Female Homosexual Systems

In her study of lesbian relationships in Lesotho, Kendal (1998) pointed out how easy it is to ignore female homosexuality. Basotho women simply say that sex is impossible without a penis. Women "have sex" with their husbands, but simultaneously maintain affective ties with women (including "grinding" genital contacts) that they describe as "loving." This has made it difficult for cross-cultural researchers to ascertain just how "sexual" women's relationships are. For example, women taking on the typically male roles of "warrior" or "husband" have been reported for many societies, but it is unclear whether these involved lesbian sex.

Still, there are clear descriptions of gender-stratified female homosexuality. Among the Chuckchee, two women who adopted male dress, speech, and work activities eventually married girls, and one of the wives became pregnant by a cohusband. Records of gender-stratified female homosexuality also appear from ancient China and Japan. A chronicle of the Han emperor Cheng (32-7 bc) reports that his wife had a dui shi (husband-wife) relationship with a female student who then became the emperor's concubine so that both could enjoy the girl's sexual favors (Murray, 2000). During the Tokugawa period (1615-1867 ce) lesbianism was common in the shoguns' harems, and there are references to women dressed as males who sought female prostitutes. Japanese theater companies also included women who took on male roles and became enamored of their female counterparts (Leupp, 1994). Gender-stratified lesbian relationships have also been described in Sumatra and Java (Murray, 2000).

Age-stratified female homosexuality occurred as part of initiation ceremonies among the Kaguru of Tanzania, and in the form of "mentorship" systems in ancient Greece. A Spartan text mentions women's intercourse with girls before their marriage, and Sappho, the poet from Lesbos, addressed women in the language of erastes/eromenos used for male homosexual relations. Since Sappho had a daughter, she obviously also had sex with a man. Female homosexuality also occurred in the form of a reverse "catamite" system in Japan, where girl dancers imitated men's behavior and served as prostitutes for female customers (Murray, 2000).

Accounts of non-"gay" egalitarian female homosexuality have been ambiguous. Big Nama women of Malekula (Melanesia) commonly practice homosexuality, but it is unclear whether this is age structured. Similarly, the lesbian relationships described in early 20th century Chinese sisterhoods and in the "mummy-baby" relations of Lesotho women appear to have been egalitarian, but we cannot be sure (Murray, 2000).

As these examples illustrate, homosexual activities occur under many varied forms, and may be given vastly different meanings in different cultures. For some this diversity is great enough to invalidate any attempts at explanation.

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