This is a dissertation by Michele O’Mara, PhD on the topic of Sexual Frequency and Relationship Satisfaction Among Lesbians.
A BRIEF LOOK AT LESBIAN HISTORY
Today we understand a lesbian to be a woman whose primary emotional and sexual attractions are toward other women. However, if you rewind history by one century, the word lesbian slowly disappears from the American vocabulary. Does this mean that lesbian behavior did not exist before this noun was first recorded in 1925? This chapter will explore the history of lesbians in America. A solid understanding of the history of lesbians and the various stages of visibility, invisibility, oppression, and expression over the last two centuries enriches the understanding of this study’s research results.
It is thought that the word lesbian is derived from the home of Sappho, a historically notable resident of the Greek isle Lesbos in the 6th century BC. Sappho was a “great lyric poet whose erotic and romantic verse embraced women as well as men” (Harper 2001, 1). However, it is unlikely that women would have thought of themselves as lesbians in the way lesbians are understood today, which predated the term itself. There was no social context or prescribed meaning for these behaviors and for this type of sexual identity, thus the women experiencing these feelings were left to define what it meant for themselves.
The first notable appearance of lesbians in American culture appears to coincide with the development of all women’s colleges in 1837. These schools offered freedom and opportunity for lesbians who could afford an education. Wealthy young women could now go to school and leave behind the pressures associated with marriage and reproduction. According to Faderman, “while only ten percent of American women, in general, remained single between 1880 and 1900…fifty-seven percent of the Smith graduating class of 1884 never married” (1991, 14-15). Some went unwed because their education was viewed as a threat to men, while others never married because they preferred to maintain their school relationships with “kindred spirits” (Faderman 1991, 14-15).
The types of relationships that developed between women in these early years were considered to be romantic friendships. As Theophano notes, “women were often considered not to have strong sex drives—sex for them was supposedly a duty, and intended for procreation only—nothing was deemed wrong with women’s public displays of affection. Neither was their sharing households and even beds considered suspicious” (2004, 1).
When two women created a home together, without a male presence, their living arrangement was referred to as a Boston marriage. Though most historians have opted to exclude the romantic nature of these cohabiting friendships, it is unknown if, or how many of, these women were sexual with one another. Theophano believes that “it is very likely that some, if not all, of Boston marriage couples, were physically as well as emotionally involved.” She goes on to say that “Their love letters to each other often indicate a passion that could hardly be considered platonic” (2004, 1).
Boston Marriages were an outgrowth of the romantic friendships, and “for the career woman of the late 19th century, a time when female same-sex relationships were not yet widely stigmatized as ‘lesbian,’ such ‘marriages’ made sense” (Rothblum and Brehony 1993, 30). The women commonly found in Boston Marriages were career women, independent and self-sufficient; it made sense that they would live together, share meals, vacations, and all of their free time.
These relationships were viewed as acceptable by the mainstream society because it was assumed that women are sexually oriented to men only. Furthermore, a woman’s sexuality was viewed as a means for procreation, as well as an accessory to the needs of men. The notion that a woman would pursue sexual pleasure for the sake of personal pleasure was unheard of, let alone setting about this pursuit with another woman. Furthermore, there was no backdrop of homosexuality to which their behaviors could be compared. Homosexuality, as it is understood today, did not exist during this era of Boston Marriages.
Not only was there a lack of vocabulary to describe lesbians, but there was also no classification system for their sexual behavior and attractions, either. Without relevant language or a cultural context to codify these desires, it is difficult to know how the women in these relationships viewed their feelings and attractions for one another.
Love letters between women in these relationships “often indicate a passion that could hardly be considered platonic, and modern lesbian historians and writers have speculated that if members of Boston marriages were alive today, they would openly identify as a lesbian” (Theophano 2004, 1). However, what might be viewed as lesbian behavior when observed through a 21st-century lens could not have been viewed in the same way through a 19th-century lens. Even if the behaviors are similar, the perspective through which they were regarded is not.
