‘Fear or Fetish? The Fetishisation of Lesbians in Cold War America


In the 1950s, American society saw a huge rise in anxieties regarding gender norms and sexuality. Homosexuals were demonized through the Lavender Scare – a moral panic focused on gay and lesbian US government employees – and ideas of the nuclear family were promoted in the fight against Communism. Yet, throughout this period, there was also an influx of highly erotic lesbian fiction and magazines aimed at heterosexual men with overtly sexualised lesbian themes. This sexualisation remains prevalent today and continues to have detrimental impacts upon the lives of lesbian woman,[1] and yet its origins have received little attention in historical debate.

When constructions of homosexuality have been looked at during this period, historians have tended to focus on the political sphere. David Johnson, for example, focuses much of his attention on how anxieties regarding sexuality permeated political culture and the lives of elites.[2] Therefore, little attention is given to popular culture and perceptions of the ‘ordinary’ American citizen. Focusing primarily on political culture also means that Johnson’s narrative mainly looks at how the Lavender Scare impacted wider cultural perceptions of homosexual men.

Consequently, the sexualisation of lesbians by heterosexual men and how this came to the fore with such force during this period has not received necessary attention.

At the end of the war and throughout the 1950s, American society took a conservative turn, with ideas of gender and ‘family’ becoming all the more important as a way to distinguish America from the Communist East. Women were particularly impacted by this growing interest in conformity. As Elaine Tyler May points out, the full-time housewife became synonymous with ideas of American freedom.[3] Anything that deviated from this ideal was therefore seen as a threat.

At the same time, ideas of homosexuality were changing and ‘the lesbian’ was fashioned as an immediate danger. Lesbianism began to be framed as a sickness, but crucially it was a sickness that could be cured – if only a man could show them a “good time”.

Simultaneously, we see the crisis of masculinity. At numerous occasions during this period, historian and social critic Arthur Schlesinger wrote on the issue, arguing that World War II had ushered in an uneasy sense of vulnerability and a loss of a clear sense of self for many men that continued throughout the 1950s. This sense of a decline in manhood’s mastery over others, combined with ideas that lesbians could be ‘regained’ by patriarchal concepts of heterosexuality, meant that ‘the lesbian’ was constructed as an opportunity for men to prove themselves. The post-war into the Cold War period therefore set up the perfect conditions within which the sexualisation of lesbians could flourish.

This resulted in an influx of pulp fiction and men’s magazines, through which these themes were reflected. Stories of lesbian orgies, threesomes and lesbian nymphomaniacs were extremely popular amongst heterosexual men during this period. Within these novels, lesbians are presented as deviants, yet deviants who are often regained by heterosexual, familial norms after experiencing life changing heterosexual sex.

Cover of The Third Sex by Artemis Smith (1963 Edition).

The message is therefore clear. If men show lesbians a good time by reasserting their masculinity, these women will once against fit within the Cold War ideals of conformity – everyone’s a winner.

Men’s magazines took a similar approach. Stories and images of two women looking for a man were extremely popular. What we can learn from 1950s and 1960s America is that sex sells, but lesbian sex sells better.

This had very real life consequences for lesbians, as men encroached on their space in the search of sexual encounters. Analysis of interviews and testimonies show that this repressive context led to a thriving underground lesbian movement and a vast number of lesbian bars being established. Heterosexual men often took advantage of these lesbian spaces, going there in search of lesbian women to have sex with –further demonstrating how they were constructed as an opportunity in the eyes of men.

Ultimately, the period between 1947 up until the stonewall riots of 1969 provided the ideal conditions within which the sexualisation of lesbians could and indeed did flourish. Sexualisation of lesbians is still widespread within our society today and lesbians continue to face challenges of not only being seen as a sexual fantasy but also having their sexuality presented as merely performative and something that can be “regained” by heterosexual masculinity

In numerous recent insight reports, PornHub revealed that ‘Lesbian’ was the most searched for and most viewed category across numerous American states, with 75 percent of the American audience being male. These statistics demonstrate that lesbianism continues to be framed within the male gaze. Sexualisation is not the same as acceptance and therefore it is important that we continue to address its roots in order to hold both society and ourselves accountable today.

Jamie Jenkins is a PhD student at Radboud University working on the Voices of the People  project. Her research investigates how the media constructed popular expectations of democracy in Great Britain between the end of the Second World War and the 1980s. She tweets @jenkinsleejamie

Cover image: Cover of Lesbian Love by Marlene Longman (1960).

[1] See Ofcom’s ‘Representation and Portrayal on BBC TV 2018’ report regarding the representation of lesbian women on television.

[2] David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in Federal Government (Chicago, 2004).

