The purpose of tags is to make information relatively easy to find. The topics covered under “misc. tags” are a combination of themes that guided my choice of publications to cover, and themes that emerged from those publications This essay is intended to explain briefly how the “misc.” tags are being used.
The second purpose is to provide a tag list that the visitor can use to explore the site. For the purpose of exploration, this "miscellaneous" tag group has three main categories, each with several subcategories:
- Identity, Sex, and Gender
- Vocabulary terms
- Topics relating to sex and physical affection
- Topics relating to gender identity and presentation
- Households, Relationships, and Groups
- Topics relating to household structure and living situations
- Topics relating to personal relationships and social status
- Topics relating to group identity, including occupations
- Medical Topics and Specific Genres
- Topics relating to a medicalized understanding of sexuality
- Specific genres of source material not otherwise covered
Within the European tradition, there are several sets of vocabulary with a long history that specifically refer to women who engage in sex with other women.
Greek and Latin
- hetairistriai - (Greek) This is a word with much-debated nuances. The root is hetaira, one of the ancient Greek words for a prostitute, but typically more in the sense of a courtesan, i.e., a cultured professional woman who provided companionship both intellectual and sexual. The derived form hetairistriai has its earliest surviving appearance in Plato’s Symposium in the mythic story of how humans were originally dual-bodied creatures--some formed of male and female, some of two males, some of two females--and that desire is based on trying to unite with one’s “other half”. Hetairistriai (the plural) were women descended from a female-female pair, and who therefore were inclined to prefer women to men. The word appears in other Greek and Latin texts in the context of women with same-sex desires.
- fricatrix - (Latin) Literally “a woman who rubs”. The “-trix” ending is the grammatically feminine equivalent of the suffix “-tor” commonly seen in Latin vocabulary indicating an occupation or role. (E.g., actor, senator) The root “fric-” is the same one we see in “friction”. A variety of words meaning “to rub” are found to label lesbian activity, testifying to the general knowledge of one common sexual technique. There are occasional examples in English of the word rubster being used in the same sense, possibly as a direct translation rather than an independent invention.
- tribade - (Greek origin) “One who rubs.” Tribade is actually the English version of the word, taken from Latin tribas, which in turn was taken from the Greek verb tribein. See also tribadism for the activity. A variety of words meaning “to rub” are found to label lesbian activity, testifying to the general knowledge of one common sexual technique.
- lesbian - (Greek origin) A person from the Isle of Lesbos. The adoption of this term for a female homosexual is inarguably due to the association with Sappho, however the path has a few tangles. Greek comedic writers of the 5th c BCE used the word to indicate a sexually assertive (heterosexual) woman, especially one who practiced oral sex. One sometimes hears mistaken claims that the use of lesbian for sexual orientation is a modern invention. The earliest suviving use clearly indicating homosexuality is from Lucian in the 2nd century CE. Byzantine commentaries of the 10th c on the 2nd c religious writings of Clement of Alexandria directly equate lesbian and tribas. The earliest known use in English in this sense is in the 1730s.
- Sapphic/sapphist - (Greek origin) This tag is used for the vocabulary terms, but see also Sappho in the Person/Event Tag category. The association of the ancient Greek poet Sappho with female same-sex desire has been a theme more or less since her lifetime. The popularity of vocabulary taken from her name has varied with her place in popular culture. Revival of interest in her poetry beginning in the 15th century (including translations of her works into vernacular languages and poets working in imitation of her themes) marks the beginning of these terms as common vocabulary for lesbians.
Non-European languages and cultures
- sahq - (Arabic) From a root meaning “to grind”, there are a number of vocabulary items in this group referring variously to persons or activities. The Arabic root may also have been borrowed into other vernacular languages with similar meaning and use.
- zarîfa/tharifa - (Arabic) “Witty,” also in other variants of the word. This might be classed as a euphemism or slang. According to some medieval Arabic texts, women would refer to each other as “witty” to imply sexual interest in women, but it was also part of a broader cultural understanding of an interest in a sophisticated and sensual lifestyle.
- mustergil - (used in Iraq, I haven’t confirmed language of origin) More properly a transgender term than a lesbian one. A person assigned female at birth who adopts a masculine gender role, although not necessarily accepted socially as a man.