Romantic friendships and Boston Marriages lost their innocuousness in the late 19th century when Havelock Ellis, a British physician, and psychiatrist, and a German sexologist named Magnus Hirschfeld began publishing works that categorized lesbian behaviors. Unfortunately, these early pioneers of sexuality identified lesbian behaviors as a medical illness, and ultimately lesbians were thought to be exhibiting a form of insanity (Faderman 1991). Women who were romantically involved with one another during this time came to be known as sexual inverts. This term reflects the belief that same-sex attractions indicated a defect, or deviance, and also implies a gender role reversal. According to Krafft-Ebing, female inverts were inclined to dress in more masculine attire and engage in more traditional male pursuits (Doan 2001). Sexual inversion was considered a class issue, and it was suggested that sexual inversion was the result of poor genetic breeding and poverty.
Particular emphasis was placed on the masculinity of these women, as well as on their rejection of the submissive role women were expected to play. This led to a perception that inverts were akin to a man trapped in a woman’s body, or as a “third sex.” According to Lisa Dugan, a lesbian was “a woman whose sexual deviance was marked primarily by feelings that distinguished her from the prostitute, criminal, primitive, or degraded female. Her difference was not cited in her sexual actions… but in her being, located in both body and psyche from which the telltale feelings arose” (Duggan 2000, 169).
The term “third sex” was used by various authors in the twentieth century, but its popularity was primarily due to Magnus Hirschfeld despite the fact he never used this concept in his scientific publications. Bauer states that, “for Hirschfeld, a third sexual alternative implied, in the last resort, the addition of a further ‘fiction’ to already fictitious categories, [but] its postulation never led him to revoke his fundamental insight that all human beings are intersexual variants” (2004, 2). Hirschfeld believed that all men and women are created on a continuum of inherently masculine and feminine characteristics and that the categories of male and female contrived by society were fictitious. Thus his intention in creating the concept of a third sex was to extend the absurdity of classifying gender at all, according to the idea that humans were created with the capacity to express either or both aspects of gender.
While the term sexual invert was certainly a repressive label, the unintended outcome of this classification system for sexual identity ultimately benefited gay men and lesbians. This label served as a basis for a shared identity, offering women the awareness that there were others–that she was not alone. Writings during this time, such as Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, clearly produced the notion that people could and did have sexual identities. Some men and women began to interpret their homosexual desires as a characteristic that distinguished them from the majority (D’Emilio and Freedman 1997). Two things happened as a consequence. Sexual identity became more visible to both the general population and to individuals with same-sex attractions, and gays and lesbians were stigmatized as deviant individuals.
Radclyffe Hall, an independently wealthy female who self-identified as an invert, wrote The Well of Loneliness in 1928. The Well of Loneliness is a lesbian novel that details the life of a lesbian, highlighting the belief that homosexuality is congenital. Her novel also suggested that lesbians are persecuted and unfairly treated by society. With direct references to sexual intimacy between women, including lines such as, “that night they were not divided,” the book was met with resistance despite the fact that the initial sales and reviews were successful (Hall 2005, 284). Hall blazed new and uncharted paths for other female writers of this era to treat sexuality in more vivid terms.
According to Glasgow (2002), Hall lived her lesbianism openly and proudly. She was convinced that her inversion was congenital, a concept she absorbed from the work of Havelock Ellis. In her forties, she began to dress in a style appropriate to her self-identification with the concept of the third sex, and she preferred to be called John. Her hair was close-cropped; she wore tailored jackets as well as flamboyant shirts. She also wore wide-brimmed hats and ties (Glasgow 2002).
The next major development in lesbian history came with World War I (WWI) which took place from 1914 to 1918. The increase of women in the workforce during WWI led to a small, working-class lesbian subculture. When young women would leave their families and move to cities for work, they could pair up with other women to save money on housing, and often would remain paired for long periods of time. This was the moment that a more social, more public lesbian subculture began to sprout.
