A brief introduction

origins of the word lesbian

In the 18th century, there was no specific term to describe someone that would be referred to in the modern day as a 'lesbian'. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the roots of the words 'lesbianism' to 18701. The word lesbian became an adjective in 1890, and a noun in 19252. Prior to this time, allusions to lesbian activity were described as 'sapphic/saphic'3. The word 'tribade' was adopted by the French and English in the 16th century, meaning literally, "a woman who enjoys tribady (rubbing clitoris against clitoris, pubic bone, leg, etc.)"4. A 'tribade' could also refer to any female who might potentially enjoy sex with another female, even if she would never acted on her desires; this word hinted at a form of identity, without just focusing on the sexual acts themselves5.

Societal views on sexual relations between females:

While lesbian activity was alluded to in several 18th century works of literature, it was not a public matter that could be openly discussed. There were several reasons for this. Men viewed and depicted women as innocent and impressionable beings. Popular opinion was that if women were not first introduced to a concept or idea, they would be incapable of inventing anything on their own. This misconception also prevailed in the church. The church authorities referred to lesbianism as the "silent sin", believing that if it were kept out of the public eye, then it would never occur to women to actually experiment with it6. Men also feared and resented the implications of lesbianism, worrying that should women choose a new sexual orientation, they would no longer need men for sexual pleasure. Conversely, sex between men was exposed and publicized as being a crime7.

Click to go home