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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 9.4 (2003) 471-498



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The "Singular Propensity" of Sensibility's Extremities
Female Same-Sex Desire and the Eroticization of Pain in Late-Eighteenth-Century British Culture

Katherine Binhammer


The challenges of anachronism in writing pre-twentieth-century lesbian history have been well documented, and most essays that purport to provide such histories, this one included, begin with a hermeneutic model for reading a past that seems steadfastly opaque to contemporary eyes. 1 Given that the "lesbian" did not exist before sexology, or given the history of patriarchy that silences through trivialization what two women do together in bed and that renders women economically dependent on sexual relations with men, historians reading for lesbianism before Anne Lister have developed a series of models for reading the unaccountable, and for making visible the invisible. 2 Early histories—most famously, Lillian Faderman's Surpassing the Love of Men—confronted invisibility by expanding the definition of who counts as lesbian and including emotional attachments between women. 3 Other histories, critical of Faderman for ignoring sexual acts, expanded the definition of what counts as lesbian and interpreted acts of gender transgression—performed by, for instance, cross-dressed actresses, mannish women, female husbands, and female soldiers—as standing in for sexual transgressions. Martha Vicinus registers discomfort with these two approaches and views their corresponding categories—romantic friendships and butch-femme role-playing—as confining and controlling our historical knowledge of female same-sex desire: "Limiting lesbian sexuality to these two categories . . . has led to a dreary narrowing of conceptual possibilities. Both are defined so as to leave little room for women who might behave differently at different times." 4

Recent queer cultural historians have navigated past this "narrowing of conceptual possibilities." They have opened a broader horizon by refusing a continuous [End Page 471] history of lesbian subjectivity and by eschewing the model of queer history that takes as its object of study either the history of a sexual identity or the history of a sexual act. 5 These histories foreground the presence of female same-sex sexuality, not its absence, and interpret the diversity of textual representations of female same-sex desire across a range of genres and institutional settings. Valerie Traub writes that after years of researching the silences and invisibilities, she sees that "early modern England witnessed a renaissance of representations of female homoerotic desire." 6

The boldest formulation of my essay's thesis echoes Traub's rejection of invisibility and extends it from the seventeenth into the eighteenth century. I argue that female same-sex desire is central to the mapping of a new normative domestic and bourgeois sexuality in the late eighteenth century and that, far from being hidden and invisible, it is plainly in sight, existing on the same continuum as cross-gender sexuality. I analyze scenes of female same-sex eroticism in two cultural registers—pornography and the sentimental novel—to demonstrate how female same-sex desire marks the immoderate excess in a new domestic sexuality that defines the normative as anything properly moderated. In so arguing, I take the lesbian off her own continuum as either a separate act or an identity, and I reject the possibility of a history that isolates "lesbian" as its object of study. The lesbian, I suggest, does not have a continuum of her own in the period, a singular one that could unite the disparate traces of women's relations among themselves. Instead, female same-sex desire enters our historical vision as a "propensity" in heterosexuality, as a dynamic marking the extreme limits of normative sexuality. 7 In placing female same-sex desire alongside heterosexual desire, I also assume that heterosexuality has no separate continuum. My proposition is that neither heterosexuality nor same-sex sexuality was seen as a distinct type of sex during the period, but that female same-sex sexuality is an extreme point on a continuum of sexual tastes that increasingly locates...

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