- sakhi - (Sanskrit?) - A term used in medieval Indian mystical texts for the role of a female friend who assists in the relationship to a (male) god or other male figure. Not a term implying lesbian sexuality but one that often covers deep emotional bonds. (To the best of my knowledge the superficial resemblence to the Arabic sahq is coincidental.)
Later slang terms
- donna con donna - (Italian?) Literally “woman with woman.” Used by the 16th c French writer Brantôme for sex between women, but also more generally. Something of a polite euphemism.
- Tommy - (English) It isn’t often that the origins (or at least early roots) of slang terms can be identified unambiguously. By function, slang is often meant to be ambiguous, enabling the user to suggest without being explicit. We can’t know how much earlier the slang Tommy was in use, but an English satiric poem of 1773 “The Adulteress” states “Woman with woman act the Manly part and kiss and press each other to the heart...I know a thousand Tommies ‘mongst the sex.” (The full poem makes it clear that sexual activity is included.)
- game of flats - (English) As with Tommy, an 18th century text provides undeniable evidence for this phrase meaning “women having sex together.” The 1749 polemic Satan’s Harvest Home has a section entitled “The Game of Flats” which goes into sufficient detail to make the meaning clear.
- Boston marriage - (English) A 19th century term, chiefly used in the USA, for two unmarried women who shared a household. There was an understanding that they were likely to be “romantic friends” but that understanding did not necessarily assume a sexual relationship and while “Boston marriage” might carry a sense of satire, it wasn’t an accusation of improper behavior.
Sex and Physical Affection
Overt sexual activity
In general, these tags will be used when sexual activity is an explicit part of the discussion, not simply when it is implied. The most general tag is sex between women, but when more specific activity is mentioned that will also be tagged.
- oral sex - References to oral sex between women. This topic is relatively uncommon in historic literature.
- dildo - References to the use of an artificial penis for sexual pleasure, either as a solo activity (when mentioned in the general context of lesbianism) or used by two women, including as part of gender disguise. The use of dildos, especially by one woman on another, was a major focus of sexual anxiety in Western history. There were two general motivations for this anxiety. In some views, only penetration was “real sex” and therefore the use of a dildo was the dividing line between “harmless” activity and transgressive activity. And the use of a dildo between two women was considered the violation of gender boundaries, not simply sexual ones.
- female sodomy - Entire articles have been written on how historic writers interpreted “sodomy” in the context of women. As used, it could mean any non-procreative sexual activity (including heterosexual activities). In general, I’ve only used this tag when the phrase is used to indicate sex between women of any type.
- green sickness - Green sickness was considered a genuine medical syndrome in certain times and places, being the result of unsatisfied female sexual desire. Medical manuals sometimes prescribed masturbation or manual stimulation by another woman as a cure.
- penetration - Many discussions of sexual transgressions by women (both in a homosexual or heterosexual context) revolve around whether penetration is involved. This emphasis on penetrative sex as being more significant than other activities had a significant impact on what types of lesbian activity were stigmatized.
- sex between women - This tag is used for any general discussion of erotic physical activity between women or one where more specific terms are not mentioned.
- sexual techniques - This tag is used for any discussion of specific techniques for erotic stimulation. See also specific techniques.
- tribadism - This tag is used for any discussion of sexual stimulation by rubbing vulvas together, or more generally by rubbing of the genitals, even if the specific word is not used.
In many cases, of course, physical displays of affection were not intended or interpreted as having erotic significance. In general, entries will be tagged with one of these where the activity is understood as indicating a romantic or erotic bond.
- chin-chuck gesture - This is a conventionalized gesture in Western art begining in Classical times that is always understood to have romantic or erotic implications. It involves one person holding the chin of the other person in one hand. (See the LHMP logo for an example.) A variant may simply be one person touching the other’s cheek.
- embracing - References to holding another person closely in the arms (whether or not in bed) where there are romantic or sexual implications from context. Note that depictions or descriptions of embracing may indicate a wide variety of interpersonal relationships and cannot be assumed to be romantic/sexual.
- kissing - The act of kissing (whether both persons press their lips together or whether one kisses some other body part such as the hand) has a much wider range of meanings in history than modern interpretation. Kisses could be used as a gesture of subission, as the sealing of an agreement, or to reflect non-romantic/erotic social bonds. Therefore the interpretation of kissing as indicating a romantic or erotic interaction usually requires understanding of the specific historic, social, and symbolic context.
