Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Surpassing the Love of Men

"We have learned to deny such a depth of feeling toward any one but a prospective or an actual mate. Other societies did not demand this kind of suppression."
--Lillian Faderman, 1981

I tried to watch Daytime TV, but once I learned that Jerry Springer's bodyguard has his own show, I fled to my local Hawaiian cafe in fear. For as long as I'm unemployed, I figure I'll be doing quite a bit of reading. Right now, I'm working on Surpassing the Love of Men by Lillian Faderman. Its subtitle is "Romantic friendship and love between women from the Renaissance to the present". I'm only about a third through it, but I can already tell that I'll be recommending this book extremely highly to everyone. For an academic book, it's an easy read, and it's absolutely fascinating, sometimes shocking, and maybe even a little tragic. I'm very glad that someone wrote this book, which is probably one of the highest praises I can give.

Surpassing the Love of Men
will make you think, but not in the brain-zapping way of Gender Trouble. It's easy to think that our own time's sexual mores are somehow truer than those of other eras. But Faderman confuses that notion. She spends a lot of time exploring the idea that until the 20th century, all "good women" were completely asexual. Now, all women are sexual. If we were seen as uniquely sexual beings, I would consider that a great improvement. But, we aren't seen that way by our culture at large. Women are still just sex objects, as we've always been. However, in previous times, women could have passionate relationships with each other, and because they were presumed to be asexual, these relationships were encouraged and condoned by society (unlike, perhaps, people's views of lesbianism in 1981?).

While reading about these "romantic friendships", I saw my ideal relationships being described again and again. The famous "Ladies of Llangollen", Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, escaped marriage to live happily, inseparably, and asexually together in their own cottage in Wales. But the sad truth is, most women of the age couldn't live out the fantasy of spending their lives with their female beloved, and were forced to marry men. Can we ever win?

There's a short chapter called "The Asexual Woman", but don't get too excited. It's concerned with a court case in which the judges ruled that two women couldn't possibly have sex with each other because it was against their nature and good character. As Faderman reminds us, all women during the 1800s were seen as asexual, unless they were prostitutes, actresses, or hedonistic nobility types. But, this is a book that I think will be of great interest to all asexual people-- and anyone else interested in human relationships. (Which is, purposely, almost everyone.)


Dreki said...

I believe Virginia Woolf had relationships that were, apparently, almost solely confined to pen and paper correspondence with the other women. I'm not sure if that would be considered asexual or not, as there was no actual sex- mostly fantasy and sharing erotic works.

Fellmama said...

What does Faderman say about pre-modern relationships? Here you've implied that she believes that "good" women were always considered asexual prior to this century, which is most definitely untrue. Does she take it as prima facie or discuss the 19th-century setup?

Ily said...

Good point, Mary. She only talks about the 1600s or so onwards. Needless to say, a relatively small chunk of history (although the book's already pretty long). I'm just now getting into the part about the late 1800s/early 1900s, so things are starting to shift a little...