with it’s own histories of persecution and trauma).
Just before we get started, mini-disclaimer, throughout this post I’m going to be referring to “female-female sexual relationships” or “queer female sex” rather than “attitudes towards lesbians”. This is because I don’t have enough information to be able to judge if those involved were lesbian, bisexual, other or simply sexually frustrated in a situation that had little other release (e.g. a nun), plus the way that people thought about their sexuality in the past doesn’t necessarily match up to how we categorise sexuality now.
First, a bit of context
Same-sex relationships might have been acceptable in some parts of the ancient world, but by the time we get to the 15th century, they were massively condemned by the church. Male-male relationships were relatively well documented and condemned, however, female-female ones were less so. This is partly because in the end of the medieval and into the early modern period people had a different idea about what counted as “sex” – especially if didn’t include a penis.
Same-sex relationships had been condemned by the church for centuries, but they weren’t actually illegal until we go into the 1300s and 1400s. The Holy Roman church stomped down hard; and as a result it went from being legal to being a crime that resulted in the death penalty. Female-female sex could now result in execution, and in some places, like France, mutilation.
Generally, it was more geared towards prosecuting male-male relationships. In 1533, Henry VIII passed the Buggery Act which made all gay sexual activity punishable by death. Florence, in Italy, had a thriving gay culture, but in 1432 a group called the Officers of the Night was established, which aimed to root out “gay practices”. Between the year of their formation and 1502, around 17,000 people were charged with sodomy and about 3000 of these people were convicted for it.
Often disgust around gay sex was linked in with xenophobia and dislike of “foreignness” – the French called it the “Italian vice” during the 16th and 17th centuries; the “English vice” in the 18th century, “Oriental mores” in the 19th, and then the “German vice” from 1870 well into the 20th century.
Ideas about sexuality were linked to the body, which wasn’t often very well understood. There was the prevailing belief for instance, that the vagina was an inverted penis. Hermaphroditism became synonymous with same-sex desire; masturbation and female-female sex also had the same meaning in this time. Often everything was lumped under “sodomy” which could also include anal sex between a male and a female, oral sex and sex with an animal. You know, because all those things are so similar.
So, what were attitudes towards queer female sex?
Well, despite there being laws and authorised persecution from the church, for the most part, female-female sex seems to be, well, brushed under the carpet. There were of course examples where women were discovered and punished – in Germany, in 1477, for instance, nuns who “rode each other” and touched each others breasts had to do 40 days penance – but women were also likely to be punished for crimes adjacent to their sex lives. Take Mary Hamilton, for example, a woman labelled “the Female Husband” who dressed up as man to trick anywhere between 1 and 14 women, depending on which sources you read. She was arrested and put on trial after her wife confronted her (imagine that conversation) and was found guilty and punished accordingly – for fraud. The wife, Mary Price, tells the court about sexual activity, but Hamilton isn’t punished for this.
Very broadly speaking, female-female sex seems to have been seen as less problematic than male-male sex, and even, sometimes, heterosexual sexual relationships. There’s debate as to why, but historians have put forward several arguments including:
- Females can’t impregnate each other, so there’s no risk of either producing bastard children, or sneaking in your love-child as false heir to your husband’s wealth
- Because there’s no phallus involved, it wasn’t seen as “real” sex. As the proverb probably goes, “no cock = no coitus”.
- Sex was supposed to only be for producing children, which is why masturbation was also considered a BIG sin – because it spilt semen without any chance for it to become a child, which was a form of murder. Female-female sex doesn’t spill any semen, obviously, so maybe that’s why it was considered less sinful.
- Because really, who cares what women are doing if it’s not directly connected to a man? Women were secondary players in the world, maybe their sexuality was just overlooked.
However, this doesn’t mean that every turned a blind eye and that you had lots of happy gay sex happening around the town. Sadly.
In the cases of some famous (infamous) women, queer female sex was a salacious story to ruin their reputation – like Marie Antoinette. We don’t know if she did have sexual relationships with women, but the fact that this was used as a way to shock people and as a smear against her I think speaks volumes about where female-female sex sat in most people scales of acceptable behaviour i.e. dropping off the bottom.
We can also see various instances where female-female sex was punished much more harshly, because there was some kind of penetration involved. So as soon as dildos were involved, the punishment was ramped right up. Take the example of the nuns in 16th century Spain compared to the two I mentioned earlier – for using “material instruments”, these two were executed. It might be that Spain had harsher punishments overall, but there was definitely more concern and disgust when something penis-like entered the sexual equation.
Like much of the history of sexuality, attitudes towards female-female sex were confused. While there’s no doubt that it was condemned and punished, I thought I would find more about these aspects. Instead, I’ve found one mostly of silence and erasure – an experience that’s not so different now for many across the globe.
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