Rupp, Leila. Sapphistries: A Global History of Love between Women. New York, New York University Press, 2009.
Subject: Sapphistries is an impressive survey that covers a global history of love, desire, and sex between women from the beginning of time to the present.
Author’s Main Argument(s): From the beginning, Rupp acknowledges the inherent challenges in writing a history with such a large temporal and geographic scope (the entire world throughout all time!). Yet, she claims that by using a global scope, we may discern patterns of how female same-sex desire, love, and sex have been viewed by outsiders and by the women involved in those acts. Finding these patterns does not mean, however, that Rupp is looking for an “essential lesbian” that has existed throughout time. In fact, Rupp doesn’t use the term lesbian because it’s broad and downplays the differences among women, “especially when the concept and identity of lesbian is available and women choose not to embrace it, as occurs in many parts of the world” (3). She chooses the word Sapphistries (and Sapphric) because they have a longer and more widespread history than lesbian. Moreover, her term embraces all the diverse manifestations of women and “social males” with women’s bodies who desired, loved, made love to, formed relationships with, and married other women (1).
Rupp concludes that very different societies shaped erotic relationships between women in quite similar ways. The patterns that Rupp’s work reveals are: 1) the role of female masculinity, and 2) the eroticization of friendship. These patterns, of course, do not overshadow the historically specific differences of how these societies viewed and reacted to relationships between women, but she cautions that we should not let these particularities blind us to the similarities.
The ways that love between women has been understood is 1) a woman who desires other women is masculine, and her body marks her different from other women, that she hates and is deprived of men. The ways in which women-loving women have understood themselves are characterized by two relationships: masculine-feminine attraction, in which “gender difference is eroticized,” and erotic friendships, in which sameness shapes desire (7).
In pointing out these patterns, Rupp says that the story of female homosexuality takes a different path than male homosexuality (particular the story portrayed by David Halperin). Male homosexual relationships tended to be understood in terms of relationships of difference: differentiated by age, by gender, or by class and race. A lot of the history of male homosexuality revolves around the right of a superior man to penetrate his inferiors (the negative association of homosexuality was reserved for the male who was penetrated by another man). Rupp argues that these relationships of differentiation are not central to the history of female homosexuality, because nondifferentiated relationships seem to be much more common.
Another goal of Rupp’s book is to decenter a Western-dominated story of progress and to present a complex understanding of the ways that local and global identities interact in the contemporary world (8). In doing so, she questions the narrative of triumphal progress in which gays and lesbians ultimately win social acceptance and political rights. She claims that a global perspective shows that the emergence of gays and lesbians into and gaining acceptance by the public at large is not significant everywhere.
The actual evidence and stories that she tells throughout the book are not only interesting, but they’re convincing (with perhaps the first chapter being the exception). She talks about how women in the ancient world were seen as less important than men, and that could perhaps explain why what they did with one another was of no interest or consequence (40). She also talks about spaces that were conducive for women to express desire (erotic and non-erotic) for each other, and surprisingly enough, these were often religious or political spaces, such as Christian nunneries, Ottoman harems, and Chines polygamous households. Even more interesting is her chapter on “In Plain Sight,” in which she studies the ways in which different cultures have directly confronted and understood love between women, and the complex nature of gender itself. Beginning in 1500, she argues, there is evidence of European women actually gender crossing and living as men. She also devoted a lot of time (rightfully so) to Indian cultures that opposed a binary view of gender by creating a special place for people who did not fit into the “man” or “woman” category. Hijras (eunuchs) enjoy important roles in social and religious rituals. Native Americans cultures also defied the binary view of gender by recognizing a third gender, or a “two-spirit,” which was a person who exhibited characteristics of both genders, or loved someone of the same gender (81).
Beginning in 1600, women-loving women were able to come out of isolation and form communities, due to urbanization and capitalization (this fits within the lager historiography of homosexual community building).
I could get carried away with all of the interesting examples and narratives that she provides throughout the book. It was a pleasure to read, and I hope to be able to sit down and read it more thoroughly one day. It’s a great survey, and while the global aspect may overlook some details, the pros greatly outweigh the cons in my opinion. I like comparative works, and reading examples from non-Western societies was refreshing. The main thing that I got out of this book is how male and female homosexuality took different courses in their development.
For more books on the history of sexuality, see my list of reviews, here.