Well Meaning: Pragmatism, Lesbianism,
and the U.S. Obscenity Trial
Before The Well of Loneliness, popular conceptions of female homosexuality in the United States were vague and varied, to the extent that they existed at all. The growing medical literature on lesbianism was characterized by disagreement and divergent approaches (ranging from noninterference to “cold sitz baths” to surgical “asexualization” 1). Other professional discourses offered everything from sensationalism to silence. But with The Well, “an abrupt locking into place of meaning” 2 circumscribed the emerging discourses of female homosexuality within constraints now so pervasive they pass almost unnoticed.
Most readers contend that this is a predictable effect of the publicity generated by the obscenity trials and assume that the relatively more stable notion of female homosexuality that emerged is an extension of Radclyffe Hall's established belief in sexological theories of congenital inversion. Teresa de Lauretis voices the overwhelming critical consensus when she describes the book as “drawing its view of homosexuality from the latenineteenth-century sexology of Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis” and explains that “it was intended, and in the main received, as a plea for social acceptance or toleration of sexual deviance cast in terms of divine compassion and liberal humanism.” Because the terms of that toleration seem to