When women would go out to socialize, one would often dress in men’s clothes and take the male role, emulating heterosexual couples. This led to the development of butch-femme roles. It is arguable that “during the period of the 1940s through the early 1960s, butches and femmes were easiest to recognize and characterize: butches with their men’s clothing, DA haircuts, and suave manners often found their more traditionally styled femme counterparts, wearing dresses, high heels, and makeup, in the gay bars” (Theophano 2004, 1).
Class differences were closely associated with gender role differences at the time. The more butch lesbians, or those who passed as males, were typically socially and economically lower class women. The romantic friendships between women that were not marked by butch-femme roles, however, were predominately found between upper class, white women (Vicinus 1993).
WWII took enormous amounts of women out of homes, into the workforce, and into the service. This brought new freedom to women who were previously tethered to their hometowns and domestic responsibilities that centered on the needs of men and children. It also provided greater access to large groups of women in the workplace. Unlike during WWI, these women entering the workforce and the service were not sheltered by the innocence of romantic friendships. Terms like romantic friendship and Boston Marriage were no longer used.
Following WWII, the military became less lenient in their policies toward homosexuals, and as Faderman shares, “thousands of homosexual personnel were loaded on ‘queer ships’ and sent with ‘undesirable’ discharges to the nearest U.S. port such as New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Boston” (1991, 126). Ironically, the government helped facilitate the creation of a gay community. Once these men and women were dishonorably discharged to cities; they simply set up their lives in the larger cities rather than returning home with the stigma of a dishonorable discharge for homosexuality. The concentration of larger groups of gays and lesbians in these cities then led to the development of the gay bar.
The development of gay bars served to further define the gender roles of butch and femme among lesbians. This provided cover to women who could pass as male, leading others to believe they were heterosexual couples. It also clarified roles about who would lead when dancing, which translated into other roles related to gender that were commonplace at the time.
Eventually, the mental health field inserted itself, offering up an image of lesbians as “sicko’s” (Faderman 1991, 130). Frank Caprio, described by Faderman in quotes as a “lesbian expert,” asserted that lesbians were unable to attain true happiness, and were not only a menace to society; but a harm to themselves as well. Sadly, the definition of lesbianism was sourced primarily from the records of patients in need of mental health care, which Faderman compares to “defining heterosexuality through divorce court records” (1991, 132).
According to Faderman, in the years between 1947 and 1950, “4,954 men and women were dismissed from the armed forces and civilian cities for being homosexual” (1991, 140). This was followed by a witch hunt instigated under the leadership of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who sought to root out all of the lesbians and gay men in the American Armed Forces. In turn, this encouraged gay men and lesbians to pair up and present themselves as heterosexual couples and hid the truth from their parents (1991). Similar to the introduction of classifications by early sexologists, this persecution of gays and lesbians inadvertently assisted gays and lesbians in creating an identity and increased self-awareness about their sexual identity.
The 1950s and 60s were marked by various subcultures of lesbians that were distinguished primarily by class and age. Unlike other minorities, lesbians did not have a shared history or geography. Without these, it was a struggle to find communities of like women. Then came softball. Working class lesbians in the 50s and 60s developed softball teams, some of which were all-lesbian, others that were predominantly heterosexual with a few lesbians. Many lesbians formed teams and also attended the games which were forming all over the country. Gay bars were still a key part of the subculture, though these were frequently visited by undercover agents seeking to support a “vigorous new campaign against bars catering to homosexuals” (Faderman 1991, 164).
Without models to fashion their relationships after, lesbians were left to mirror what they saw transpiring between heterosexuals. This further reinforced butch and femme roles within lesbian relationships. These roles eventually developed into a social structure for lesbians and, similar to the heterosexual structure, butches found an affinity with other butches and the femmes with femmes. According to Faderman, in some parts of the country butches and femmes were called masons and orders or butch and Marge. Their paths would only cross for romantic purposes, much like the paths of heterosexual males and females during that generation.
