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Eccentricity and Sameness

Discourses on Lesbianism and Desire between Women in Italy, 1860s–1930s


Charlotte Ross

Dispelling widespread views that female same-sex desire is virtually absent from Italian literature and cultural production in the modern era, this groundbreaking study demonstrates that narratives of lesbianism are significantly more numerous than has been previously asserted. Focusing on texts published between 1860 and 1939, the author traces and analyses the evolution of discourses on female same-sex desire in and across a wide variety of genres, whether popular bestsellers, texts with limited distribution and subject to censorship, or translations from other languages. All the works are considered in relation to broader socio-cultural contexts. The analysis uncovers a plurality of different sources for these narratives of lesbianism and desire between women, showing how different layers of discourse emerge from or are reworked in and across several genres. From scientists who condemned the immoral and degenerate nature of «Sapphic» desire, to erotic publications that revelled in the pleasures of female same-sex intimacy, to portrayals of homoerotic desire by female writers that call (more or less obliquely) for its legitimization, these texts open up important new perspectives on discourses of sexuality in modern Italy.
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While there is a small body of critical work on lesbianism in Italy, particularly in the field of sociology, as Liana Borghi points out (2007), such studies have largely been considered ‘niche’ interest works, or have been linked to LGBTQ political activism. Furthermore, she suggests, many of the academic publications in Italian on lesbianism have until recently consisted of translations or disseminations of foreign texts and theories on sexuality. Such texts are necessary and enriching, but this implies that Italy does not have its own queer past or present, and risks compounding a situation in which debates on the Italian context are ‘colonized’ by Anglophone discussions, rather than developing their own shape and form. In this study, I have attempted to shine a light on the rich confusion of discourses on female same-sex desire in the Italian context, to ‘de-ghost’ women who desire women, and to dispel the myth that representations of lesbianism and female same-sex desire are nowhere to be found. Certainly, these representations have always been relatively marginal, often extremely problematic, and fractured rather than developing a cumulative, cultural presence; yet they exist in a wide variety of genres, from satirical novels to erotica, from bio-medical manuals to autobiographical fiction.

In tracing these discourses across a period of several decades, it becomes clear that particular terms and concepts migrated between textual genres and disciplines, undergoing various degrees of resignification along the way. The majority of the scientific texts discussed sought to identify symptoms and...

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