Donoghue, Emma. 1995. Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801. Harper Perennial, New York. ISBN 0-06-017261-4
A study of emotional, romantic, and sexual relationships between women in the English "long 18th century." A foundational work in the field.
Chapter 6: What Joys Are These?
The sex chapter!
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Here Donoghue considers the literature that addresses sexual activity between women. In contrast to some claims, there are a number of home-grown English texts in this period that address non-penetrative sexual activities between women, and during the 18th century there seems to have been a regular dialog between French and English writing in this vein, with works in one language rapidly appearing in translation in the other. The majority, to be sure, are written by men, and it can be difficult to distinguish to what extent they represent typical sexual practices of the time as opposed to male fantasies. When these texts are studied today, the lesbian material is often glossed over or ignored, adding to the impression that little, if any, actual sex was occurring. Donoghue approaches the material by way of several groupings: an older experienced woman attempting to seduce an innocent younger one, sexual activity presented as “frolicsome exploration”, the use of lesbian activities as an initiation preparing a young woman for marriage (or at least for heterosex), and sexual activity involving dildoes.
In the first motif, the young woman typically escapes with her innocence intact, if not her ignorance, from the attentions of a knowledgeable and predatory seducer. Often there is a running tension between the victim being portrayed as entirely unaware of what her seducer intends, and a sense of peril or guilt that requires an understanding of the possibilities.
In the classic gothic novel Pamela the title character, having fought off the advances of her male employer, finds herself the uneasy subject of similar attentions by her employer’s housekeeper Mrs. Jewkes while the two travel together. A running stream of physical compliments and casual embraces and kisses leave Pamela simultaneously claiming ignorance that another woman might be a sexual danger, while reacting to these otherwise friendly attentions with revulsion. Also interesting is that Mrs. Jewkes is described in a way that implies a specific orientation toward women, with one contemporary commenter on the novel noting “There are…too many who assume the Characters of Women of Mrs. Jewkes’s Cast. I mean Lovers of their own sex.” That is, the writer perceives that there is a “type” of woman who love women, and other women without the innate inclination can “assume the character” of this type.
The sexual shenanigans in Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782), in its original French or in English translation, focus mostly on heterosexual seduction and revenge, but there is a running thread where the Marchioness de Merteuil contemplates taking the innocent Cecile on as a “pupil” in love, taking advantage of opportunities to embrace her and expressing jealousy of the man she is setting up to seduce Cecile. Cecile, in her turn, expresses an attraction to the Marchioness that goes beyond innocent friendship, though she falls short of expressing a passionate response.
Previously mentioned has been the Memoirs of the Count de Grammont in which the “mannish” Mistress Hobart is presented in increasingly derisory terms as a predator on the young maids on honor who come under her care. In a series of three courtships, she is shown losing the object of her affections to men who are, when it comes down to it, equally or more predatory to herself. The third attempt is told in the greatest detail. She works on Mrs Temple’s love of praise and flattery (as well as her fondness for sweets, by which Temple is framed as childlike in her desires). Taking advantage of the need to change clothing and bathe after the two have gone riding together, Hobart embraces and undresses her but they are interrupted by the intrusion of a servant. Others put a word in Mrs. Temple’s ear about Hobart’s inclinations and reputation and the next time Hobart tries to take advantage of her, she responds as to a sexual assault.
Though the previous two stories don’t seem to take the activity much past kissing and embraces, Diderot’s novel La Religieuse (1796) takes things further, though Susan, the object of the predatory Mother Superior’s attention, goes beyond all believability in maintaining her ignorance of the sexual nature of those attentions. At the same time, her seducer seems bent on inducing some recognition or response from Susan, not merely taking advantage of her position for her own gratification.
When Susan is accused of having a “suspicious intimacy” with another nun and of enjoying improper desires, she protests that she doesn’t even understand what they could be talking about. It is after that incident (which primes the reader for the topic) that she comes under the authority of the Mother Superior who immediately fastens on Susan as her new favorite, giving her compliments and caresses and undressing her. Susan’s protestations of innocence/ignorance are undermined by the way she uses her influence over the Mother Superior to win concession and favors for others, by offering and allowing kisses and caresses.
