FF 2016 Day 10: Bi/lesbophobia

This post contains references to sexual violence which may be upsetting, so please take care while reading.

The Boston Marriage, or ‘lesbians don’t exist’
Compulsory heterosexuality
‘Can we watch?’ – fetishisation of lesbians and bi women
The media and ‘Dead Lesbian Syndrome’

Today’s post is talking mainly about lesbophobia (homophobia which intersects with misogyny and results in hatred, suspicion, fetishisation, erasure etc. of lesbians) and will also look at the way bisexual women are treated in our society, today and historically.

Please note that this post will not use “queer women” as a general term- I’d appreciate it if you’d respect this and not use this term if you comment. (My reasons for this)


The Boston Marriage

In Western/neo-European societies, between the 18th Century and the early 20th Century, the generally held idea of sexuality was that male sexuality was innately active, aggressive, driven by ‘instincts’ for pleasure and naturally hypersexual. Female sexuality, on the other hand, was seen as basically non-existent; women were seen as being passive, and female sexuality was seen a response to male instincts or as driven by reproductive ‘instincts,’ rather than women having a sex drive of their own. It was seen as normal for men to want to “sow wild oats” or “conquer” lots of women, whereas women who displayed any sexual urges of their own or any sign of promiscuity were seen as medically abnormal- they were called nymphomaniacs or hysterical. Both male and female sexuality were generally thought of only in terms of heterosexual relationships, which were the only relationships seen as “normal.”

“The majority of women are not much troubled by sexual feeling of any kind.”

– William Acton (British doctor, late 19th Century)

Long story short: for a few centuries, people thought that women didn’t have a sex drive. Partly because of this belief that women weren’t capable of being independently sexual, people also generally assumed that women weren’t having sexual relationships with each other. This explains why, from the 19th Century to the early 20th Centuries (mostly in the US) women could relatively openly form life partnerships and share a house and finances. This was called a “Boston marriage.”

Early sexology tends to be rooted in assumptions that only men were actively sexual; where work on relationships between women built on these early studies, we ended up with ideas about lesbian relationships framed in terms of either gay relationships or straight relationships. Adrienne Rich puts it like this:

“Lesbians have historically been deprived of a political existence through “inclusion” as female versions of male homosexuality. To equate lesbian existence with male homosexuality because each is stigmatized is to deny and erase female reality once again.”

Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (1980)

Underlying assumptions, like we saw in Day 3, Day 4, and Day 9, have effects we usually aren’t aware of. It’s important to learn the history of theories, vague ideas, stereotypes, etc. as these are the things that make up our underlying assumptions. Our society today has general ideas about sexuality which have definitely progressed from those held in the 19th Century, but there are still traces of those old ideas hanging around.


Compulsory heterosexuality heterosexuality

Twitter user @ccstreeter

space space
As we looked at in yesterday’s post, roles and expectations are imposed on us pretty much from the day we’re born. One of those expectations is heterosexuality- we assume that everyone is straight, and interpret their actions and behaviours according to that assumption. Often we do this to children- just like in the set of tweets by @ccstreeter above- and the way we do this is a form of influence, another kind of social pressure. “Compulsory heterosexuality” is the idea that heterosexuality not just expected but conditioned and enforced in patriarchal societies. This takes place through various means, from implicit social pressures and skewed representation to arranged/forced marriage and “corrective” rape.

Adrienne Rich popularised the term compulsory heterosexuality, and talked about the ways in which this oppresses all women (because the expectation of heterosexuality is tied up with other oppressive gender expectations) but in particular lesbians, who are marginalised and made invisible. Rich talks about the way in which girls grow up overwhelmingly bombarded with ideas of heterosexual romance “beamed at her from childhood out of fairy tales, television, films, advertising, popular songs, wedding pageantry… heterosexual romance has been represented as the great female adventure, duty, and fulfilment.”

The conditioning of girls to believe that if they’re “normal” they’ll eventually end up with a man is something which works through social pressures, expectations from family and friends, media representation, etc. The erasure of lesbians and bisexual women from history and literature is another aspect of this- one example of this is the way in which scholars over the years have fallen over themselves to interpret the homoerotic poems of Sappho in a heterosexual way.

In Western/neo-European societies, lesbians and bi women are conspicuously absent from most of our media, one common trope in films and TV being the lesbian relationship which is never explicitly acknowledged so that it can be explained away as something else (see link for a list of examples). In the news, romantic relationships between women are so often described as friendships that “just gals being pals” became a meme. The next two sections will look in more detail at some other common treatments of lesbian and bi women by different kinds of media.


‘Can we watch?’

The most-searched term on Pornhub in the first month of this year in the US was “lesbian.” According to Pornhub, female users are 193% more likely to use this search term; however, men are 543% more likely to watch porn than women in the first place, and so this still leaves us with many, many men sexually objectifying lesbians for their own pleasure. Mainstream “lesbian” porn overwhelmingly depicts only women who meet traditional beauty standards, and mainstream pornographers assume a male audience, which results in a portrayal of female intimacy which is (a) unrealistic, (b) hyper-sexualised, and (c) geared towards what producers think men want to see. What comes up under the “Lesbian” search tag could probably be more accurately relabelled “Women’s Intimacy Fetishised For A Voyeuristic Male Gaze.”

Mainstream pornography which shows only women is not free from male influence or fetishisation. One woman recalls:

“Men are always present; they are there ‘directing’ us, they are there filming us, they are there in our minds whilst we imagine what they would find the most sexy… We were never alone, it was never just me and another girl, or another woman; there were always men in the room, directing us, instructing us, filming us, photographing us. Men are always present, whether it’s lesbian pornography or hetero pornography, they’re always there [….] Those scenes, what we did, it wasn’t for our own pleasure. It wasn’t for the pleasure of other lesbian women to watch. Lesbian pornography is made for men […] Lesbian pornography is a performance; it is us carrying out acts that men want to see, not what we naturally would have done together if we had wanted to.”