- physical affection (general) - This tag is used when a general or mixed discussion of physical affection is mentioned in the context of romantic or erotic bonds.
- female impregnation - A rare, but intriguing motif is that of sexual activity between women resulting in pregnancy for one of them. The context may be attributed to transfer of sperm remaining from a previous heterosexual encounter or may fall more in the category of sympathetic magic with divine assistance.
- sexual/romantic desire - This tag is used broadly when there is discussion of erotic or romantic desire between women, whether or not specific activities are mentioned.
Gender Presentation and Identity
This set of tags will cover a great deal of the ambiguous territory between sexual orientation and gender identity. Keep in mind that the purpose of this project is not to define the identity of any specific historic or literary figure, but to cast a very broad net over presentations and activities that contain space for lesbian-like potential.
- cross-dressing - Any context where an individual wears clothing that is socially designated for a different gender than the one they are assigned. The tag includes instances where clothing is used as an overt symbol rather than an overall presentation.
- cross-gender roles/behavior - Any context where a person engages in actions or fulfills a social role that is socially designated for a different gender than the one they are assigned. This may be a covert part of an overall presentation or may be in open contradiction to their assigned gender.
- gender disguise f>m - Gender disguise is a major context for exploring homoerotic potential in literature and was a significant tool for establishing same-sex partnerships in real life examples. The most common version is a female-assigned person who presents as male and has access to a male role in relation to a woman. Not all such partnerships may have included sexual activity, but many demonstrably did. Literary examples generally indicate whether the disguise is meant to be situational or is meant to signal transgender identity. Real life examples are rarely clear on this point, due to the legal and social pressures and consequences, and therefore the likely distortion of self-reported motivations.
- gender disguise m>f - In contrast to the f>m version of gender disguise, literary or historic examples of a male-assigned person presenting as female to engage in a relationship with a woman generally focus on themes of deceit. That is, the disguise is intended to circumvent social barriers to male access to women who are not their wives. If the female partner is unaware of the disguise, there may be a homoerotic subtext if she experiences desire for someone she believes to be female.
- transgender identity - I’ve used this tag to indicate entries where there is clear evidence suggesting a transgender identity or, in fantastic literature, where an actual physical sexual transformation takes place as the resolution to an apparent same-sex bond.
- similarity - One of the motifs that fluctuates regularly across cultures and times is whether people are expected to feel romantic or erotic desire based on similarity or difference. During periods when desire is associated with similarity, there may be greater acceptance of romantic friendships between women or of passionate expressions of love and friendship betwen them.
- transvestite saints - This tag identifies the specific hagiographical motif of women taking on male disguise in order to enter monastic life, especially stories set in the early Christian period when female monastic institutions were not prevalent.
- Female Cabin Boy - This tag indicates a specific literary motif where a woman takes on male disguise to take up a nautical profession. The motif shades more generally into disguise for any sort of martial profession. Although stories and songs employing this motif may tease at homoerotic potential (both ff and mm) there is almost always a clearly heterosexual resolution.
- trouser roles - This is a technical term for a female actor portraying a male character on stage. It includes both roles that are more typically played by male actors, and ones that are specifically designed to be filled by female actors. The overt nature of this type of cross-dressing provided an acceptable context for women spectators to experience erotic attraction to other women.
Households and Living Situations
This group covers living situations that provide evidence for close relationships between women, situations that were historically associated with the potential for those relationships, or situations that a modern author might find useful for situating a story about lesbian characters.
- bed-sharing - In many eras and cultures, same-sex bed-sharing was completely ordinary and even expected, not only among family members, but perhaps by employer and servant, and certainly by close friends. In these cultures, sharing a bed carried no implication of engaging in erotic activity. But conversely, this practice created a context where erotic activity could take place with little notice or comment.
- co-burial - In many cultures, it is standard practice for spouses to be buried together after death and to share a memorial marker. In this context, the occasional practice of same-sex pairs being buried together accompanied by symbols or text usually associated with marriage may indicate social acceptance of a marriage-like bond between them.
- female co-habitation - Sharing a household is not a pre-condition for participation a close same-sex romantic or erotic relationship, but cultures which normalized co-habitation by unrelated women created a context where such relationships could be more easily accommodated.