Wealthy lesbians did not tend to adopt the same butch and femme roles in public and were also less likely to follow this pattern in their love lives. In fact, Faderman reports that these women “seem sometimes to have found butch/femme roles and dress aesthetically repulsive” (1991, 175). Eventually, a clash between these groups formed, as “a good deal of hostility developed between those who did and did not conform to roles.” In fact, Faderman explains, “Butches and femmes laughed at middle-class ‘kiki’ women for their ‘wishy-washy’ self-preservation” (1991, 179). Kiki was the name used to describe the gender pairings of two femme partners or two butch partners.
In this fractious atmosphere, the first all-lesbian organization was founded in the early 1950s by a lesbian couple, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, called the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB). The aim of this San Francisco based club was to fill the role of a social club outside of the gay bar setting. Shortly after developing, the club expanded its interests to include righting the wrongs of their persecution and oppression. This was the start of political and social organizing for lesbians, and the DOB expanded to include chapters in other cities. Ultimately the DOB dissolved in the 70s as the feminist movement gained momentum. Leaders and members of the DOB felt equally conflicted about whether they should maintain a lesbian focus or expand the group’s function to include women’s issues.
Entertainment during this era included such lesbian-themed movies as Lilith in 1964. The movie relates the story of a lesbian affair between two patients of a mental institution, which ends after one of the partners is rescued from her lesbianism by a man, played by Warren Beatty, with whom she also has sex. This was followed in 1968 by The Fox, a movie chronicling another doomed lesbian couple. The Fox, however, drew more explicit attention to the sexual nature of the lesbian couple’s relationship. Also during this time, Jane Rule wrote the book Desert of the Heart, which later provided loose inspiration for the popular lesbian film, Desert Hearts.
During the transitional time between the 1960s and 70s, America entered an age of sexual experimentation and openness which contributed to greater activism among gays and lesbians. In 1969, the Stonewall Riot erupted between patrons and police when a gay bar in Greenwich Village, called the Stonewall Inn, was raided. This era of sexual experimentation and openness also precipitated an increase in feminist activism and the creation of organizations such as the National Organization of Women (NOW). This brought lesbians further into public awareness, but the focus on feminism drove a wedge between gay men and lesbians. Women of all sexual orientations joined together in opposition of the oppressive nature of gender roles, expressed in part by their judgment of the ‘violent, self-destructive world of the gay bars,’ and the ‘imitation role stereotypes of a ‘butch’ and ‘femme” in the gay community (Faderman 1991, 212).
In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). From the inception of the DSM in 1952, homosexuality topped the list of “deviant sexuality” which included behaviors such as pedophilia, sexual assault, and mutilation. The removal of homosexuality from the DSM liberated gay men and lesbians from the threat of being institutionalized for their same-sex attractions and relationships.
This same year the women’s music label, Olivia Records, came onto the scene, lesbian author Rita Mae Brown published her semi-autobiographical book titled Rubyfruit Jungle. Then came women’s music festivals, which were laced with political overtones, and women’s presses with newspapers, magazines, and lesbian-feminist book publishing houses designed to speak to lesbians. Chenier sums it up well with, “Lesbian feminism had a tremendous impact on the personal and political experiences of more than one generation of women. In 1972 a woman could be institutionalized for having sex with another woman; by 1973 she could buy lesbian records, read lesbian books, and attend women-only lesbian events” (2004, 3).
The 70’s also included the development of grassroots advocacy organizations such as the Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Lambda Legal, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights. These organizations are still going strong today, and along with many others, they began laying the groundwork for change long before the results of their efforts were as obvious as they are today.
Cultural feminists entered the stage in the 80’s with a growing awareness of lower sex drives between women which were broadcast in the book American Couples. Research by Schwartz and Blumstein regarding the sexual frequency of four main couple dyads (married heterosexuals, cohabitating heterosexuals, gay male couples, and lesbians) was published in 1983, revealing that lesbians have the least amount of sex of any of the four couple dyads. This news was coming at a time that cultural feminists believed “lesbians should permit themselves only sexual interests that reflect superior female ideas” (Faderman 1991, 250). This meant the rejection of any images of domination, control, and violence, as these were viewed as sexual stimuli for men. Meanwhile, as feminists were downplaying the role of sexuality, a group of sexual radicals were “encouraging lesbian interest in pornography and even strip shows and certain forms of violent (albeit consensual) sex, [as] cultural feminists felt betrayed and furious” (Faderman 1991, 255).
