women loving women p.2

'Lesbians are not women'

‘For there is no sex. There is but sex that is oppressed and sex that oppresses. It is oppression that creates sex and not the contrary.’

- Monique Wittig, The Straight Mind: And Other Essays.

Hello everyone! In our latest blog article, we discussed the history of the word lesbian and how this term came historically to mean what nowadays we believe to be a sexual orientation. This was an important lesson on the relativism of any social category and on the socially constructed character of something that feels so close to our heart as an inner truth of ourselves. Spoiler alert: homosexuality, either male or female, was considered by the sexologists of the late 19th and early 20th century to be a mental disorder of gender, not of sexuality, the result of sexual inversion and not a desire towards the wrong object. This was the first introductory post to our new series on lesbian identities and desires via an exciting journey through space and time! In what follows, we examine some of the ways lesbians have mobilized in the second half of the 20th century this lesbophobic legacy to define and defend themselves within and against feminism. 

Let’s pick up where we left off! The history of lesbianism as a mental disorder does not stop with the abovementioned sexologists but rather persists in various forms throughout the following century until nowadays. For example, it still survives in many forceful misrepresentations of lesbians in pop culture and mass media. In this regard, lesbians are being stereotyped as gender non-conforming to the standards of proper femininity, and, in particular, as either mannish or unfeminine or sexually and/or romantically frigid, that is women with short hair and thick eyebrows with no sense of fashion dressing up more or less like men, impossible to show any affection or desire, angry and bitter ‘because they don’t get any’. The erasure of their affect and sexuality should not come as a surprise given the heteropatriarchal predicament. Women are depicted as either utterly sexless and desireless creatures or oversexualized lustful beings, the well-known double bind of mother/lover, Virgin Mary/Eve

In the last case, women’s sexuality only makes sense as long as there is a phallus/penis in the picture to fulfill their lack, to complement their being. Closely related to this representation of women in total is the one that legitimizes the sexuality of a woman via procreation or at least a monogamous relationship with a man. Otherwise, a woman is either a failed one in not procreating or slut shaming lurks in the picture. Having said that, a lesbian who is not attracted to a man, who is not in a relationship with a man, and who doesn’t want to have kids is a failed woman or not a woman at all by the heteronormative definition. By extension, lesbian sexuality and desire cannot signify or be represented as long as it is not mediated by a phallus to legitimize it and make it mean. Hence, the stereotype that lesbians lack sexuality or they are constantly angry because they don’t have heterosex.

Monique Wittig, a prominent French author, philosopher, feminist theorist, and unapologetic lesbian who belongs to the so-called radical materialist feminism, could shed some light on this matter. For Wittig, ‘one is not born a woman’ which means that what defines womanhood is not a shared biology or psychology but rather the shared subjection to social and historical forms of oppression. To put it simply, the notion of a woman is an oppressive identity that works against the very subjects it supposedly represents and it further consolidates the notion of man as the one who is different from a woman. These two terms defined by the essential and unchangeable traits of biology and psychology are not just different but are unequal in favor of men. As the story goes, when Wittig was once asked provocatively by a journalist if she was a woman, she replied that she doesn’t have a vagina! Her famous statement that ‘lesbians are not women’ should be read in the context I delineated above. 

For her, the social category of womanhood that excludes lesbians rests on what she calls a ‘heterosexual contract’, which is the unquestioned presupposition that takes for granted, obligatory, natural, and obvious the heterosexuality via which women are defined as inferior to men. If the binary man/woman is a social one that ultimately rests on contingent heterosexual relations between the two gender categories, then a lesbian who does not relate to men via her desire has not signed this heterosexual contract and thus she exempts herself from patriarchy. Here, the blurring between gender and sexual identity that was weaponized by the 19th century sexologists to pathologize and discipline lesbians is reworked in such a way that liberates lesbians from the burden of normative womanhood.

Perhaps, another famous feminist theorist and poet from the other side of the Atlantic, Adrienne Rich, will clarify things for us. The term ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ that she coined is closely related to the concept of the ‘heterosexual contract’ by Wittig and was used by Rich to argue that there is nothing natural about heterosexuality. Rather than being treated as a natural state of being, heterosexuality is exposed by Rich as a social and political institution, a human construction, which aims at keeping women in a subordinate position by providing men with free access to the bodies and psyches of women. Her goal was to challenge the implicit heterosexuality of the feminist movement that defined women as only heterosexual. The notion of compulsory heterosexuality was devised to problematize the experience of the erotic for all women, lesbian or not, and to spark a discussion about women’s sexuality independently of men’s, as deserving a discussion on its own merit. 

It is in this political context that Rich’s twin notion of a ‘lesbian continuum’ should be read as an attempt to cultivate solidarity and create coalitions between the lesbian movement and the feminist movement. The lesbian continuum denotes an expanded notion of lesbianism beyond its narrow definition as a subcategory of women who love women, a sexual orientation towards the same gender, in order to include all the homosocial bonds among women without, however, denying the specificity of the ‘lesbian existence’ as a singular experience, desire, sensibility, and relationality. This way a lesbian is defined as the ‘rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion’, as she puts it, a radical political category that can mobilize all women against the common enemy of hetero-patriarchy!

As we have seen so far, the words lesbian and woman have been in unresolved tension for many decades now. From strictly defining the lesbian as the opposite of a woman to resignifying the notion of a woman in order to make it more spacious for the word lesbian to find its place in it, this turbulent history is far from being a theoretical debate. Reappropriating injurious terms such as the word lesbian in its initial disciplinary use at the dawn of modernity is a specifically queer skill, both a survival mechanism and a political critique. Throughout recent history, women who love and desire other women have managed to queer, strategically misuse, and reappropriate these hurtful prejudices and stereotypes associated with the term lesbian sometimes to the point of adopting and eroticizing the latter as points of self-identification. The word lesbian has been transformed from a medical and juridical category of mental illness and deviance to a socially radical and politically empowering category of liberation all around the world. If lesbians have managed to successfully challenge hetero-patriarchy within and against the category of womanhood, then lesbians have indeed changed the world!