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Encyclopedia > Lesbians

A lesbian (lowercase L) is a homosexual woman. Lesbians are sexually and romantically attracted to other women.



The word "lesbian" originally referred to an inhabitant of the island of Lesbos, in ancient Greece. The term has come to have its current meaning due to the ancient Greek lyric poet Sappho, who lived on the island; some of her poems concerned love between women. Whether Sappho was herself a lesbian, in the modern meaning of the term, or simply a poet who described lesbians, is open to question; whilst she did indeed write poems about love between women, there is some dispute as to just how far to interpret her writings in this fashion. This association with Sappho led to the term sapphism being used as another term for lesbianism.

Many terms have been used to describe lesbianism over the past 200 years, such as amor lesbicus, urningism, sapphism, tribadism, and others.

There a number of slang terms for lesbians including dyke and bulldyke.

The law

Explicit prohibitions on women's homosexual behavior have been markedly weaker in Western societies than on men's homosexual behavior. Lesbianism has been legal in the United Kingdom since the Victorian Era, whereas male homosexuality has not been, and at least occasionally produced a prison sentence. Jewish religious teachings condemn male, but say nothing about female homosexuality.

Reproductive and parenting rights

In some countries, the right of lesbian women to have access to assisted birth technologies such as In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) in order to have children, has been the subject of debate: in Australia for example, the High Court rejected a Roman Catholic Church move to ban access to IVF treatments for lesbian and single women. However, the Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard had sought to amend legislation to prevent the access of these groups to IVF, raising indignation from the gay and lesbian community.

Many lesbian couples seek to have children through adoption, although this is not possible in every country.


Sexual activity between women is as diverse as sex between heterosexuals or gay men. Like all interpersonal activity, sexual expression must be seen within the context of the relationship between the people involved. Lesbians, like any couples regardless of sexuality, can be promiscuous or committed; ashamed or prideful. These generalizations form a spectrum in which most lesbians fall somewhere in between. Therefore, it is impossible to generalize accurately about lesbian behavior. It is true, however, that recent cultural changes in Western society have enabled lesbians to more freely express their sexuality. This change resulted in new studies on the nature of female sexuality.

There is a growing body of research and writing on lesbian sexuality, bringing with it debates over the control that women have over their sexual lives, the fluidity of female sexuality, the redefinition of female sexual pleasure, and the debunking of negative sexual stereotypes. One example of this last case is "lesbian bed death", a term coined by sex researcher Pepper Schwartz to describe the diminution of sexual passion supposedly inevitable in long term lesbian relationships. Schwartz's published findings indicate that lesbian couples have less sexual contact than couples of any other sexual orientation. As critics have pointed out, however, this does not necessarily reflect a lack of satisfaction with the relationship. The methodology of Schwartz's survey format has been called into question as well. The lesbian community, for the most part, rejects the notion of lesbian bed death, pointing out that passion tends to diminish in almost any relationship and that many lesbian couples enjoy happy and satisfying sex lives.

Media depictions

Lesbian couples have been attracting attention by others, in relation to feminism, sexual relationships, marriage and parenting, and other areas.

Mainstream media

In television, the number of lesbian couples portrayed is generally less than the number of gay couples - notable lesbian couples in television include Tara Maclay and Willow Rosenberg in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lindsay Peterson and Melanie Marcus in Queer as Folk, Lana Crawford and Skye in Neighbours, Suggestive lesbian couple of Xena and Gabrielle in the popular yet controversial “Xena: The Warrior Princess” and Dr. Kerry Weaver and Sandy Lopez in ER. Additionally, the casted pop-group t.A.T.u from Russia was quite popular in Europe in the 2000s, gaining several Top 10 hits by the assumption that they were lesbians when they, in fact, were not.

However, the trend may be changing, for example, see The L Word, which is primarily focused on the lives of a group of lesbian friends.


Reactions of heterosexual men

It has been noted that the attitude of most men toward lesbian sex and its depiction in pornography is usually one of tolerance, or even of arousal, in sharp contrast to widespread aversion to the image of male gay sex. There are at least five possible explanations for this:

  1. Some men have the mistaken belief that lesbians only have sex with one another because of the lack of a suitable man and that they would be delighted to engage in group sex were such a man available; in real life, however, this is generally not the case.
  2. The absence of penises from such pornography absolves the male viewer from any possible accusation of harboring homoerotic tendencies.
  3. Some straight men simply do not want to view another man's genitalia under any circumstances.
  4. The favorable reaction stems from the characteristic sexual arousal of many males at the depiction of nude female women. This theory is given some credence by a study (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_arousal#Homophobia_and_sexual_arousal) showing that homophobic and non-homophobic men were aroused to the same degree by lesbian imagery, suggesting that male arousal from lesbian sex may not involve higher reasoning.
  5. Men find images of lesbian sex to be completely non-threatening because there is no other man to compete with for the women's attention and is therefore both comfortable and appealing.

