Same-Sex Love and Sex, Terminology

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Same-Sex Love and Sex, Terminology

The adjectival form same-sex, usually hyphenated, appears with some consistency in the early 1970s, not necessarily in relation to issues of homosexuality. The phrase is applied to homosexuality in a 1969 reader that argues for the normalcy of homosexuality (Weltge 1969). Same-sex is used in a 1973 review of literature hostile to homosexuality, seeing it as a sickness and a state, not an identity (Sagarin 1973, p. 10). In a 1978 article, Lillian Faderman applies the term freely to love, sex, and friendship. By the 1990s, however, with the debates between essentialists and constructionists, same-sex begins to lose its neutrality and to reflect anxieties around accusations of "essentialism."

"Same-sex" pertaining to love, sex, attraction, and so forth, between persons presumed of the same biological sex, is a linguistic and conceptual compromise. For scholars of the 1990s and beyond, the study of communities or individuals and same-sex sexuality in the past is closely entangled with issues of language. A precarious equilibrium is sought between those who, as Jeffrey Merrick and Bryant T. Ragan, Jr., summarize (1996, pp. 5-6), prefer to use the actual terms circulated in the past, "… underscoring the dissimilarity between past and present sexual categories," and those who deem historical language confusing and favor the clarity of the "judicious use of modern language." The liberal use of historically circumscribed and identity-based terms such as gay, lesbian, queer, or even homosexual has presented at times unsurmountable problems for the articulation of discourse about sexuality in the past. Same-sex thus seeks neutral ground within the politically invested field of sexuality studies, and strives for an above-board scientific accuracy by remaining purely descriptive and not prescriptive, and devoid of a problematic identity content easy to impune as anachronistic. It has also "authorized" work on distant-past same-sex sexuality over the stark objections of strict constructionists that, before the end of the nineteenth century, only behaviors can be studied. Yet same-sex is not immune to critique and questioning.

It merely deflates the charge of the term homosexual, because it literally translates it and has comfortably moved into nonscholarly discourse such as search engines and works of vulgarization, and even in library-catalog subject classifications. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, most likely reflecting the far-reaching impact of John Boswell's work on "same-sex unions" (Boswell 1994), the term was conflated with discussions of "gay marriage." Thus, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia speaks at once of "Same-sex marriage" and of "gay marriage," "homosexual marriage," "same-gender marriage," "gender-neutral marriage," and "equal marriage." The New York Public Library's subject-classification list cross-references same-sex couples to "gay couples." Out of its fifty same-sex subject entries, all but four are on same-sex marriage, and two of the remaining entries refer to gay couples.

Further, how does same-sex fare if the very notion of sex as immutable or even stable is contested? Indeed, if sex itself is not a given—following Judith Butler's groundbreaking assertion—but the product of its own types of construction, of context, historical situations, and period-bound discourses, same-sex could no longer accurately identify relations between persons whose assumed biological sex might be in question, in transition, in the process of being changed, or simply uncertain (Butler 1990, pp. 6-7).

At the same time, in her discussion of the difficulty of ascertaining not only the language but the "historically situated nature of sexual desire," Martha Vicinus (2004) chooses to use both lesbian and same-sex sexuality as a "convenient linguistic reminder that sex matters" (p. xxii). Same-sex may thus remain the most cogent of conventions, but not much else, and it may shield scholars from linguistic interdictions that would thwart the task of retrieving the past outside of heterosexuality.

see also Essentialism; Homosexuality, Male, History of; Lesbian, Contemporary: I. Overview.


Boswell, John. 1994. Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. New York: Villard Books.

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Faderman, Lillian. 1978. "Female Same-Sex Relationships in Novels by Longfellow, Holmes, and James." New England Quarterly 51(3): 309-332.

Merrick, Jeffrey, and Bryant T. Ragan, Jr., eds. 1996. "Introduction." In Homosexuality in Modern France. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sagarin, Edward. 1973. "The Good Guys, the Bad Guys, and the Gay Guys." Contemporary Sociology 2(1): 3-13.

Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778–1928. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Weltge, Ralph W., ed. 1969. The Same Sex: An Appraisal of Homosexuality. Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press.

                                      Francesca Sautman