Stop Fetishizing Queer Women and Femmes
Despite only becoming accepted more widely in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the LGBTQ+ community has always existed. However, they, as queer people (and especially women) were shunned and shamed into maintaining silence surrounding their sexuality. In much of the last millennia, a woman who didn’t partake in particularly “feminine” activities was considered a witch. Often times, these were queer women. The immediate example that comes to mind is Maud Galt, a lesbian who was accused of witchcraft in 17th century Scotland. Attempting to cover up her stigmatized sexuality was a difficult task. Despite marrying a man, she had a relationship with a female servant in the household, only to be accused of sexually assaulting the servant herself. The council abandoned the sexual assault charge, and instead decided to accuse her of witchcraft. For historian Julian Goodare, Galt's case demonstrated that "the shocked authorities found the idea of witchcraft easier to cope with than lesbianism." Her case ended with no further legal action, and Galt eventually died in 1670, but Maud Galt is not the only woman to experience such discrimination.
Several women were burned at the stake elsewhere in Europe for similar allegations, but the fact that Galt had faced no ramifications makes her a massive outlier in terms of legal punishments for the crimes laid out before her. As lecturer at the University of Dundee, Brian Dempsey, wrote, “Although Scotland possesses rich sources for lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transsexual (LGBT) history, this is a sadly neglected aspect of our national history...Women-loving women are particularly difficult to find in the Scottish records." And even now, The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women only records eleven entries under "sexuality." Queer women across Europe were offered an ultimatum: hide your sexuality by marrying a man, and have an unhappy life with him, or face death for stepping out of line. Luckily, this is not the ultimatum the LGBTQ+ community is given now, seeing as the free right to marry is now guaranteed in many nations with histories of persecution, but people in these communities are far from having perfect and equal rights as compared to cisgender and heterosexual men.
Knowing and recognizing all of the history behind queer interactions with straight men in power, and seeing now that in the mainstream, women have long existed for men, rather than with them, it begs the question: what impact do straight men have on the LGBTQ+ community? Straight men have always had the privilege of not being marginalized for their sexual orientation or gender identity, which places queer people, regardless of their specific gender identity or sexuality, already underneath straight men in society.
Lesbians have long fascinated the world. From the 17th century shaming of femmes who loved each other, to early 19th century ukiyo-e prints featuring two naked women from Japan, to the modern American man’s searches on PornHub, to Ellen DeGeneres coming out on live TV in front of 42 million people in 1997, the idea of two women being in love with each other, and not two men, captured attention on a massive scale. I had always known people were interested in women who had relationships with women, but I had no idea why that might be: so I decided to ask my male friends why they believed straight men were attracted to lesbians. They gave me short, almost oversimplified, answers like “straight men like women being sexual, they get more women being sexual if it’s lesbian porn.” The answers seemed almost too simple to be real, that an issue so complicated on the side of WLWs is so simple for straight men.
Often, it seems, straight men were willing to answer my questions, but seemed very quick to deflect that they themselves were involved in the fetishization of WLWs. Upon being asked his thoughts on lesbians as a straight man, Tim* a 16-year-old from Missouri replied curtly, “you do you, but I’m not into porn at all.” Others, like Michael*, an 18 year old college freshman, said “I don’t really like lesbians in porn, though, to be honest, I might be a minority.” In my conversations with straight men, I had yet to find one who enjoyed lesbian porn, despite it being the highest-viewed category on PornHub in the United States in 2019.
Other straight men, however, took direct part in more than just sexualization. On April 4, queer women and femmes of the class of 2024 were shocked to find out that there was a group chat on Snapchat titled "AU 2024 Bois"** that was partaking in direct homophobia and making comments about lesbians. "Lesbians were invented by the hub to sell more porn" one comment said. Another member replied, "I fucking hate seeing a cute girl on PornHub and finding out she likes pussy. Just the biggest gut punch." At this point, we've stumbled across the other breed of cisgender, heterosexual men who stand against lesbian porn: the ones who don't like it because they're homophobic, which again, sent me searching for why straight men are so invested, statistically speaking, in porn that features WLWs.
In reality, women-loving women capture the attention of a straight man in the exact same way a straight woman would. It’s attraction that does not seem to take the feelings between partners into account or who these femmes are. I looked to more friends for answers. What fuels this mentality among the people who sexualize WLWs? According to Alex*, a bisexual 18-year-old male college freshman, “it’s objectification.” It’s not about the connection between partners at all, it’s simply the fact that it’s two women rather than one, and it makes the porn-watching experience more pleasurable for someone attracted to women.
On the other hand, WLWs shared their unique experiences with me by the dozen. Everyone I talked to seemed eager to share a different story that they had, something that had happened to them. Maddi, a 20-year-old bisexual woman from Washington, spoke fiercely to the sexualization she personally experienced when coming out to men in her life, “Men usually automatically go ‘yo, when’s the threesome?’ or ‘that’s so hot’ or even ‘wow, now we have something in common.’ Women often don’t react at all.” What shocked me was that the reaction to choosing to tell someone about her sexual identity was sexual in nature. It’s just objectification and sexualization taken to the furthest degree. Queer women being treated as sexual objects is not just a thing of the past. We may not be burnt at the stake for holding hands with a girl in public, but the problem is still prominent and invasive.
Unfortunately, according to Kat, a queer 18-year-old high school senior and climate justice activist from Minnesota, cisgender and heterosexual men have the habit of “using wokeness to cover up their creepiness.” The objectification of queer femmes is so pervasive and ingrained in society that it is inescapable, but that doesn't stop men from trying to look the other way.
Things are not getting better. As much as queer women and femmes can support each other, there is nothing we can do to change the conversation about the sexualization of WLWs without the help of men as well. Men could turn to their friends when they make a comment about lesbians and say, "hey, that's not appropriate," but they've yet to step up to the plate. Maddi put it best when she said, “it’s like they are okay with us as long as we are for their pleasure. But as soon as we try to serve our own purposes, they have no respect.”
Whether it is downright hate and homophobia, or tacitly made comments that enforce systemic barriers, things need to change. Men need to realize that they are failing as co-conspirators against anti-queer, anti-woman, and anti-femme microaggressions that they are silently allowing every single day. What can you do? Call people out. Actively work against sexism and homophobia in the system. We're waiting on you.
Some names have been changed to respect the privacy of interviewees*
Many of the people involved in this group have since left American University due to disciplinary action or personal choice**
Many interviews were done personally as a part of the writing of this piece.
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Goodare, Julian (2016-05-12). The European Witch-Hunt. Routledge.
Dempsey, Brian (September 2009). "They were a bit, ken, 'thon wey'" (PDF). History Scotland:
PornHub. “The 2019 Year in Review.” Pornhub Insights, 2019.
Viera, Bene. “Ellen DeGeneres Came out in Front of Nearly 42 Million People.” Medium, Timeline,
3 May 2018.