Skip to main content

Lesbianism before Sexuality

Panel Organizers: Kristina Milnor, Barnard College

Kirk Ormand, Oberlin College

Most (though not all) scholars now agree that the notion of sexuality in its modern sense did not exist in ancient Greece and Rome. That is, the ancients seem not to have categorized sexual desire by the gender of the object of desire, and did not think of homo- or heteroerotic desire as constituting particular types of individuals. Of far greater concern, for men, was the question of whether a man adopted a normatively “active” (penetrating) role in sex, or adopted a non-normative “passive” role by allowing himself, or seeking, to be penetrated. The Greeks and Romans generally seem to have understood taking the “active” role as mapping onto social power, so that the “passive” role was associated with marginalized identities: women, slaves, and disempowered men.

The role of women in hetero- and homoerotic sexual relations, however, has been less carefully scrutinized than that of men, and would appear to have been less carefully theorized by the ancient Greeks and Romans themselves. Modern scholarship has paid a certain amount of attention to the figure of the tribas, the masculinized woman who, in desiring other women, was often characterized as playing the role of a man. Recent work, however, has brought to light the possibility that the Greeks and Romans thought of non-tribadic instances of female homoerotic desire as different in kind than other types of human desire. The work of Sandra Boehringer (L'Homosexualité féminine dans l'Antiquité grecque et romaine, 2007) and Jen Oliver (“Oscula iungit nec moderata satis nec sic a virgine danda: Ovid’s Callisto Episode, Female Homoeroticism, and the Study of Ancient Sexuality,” 2015) find evidence for Greek and Roman notions of a less hierarchical female homoeroticism, fundamentally different from male-male or male-female desire, and perhaps intrinsic to the sexual identities of certain (real or fictional) women.

We encourage scholars to continue to push this boundary, to see how and where the Greeks and Romans imagined female homoerotic desire and its effects. We welcome proposals on any and all features of ancient female homoerotic desire, including but not limited to: the figure of the tribas, less polarized representations of female erotic desire, features of female homosociality and friendship that might touch on the erotic, or representations of female eroticism that fall outside of any of these paradigms. We encourage analyses of any and all evidence, including material culture, pictoral or sculpted representations, literary representations, historical or epigraphic texts.

Abstracts of no more than 600 words + one page of bibliography should be sent to Deborah Kamen ( by March 1. Abstracts should be submitted anonymously, and should be free of references identifying the author. In accordance with SCS regulations, all abstracts for papers will be read anonymously by the panel organizers, who will serve as referees.