By Anna Pulley
Lesbian sex has been confounding people since the dawn of cucumbers.
Throughout history, many theories have been put forth as to why a woman might like another woman that way — ranging from mild (perhaps your mother ate too much celery) to curious (planetary alignment) to downright insane (a growth from the womb leading to a pseudo-penis). Read on to learn the most bizarre theories as to why a woman might want to have sex with another woman, and what “cures” were recommended.
1. Labial Itching
In “Medieval Arab Lesbians and Lesbian-Like Women,” from the Journal of the History of Sexuality, Sahar Amer mentions Galen, a second-century Greek physician, who wanted to understand why his daughter was a lesbian. So he examined his daughter’s nether bits, like you do, and concluded that her sexuality was due to “an itch between the major and minor labia.” This itch, he theorized, could only be soothed by rubbing one’s labia against another woman’s labia.
Well, if you insist, doctor.
2. Hot Vapors
In a similar vein, ninth-century Muslim philosopher al-Kindi, postulated it wasn’t just itching that was to blame, but also vaporous heat: “Lesbianism is due to a vapor which, condensed, generates in the labia heat and an itch which only dissolve and become cold through friction and orgasm.”
Another orgasm with a woman as the cure? I guess we’ll take it. But why doesn’t sex with men reduce this “heat”?
“When friction and orgasm take place, the heat turns into coldness because the liquid that a woman ejaculates in lesbian intercourse is cold whereas the same liquid that results from sexual union with men is hot. Heat, however, cannot be extinguished by heat; rather, it will increase since it needs to be treated by its opposite. As coldness is repelled by heat, so heat is also repelled by coldness.”
Thank goodness for “frigid” women, amirite?
Elsewhere in the ninth century, and again according to Amer’s article, some doctors from the Islamicate world thought lesbianism was “an inborn state caused by the mother’s consumption of certain foods that, when passed through the milk during nursing, led to labial itching and lifelong lesbianism.”
Which foods provoke the lesbian itch? According to physician Yuhanna ibn Masawayh, also known as John Mesué, lesbianism “results when a nursing woman eats celery, rocket [arugula], melilot leaves, and the flowers of a bitter orange tree. When she eats these plants and suckles her child, they will affect the labia of her suckling and generate an itch which the suckling will carry through her future life.”
Celery, arugula and orange flowers. No wonder so many queer women are vegan.
4. Your Brother’s Penis
In Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why, Simon LeVay discusses psychoanalytic theories surrounding the roots of homosexuality, with a snippet on, who else, Sigmund Freud. Freud’s ideas (very briefly summarized) about same-sex desire were mostly aimed at boys, who he thought developed a sexual fixation with their mothers from about three to five years old (the Oedipal complex). Those boys who get stuck in the Oedipal phase, he conjectured, head right to Brown Town, USGAY.
When Freud tried to explain female sexuality, his theories got even weirder. He wrote that girls also go through an Oedipal fixation phase with their mothers, but once they realize mom has no penis, a girl becomes fixated on her father instead and her mother becomes a rival.
In one detailed case of female homosexuality, Freud writes that the birth of a girl’s younger brother, whose penis made a “strong impression” on her, turned her gay. Freud writes of the girl, “It was not she who bore the child, but her unconsciously hated rival, her mother… Furiously resentful and embittered, she turned away from her father, and from men altogether.”
You hate your mother! But you’re weirdly mad that you aren’t pregnant … with your own sibling. Hence, BE GONE MEN, FOREVER. Let no penis ever make an impression on ye again. Or if an impression is made, let it be weak! Weak as this ridiculous theory.
5. The Occult and Peer Pressure
This whole article reads like a fifth-grader’s diatribe, and I am quite positive English is not the writer’s first language, but of the more bizarre reasons listed as to why women “go into lesbianism,” it’s hard to beat voodoo and peer pressure.
“In Africa, we have many women who went in for voodoo to make money and usually some of the conditions [sic] is to have sex with women to make money and following the rules, they decide to have sex with other women. Most of these women are rich and lure young girls into the act.”
When in doubt, blame the witches. They do have all those cats, after all. But what about those not involved in the occult?
“Many women have ended up lesbians through friends who introduced them into it. Out of pressure, they succumbed to it and got addicted to the act. Usually when they break their virginity through this act, it becomes difficult to break out of it because the perception is, that’s the normal copulation until maybe they meet a man who shows them the difference.”
It’s like the Beatles warned, “I get bi with a little help from my friends.”
6. “A Growth from the Mouth of the Womb”
A famous Italian surgeon in the medieval era, William of Bologna, attributed lesbianism to a “growth emanating from the mouth of the womb and appearing outside the vagina as a pseudopenis.” In The Construction of Homosexuality, David Greenberg wryly notes of William’s conjecture: “This was obviously not a notion derived from clinical observation.”
William’s bologna aside, the shape and size of a woman’s genitalia have been frequently policed, shamed and even surgically altered to conform with cultural norms. According to Paul Chrystal’s In Bed with the Romans, female genital mutilation in ancient Rome was common, and performed in order to stop a girl from masturbating or to quell the “desire for intercourse driven by an unnaturally large clitoris.”
The second-century mathematician, astronomer and geographer Claudius Ptolemy, best known for his geocentric (or Earth-centered) model explaining the structure of the universe, also had some opinions about sexual preference. Namely, that it was influenced by astrology, or “the configurations of heavenly bodies.” In a footnote in The Construction of Homosexuality, Ptolemy notes that certain planetary alignments can lead to “effeminacy” and “wantonness,” as well as make people “debauchers of women,” and “corrupters of youth.”
Is anyone else seeing a pattern here? Vegetables, witchcraft, astrology — lesbians love all these things. Perhaps in attempting to cure us of our beastly passions, these theorists inadvertently reinforced them. Or, at least gave us an excuse to blame everything on Mercury being in retrograde.
Now pass me some celery, I feel an itch coming on.
This article originally appeared on Alternet. Reprinted here with permission.