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A lesbian is a woman who is romantically or sexually attracted to other women.[1][2] This usage of the term entered the English lexicon as early as 1870, though it went through further development for at least the next fifty years.


File:Lesbian sign.svg

In ancient times, the metal copper was associated with the Roman goddess Venus because of its visual appeal. Copper's ancient alchemy symbol became a sign for both the goddess and the planet. It was later also used to represent the female in biology and popular culture. Here, it is doubled and twined in symbolic hues of lilac as a sign for lesbian.

The word lesbian in English was originally an adjective referring to the inhabitants of the Greek island of Lesbos and the dialect of Greek from the island. From antiquity Lesbos was associated with female homosexuality because of the homoerotic verse of native poetess Sappho. The ancient Greek rhetorician Lucian used "Lesbian" as an adjective to refer to female homosexuality, but the most common term used by ancient writers was Tribade, which could mean either a masculine woman, or a woman who has sex with another woman. This term continued to be the most common word used in medical literature in up to the 18th century in Europe.[3] The word meant "rubber", on the assumption that female homosexual practices involved sexual stimulation by rubbing together both the genitalia of two women,[4] and referred to sexual practices rather than the modern concept of sexual orientations.[3]

The dominant meaning of "lesbian" until the 19th century still referred to Lesbos rather than any sexual identity. However, Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme, the French 17th century writer on sexuality, uses the term "lesbian" ("dames et lesbiennes") to mean homosexual women, but according to David M Halperin the word is always still directly linked to the women of Lesbos:

"Lesbian" in this period, then, remained largely a proper name, a place name, a geographical designation - though as Brantôme's usage indicates, a name strongly associated with sexual relations between women.[5]

By the late nineteenth century the term Uranian came into vogue for both male and female homosexuals.[6] The Oxford English Dictionary dates the word "lesbianism" to refer to a specific sexual identity or orientation to 1870, the word lesbian, as an adjective, to 1890 and as a noun to 1925. Until the early twentieth century the term lesbian was used interchangeably with the word Sapphist.[7] From the 1920s "lesbian" became the most commonly used term.[6]

Broadened meaning

Calling a historical figure a lesbian can be misleading. Women who have written about their affection for each other, along with spinsters who lived together for years, have often been viewed without much hint they had intimate relationships. With the coming of second wave feminism in the later 20th Century, a tendency to view all women in more or less heterosexual terms stirred a rebellion in which the definition of lesbian was challenged. Some groups widened the definition to mean any woman who didn't live a traditional heterosexual life.[How to reference and link to summary or text] In 1970 the lesbian feminist organization Radicalesbians stated, "A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion."[8] In 1980 feminist writer and poet Adrienne Rich proposed a continuum of lesbian relationships ranging from sexual to platonic. Rich wrote that instead of sexual relationships between women, lesbian can mean any woman who avoids a conventional married life and resists male tyranny. Rich suggested lesbian relationships can happen between women who live or work together, even within the same family.[9]

An updated view on this wider definition has to do with the girl crush as written about by Stephanie Rosenbloom in The New York Times. Rosenbloom defines a girl crush as "that fervent infatuation that one heterosexual woman develops for another woman who may seem impossibly sophisticated, gifted, beautiful or accomplished." Such girl crushes may trigger the same kind of feelings involved in a romance; and although not sexual in nature, these feelings may sway relationship dynamics if the object of the crush learns about them.[10] This broadening of the meaning for lesbian as any woman who bonds with another woman became known as woman identified woman. However, this usage has been criticized as desexualizing lesbians. Cheshire Calhoun wrote in 1995, "When feminist woman loving replaces lesbian genital sexuality, lesbian sexual identity disappears into feminist identity."[11]

Conflicting semantics

In the summer of 2008, inhabitants of the isle of Lesbos spearheaded a case to deter conflict arising from the dual usage of the term. Publisher Dimitris Lambrou claims that the "international dominance of the word in its sexual context violates the human rights of the islanders, and disgraces them around the world."[12] However, the three residents campaigning for the end of the term in its sexualized usage lost an attempt to ban the use of the word "lesbian" to describe homosexual women. They had argued that using the term in reference to the said women insulted their identity. An Athens court ruled there was no justification for their contention that they felt slighted, saying the word did not define the islanders' identity. [13]


File:Lautrec in bed 1893.jpg

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's 1893 painting In Bed

Sexual activity between women is as diverse as sex between heterosexuals or gay men. Some women in same-sex relationships do not identify as lesbian, but as bisexual, queer, or another label. As with any interpersonal activity, sexual expression depends on the context of the relationship.