It’s not just porn which hyper-sexualises and/or fetishises relationships between women; lesbians and bisexual women are heavily sexualised in a lot of ordinary film and media. Films like Blue Is The Warmest Colour end up depicting sex between women through a lens of what men want sexually from women. One ratings stunt often used by TV shows to boost viewing figures is to include a lesbian kiss with negligible long-term consequences for the plot, but mostly to increase the interest of male viewers. Anya Josephs of SPARK Movement points out: “There are dozens of TV shows and other kinds of media where women are romantically or sexually involved with each other for the pleasure of male viewers, and far fewer where genuine lesbian relationships are shown.”

Bisexual women face the same problems as lesbians when it comes to a lack of representation in popular media, and when bisexual female characters are partnered with women in films or TV they’re often victims of Dead Lesbian Syndrome (see the next section). However, bi women are also targeted with different kinds of stereotypes, with bisexuality often presented in media as a kind of fun experiment or “just a phase” or as inherently tied to promiscuity. These stereotypes and the hyper-sexualisation of bi women have serious and harmful consequences- bisexual women face the highest probability (46.1%) of being raped in their lifetimes, and stereotypes of bi women as highly promiscuous and hyper-sexual contribute significantly to victim-blaming.

Katie Cattermole talks here about her own experience of the over-sexualisation of lesbians, in the porn industry and in society generally. If you have 10 minutes free today, watch the talk:


The media and “Dead Lesbian Syndrome”

‘Dead Lesbian Syndrome’ (also known as ‘Bury Your Gays’) is a trope which has become commonplace in film and TV. A list of all 160 lesbian or bisexual women who have been killed off in TV shows from 1976 to today can be found here. Lesbian or bisexual female characters aren’t allowed to have happy endings, as is also often the case with gay or bisexual male characters. Various justifications are given for their deaths: in older works, if they appeared at all, lesbian characters would usually be killed off to send the lesbophobic message that they didn’t deserve happiness, especially if the character was portrayed as depraved or willfully deviant; today, shows which consider themselves progressive might justify the deaths of lesbian/bisexual characters using other tropes, e.g. suggesting that these characters were morally/intellectually superior because of their oppression, or that their death shows the moral inferiority of other characters.

Whatever the justification given in terms of the plot, the point is that lesbian and bisexual women are killed off far, far more frequently than straight characters proportionally to representation, and very often one effect of killing that character is the removal of all lesbian/bi representation in that show.

There seems to be an epidemic of Dead Lesbian Syndrome in TV currently, with 16 lesbians or bi women killed off in the first 6 months of 2016 just on American-made TV shows. 16 is also the number of TV shows in the history of television which have given happy endings to female couples. As journalist Dorothy Snarker points out, “It doesn’t take an advanced calculus degree to see that the math is clearly off here.”

Representation is important, and the lack of lesbian/bi representation for women contributes to compulsory heterosexuality.  The seemingly endless killing-off of the few characters providing representation also contributes to this, making it hard for lesbian/bi girls and women to imagine a positive future for themselves with another woman. Abigail de Bruin says, “When death and despair are the only features of the lives you regularly see for characters that reflect you, it rapidly becomes damaging.” The way in which the media treats lesbians and bi women also contributes significantly to popular assumptions and prejudices (e.g. the predatory lesbian stereotype).

The lack of positive representation is compounded by the even greater scarcity of butch lesbian characters. In the past couple of decades, we’ve seen a relative increase in the number of lesbian characters appearing on our screens, but overwhelmingly feminine. As Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart sarcastically puts it: “In this exciting new era, lesbian women grow up knowing that rather than being largely immune to society’s punitive and unrealistic standards of female beauty, they, too, can spend their lives in pursuit of them.”

Just like we need our girls to have visible role models in science, engineering, law, politics, etc. to know that those are viable roles for them when they grow up, we need visible, positive representation of lesbian and bisexual girls and women in our media, our literature, our history, so that they know that these are normal things to be, too. We need representation of women in relationships with each other which doesn’t hyper-sexualise them, define them by their sexuality, or stereotype them, but shows them as people.

Maybe something like this:

It’s a start!


 Want to read more?


Why I haven’t used “queer women” here

There are 3 main reasons:

(1) I have heard from many women, who specifically call themselves as lesbians or bi women, that they are made uncomfortable by use of this as an umbrella term. (I realise that there are also many people who have reclaimed “queer” and use it to describe themselves, just as there are women who have reclaimed the word “slut” despite its primary use as a slur; but just like you wouldn’t call women “the slut community” I believe we shouldn’t use “queer” as general term when there are still clearly many people who are hurt by that word)

(2) I want to talk today very particularly about the oppression faced by lesbians and bi women, and I have seen the term “queer women” used as a general term covering more groups than just these two.

(3) I have noticed that a lot of discussions and articles which use the word “queer” tend to do so in a way which lumps all LGBT+ people into one homogenous group, and I’ve often seen it used in a way which erases the specificity of lesbian experience.

If you comment on this post, please respect this, and don’t use the word “queer.”



1 Comment

  1. This is a very nice and thorough history lesson. Thank you for it. As a lesbian, I experienced erasure, fetishization and violence my whole life. Things have gotten and are getting better, but we can never let our guard down.

    P.S.: I am also very grateful for calling us “lesbians”. It’s a beautiful word, from a Greek island, in honor of one of the most amazingly talented poets of the world. I love it and I use it proudly.


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