The photo above is one you may have seen before. It, and a collection of other photos from the Victorian and Edwardian eras have been collected together here, in 2012, as a tribute to 150 years of women’s history. It’s a lovely picture. I think most people enjoy the idea of looking at something like this and imagining the story behind it. And, it’s fun to try to glimpse a part of history that’s often hard to recover – the lives of women in same-sex relationships before those relationships were socially condoned, let alone celebrated. But, at the same time, it makes me uneasy. The woman who set up the initial collection of photos explains herself carefully, noting that we can’t always know whether women in photos like this – taken so long ago – would have understood themselves to be ‘lesbians’ in any modern sense.
As a medievalist, that’s an issue I encounter, intensified a hundredfold. You simply can’t say that a medieval woman was a lesbian, because sexuality was understood so differently. And – rather appallingly – you might very well find that same-sex desire was understood not as sexuality, but as a deviant and perverted desire amongst women to act like men.
I was thinking about this as I browsed through my news feed. And as I did, I was brought up short by an article in Everyday Feminism.
You may or may not know this site. Its premise is simple: it explains basic, intersectional feminist issues in clear, easy terms. I started following their feed a while ago, in the hope that I could get a sense of what people wanted to know when they started into feminism. Gradually, I’ve been getting more and more depressed, but today was a new low. This title just popped up in my timeline. “An Actual Answer to ‘Why is She Dating a Masculine Women Instead of Just Dating a Guy?‘”
I don’t mind admitting, this isn’t a question whose actual answer I have ever pondered. And it’s not really one of those questions that deserves a serious and lengthy reply. Women who date women do it because they like women. It’s worth noting, as an aside, that treating this as a legitimate question is yet another way of policing women’s activities: women are (implicitly) not entitled to date people just because they want to do that. They need to have Reasons. This is the logic your stalker uses when he asks you why you don’t want to go out with him.
So, strike one against Everyday Feminism.
I went on to read the beginning of the article itself. “Masculinity doesn’t belong to any one gender,” the author began, encouragingly. “Anyone can identify as masculine, masculine of center, or be masculine-presenting. That’s a fact.”
While I was temporarily amused by the idea of a ‘masculine of center’ identity – the Liberal Democrat of the gender studies world, surely the least sexy image ever to cross anyone’s mind – I did have a bigger problem here. We seemed to have gone from women who’re attracted to women, to something else. There is no particularly strong reason, so far as I can see, why certain characteristics should be read as ‘masculine’ rather than ‘lesbian’. Of course, not all lesbians are butch (this is the word I suspect the article figured might be a little tricky to use here). But then, not all men are butch either. And, you know, we are talking about women who’re attracted to women, I have this tiny clue that maybe ‘lesbian’ would be a more obvious term. Right?
Seemingly not. The article goes on to stress once again that this mysterious property that attracts some women to like other women is – amazingly! – the property not just of men, but also of women:
“Think of it this way: Masculinity is a universe, and we’re all stars. Some of us are shining brightly with masculinity, while others of us shine just a little bit in this respect, or not at all (but we sparkle elsewhere!).”
Aww. That’s sweet. Why do I feel as if this sentence should be accompanied by a discreet image of someone throwing blackout curtains over those lesbians in the corner? So that they can ‘sparkle elsewhere’ without distracting us from the masculinity, you know?
In a rather confused way, the article tries to square the circle it’s created. It acknowledges all sorts of good, well-intentioned, comforting things. Heterosexuality shouldn’t be seen as compulsory. We shouldn’t conflate gender and sexuality (true, but not really in evidence in that first paragraph!). Attraction is complex. And, most importantly, it acknowledges that ‘toxic masculinity’ is a real danger to women, and a bad thing for most men. And this is all good, and I think the author really did try here.
But I couldn’t help feeling incredibly depressed, all the same. Your basic History of Sexuality 101 will tell you that this idea of lesbianism as a form of masculinity is actually pretty old. Lesbians were defined not by who they were attracted to, but as defective men. And what the article refers to as ‘masculine-presenting’ lesbians were seen as predatory threats to other women, corrupting influences who tried to supplant men in women’s affections. More recently, and equally offensively, we have the idea of lesbianism as ‘curable’: a condition that just indicates the lack of ‘a good man’. Think a little bit about what this article is saying – ‘masculinity is for everyone, even the lesbians’ – and you’ll see that it’s basically the same message. Don’t be discouraged, ladies: you too can be attracted to the correctly-gendered attribute!
It has taken a very long time for society to begin to entertain the idea that women might be attracted to other women (and men to other men) not through some kind of deviancy or defectiveness, but for positive reasons: because they actually liked other women and wanted to be with them. This article takes a step back towards the 1920s, and in doing so, it erases something that is particular to women, labelling it as a form of masculinity (in some lesbians), or a form of attraction to masculinity (in some women who’re attracted to them).
Now, I don’t usually feel terribly qualified to write about sexuality, because it’s much less to do with my research area than feminism. But in this case, I sort of do know what I’m talking about. I’m attracted to masculine men and butch women, and, oddly enough, I don’t actually think they’re more or less the same. I feel sad that, increasingly, people seem to be embarrassed about using the word lesbian, preferring to use ‘queer’ or ‘gay’. That’s ok as a personal choice – but we do need to think about the history of these terms, how hard-won they are, and how difficult it has been for generations of women to talk about same-sex sexuality. Reducing this to an aspect of ‘masculinity’ shows both a disturbing lack of historical awareness, and a restrictive understanding of why women might be attracted to other women.
I’ve just seen this piece has been quoted on this site, and there’s a fair bit of traffic from them (thank you!). It occurred to me reading the comments that I’d obviously been a bit coy, as it’s not clear from the piece that I am writing as a bisexual woman, and a woman who doesn’t feel that all butch women are necessarily best described as ‘masculine’ (some are happy with that, but others aren’t, and I felt the original piece erased those important distinctions).
I hope that update makes things a little clearer, for people who’re coming to this newly.