Twenty-first century cultural changes in Western, as well as a few other, societies have enabled lesbians to express their sexuality more freely, which has resulted in new studies on the nature of female sexuality. Research undertaken by the U.S. Government's National Center for Health Research in 2002 was released in a 2005 report called Sexual Behavior and Selected Health Measures: Men and Women 15-44 Years of Age, United States, 2002. The results indicated that among women aged 15-44, 4.4 percent reported having had a sexual experience with another woman during the previous 12 months. When women aged 15–44 were asked, "Have you ever had any sexual experience of any kind with another female?", 11 percent answered "yes".

File:Lesbian Couple from back holding hands.jpg

Two women holding hands.

There is a growing body of research and writing on lesbian sexuality, which has brought some debate about the control women have over their sexual lives, the fluidity of woman-to-woman sexuality, the redefinition of female sexual pleasure and the debunking of negative sexual stereotypes. One example of the latter is lesbian bed death, a term invented by sex researcher Pepper Schwartz to describe the supposedly inevitable diminution of sexual passion in long term lesbian relationships; this notion is rejected by many lesbians, who point out that passion tends to diminish in almost any relationship and many lesbian couples report happy and satisfying sex lives.

Not all lesbians express their sexual orientation in their behaviors.[14] According to a 1990 study of The Social Organization of Sexuality, out of 131 women who self-reported same-sex attraction, only 42 women (32%) had sex with other women.[15]

History of lesbian sexuality

See also: History of lesbianism
File:Istanbul - Museo archeol. - Saffo - Copia romana da orig ellenist. - da Smirne - Foto G. Dall'Orto 28-5-2006 02.jpg

Sappho as depicted through a 2nd century CE Roman copy of an ancient Greek bust.

The earliest known written references to same-sex love between women are attributed to Sappho (the eponym of sapphism), who lived on the island of Lesbos in ancient Greece from about 625 to 570 BCE and wrote poems which apparently expressed her sexual attraction to other females. Modern scholarship has suggested a parallel between ancient Greek pederasty and the friendships Sappho formed with her students.[16][17] Lesbian relationships were also common among the Lacedaemonians of ancient Sparta. Plutarch wrote "love was so esteemed among them that girls also became the erotic objects of noble women."[18]

Accounts of lesbian relationships are found in poetry and stories from ancient China. Research by anthropologist Liza Dalby, based mostly on erotic poems exchanged between women, has suggested lesbian relationships were commonplace and socially accepted in Japan during the Heian Period. In medieval Arabia there were reports of relations between harem residents, although these were sometimes suppressed. For example Caliph Musa al-Hadi ordered the beheading of two girls who were surprised during lovemaking.[19] During the 12th Century, Etienne de Fougères derided lesbians in his Livre des manières (about CE 1170), likening them to hens behaving as roosters, and reflecting a general tendency among religious and secular authorities in Europe to reject any notion women could be properly sexual without men.[20]

Public policy

See also National Center for Lesbian Rights, Category:Lesbian politicians and National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.

Same-sex married couple at San Francisco Pride 2004.

In Western societies, explicit prohibitions on women's homosexual behavior have been markedly weaker than those on men's homosexual behavior. During the 1990s, dozens of chapters of Lesbian Avengers were formed to press for lesbian visibility and rights. Same-sex marriage has now been legalized in Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, Canada, South Africa – and Norway (on January 1st, 2009) – but it is still not permitted by many countries. In 2004 Massachusetts became the first state in the United States to legalize same-sex marriages.[21]

In the United Kingdom, lesbianism has never been illegal. In contrast, sexual activity between males was not made legal in England and Wales until 1967. Lesbianism was left out of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885; a common anecdote stating that Queen Victoria did not believe sex between women was possible is likely apocryphal.[22] A 1921 proposal, put forward by Frederick Macquisten MP to criminalize lesbianism was rejected by the House of Lords; during the debate, Lord Birkenhead, the then Lord Chancellor argued that 999 women out of a thousand had "never even heard a whisper of these practices."[23] In 1928, the lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness was banned for obscenity in a highly publicized trial, not for any explicit sexual content but because it made an argument for acceptance.[24] Meanwhile other, less political novels with lesbian themes continued to circulate freely.[25]