[3] Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York, 1988).

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Why I use modern LGBTQ+ terminology for the pre-modern past

The Warren Cup 1999,0426.1, AN594242001

The Warren Cup, 15BC – AD15, Made in Levant, at diplay in the British Museum, ref. 1999,0426.1, AN594242001

If Michel Foucault is to be believed, ‘homosexuality’ was invented in the nineteenth century as a discourse of power structures. This is not to say that same-sex sexual activity has not been around as long as any other practices – that would be an impossible assertion! – but rather that people would not have categorised themselves and others on account of gender-based attraction. Words like ‘homosexual’ as well as ‘bisexual’, ‘asexual’ and others in the ever expanding alphabet soup of LGBTQ+, are not applicable to the ancient Mediterranean, so the argument goes, because they are anachronistic.

There is a meaningful point here: in many ways it is reductive to question whether the first century BCE poet Catullus, who wrote erotic verses about both men and women, was bisexual, because Roman society would not have categorised and considered him in that way. Similarly, because of the social setting, he would not have experienced biphobia – or bi pride – and his understanding of himself and his place in the world would not have been impacted by his explorations of sexual desires.

Yet, by disallowing ourselves our own contemporary terminology, there is a risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, to an extent this position highlights the differences in societies past and present, but in doing so we reassert the ‘Otherness’, and the ‘non-normativity’ of these identities. We must restrict our language surrounding the (potential) same sex desire evoked in Sappho’s poetry, unable to call her a Lesbian in any sense except her citizenship of the island of Lesbos. On the other hand, we feel no need to dance around, or call into question the normativity of Julius Caesar’s many marriages and extramarital (hetero)sexual pastimes. This reasserts heterosexual activity – if not the identity – as the ‘norm’, the universal, the unquestioned, whilst even the naming of any other ‘deviances’ is criticised as ahistorical.

The point becomes much more explicit when we turn the focus on gender. It is generally agreed that gender – and gender roles – are a social construct that fluctuate across different societies, and that the conditions for ancient masculinity, for example, differed strongly from the modern. Yet, the gap between the apparently ‘normative’ and ‘non-normative’ genders, and how we treat them, remains vast.

Queer gender identities and roles in contemporary society are frequently dismissed and derided as ‘modern inventions’; similarly, academic focus on pre-modern queer genders has followed the path set by queer sexualities, with ‘trans history’ tied to Western modernity. Thus, we may marvel, scrutinise and unpack the second century CE satirist Lucian’s authorial intentions, but must ultimately again couch our terminology, in his Dialogue of the Courtesans, where (the fictional) Leaina recounts meeting Megillos, who repeatedly asks for male pronouns and references, claiming that ‘I was born a woman like the rest of you, but I have the mind and the desires and everything else of a man’ (5.4).

We can question here what Megillos means by being a man, where he locates his masculinity and ultimately, we are given the opportunity to deny him that identity, as Leaina ultimately does. I doubt, however, that anyone would ever ask if Lucian was a ‘man’. No one questions the author’s masculinity, where he locates himself and whether we as his readers are allowed to deny him that. Once again, the contemporarily understood norms are the universal, whilst the rest must submit to the same debates over existence and invention of identity.

At a recent conference, I gave a paper on an ancient identity that is neither man nor woman, and thus is quite simply non-binary. During the question and answer, a delegate asked me if I considered what I am doing as ‘political mythmaking’. My answer, then as well as now, is yes: all history is by default political, and our discipline constructs as much as reveals (versions of) the past. Furthermore, the stories we choose to tell – and how we choose to tell them – be they of ‘normative’ identities or otherwise, will always be a form of mythmaking. Translation, linguistic but also cultural, is and can only be interpretation. So, I choose to interpret a history in which I see myself, and other ‘non-normative’ identities and feelings, represented too.

Chris Mowat is a Teaching Associate in Ancient History at the University of Sheffield. Their research interests focus on religion and gender, particularly queer gender identities, and the intersection between these two areas in the Roman Republic. They are also an editor for the blog NOTCHES – (re)marks on the history of sexuality. They tweet at @chrismologos.

Image Description by curators: The cup is said to have been found in Palestine with coins of the Emperor Claudius (41 – 54 AD). The age and status of the figures in both scenes is carefully shown. The bearded man and youths are shown in a style typical of the classicizing art of the reign of the emperor Augustus (30BC – AD14), and can probably be dated more closely to approximately 15BC-AD15. The musical instruments, wreaths and mantles suggest a cultured, Hellenized setting. Both partners in the reverse scene have long locks of hair, the youth’s bound up, the boy’s loose. Such locks were worn by Greek boys, and were offered to the gods in a rite celebrated at puberty.


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