10 Theories About How Lesbians Have Sex From Straight People In History

Feature image via dodsonandross.com

A favorite historical genre is “faux sociological studies of human sexuality that say crazy-ass shit about lesbians,” and though they were a huge trend in the 1950s and 60s there is a deep and rich history of mostly straight men speculating on or reporting about what women do in bed together in the name of research and information and anthropology and definitely not because it’s sexy to read about.

Most of these excerpts come from or were found because of Sapphistries: A Global History of Love between Women by Leila Rupp and Surpassing the Love of Men by Lillian Faderman.

How Lesbians Have Sex, According to People From History

1. Probably the devil is involved

“They do not put flesh to flesh in the sense of the genital organ of one within the body of the other, since nature precludes this, but they do transform the use of the member in question into an unnatural one, in that they are reported to use certain instruments of diabolical operation to excite desire.”
—Hincmar of Reims, 9th century

2. Or fencing. Definitely fencing.

“They bang coffin against coffin” and “they don’t bother with a pestle in their mortar” and “they play the game of thigh-fencing.”
—Etienne de Fougères in Livres des manières, 12th century

3. Maybe it’s just like heterosex?

“Kissing and hugging […] exactly like a man with women.”
—A witness at the trial of Katherina Hetzeldorfer, 1477

4. Yeah I think it’s like heterosex.

“If a woman gets upon a woman, and both fall to thrusting at each other mutually, it may happen that the seed of her on top may be injected into the natural vase of her laying under.”
—Ludovico Maria Sinistrari, in Peccatum Mutum: The Secret Sin, 1893

5. Everyone’s a switch.

“Sometimes the lover is the mistress / Sometimes the mistress is the lover.”
—Denis Sanguin de Saint-Pavin (1595–1650), Sonnet XXXIII

6. Root vegetables

“They dress up a foster-sister or girlfriend or servant girl like a man and relieve their desire with dildos or with bulbs, roots, or fruits that have that form.”
—Kama Sutra, 2nd century

7. Yep. Definitely root vegetables.

“Wives would cut a sweet potato or manioc root in the shape of the male organ, or use a banana for the purpose. Two of them would shut themselves in a hut and one would lie on the bed and play the female role while the other, with the artificial organ tied around her stomach, played the male role. They then reversed roles.”
—E.E. Evans-Pritchard, 1930s

8. Also scissoring.

“The one that must stay underneath lies on her back, stretches out one leg and bends the other while leaning slightly to the side, therefore offering her opening [vagina] wide open: meanwhile, the other lodges her bent leg in her groin, puts the lips of her vagina between the lips that are offered for her, and begins to rub the vagina of her companion in an up-and-down and down-and-up movement that jerks the whole body.”
—Shihâb al-Dîn Ahmad al-Tîfâshî, author of The Delight of Hearts, 13th century

9. Maybe in the bath???

“A number of fair ladies naked and at the bath, which did touch, and feel, and handle, and stroke, one the other, and intertwine and fondle with each other, and so enticingly and prettily and featly did show all their hidden beauties.”
—Signeur de Brantôme, in Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies, 1665

10. …This one is kind of accurate actually.

“[Sappho’s image] adorned the alter in the hall where everything was calculated to make sense and fantasy reel. The orgies opened with flagellation and ended in the most shameful of sexual perversions. Deep hatred against men was the first principle.”
—Frusta, in Flagellation and the Jesuit Confessional, 1834

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Ryan Yates

Ryan Yates was the NSFW Editor (2013–2018) and Literary Editor for Autostraddle.com, with bylines in Nylon, Refinery29, The Toast, Bitch, The Daily Beast, Jezebel, and elsewhere. They live in Los Angeles and also on twitter and instagram.

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  1. “…it may happen that the seed of her on top may be injected into the natural vase of her laying under.”
    Does this mean that back in the past women could get women pregnant?

  2. omg “coffin against coffin” is going in some kind of lesbian psychobilly love song in my near future.

    …wait, is this not how the rest of you do it?!?

    • Umm I took “coffin against coffin” as some lesbian goth sex act. I’m really into this idea and I’m going to read some fan fic about it. #lezgoth

  3. Make sure you get your “instruments of diabolical operation” through the Autostraddle affiliate links!

  4. “Deep hatred against men was the first principle.” Duh. That’s how you know you’re doing it right.

  5. #6 made me think of the fosters and now I want to hide Callie from Brandon cuz I think he imagines himself to be an emo diabolical lesbian.

    • And you know Stef and Lena buy all sorts of fruits and vegetables. I bet they’re Organic too

    • And now I am imagining her ‘practicing fencing’ with Helena G. Wells.

      *goes to take a cold shower*

  6. Re: #3, I have definitely had conversations with straight people who thought “kissing and hugging” = the whole extent of what two women can get up to. 15th century ideas are still going strong!