There are two scenes (censored in the English translation) where a shared erotic encounter involving kissing bosoms and “squeezing all over the body” results in orgasmic swooning of both parties…which Susan still fails to recognize as sexual in nature. It isn’t until the Mother Superior is strongly pressuring Susanto admit her own erotic awareness that Susan finally recognizes an encounter together in bed as something in the category of sin. There follows much angst and finally a realization, at which point Susan flees the convent and immediately comes to a bad end.
Foolery from woman to woman
Texts that show sexual activity between women as more mutual often frame it as “play” that must ultimately be abandoned as unfulfilling or simply as preparation for heterosexual enjoyment. A typical example is Satyra Sotadica which takes the form of dialogues between two cousins: the married, experienced Tullia and the initially betrothed (later married) and innocent Octavia. At first, Tullia introduces Octavia to tribadism as a diverting pleasure to be enjoyed when men are not available or for fear of pregnancy. Although the practice is presented in contradictory terms as both orgasmic and unsatisfying, unnatural but universal, Tullia notes that, having herself been initiated in the practice in the context of an earlier friendship, she’s grown to prefer it to sex with her husband. They move on to manual stimulation and eventually to an even wider variety of “deviant” sexual practices that include their husbands as well.
A similar set of dialogues between two sexually involved nuns (Venus dans la Cloître 1683) is less daring, never going much beyond deep kissing and manual stimulation, but generally devolving into conversation rather than moving on to climax. (The more experienced of the two nuns also has male lovers.) A more exclusive sexual passion between women is described in the orientalist text The Indiscreet Toys in which a Sultan uses a magic ring that causes women’s vulvas to tell their own stories. To his surprise, two of the women of his court passionately desire each other and at the end of the narrative he “left them to entertain each other.”
The most famous of the “initiation” genre is Cleland’s Fanny Hill (1749) in which the sexual initiation of young Fanny by her fellow inmates at the brothel is among the tamer sexual activities in the book. Beginning with kissing and embracing, then “squeezing all over”, there is detailed description of caresses on the breasts and genitals, followed by digital stimulation to orgasm. But all this is in service to Fanny’s incipient career as a prostitute and she is portrayed as eagerly moving on to men.
The dildo tribe
Some writers seemed to feel that sex between women required a penis substitute, although the contexts where this motif appears generally downplay any emotional relationship between the women and focus on the dildo simply as a sex toy. There is also a strong theme in this genre of women finding the dildo inadequate or at least less satisfying than a man. In the Restoration play Sodom or the Quintessence of Debauchery, when the men of the court turn to homosexual pleasures, the ladies turn to using dildoes on each other in frustration. In the anonymous A New Atalantis for the Year One Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty-Eight a sexually voracious woman is served by her French dildo-wielding maid who, on proving inadequate to the challenge, brings in a willing footman to finish the job more organically.
Another variant that centers desire among women even when introducing a man into the scenario involves the motif of a man disguising himself as a woman to gain access to an exclusively lesbian woman who then, on pretense of using a dildo, has heterosex with her. These stories are often self-contradictory regarding whether the substitution is unnoticeable or whether men provide more pleasure.
Something more of a genuine romantic relationship between the women appears in A Treatise of Hermaphrodites (1718) where two young Italian women, having lost their suitors to death, set up a house together as inseparable companions and take turns pleasuring each other with a strap-on dildo. This idyllic life, however, is interrupted by a male suitor who, in order to gain access to their closed circle, disguises himself as a woman and seduces the object of his affection, after which he is revealed and she takes off with him.
A rather more lighthearted look at sex toys comes in the doggerel verse Monsieur Thing’s Origin: or, Seignior D---o’s Adventures in Britain, detailing the trials and tribulations of a French dildo’s visit to London. The poem, while sympathetic towards single women (or unsatisfied wives) who use the device, is more hostile toward those engaging in same-sex activities.
Group sex among women was not at all a common motif in this period, but adaptations of Juvenal’s Sixth Satire, which details a competition of tribadry between the ladies and courtesans of Rome, provide varying levels of detail in how such a thing might be imagined.
A thrilling joy, 'till then unknown
The chapter finishes with what may be the most positive portrayal of overt sexual desire between women: the anonymous poem An Epistle from Signora F_a to a Lady (1727) which offers praise and pleas from the author to her beloved, pledging devotion and faithfulness, and expressing a love that culminated in “that happy day when melting in each other’s arms we lay. With velvet kiss your humid lips I press’d, and rode triumphant on your panting breast.”