Origin and transformation of the term
The word lesbian is derived from the name of the Greek island of Lesbos, home to the 6th-century BCE poet Sappho. From various ancient writings, historians gathered that a group of young women were left in Sappho's charge for their instruction or cultural edification. Little of Sappho's poetry survives, but her remaining poetry reflects the topics she wrote about: women's daily lives, their relationships, and rituals. She focused on the beauty of women and proclaimed her love for girls. Before the mid-19th century, the word lesbian referred to any derivative or aspect of Lesbos, including a type of wine.[note 1]
In Algernon Charles Swinburne's 1866 poem Sapphics, the term lesbian appears twice but capitalized both times after twice mentioning the island of Lesbos, and so could be construed to mean 'from the island of Lesbos'. In 1875, George Saintsbury, in writing about Baudelaire's poetry, refers to his "Lesbian studies" in which he includes his poem about "the passion of Delphine" which is a poem simply about love between two women which does not mention the island of Lesbos, though the other poem alluded to, entitled "Lesbos", does. Lesbianism, to describe erotic relationships between women, had been documented in 1870. In 1890, the term lesbian was used in a medical dictionary as an adjective to describe tribadism (as "lesbian love"). The terms lesbian, invert and homosexual were interchangeable with sapphist and sapphism around the turn of the 20th century. The use of lesbian in medical literature became prominent; by 1925, the word was recorded as a noun to mean the female equivalent of a sodomite.
The development of medical knowledge was a significant factor in further connotations of the term lesbian. In the middle of the 19th century, medical writers attempted to establish ways to identify male homosexuality, which was considered a significant social problem in most Western societies. In categorizing behavior that indicated what was referred to as "inversion" by German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, researchers categorized what was normal sexual behavior for men and women, and therefore to what extent men and women varied from the "perfect male sexual type" and the "perfect female sexual type".
Far less literature focused on female homosexual behavior than on male homosexuality, as medical professionals did not consider it a significant problem. In some cases, it was not acknowledged to exist. However, sexologists Richard von Krafft-Ebing from Germany, and Britain's Havelock Ellis wrote some of the earliest and more enduring categorizations of female same-sex attraction, approaching it as a form of insanity (Ellis' categorization of "lesbianism" as a medical problem is now discredited). Krafft-Ebing, who considered lesbianism (what he termed "Uranism") a neurological disease, and Ellis, who was influenced by Krafft-Ebing's writings, disagreed about whether sexual inversion was generally a lifelong condition. Ellis believed that many women who professed love for other women changed their feelings about such relationships after they had experienced marriage and a "practical life".
However, Ellis conceded that there were "true inverts" who would spend their lives pursuing erotic relationships with women. These were members of the "third sex" who rejected the roles of women to be subservient, feminine, and domestic. Invert described the opposite gender roles, and also the related attraction to women instead of men; since women in the Victorian period were considered unable to initiate sexual encounters, women who did so with other women were thought of as possessing masculine sexual desires.
The work of Krafft-Ebing and Ellis was widely read, and helped to create public consciousness of female homosexuality.[note 2] The sexologists' claims that homosexuality was a congenital anomaly were generally well-accepted by homosexual men; it indicated that their behavior was not inspired by nor should be considered a criminal vice, as was widely acknowledged. In the absence of any other material to describe their emotions, homosexuals accepted the designation of different or perverted, and used their outlaw status to form social circles in Paris and Berlin. Lesbian began to describe elements of a subculture.
Lesbians in Western cultures in particular often classify themselves as having an identity that defines their individual sexuality, as well as their membership to a group that shares common traits. Women in many cultures throughout history have had sexual relations with other women, but they rarely were designated as part of a group of people based on whom they had physical relations with. As women have generally been political minorities in Western cultures, the added medical designation of homosexuality has been cause for the development of a subcultural identity.
Sexuality and lesbian identity
Lesbian flag derived from the 2010 Lipstick Lesbian flag design.
Lesbian community flag introduced in social media in 2018, with the dark orange stripe representing gender variance
The presence of sexual activity between women as necessary to define a lesbian or a relationship continues to be debated. According to feminist writer Naomi McCormick, women's sexuality is constructed by men, whose primary indicator of lesbian sexual orientation is sexual experience with other women. The same indicator is not necessary to identify a woman as heterosexual, however. McCormick states that emotional, mental, and ideological connections between women are as important or more so than the genital. Nonetheless, in the 1980s, a significant movement rejected the desexualization of lesbianism by cultural feminists, causing a heated controversy called the feminist sex wars. Butch and femme roles returned, although not as strictly followed as they were in the 1950s. They became a mode of chosen sexual self-expression for some women in the 1990s. Once again, women felt safer claiming to be more sexually adventurous, and sexual flexibility became more accepted.
The focus of this debate often centers on a phenomenon named by sexologist Pepper Schwartz in 1983. Schwartz found that long-term lesbian couples report having less sexual contact than heterosexual or homosexual male couples, calling this lesbian bed death. However, lesbians dispute the study's definition of sexual contact, and introduced other factors such as deeper connections existing between women that make frequent sexual relations redundant, greater sexual fluidity in women causing them to move from heterosexual to bisexual to lesbian numerous times through their lives—or reject the labels entirely. Further arguments attested that the study was flawed and misrepresented accurate sexual contact between women, or sexual contact between women has increased since 1983 as many lesbians find themselves freer to sexually express themselves.
More discussion on gender and sexual orientation identity has affected how many women label or view themselves. Most people in western culture are taught that heterosexuality is an innate quality in all people. When a woman realizes her romantic and sexual attraction to another woman, it may cause an "existential crisis"; many who go through this adopt the identity of a lesbian, challenging what society has offered in stereotypes about homosexuals, to learn how to function within a homosexual subculture. Lesbians in western cultures generally share an identity that parallels those built on ethnicity; they have a shared history and subculture, and similar experiences with discrimination which has caused many lesbians to reject heterosexual principles. This identity is unique from gay men and heterosexual women, and often creates tension with bisexual women. One point of contention are lesbians who have had sex with men, while lesbians who have never had sex with men may be referred to as "gold star lesbians." Those who have had sex with men may face ridicule from other lesbians or identity challenges with regard to defining what it means to be a lesbian.
Researchers, including social scientists, state that often behavior and identity do not match: women may label themselves heterosexual but have sexual relations with women, self-identified lesbians may have sex with men, or women may find that what they considered an immutable sexual identity has changed over time. A 2001 article on differentiating lesbians for medical studies and health research suggested identifying lesbians using the three characteristics of identity only, sexual behavior only, or both combined. The article declined to include desire or attraction as it rarely has bearing on measurable health or psychosocial issues. Researchers state that there is no standard definition of lesbian because "[t]he term has been used to describe women who have sex with women, either exclusively or in addition to sex with men (i.e., behavior); women who self-identify as lesbian (i.e., identity); and women whose sexual preference is for women (i.e., desire or attraction)" and that "[t]he lack of a standard definition of lesbian and of standard questions to assess who is lesbian has made it difficult to clearly define a population of lesbian women". How and where study samples were obtained can also affect the definition.