The Lesbian Panic, Victorian Desires and the Gothic Genre

The Lesbian Panic, Victorian Desires and the Gothic Genre
© Photograph by Arka Devbil

Have you heard the one about Queen Victoria? When asked whether the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act outlawing homosexual acts between men should be extended to include homosexual acts between women, the Queen simply could not imagine that sex between two women was possible.

However, amusing such ignorance may appear to a savvy contemporary audience, the ‘Queen Victoria Principle’ (Castle: 66) — through relatively harmless when compared to the more violent manifestations of homophobia — is one of the most powerful discourses distorting the representation of lesbianism to date: “To judge by how frequently it is repeated, the story of Queen Victoria’s pronouncement has taken on, alas, the status of cultural myth — the ‘truth’ of which is that lesbians do not really exist. Whenever it is retold — even seemingly jokingly, by antihomophobic historians and critics — it almost always prefigures the erasure of lesbianism from the discourse that is to follow (Castle: 249-50n).”

If lesbianism has been erased from culture and history, then what about its visibility in literature? Castle laments that “the concept of lesbian fiction […] remains somewhat undertheorized” (Castle: 67), citing the theorist Eve Sedgwick as a perpetrator of such critical disregard.

Sedgwick, she argues, has neglected to study lesbian desire with the same attention she has devoted to male homosexual desire in studies such as ‘Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire’ (1985).

Sedgwick, for her part, defends herself from this criticism: “[T]he diacritical opposition between the ‘homosocial’ and the ‘homosexual’ seems to be much less thorough and dichotomous for women than men […] an intelligible continuum of aims, emotions and valuations link lesbianism with other forms of women’s attention to women: the bond of mother and daughter, for instance, the bond of sister and sister, women’s friendship, ‘networking’, and the active struggles of feminism (697).”

Though Sedgwick nods towards lesbian literary history in this passage, she underplays its important status in her discussion of homosexual panic. Her description of an idealized “continuum” of “women loving women”, however well-intentioned, obscures the sexual dimension of lesbian desire, “its incorrigibly lascivious surge towards the body of another woman” (Castle: 11).

This article, drawing on Sedgwick’s studies, will develop a hypothesis about the representation of lesbian desire. Before progressing, however, I wish to delineate my understanding of lesbian desire and how it departs from, and yet relates to, nonsexual, homosocial bonds between women.

To do so, I make reference to ‘Lesbian Panic’ by Patricia Smith (1997). Smith’s study explores the intense anxiety surrounding lesbian desire in twentieth-century women’s writing.

Her scholarship encompasses the seventy-five years between Virginia Woolf and Jeanette Winterson, analysing several novels as “case studies” in which intimate homosocial relationships between women engender anxiety.

Smith terms such anxiety “lesbian panic”: “the disruptive action that occurs when a character — or, conceivably, an author — is either unable or unwilling to confront or reveal her own lesbianism or lesbian desire”.

Smith looks at heterosexually-orientated texts in which lesbian desire repeatedly arises, only to be violently denied through narrative devices: “This destructive reaction may be as sensational as suicide or homicide, or as subtle and vague as a generalised [sic] neurasthenic malaise”.

Smith follows feminist theorists Gayle Rubin and Luce Irigaray in understanding women as fulfilling a socio-economic role as exchange commodities in relations between men. This idea originates in the anthropological studies of Lévi- Strauss, who writes that: “The total relationship of exchange which constitutes marriage is not established between a man and a woman, but between two groups of men, and the woman figures only as one of the objects in the exchange, not as one of the partners” (161).

In her ground-breaking essay ‘The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy of Sex”’ (1984), Rubin further develops the implications of this theory for feminism: “If women are the gifts, then it is men who are the exchange partners. And it is the partners, not the presents, upon whom reciprocal exchange confers its quasi-mystical power of social linkage” (542-43). Therefore, women are possessions, and the real basis of power lies in the relationship between the men that exchange them.

Sedgwick uses this concept to explore the dynamics of the erotic triangle, in which two men vying for the hand of a woman serve as a metaphor for patriarchal culture, which is founded on desiring male homosocial relationships.

Sedgwick’s exploration of homosocial desire carefully problematizes the discontinuities of the male homosocial bonds upon which patriarchal society depends. Her ultimate aim is to “draw the ‘homosocial’ back into the orbit of desire [and] to hypothesize the potential unbrokeness of a continuum between homosocial and homosexual” (696).

However, what is the status of the lesbian in this patriarchal system of exchange? As we have seen, Sedgwick denies that such a thing as homosexual panic occurs between women. As exchange commodities, they are exempt from the complex rules of homosocial bonding and therefore, the continuum between the homosocial and the homosexual is subject to fewer boundaries. But Patricia Smith argues that women also suffer from homosexual panic.

Drawing on Sedgwick’s study of male homosexual panic, she argues that female homosocial bonding is also terrorized by the threat of this bonding becoming homosexual — consequently obliterating a woman’s market value as an “exchange commodity” (an idea extended from Gayle Rubin’s ‘Traffic in Women’).

Lesbian panic, she writes, arises from this fear of losing one’s meaning and value in the patriarchal system: “[W]hat is at stake for a woman under such conditions is nothing less than economic survival, as the object of exchange is inevitably dependent on the exchanger for her continued perceived worth […] lesbianism frequently lacks a name, much less an acknowledged or acceptable identity. Accordingly, the fear of the loss of identity and value as object of exchange, often combined with the fear of responsibility for one’s own sexuality, is a characteristic response; it is from precisely such fears that lesbian panic arises. (6)”

Contrary to Sedgwick’s view of female homosexuality as part of an acceptable, acknowledged continuum of “women loving women”, in many ways lesbianism signifies the breaking of the most fundamental rules of patriarchal culture: “By refusing to undergo the symbolic emasculation that Western society demands of its female members — indeed depends upon — the woman who desires another woman has always set herself apart (if only by default) as outlaw and troublemaker” (Castle: 5).

Prefiguring the work of Patricia Smith, Gayle Rubin acknowledges lesbian panic, in a passage that Sedgwick perhaps neglected when researching for ‘Between Men’: “As long as men have rights in women which women do not have in themselves, it would be sensible to expect that homosexuality in women would be subject to more suppression than in men” (548).

We can thus begin to understand that Queen Victoria’s faux pas, rather than confirming the non-existence of lesbianism, is symbolic of a culture permeated by lesbian panic, for “behind such silence, one can detect an anxiety too severe to allow for articulation” (Castle: 6).

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