On the other hand, the lesbian sexual radicals “criticized the cultural feminists for reinforcing traditional concepts of gender instead of encouraging women to try to gain new access to what has historically been the main bastion of male privilege—freewheeling sexuality” (Faderman 1991, 252). The period of time between 1980 and 1990 is often characterized as a “battle between ‘pro-sex’ and ‘anti-sex’ forces, but arguments over how to address problems of sexual violence and oppression, while at the same time giving consideration to female sexual pleasure and autonomy, were much more complex than such labels suggest” (Chenier 2004, 1).
New behaviors around s/m were adopted from gay men, one of which was wearing a handkerchief to signify dominance or submissiveness, as well as wearing leather to signify a preference for s/m. Casual sex, lesbian strip shows, lesbian sex films, burlesque shows, porno magazines, and lesbian personal ads were all influenced in the 80s by lesbian sexual radicals. Unfortunately, just as the cultural feminists were making progress toward liberating the sexuality of women, AIDS was introduced to the United States and served to change the entire culture’s view of sexual freedom and experimentation.
The 80s introduced musicians Melissa Etheridge and KD Lang with their androgynous look to the popular music scene, though neither came out publically during this time. In 1983 Personal Best, a lesbian-themed love story starring Mariel Hemmingway, hit the theaters, offering audiences a front-row view of lesbian love.
With the divorce rate increase in the 70s, single parent homes became more commonplace in the 80s. This opened a door for lesbians to entertain thoughts of parenthood. While this was unthinkable for generations before, the numerous sperm banks created in the 80s for heterosexual couples created a new pathway for lesbians to create families without involving a man. With increasing numbers of lesbians giving birth to or adopting children, the image of lesbians as moms added a newer, more relatable dimension to lesbians. To mainstream society, what it meant to be a lesbian was unknown. What it meant to be a mom was familiar. Even though lesbian parenting was, and in many cases still is, discouraged by the general public, the additional mom role allowed more non-gay people to get to know more lesbians, unifying the two groups through the shared language of parenthood.
Though the first same-sex marriage case was filed in 1970 shortly after the Stonewall riots, it was denied, detouring future effort for same-sex marriage for another twenty years. The 90s are marked by a new focus on gay marriage, with both supporters and oppositional forces dedicating much energy to the issue. In 1996 the US Congress preemptively passed a law that defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman. This was titled the Defense of Marriage Act and is commonly known as DOMA. While progress toward marriage equality may have been delayed by this act, it did not prevent movement toward the protection of lesbian relationships.
The 90s was a decade of unprecedented visibility for gays and lesbians. Athletes like tennis star Martina Navratilova and diver Greg Louganis joined musicians like K. D. Lang, George Michael, and Melissa Etheridge in the risk to go public about their sexual orientation. The risk proved worthwhile for some, as “Etheridge’s spontaneous decision to come out publicly received press coverage but had no adverse effect on her career. Two months after the announcement she won her first Grammy” (Rapp 2002, 2). The big screen presented audiences with gay characters on a regular basis throughout the 90s, too. Most of the characters were male and conformed to exaggerated stereotypes of gay men in films such as Philadelphia, Birdcage, In and Out, and My Best Friend’s Wedding.
Television was another source of increasing visibility for lesbians in the 90s. In 1997 Ellen DeGeneres came out on her sitcom Ellen, and then Will & Grace premiered in 1998, running for a total of eight seasons. The increasing visibility of gays and lesbians was difficult for some to tolerate. Even children’s shows were the target of criticism. In 1999 Rev. Jerry Falwell cautioned parents that the purple Teletubby named Tinky Winky was gay and that this could be damaging to their children’s moral lives (Rapp 2002).
Currently, twenty-one states plus the District of Columbia offer some level of rights to same-sex couples, with nearly half of these providing state-issued marriage licenses. However, the struggle for relationship equality is still far from the finish line. Without the federal support of same-sex marriage, which the current administration does not endorse, lesbian couples are left without some of the most important benefits available. These include social security benefits for surviving partners and other tax benefits available to heterosexual spouses.
