The Lesbian and the Passionless Woman: Femininity and Sexuality in Eighteenth-Century England

By O'Driscoll, Sally | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Summer-Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

The Lesbian and the Passionless Woman: Femininity and Sexuality in Eighteenth-Century England


O'Driscoll, Sally, Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


INTRODUCTION

During the course of the eighteenth century, the passionless woman was invented in medical discourse and then depicted in British fiction. (1) The passionless woman is a new construction of femininity, which, in a complete reversal of pre-1700 views of sex and gender, posits women as essentially different from men in both their biology and their sexual nature: after about 1700, the new model of womanhood was believed to have little or no erotic desire. (2) The emergence of this new female figure can be clearly seen in the realist novel, as the heroines of the scandal novels of the beginning of the century (by, for example, Delarivier Manley and Eliza Haywood), who make no bones about acknowledging their sexual desire, are displaced and give way by the end of the century to the heroines of domestic novels (such as those by Maria Edgeworth and Frances Burney), who claim that female modesty necessarily precludes not only the display but also the feeling of desire. (3) The new figure of the passionless woman is the visible symbol of an enormous transformation in the organization of sex, gender, and sexuality that is one of the markers of an epistemic change from a Renaissance world view to western European modernity. (4) Accompanying the passionless woman, though less obvious to the reader, are two other figures: the masculinized "lesbian" and the femme--figures who are depicted as problems in domestic fiction and popular narratives, but without whom the passionless woman could not have come into existence. (5)

The invention of the passionless woman occurred first in medical literature before being taken up in literary representations. As could be expected, a transformation so great--literally, the complete reversal of the way the nature of women was understood--had immediate consequences; as soon as the medical discourse made the figure of the passionless woman available, a new popular, paramedical discourse emerged: an outpouring of moral tracts and popular medical books dealing with the "problem" of masturbation, such as the anonymous Onania and Samuel Tissot's Onanism. (6) The antimasturbation literature indicates a particular anxiety about women and sexuality, an anxiety so strong that it rises to the level of a cultural "delusion." (7) This anxiety is hardly surprising, since such a major transformation in the construction of "Woman" could not be achieved without resistance. I suggest that the antimasturbation literature becomes one of the primary repositories for fears about women's sexuality. The fear communicated in Onania and in Onanism is that women, despite a demand to exhibit modesty in public, will learn to find sexual pleasure for themselves outside sanctioned marriage relationships. Whereas earlier conduct books and sermons might have addressed the fear that women's lust would break out in fornication or adultery, once the nature of woman's sexuality has been redefined those fears were displaced from the public to the private. If passionlessness is defined as a public posture, then the antimasturbation literature addresses the fear of the private.

The antimasturbation literature, however, also reveals another important fear: that women not only will take sexual pleasure for themselves, but will take it with other women. Thus the antimasturbation tracts represent the anxiety associated with the paradigm change (the invention of the passionless woman): all the worry about the "real" sexual nature of women was channeled into a concern not about what they might be doing with men, but what they might be doing in private, in spaces that had hitherto been considered unproblematic. Fears about women's eroticism became a fear about women's eroticism with other women--a fear about "lesbianism." (8)

In the one-sex model of anatomy that prevailed before 1700, since female erotic pleasure was a given--even (for some thinkers) a physiologically necessary element in conception--the outlets for sexual pleasure could be figured in multiple ways. …

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