Nominally positive reactions of heterosexual men to "lesbian" pornography, however, should not be taken as evidence of acceptance of lesbianism in general. Lesbians frequently suffer bashing, including rape.

Reactions of heterosexual women

Many heterosexual women also have a more positive attitude to depictions of lesbian sex than most heterosexual men have to depictions of male gay sex. It has been suggested that this is because heterosexual women are "more bi-curious" on average than heterosexual men. However, this is a controversial theory: many other heterosexual women have attitudes to lesbianism that range from mildly to extremely negative.

Related groups and movements


In relation to feminism, and arising in relation to the Radical feminism movement, lesbian separatism became popular: groups of lesbian women coming together and living in communal societies together. Some lesbian women found this sort of society to be liberating; however others, such as Kathy Rudy, in Radical Feminism, Lesbian Separatism and Queer Theory, remark that stereotypes and hierarchies reinforcing those stereotypes developed in her experience of living in a lesbian separatist collective, which ultimately led her to leave the group.

Transgender and transsexual women

The relationship between lesbianism and transgendered and transsexual women who identify as lesbian has been turbulent, with negative attitudes prevalent in history, but this attitude has changed somewhat in more recent times.

Some lesbian groups openly welcome transgender or transsexual women, often welcoming "any member who identifies as lesbian", however a few groups still do not welcome transwomen.

Reactions to the definitions of the term "lesbian", and the restriction of lesbian events and spaces have been numerous. Some who hold a non-inclusionist attitude often make reference sometimes to strong typically second-wave feminist ideas, such as those of Mary Daly's who has described post-operative transsexual women as merely "constructed women", attribute transsexualism as a mechanism of patriarchy, or do not recognize identification as female and lesbian from a transsexual woman, and based on these views define lesbianism and defend the non-inclusion of women of transsexual or transgender background.

However, those who hold an inclusionist position (which includes both non-transgender and transgender women), maintain that the attitudes described above are inaccurate and have their grounding in fear, distrust, or that the motivations and attitudes of transgender or transsexual lesbians as not well understood, and defend the inclusion of transwomen into lesbianism and lesbian spaces. Today, many hold more inclusionist views, though non-inclusionist views are not uncommon.

One example of the divisiveness of inclusionism arose in Australia. In the early 1990s, the wider lesbian community raised money to purchase a building devoted to lesbian women and for a uniquely lesbian only space, entitled "The Lesbian Space Project". Whilst the organisation was successful in buying the building, a debate over the inclusion of transwomen polarised the lesbian community. The building was later closed and moneys moved into the "Pride Centre", a lesbian and gay community centre in Sydney.

Another very notable example amongst the transgender and transsexual communities is that of the Michigan Women's Music Festival, a well-known primarily lesbian event which was restricted to "womyn-born womyn". Camp Trans, an organization oriented towards rights of transwomen, was started as a result.

See also

External links

  • "Lesbian Health" from plannedparenthood.org (http://www.plannedparenthood.org/articles/lesbian.html)
  • Criticism of Lesbian Bed Death (http://www.pinklemonz.com/articles/bed_death.htm)
  • Australia backs lesbian IVF treatment - BBC News Online (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/1936952.stm)
  • Lesbians protest IVF ban plan - BBC News Online (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/864803.stm)
  • Lesbian couples raise well-adjusted teenagers (http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99996670)
  • William Addams Reitwiesner's monograph, The Lesbian Ancestors of Prince Rainier of Monaco, Dr. Otto von Habsburg, Brooke Shields, and the Marquis de Sade (http://members.aol.com/eurostamm/lesbian.html)
  • The National Center for Lesbian Rights (http://www.nclrights.org)
  • Lesbian and Bisexual Women in Entertainment and the Media - http://www.afterellen.com

  Results from FactBites:
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Lesbians are found among all subpopulations of women, and are represented in all racial and ethnic groups, all socioeconomic strata, and all ages.
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Lesbians without health insurance are significantly more likely to report heart disease, to smoke, to have eating disorders (either overeating or undereating), to be victims of physical and sexual abuse and anti-gay violence, and to be less likely to have a Pap test.
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