Jewish religious teachings condemn male homosexual behavior but say little about lesbian behavior. However, the approach in the modern State of Israel, with its largely secular Jewish majority, does not outlaw or persecute gay sexual orientation; marriage between gay couples is not sanctioned but common law status and official adoption of a gay person's child by his or her partner have been approved in precedent court rulings (after numerous high court appeals). (Marriage in Israel is heavily regulated by official religious bodies; in the case of Judaism, the body in question is traditionalist.) There is also an annual Gay parade, usually held in Tel-Aviv; in 2006, the "World Pride" parade was scheduled to be held in Jerusalem.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Western-style homosexuality is rarely tolerated elsewhere in the Muslim world, with the exception of Turkey where there are no laws or discriminative policies against lesbianism. It is punishable by imprisonment, lashings, or death in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Though the law against lesbianism in Iran has reportedly been revoked or eased, prohibition of male homosexuality remains.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Discrimination and violence

Lesbophobia is a term used to describe prejudice, discrimination, harassment or abuse, either specifically targeting a person because of her lesbian identity or targeting lesbians as a group.[26] Some lesbians prefer to use the more general term homophobia, or biphobia in the case of women who identify as bisexual.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Reproduction and parenting rights

See also: Parenting by same-sex couples

Many lesbian couples seek to have children through adoption, but this is not legal in every country. Other lesbians raise children together with their husbands.[27][28]

In some countries access to assisted birth technologies by lesbians has been the subject of debate. In Australia the High Court rejected a ban on access to in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments for lesbian and single women.[29][30] Immediately after this High Court decision, Prime Minister John Howard amended legislation in order to prevent access to IVF for these groups, effectively overruling the High Court decision and enforcing the Roman Catholic position, which raised indignation from the gay and lesbian community as well as groups representing the rights of single women.[How to reference and link to summary or text]


See also: Lesbian utopia

Parthenogenesis occurs naturally in some plant and insect species but not in mammals. However, scientists have created mice pups from two female mice. There is a possibility that with further research the same or similar procedure could allow two human females to be the genetic parents of the same child.[31] Additionally, parthenogenesis and cloning opens the prospect for any single individual, male or female to eventually be able to reproduce themselves.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Lesbian feminism

See also: Lesbian feminism and Feminism

Many lesbians have been involved in women's rights. Late in the 19th century, the term Boston marriage was used to describe romantic unions between women living together, often while contributing to the suffrage movement. Lesbian feminism gained renewed popularity in North America and Western Europe during the "second wave" of the 1970s and early 1980s. By the end of the 1970s lesbian feminism was accepted as a field of study within academic institutions, although mostly as a branch of feminist disciplines. More recently, lesbian feminism has emerged as an expression of dissatisfaction with the 1970s era second wave feminist and gay liberation movements.[32]

Lesbian feminist texts have examined the influence of institutions such as patriarchy, capitalism and colonialism on gender and sexuality with mixed success, sometimes describing lesbianism as a rational result of alienation and dissatisfaction with these institutions. In her 1980 essay Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, Adrienne Rich characterized heterosexuality as a violent political institution making way for the "male right of physical, economical, and emotional access" to women. Other key thinkers and activists have included Rita Mae Brown, Audre Lorde, Marilyn Frye, Mary Daly and Sheila Jeffreys.

Lesbian Separatism is one specific type of Lesbian feminism.


See also: Lesbian culture
File:Lesbiennes at Gay Pride 2005.JPG

Lesbians at a Paris gay pride parade.

Throughout history hundreds of lesbians have been well-known figures in the arts and culture.

Before the influence of European sexology emerged at the turn of the Twentieth Century, in cultural terms female homosexuality remained almost invisible as compared to male homosexuality, which was subject to the law and thus more regulated and reported by the press. However with the publication of works by sexologists like Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Havelock Ellis, Edward Carpenter, and Magnus Hirschfeld, the concept of active female homosexuality became better known.