Progress in the 21st century for lesbians seems to be building on the momentum of this growing visibility. According to a CBS News Poll analysis, in 2010 seventy-seven percent of people knew someone gay or lesbian. In 1992, just twenty years ago, only forty-two percent of people knew someone gay. People fear what they do not know. The greater the visibility is for lesbians, the greater acceptance lesbians experience.
While lesbians are still struggling for equality, both as women and as lovers of women, it is fair to say that today’s lesbian has privileges and protections that extend leaps and bounds beyond those of her 19th and 20th-century sisters. This is not to suggest that homophobia, or the fear of homosexuality, is not still alive in the United States. Current signs of homophobia are visible in conservative politics that reject homosexuality as a viable relationship option and oppose marriage equality as well as other important legislation in favor of gays and lesbians. There are religions that espouse the dangers of homosexuality as sin and seek to repair these character flaws through prayer and behavior change programs called reparative therapy. Reparative therapy is a strongly debated form of therapy used to convert self-identified homosexuals to heterosexuals. This type of therapy is not supported by most major counseling associations such as the American Counseling Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Psychiatric Association. Some families reject their lesbian daughters and sisters, and there have been cases of teenaged bullies driving their gay and lesbian peers to take their own lives.
There is hope with every new generation of young people that times are changing. The majority of prime time television shows now have a gay or lesbian character whose sexual orientation is nothing more than a backdrop to the story, rather than the story itself. Women are now openly lesbian in various public capacities as politicians, executives, doctors, entertainers, athletes, musicians, lawyers, teachers, moms, neighbors, friends, and even strangers. Laws exist to protect same-sex parents in some states with second-parent adoptions, and it is legal to get married in other states. Rather than risking admission to a mental institution, many lesbians are now employed by such institutions.
With an expanded understanding of lesbian history in America, it is easy to understand how the sexuality of lesbians might come with some baggage. It is clear that each era brought important new developments for the growth of lesbians in our culture. Through the romantic friendships and the Boston Marriage, early lesbians unknowingly set the stage for what would soon become the modern lesbian relationship. Ironically, they experienced more acceptance than any generation to follow, yet it appears they may not have experienced the inclusion of a sexual relationship, or if they did, they kept it hidden.
In conclusion, the post- WWII era introduced lesbians to one another and gave rise to shared lesbian communities, organizations, and politics. Lesbians were learning how to establish lives together, socialize, and gather thanks to gay bars. While this era was not marked by a strong focus on sexuality, it, too, was an important part of lesbian history.
Finally, the 70’s was the era during which lesbian sexuality seemed to slowly grow into the collective consciousness of lesbianism. At last, came an era where sexual experimentation and exploration was encouraged. Then, once lesbian sex became a hotly debated topic among pro-sex and anti-sex feminists, AIDS arrived on the scene, dampening the emphasis on sexual freedom and experimentation. Around the same time, researchers Schwartz and Blumstein drew attention to the paucity of sex between lesbians in their book American Couples, and the world was introduced to the notion that lesbian relationships were devoid of sex.
While research about lesbian sexuality suggests that lesbians have not gained much ground in their sexual relationships over the last decade as it relates to perceptions of sexual frequency, this author suggests that lesbian sexuality is in its infancy when considered as part of the larger history of lesbians and women’s sexuality in general. For centuries men have not only been expected to be sexual, they have been encouraged and applauded for their sexual prowess. Conversely, women have been sheltered from talk of sex and taught that it’s not a ladylike topic of discussion. Women have been shamed for experimenting sexually and labeled as promiscuous rather than applauded for their conquests. Though much progress has been made for women’s sexuality, it is important to keep the whole picture in perspective by grounding it in its history.
With a sufficient introduction to the American lesbian and her roots, it is time to consider the research on which this paper is based. The next chapter will introduce the research study and describe the survey, the population studied, and the demographics of study participants.