Are lesbians invisible because they're women?

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Compared to gay men, lesbians are still relatively invisible in today’s society. Is it because they’re women, asks Sophie Wilkinson

I love my straight friends. But sometimes it gets awkward. It’s not that I blush when they get changed in front of me, or that we can’t go to the toilet together for a chat. But when I hang out with my (liberal, creative, interesting) straight friends, I have to do a little extra preparation. Just as I’ll apply my liquid eyeliner that bit thicker to fit in better at a straight bar, I also have to prepare for some clumsy interrogations. After a few glasses of wine and small talk come the same old questions: “Why are there more gay men than lesbians?”, “How do lesbians do it?”, “Will you ever go back to men?” and “Why do lesbians dress like boys?”

Despite having been ‘out’ for 11 years – I first started telling unsurprised schoolmates when I was 14 – I still get these questions. Though they’re tiresome and intrusive, I can’t blame anyone for asking. Of course, men are interested because it’s titillating, but women’s interest is more layered than that. Because although lesbians are on the agenda – same-sex couples are on the cusp of being given equal marriage rights and it was recommended that lesbians have access to free IVF on the NHS in February – compared to gay men, lesbians are invisible. Sure, we can all name about six British lesbians in the public eye, but we can reel off hundreds of gay men, famous or otherwise.

Yes, we know lesbians exist, but where are all the lesbian bars? We know that camp humour, great fashion and art have come from gay men, but lesbians haven’t made a similar imprint on our culture. Why is this? Is it because lesbians aren’t straight or is their relative invisibility something much simpler, and far more depressing – is it because they’re women?


Like freckles, sexuality is something you’re born with. Why else would gay people continue to come out in countries like Nigeria, where they risk death? Also, same-sex desire is recognisable early on. Just as my four-year-old nephew tells blonde women how pretty they are, when I was that age, I played kiss chase with pretty blondes (a habit I’m yet to shake).

A 2005 survey by the government ahead of the Civil Partnerships Act, found that around 5-7% of the population was Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transsexual (LGBT). The maths is simple: if 5-7% of the population is not straight, then there are about 3.6 million LGBT people in the UK. And if it’s naturally occurring, it happens to as many women as it does men, so there are 1.8 million gay or bisexual women in the UK (although there are no official surveys to back up these calculations). So, why is gay culture more prominent than lesbian culture?

The gay community is more united for two reasons; firstly, it’s simply better defined. Scientific studies show that non-straight men are more likely to be gay, whereas women’s sexuality is less concrete, so they’re more likely to be bisexual than lesbian. Research from California State University showed that women are 27 times as likely as men to be bisexual, and a 2005 BBC survey indicated that 6% of women in the UK are bisexual, with only 3% self-identifying as lesbians.

Dr Qazi Rahman, a lecturer in cognitive biology at Queen Mary University, recently found that 35-40% of women have experienced either a same-sex sexual experience or a strong same-sex desire. He said: “There is a general assumption that female sexuality is more fluid than that of males, and current research supports this.” So men are much more likely to be either gay or straight: “The prevailing scientific view is that bisexuality in males doesn’t physiologically exist.”

The upshot of this is that the lesbian scene’s edges are woollier and harder to locate. Secondly, because of the Victorian ban on gay sex – repealed in 1967 – and the blaming of gay HIV/AIDS sufferers for their own fates in the Eighties and Nineties, gay men have pulled together against persecution. Of course, lesbians are thankful to not have gone through these hardships, but some historians suggest lesbianism was never outlawed because politicians didn’t want women to find out what it was. The female orgasm was considered an affliction, written off by medical experts as ‘hysteria’ up until the end of the 19th century, so sexual activity that didn’t include male pleasure was whitewashed from history.


And therein lies the rub. Lesbianism is glossed over and made palatable for male tastes. We all recognise the cliché of lesbian porn; two blondes idly pawing at each other, fluttering their eyelashes to a (sometimes invisible) man who inevitably joins in. Fortunately for real women’s thighs and real men’s egos, porn doesn’t mirror reality. But if this cliché isn’t real lesbian sex, then what is real lesbian sex? I’m often asked: “Do you count it [my sexual activity] as sex?” which is never asked of gay men.

Christian Pambrun, a 27-yearold gay man who works in the music industry, says: “Straight people will never doubt it’s sex, but will ask me, ‘So are you the woman, or the man?’” Such a comment is irritating, yes, but at least it doesn’t come with the added insult that your adult relationships are simply pretend. Sally Munt, professor of Cultural and Gender Studies at the University of Sussex, says, “What lesbians do in bed is a huge preoccupation of straight pornography. ‘Real sex’ is often still assumed to be defined by the male orgasm and female penetration.” Which, to Cydney Chadwick, a bisexual 25 year old who works in advertising, is ridiculous: “When women have sex, they do what is physically possible, and I consider that as sex. The build-up is more intense, and that’s something you miss when you have sex with a man. There’s nothing missing when I’m having sex with a woman.”

Look at it like this: the Pill was invented three generations ago, so we’ve had enough time to accept that sex doesn’t have to be procreative, and that women can do it for pleasure too. But because penetration is straight sex’s defining feature, women are still facing inequality in the bedroom. In 2009, a survey found that only 25% of straight women reach climax through penetration alone. And a 2005 study showed that most men climax within three to seven minutes of ‘sex’, whereas the scientific consensus is that women take up to 20 minutes to orgasm. Clearly, a man’s USP – the thing straight people worry lesbians’ sex life is worthless without – isn’t even doing the trick for them. Professor Munt agrees: “Different people find pleasure in different ways; that is the joy of human sexual desire, that it is not defined by, or restricted to, one act.” Sex is supposed to be mutually satisfying, but if it centres around male pleasure, then it can’t be.


