Documentation of Female Same-Sex Relations

The following is derived from the essay, “Sapphic Shadows: Challenging the Silence in the Study of Sexuality,”
which is included in the anthology female desires (lower case original.)

“The study of sexuality in general and female same-sex relations in the non-Western world in particular has been neglected by anthropologists and other social scientists alike.. The study of sexuality is not viewed as a legitimate area of study, an attitude that, casts doubt  not only on the research but on the motives and the charachter of the researcher.” (39)

“At a national conference of feminist anthropologists in 1983, Weiringa’s proposal to do fieldwork on women engaged in same-sex relations met with disapproval; such women could not be found in the Third World, she was told; besides the major issue for women in those parts of the world was their economic deprivation. Weiringa published her first short stories on her encounters with lesbians in Jakarta and Lima under a pseudonym. Self-censorship played an important role in this decision. She feared that any publicity about her sexual orientation might jeopardize the research project she was coordinating at the time.” (40)

“The bias against research on sexuality was compounded by difficulties that predominantly European and American men researchers faced in getting access to such information. Part of the reason for the invisibility of lesbian or female same-sex practices, Blackwood observed, was “more likely due to limitations of the observers than to the conditions of women’s lives. Some of these limitations included men’s reticence or inability to ask questions of women or get answers about women’s practices as well as their ignorance of sexual diversity. For many ethnographers, travelers, and colonial authorities, the possibility  of married women engaging in non-heterosexual sex practices was unthinkable. They could imagine it only in places where women were ‘deprived’ of access to men.  Where there were plenty of men available as sexual partners, it was assumed.. that lesbianism did not exist. Many also assumed that homosexuality resulted only from sex-segregated conditions (a theory that persists today). It was indeed predominantly in all-female harems and polygynous households that researchers noted or assumed lesbianism occured.” (41)

“There are many..examples of colonial suppression of lesbian sexuality. In some cases it was not due to colonial practices or anthropological neglect. Female same-sex eroticism was nearly erased or rewritten following conquests by patriarchal cultures and religions of earlier indigenous groups. Yet despite the apparent silences in the ethnographic record, documentations on women’s same-sex relations existed, mainly observations made by early ethnographers, missionaries, and travelers, who noted down customs they witnessed or were told about. These accounts have to read with great care. The ‘colonial gaze’ of these observers tended to portray the ‘natives’ they came in contact with as ‘primitive’ and ‘pagan.’ Their emphasis on sexual customs served as proof of how ‘close to nature’ these groups were. The exotization of colonized peoples was achieved by the eroticization of their lives. Apart from the biases of early observers, informants may have had their own motives in telling tales of certain sexual customs. Hypersexualizing others was not only done by travelers and missionaries but may also have been a way, for instance, in which informants expressed interethnic tensions.” (43-44)


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