As female homosexuality became more visible it was described as a medical condition. In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), Sigmund Freud referred to female homosexuality as inversion or inverts and characterized female inverts as possessing male characteristics. Freud drew on the "third sex" ideas popularized by Magnus Hirschfeld and others. While Freud admitted he had not personally studied any such "aberrant" patients he placed a strong emphasis on psychological rather than biological causes. Freud's writings did not become well-known in English-speaking countries until the late 1920s.

This combination of sexology and psychoanalysis eventually had a lasting impact on the general tone of most lesbian cultural productions. A notable example is the 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, in which these sexologists are mentioned along with the term invert, which later fell out of favour in common usage. Freud's interpretation of lesbian behavior has since been rejected by most psychiatrists and scholars, although recent biological research has provided findings that may bolster a Hirschfeld-ian "third sex" interpretation of same-sex attraction.

Media depictions

See also: Media portrayal of lesbianism

Lesbians often attract media attention, particularly in relation to feminism, love and sexual relationships, marriage and parenting. Some writers have asserted this trend can lead to exploitative and unjustified plot devices.[33]

See also


  1., lesbian
  2., homosexual
  3. 3.0 3.1 Martha Nussbaum and Juha Sihvola, The Sleep of Reason: Erotic Experience and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome, University of Chicago Press, 2002.
  4. Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.5.7
  5. David M. Halperin, How to Do the History of Homosexuality, University of Chicago Press, 2004, p. 53
  6. 6.0 6.1 Joseph Bristow, Sexuality, Routledge, 1997, p.22
  7. Norton, Rictor. (July 12, 2002). A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory, "The 'Sodomite' and the 'Lesbian'. Retrieved on December 31, 2007.
  8. McCoy, Sherry, Hicks, M. (1979). "A Psychological Retrospective on Power in the Contemporary Lesbian-Feminist Community." Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies '4' (3) p.65—69
  9. Rich, Adrienne, (1980). "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Signs '5' (4) p. 631—660
  10. Rosenbloom, Stephanie. (August 11, 2005). She's So Cool, So Smart, So Beautiful: Must Be a Girl Crush. The New York Times website. Retrieved January 4, 2008.
  11. Calhoun, Cheshire (1995). "The Gender Closet: Lesbian Disappearance under the Sign 'Women'." Feminist Studies '21' (1) p. 7—34
  14. "Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality",,, retrieved on 2007-09-07 
  15. Laumann, Edward O. (1994). The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States, University of Chicago Press.
  16. Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.05.01
  17. Ellen Greene (ed.), Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. ISBN 0-520-20195-7
  18. "Lycurgus" 18.4)
  19. The History of al-Tabari, Vol. XXX, p.72-73, Albany: SUNY Press, Albany 1989).
  20. Lindahl, Carl; John MacNamara, John Lindow (2000). Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs, New York, New York: Oxford University Press., p. 243
  21. glbtq >> social sciences >> Boston Marriages
  22. Castle, Terry (1993). The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture, 11, 66, New York: Columbia University Press.
  23. Doan, Laura (2001). Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture, 56–60, New York: Columbia University Press.
  24. Biron, Sir Chartres (1928). "Judgment". Doan, Laura; Prosser, Jay (2001). Palatable Poison: Critical Perspectives on The Well of Loneliness', 39–t49, New York: Columbia University Press.
  25. Foster, Jeanette H. (1956). Sex Variant Women in Literature: A Historical and Quantitative Survey, 287, New York: Vantage Press.
  26. Tin, Louis-Georges. The Dictionary of Homophobia: A Global History of Gay and Lesbian Experience, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2007
  27. Bozett, Frederick W.. "The Heterosexually Married Gay and Lesbian Parent" Gay and Lesbian Parents.
  28. A Family Matter: When a Spouse Comes Out as Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual
  29. Marston, Greg; McDonald, Catherine (2006), Analysing Social Policy: A Governmental Approach, Edward Elgar Publishing, p. 190-1, ISBN 1845425073 
  30. "Re McBain (2002) HCA 16; 209 CLR 372; 188 ALR 1; 76 ALJR 694", Australasian Legal Information Institute, 18 April, 2002,, retrieved on 2007-11-24 
  31. Life Parthenogenesis: Do We Need Men Anymore? Creating Children Without Men or Sperm
  32. Lesbianism and Feminism, retrieved on May 28th 2007.
  33. - Smallville Exploits Lesbianism, Again

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