There’s also the assumption that lesbianism is all a passing phase. When straight friends tell me about the traditional milestones they’ve reached with their partners – holidays, moving in together, engagements – they then ask me, “Do you think you’ll end up with a man one day?” I’ve experimented with men, and even fancied some, but I’m not sure a gay man would be asked the equivalent – it’s assumed that once a man has slept with another man, there’s no turning back, whereas women sleeping with other women is ‘fooling around’. So this question is always insulting. Lauren Peach, a 26-year-old teacher, agrees: “People would say it to me when I was in the early stages of my relationship with my fiancée. They thought it was just an experiment. I was frustrated and disappointed that they couldn’t just accept we were together and in love.”

However, it’s little wonder people are curious about women sleeping with women when the media represent it as so outlandish. From Lindsay Lohan’s relationship with Sam Ronson to Natalie Portman’s character in Black Swan, it’s portrayed as the behaviour of an unhinged woman. Otherwise, it’s a marketing tool that Rihanna, Ke$ha, Katy Perry, Megan Fox and Nicki Minaj have used to woo men. And this trickles down into real life. A lesbian experience is now seen as like taking a gap year, or something to tick off on a bucket list. Which seems more about male desire for a girl to prove she’ll do something they enjoy, than actual female desire for another woman. And considering those 35-40% of women who have had a strong same-sex attraction or lesbian experience, it shows how little our society cares about female pleasure if women’s attraction to other women is written off as madness or flippancy.

ABOVE: Melanie Rickey and wife Mary Portas


Male desire also seems to dictate the areas of life, work and culture where lesbians can be successful. We could spend all day reeling off the names of gay British men who have come to be part of every sector of public life. But what about the women? Sandi Toksvig, Sue Perkins, Clare Balding, Romy Madley Croft of The XX and Mary Portas make up the very few out British lesbians/bisexual women in the public eye. Fame shouldn’t have to be a measure of validity, but there’s no doubt that public opinion is shaped more by culture than government policy.

The lesbians who are currently ‘out’ in British public life are respected for their talents beyond their sexual currency. Their coming out didn’t drive away hordes of slack-jawed men because they’ve reached that holy grail of female celebrity where their fame doesn’t depend on men fancying them and they don’t have to play up to lads’ mag ideals of beauty to sell what they’re flogging. But when it comes to non-straight women from fields where they’re expected to cosy up to men or talk about boyfriends in interviews, their coming out is negated somewhere along the line.

Courtney from the band Stooshe, once fairly butch, was given hair extensions and false nails so she looked more like her straight bandmates. And even though Jessie J refuted the allegation made in an unofficial biography that she’s secretly gay, hiding behind the ‘bisexuality’ tag to maintain her appeal, there is no doubt that her attraction to women has been tempered in the two years since she promised to Do It Like A Dude. In these instances, female same-sex desire has been treated as flippant and malleable, because apparently the public is too simple to understand that a conventionally beautiful woman might not fancy men.

ABOVE: Portia de Rossi and Ellen DeGeneres


All of this suggests the homophobia experienced by lesbians and bisexual women is merely an extension of misogyny, so how do we undo it all? So long as influential institutions such as the government and the media are male-led, then all women are going to be marginalised, but until there’s balance in the industries which shape public opinion, we can all do our bit.

Firstly, we can redefine sex by making sure the sex we have revolves around mutual desire and pleasure – straight women could make lesbians seem more sincere by refusing to feign a sexual interest in women just because it gets men off. Secondly, if women strove to live independently of male approval it wouldn’t be assumed that women can’t exist without male support. I’m not saying men aren’t necessary, but no woman should feel required to have a husband and babies to have a fulfilled life unless she chooses to. And as annoying as all the ‘lesbian’ questions are, perhaps keep them coming, because assumptions are even more damaging.

Lesbians and bisexual women aren’t stereotypes – they’re not only the porn ideals or the rough butches. They’re individuals with varied tastes, interests and dress senses. So don’t assume if a woman looks feminine that she’s ‘straight’, and don’t assume that women without make-up are gay. I don’t want to drag any lesbian out of the closet, because the truth is that coming out can be career-ruining. But for ‘lesbianism’ to be treated as the normal, naturally occurring thing that it is, then we need more non-straight women in the public eye. I respect any lesbian or bisexual woman’s decision to keep her private life private, but shame on those in the public eye still pretending to be something they’re not.

More broadly, lesbian culture needs to be allowed to shine. Though gay men have a cultural history that informs pop culture, lesbians have not had similar opportunities, because women aren’t given the same funding as men. Support should be based on merit over gender, and if there isn’t equal uptake, then we need to ask why. Though it will take a while to change the male-driven industries which influence our opinions, if we create a society where lesbians and bisexual women are neither seen as titillating nor disgusting, then all women will be valued for more than their sexuality.

What do you think? Are lesbians less visible in UK society because they are women? Have your say in the comments below, or on Twitter @StylistMagazine

Picture credits: Megan Taylor; Rex Features