feature art: Autostraddle
Welcome to The Gay B C’s of Sex! Each month I’m defining a different sex-related term that’s used within the queer community. I’m crafting these definitions with help from queer archives, pop culture, interviews, and more. Keep in mind that terminology — especially when it comes to sex — varies widely across communities, and no single definition or article can encapsulate every individual’s experience with these terms. Use this column as a jumping off point for your own reflection and conversation in the comments.
If you’ve ever pressed your nether regions against a partner’s genitals, thigh, ass, pubic bone, or any other body part, congratulations — you’ve tribbed! Rubbing your bits against another hot bod is both physically and visually pleasurable, whether you choose to call it “tribbing,” “tribadism,” “humping,” “grinding,” “scissoring,” or something else. In this month’s column, I’m specifically investigating “tribbing” because of its long (and fraught) history. Hop into your fancy queer time machines — we’re heading to Ancient Greece! But first, here’s our definition:
tribbing (n.) – the act of rubbing genitals against a partner’s body
“So I’ll say something random that no one’s ever said, like ‘peanut butter tribadism!'” — Bo Burnham, “Out of the Abyss”
“Tribbing” or “tribadism” comes from the Greek verb τρίβω, which means “rub.” In Ancient Greece, this word initially described the act of a woman or intersex person penetrating a partner using their clitoris or a dildo (yep, dildos were a thing long before the production of silicone).
Later, the words “tribas” (Latin) and “tribade” (French) were used to describe any woman who engages in penetrative or non-penetrative sexual activity with other women, or, to quote the 1843 text A Greek-English Lexicon, “a woman who practices an unnatural vice with herself or with other women.” Hot.
If you were accused of being a tribade — well, that would be bad news for your reputation. Here’s one example: Queen of France Marie Antoinette was depicted as a tribade in a number of pamphlets (aka 18th century political cartoons) criticizing the Queen’s association with Austria. One satirical publication called “The Royal Dildowp_postspainted Marie Antoinette as an orgy-loving, deviant pervert who regularly banged English baroness Lady Sophie Farrell of Bournemouth. A few years later, Marie Antoinette was put on trial for treason among other other crimes, including false accusations incest. She was found guilty and beheaded.
Despite the word’s sordid history, queer women, intersex folks, and trans folks have reclaimed “tribadism” and “tribbing” in recent decades to describe sex acts that involve genital rubbing, but definitions vary across sources. The Meriam-Webster dictionary defines tribadism as “a form of sexual activity between women in which the external genitalia are rubbed together,” but in the 1988 book Sapphistry: The Book of Lesbian Sexuality, Patrick Califia includes a wider range of sex acts under the “tribadism” umbrella: “Tribadism is done by rubbing your vulva against your partner’s mons veneris, hip, or thigh. Some lesbians also like to rub against their partners’ buttocks or other parts of the body.”
If you’re thinking, “wait a second…this all sounds like scissoring,” I’m right there with you. So what exactly is the difference between tribbing and scissoring? As usual, opinions vary, but according to this 2018 Autostraddle article, scissoring and tribbing are basically the same thing: “…scissoring is a colloquial umbrella term for all sorts of acts of tribadism, aka: rubbing vulva against all sorts of body bits!”
In this Healthline article, sex educator Lisa Finn puts it this way: “Scissoring is a colloquial term, so there’s wiggle room in the definition…Officially, tribbing is the sexual act, while scissoring is one specific position.” In other words, according to Finn, “tribbing” involves rubbing your genitals anywhere on a partner’s body, while “scissoring” describes the sex position your Barbie dolls probably enjoyed. You know, the one that kinda looks like this:
But if Barbies could bend their knees, maybe it would look like this:
Both of these images are from A.E. Osworth’s scissoring guide.
Here’s your reminder that YES, the classic scissoring sex position is, in fact, a real thing that some queer folks appreciate, and NO, that doesn’t mean it’s comfortable, pleasurable, or possible for every pair of horny humans (especially if you’re going for clit-on-clit action, since that requires you to aim for very small targets). If you’ve tried this position and hated it, if it’s just not your thing, or if your bits and your partner’s bits simply could not connect like Lincoln Logs, 1. You are not alone, and 2. That doesn’t mean this sex position only happens in porn or in lesbian movies directed by men. The scissoring positions/techniques depicted above do happen in real life sometimes, even if they’re not happening in your bedroom.
Ultimately, the difference between “tribbing” and “scissoring” isn’t important. As long as you like what you’re doing, call it what you want, keep on humpin’, and feel free to experiment! Grind against a partner’s face, calf, boob, leather boot — whatever feels fun and pleasurable for everyone involved.
If you want to learn more about tribbing/ scissoring, check out A.E. Osworth’s scissoring guide, A. Andrews’ sex position guide, our readers’ feelings about scissoring, and Archie’s scissoring gift guide (and, of course, check out our scissoring merch).