  7. What was it that one tweet said? “Straight guys ask me how lesbians have sex and I’m like, if you think the only way of doing it is penis in vagina, I feel sorry for your girlfriend.”

  8. It’s remarkable to me how much people don’t seem to understand the concept of hands. Hands never have a problem getting and staying hard, they can pretty much be as big or small as the situation demands, they’re flexible and versatile and can provide multiple types of stimulation simultaneously…and you’re more likely to get a disease from kissing than from hands. Seriously people, HANDS.

    • I raise my hand (in confession), that as a horny (but open-minded) adolescent the thought never occurred to me either. Even though I fortunately found more reliable sources on lesbian sex, it still took me awhile to get it. I keep reading the Nicole Foster stories in the books stores and hope no one would notice and ever so often wondering “why do they keep putting hands in there!” Now I see your quite right K. We REALLY take hands for granted…for all of the reasons you mentioned. Very good advice.

    • And now I’m thinking dirty thoughts about Thing, that hand-pet from the Addams Family

  9. The level of RANK ignorance about the physicality of non-heteronormative sex still blows my mind !!! It’s like they’re never going to get it. No wonder mid-America/suburbia was so titillated by “50 Shades of Gray “.

  10. Yep. Definitely thigh fencing.

    Also, I really want to be one of those Fair and Gallant Ladies in the naughty baths…

    • My life goal is to buy the site of the former Mars Hill Church (Boooooooo) in Seattle and turn it into a queer-posi body-posi bathhouse called Love the Sinner.

    • Back when the AIDS epidemic started, a lot of bathhouses were shut down because people were trying to do something, anything, that might stop the plague from spreading.

  11. When two lesbians love each other very much they tie artificial organs (such as sweet potatoes, bananas, etc) on their upper legs and practice the ancient seduction of Thigh Fencing. Yes?

  12. Thank you, I feel substantially more educated now.
    Seems that tribadism and strapping on enjoy a longer standing tradition than fingerbanging.
    Maybe that’s due to the lack of hand sanitizer in the third century, or you know, people being incapable to imagine non heteronormative sex for millennia.
    I got a strong Warehouse 13 vibe out of this article, btw. *sigh*

    • Okay but how to sanitize the dildo and make it safe? Cause uh veggies can cut you and some non-organic and non-vegan dildos are porous and can never be truly cleaned.

      Autostraddle, I’m asking for uh..a friend who really wants to write high fantasy porn bits in a world she made up with renaissance to bronze age level tech at different point in different stories and minimal magic and elves of many shapes, shades and hair textures but can’t get her brain out of the reality of dental hygenie and how a blacksmith/metal worker’s hands would really feel like ect enough to do it.

      *is totally subtle*

    • There’s actually an Attic red-figure vase (c. 500 BCE) that shows a woman touching another’s nether region, so the tradition might have gone way back. :D

      • I appreciate and am awed by your dedication to historical detail.
        Maybe this was a practice the enlightened ancient greeks pursued, but was lost during the darkest of the dark ages?
        Another aspect we have all yet, neglected: nail clippers.
        Maybe the revolution of the tribadist practices lay within the advent of manicures?

      • I know the Persians have had removal of pubic hair as a thing using sugaring since the Bronze age and I’ve seen art depicting women in a hammam touching themselves and each other in the pubic region. The conjecture was they were soothing their loins post-epilation and there were pots of stuff they were reaching for so it’s plausible. However I have no source for that work of art that I vividly remember or the explaination.

        But I don’t ever recall reading anything about the Hellenes doing that and I’d really rather look at that vase as something way more pleasurable than hair removal.

        • Yeah, scholars have also suggested that the scene might depict perfuming or depilating the standing woman, and the thing in her left hand might either be a wine cup or a vessel for oil or perfume. Well, maybe they had a quality time after shaving.

  13. “They bang coffin against coffin” should be the subtitle of Carmilla season 2, tbh.

  14. I thought the second one said “They bang against a coffin,” and I was like “hmmm, sounds about right.”

  15. “Those wanton-loined womanlings, Tribades, that fret each other by turns and fulfill Venus even among Eunuchs with their artful secrets.” -Robert Burton, 1621

  16. Man, I always thought my ex..uh..acquaintance had some crazy outdated ideas about lesbian sex. Had no idea they were NINTH CENTURY old!

  17. If anyone wants to know what ancient Romans thought, well the belief was that lesbians had clitorises the size of penises which they used to penetrate. I am unsure if only some lesbians had the super-clitoris, or if everyone got one. Comparatively, thats not so weird, since ancient Romans also believed you could be impregnated by a sunbeam, and that hitting snakes with a stick could get you a sex change.

  18. Number 8 just sounds like you’re reading really technical, ‘I’ve never had it but I guess this is how it works’ writing fem slash fan fiction.

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