- female head of household - One of the strongest barriers for women trying to establish a permanent, stable partnership could be a social or economic necessity to be part of a male-headed household. This tag identifies discussions of the times, places, and circumstances in which female-headed households existed, and in some cases were considered unremarkable.
- homosocial environments/communities - There were many different reasons and contexts where people interacted and socialized primarily with their own gender. These ranged from entirely single-sex communities, such as some religious institutions, to single-sex schools, to simply a strong differentiation between the everyday activities of men and women that resulted in separation. In such contexts, it was often considered typical (though not always desirable) for individuals to form strong emotional same-sex bonds.
- monastic communities - Monastic communities are a special case of homosocial (single-gender) environment. They were often a focus of anxiety around the potential for close same-sex emotional bonds, both within the community and from those hostile to it.
- Turkish harems - European contact with the gender-segregated institution of the harem in Ottoman Turkey, beginning around the 16th century, led to a fascination with the potential for female same-sex eroticism. This combined with a preference for “othering” lesbian activity both in time and space.
- women’s communities - Both in literature and life, women-only communities created a focus for speculation on (or the experience of) romatic or erotic attraction between women. This tag includes not only formal single-sex institutions such as convents, but de facto ones such as women’s charitable organizations, or fictitious ones such as amazon societies or separatist utopias.
Relationships and Status
This group of tags focuses on specific types of relationships between women, across a whole spectrum from marriage to friendship and mentorship. In general, a relationship will be tagged if there is a strong emotional component that is not familial, or if the relationship is one that, between opposite sex participants, would be considered romantic.
Marriage and marriage-like relationships
- marriage between women - This tag is used for any occasion where two female (or assigned-female) persons entered into marriage, whether or not both were aware of the other’s identity.
- female husband - This tag is used for occasions when two female (or assigned-female) persons entered into marriage with one passing as male to the rest of society.
- dextrarum iunctio - (Latin) This phrase “joining right hands” indicates an action or the artistic representation of that action that represents entering into a marriage under Roman law. A formal depiction of two women with joined right hands could reasonably be understood as indicating a marriage-like relationship.
- marriage resistance - In cultures where heterosexual marriage was normalized, the act of resisting marriage was sometimes considered a sign or a possible consequence of close emotional bonds between women.
This group of tags covers circumstances where no formal marriage-like relationship exists but the outward forms of courtship are seen, or there are behaviors that would be considered romantic for an opposite-sex couple.
- emotional/romantic bonds between women - This is a very general tag for any circumstance where specific emotional bonds are established between a pair of women.
- romantic friendship - Romantic friendship refers to a specific set of behaviors and social circumstances, largely confined to the 17-19th centuries, where close and intensely emotional “friendships” between women were normalized by society and even considered expected or desirable. Romantic friendships were generally considered not to preclude heterosexual marriage although they were often seen in conflict with it.
- love poetry - I have tagged as “love poetry” any poetic expression written by a woman (or in a woman’s voice) to a woman that would be considered love poetry if written between an opposite sex couple.
- predatory lesbian - In the 18-19th centuries, and possibly earlier, the recognition of the potential for female same-sex desire was sometimes depicted in the form of an agressive, “predatory” lesbian expressing desire for a “normal” woman.
Close non-romantic relationships
- female comrades/friends - There is sometimes a fuzzy overlap between the depiction of bonds of friendship and bonds with romantic overtones. This tag identifies topics where the friendship interpretation is stronger but where the recognition of the importance of female friendship allows space for stronger feelings. This tag is distinguised from the “friendship” tag by the presence of a couple-like relationship but without romantic elements.
- female mentors - There is a regular theme over time, expressed in a number of different ways, where same-sex erotic relationships (both male and female) exist within the power differential of a mentor-student relationship. This tag also covers some situations where a close non-familial mentorship bond exists between women without erotic overtones when other circumstances make it relevant to the purpose of this Project.
- friendship - This tag covers general themes of friendship between women when the context is relevant to the purpose of this Project.
Occupations, Activities, Organizations
This is a rather random grouping of tags that have in common referring to some identifiable subset of women whose common feature has at some time been associated with the themes of this Project, though not necessarily with love or desire between women. Alternatively, the tag identifies some social or economic issue that is relevant to women’s relationships with each other. I haven’t tried to give these subgroupings.
