Here’s an audio version
Any kid growing up today with access to TV or the internet knows that some people are attracted to members of the same sex as sexual partners or lifetime mates; with mass communication, it’s a genie that won’t go back into the bottle. Before mass communication, the worldly would know that sometimes men dig men and women dig women, and the classically educated might know that male Greek aristocrats believed such unions to be the highest kind of love, but what did the common people think? Most of them probably never thought anything about it unless confronted by circumstances or their own desires.
There’s an old saying that rules are made to be broken. I used to think that this was a rallying cry to the wayward, but I think it really means that a rule isn’t created to forbid something until that thing is noticed, or is seen to be a problem. A young woman growing up in the country would never have been taught that women can’t love one another or please one another. In 16th century Europe she might, just possibly, have known the biblical text forbidding men to lie with other men, but would she have extrapolated that to include herself?
Let’s speculate that this hypothetical young woman is observant, and has seen animals getting it on, so knows what sex is, and that its purpose is reproduction. Maybe she’s taught that it will be a duty that she’ll owe her husband one day, and that it’s something she mustn’t contemplate with anyone other than her husband. In a world less densely populated, maybe there’re insufficient young men around to suggest otherwise. Furthermore, I think that linking sex and pleasure together for women is a relatively new trend, at least in popular thought.
In such a world, where friendships with unrelated males weren’t just the thing, and where relationships with women offered safety and social sanction, how many women drifted into feelings and practices that they had no words for, and hence no rules to forbid? I wonder whether the connection between the pleasure such women might find together and the duty they would owe to a husband would be as clear as it seems to us. Such speculation is one of the themes I explore in my novel Beltane.
Today, we generally take it for granted that the central emotional commitment is to one’s life partner. This is because, gender issues aside, we’re accustomed to the nuclear family model and to choosing our own mates. In the past, particularly among certain classes, marriage was a pragmatic affair not based on love, but on suitability and advantage. Unless our hypothetical young woman was fortunate, she wouldn’t look to her husband for emotional intimacy and courtesy in matters of pleasure. The emotional intimacy would most likely be found with other women, and perhaps the pleasure would be too.
I found it great fun to place our hypothetical young lady in a family with extremely lax supervision, and to put her under the nominal chaperonage of a slightly older and more worldly woman who genuinely loves her, and who is inhibited only by discretion. In such a setting, these women have no overt social convention to admonish or threaten them. Keeping private matters private, our young lady, being devout, nevertheless finds no reason for guilt or soul searching.
They have no word to use which encapsulates their devotion to one another or the pleasure they share, but it gives them each a secure emotional place in which they find reassurance love and passion in an uncertain world. They understand that discovery of the nature of their love would be dangerous, but in the way that subversion and difference are dangerous, and not because there’s a specific stricture against what they’re doing.