- amazons - Although Classical Greek stories of the amazons don’t necessarily associate them with same-sex love, amazon figures in medieval and renaissance literature were often a context for romantic gender-confusion plots.
- class issues - This tag identifies themes where class difference is a significant factor in a relationship between women.
- courtesans - A courtesan is a professional companion, typically educated and sophisticated, whose duties may include sex. It was a regular motif that courtesans might sometimes have female clients, or that they might enjoy sexual relationships with women as a change from “work.”
- economic independence - This theme is not specifically associated with lesbians historically, but for the purposes of the Project is is useful to identify historic and social contexts in which economically independent women were not unusual.
- education - Education is a regular theme around lesbian-like figures, either as a homosocial context or as a context for escaping a normative life.
- female warrior ballads - The central characters in this literary genre may be passing as men or simply stepping outside a normative gender role. In the former case, they may hint at the potential for same-sex desire.
- inheritance by women - As with economic independence, this theme is not specifically associated with lesbians historically, but for the purposes of the Project is is useful to identify historic and social contexts in which economically independent women were not unusual.
- literary heroine - This tag somewhat inconsistently identifies lesbian-like figures who feature as protagonists. I’ve tended to use this more for pre-modern literature than novels of the modern period.
- martial activity - I’ve included this tag not simply because women engaged in martial activities are inherently gender-transgressive, but also because the motif is popular when writing historic or fantasy fiction about nonconforming women.
- prostitutes - Like courtesans, prostitutes sometimes had a reputation for turning to other women for love and recreational sex as a change from “work.”
- singlewomen - The study of the lives of non-married women, regardless of their affectional preferences, identifies contexts in which women who preferred not to marry men would be unremarkable.
- widows - In many societies, widowhood gave a woman the best chance at economic independence combined with control over her marital status.
- essentialism - The debate between understanding homosexuality as an inborn orientation versus a chosen or socially-conditioned behavior exists as far back as the records go. In general, the default is to view it as chosen (e.g., as “sin”) or as a context-specific social role (e.g., “romantic friendship”), therefore I have only tagged sources when they give evidence for understanding it as an “essential” inborn aspect of personality.
- clitoris - Around the 16th century, European physicians “discovered” the clitoris and its role in female sexual response. This interest cast new light on possibilities for sexual activity between women.
- enlarged clitoris - Associated with medical interest in the function of the clitoris, starting in the 16th century, there arose a persistant myth that an enlarged clitoris (long enough for penetrative sex) was associated with lesbianism, either as cause or effect.
- clitoridectomy (as treatment for sexual deviance) - Female genital mutilation as a “treatment” against what was considered excess female sexual desire is mentioned frequently in medical texts from the 16th century onward. In some cases it is discussed as a “foreign” practice, but there is solid evidence that it was performed in Europe.
- hermaphroditism - This was a persistant concept in European history, either indicating an individual who had both male and female sexual characteristics (the Classical model) or as someone with genitalia indeterminate between male and female (most likely inspired by intersex individuals, but perhaps also by unfamiliarity with the range of normal genitalia). Hermaphroditism was often suspected or claimed in cases of apparent female homosexuality in order to resolve the relationship into heterosexuality.
Other Genres of Source Material
These tags identify genres of source material, although I have not included poetry or fiction in this grouping.
- anthropology - This indicates anthropological accounts of lesbian-like individuals and institutions. These are generally covered as part of more general articles as they tend to be relatively recent.
- artistic representation - This tag is used for discussing visual art depicting sex between women or lesbian characters from literature.
- astrological texts - Astrology was felt to determine a wide variety of behavioral characteristics and in some cases sexual preference was included.
- case history/diary - This tag identifies life stories of historic individuals, excluding court records.
- court case - This tag identifies court records of legal cases involving either the suspicion or reality of lesbian sex.
- humoral theory - This tag identifies discussions of sexuality as influenced by humoral balance.
- magical texts - This tag identifies magical texts that concern love or sex between women.
- medical treatises - This tag identifies medical studies or manuals that touch on lesbianism or physical characteristics thought to be related.
- Orientalism - This tag identifies texts that associate lesbianism with non-European cultures, and particularly those of the Middle East.
- penitentials - This tag identifies discussions of homosexual activity in religious manuals for assigning penance for sins.