Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women

by Debbie Stoller

Nothing is sweeter than desire. All other delights are second. These lines, written by one of Sappho’s admirers, are quoted by Leila J. Rupp in the beginning of her fascinating new book about the history of same-sex female attraction.

In this scholarly work that moves chronologically through time, Rupp explores the evidence of sexual and roman-tic relationships between women throughout history, concluding with a look at some of the many ways that same-sex desire among women is expressed and perceived in various cultures and communities around the world today. To do so, she examines information found in court records, legal texts, anthropological surveys, and memoirs, and draws on numerous literary and artistic works, citing intriguing examples of bold Sapphic sweethearts who risked everything for love and/or lust. (My favorite juicy anecdote was the true story of Mary Read and Anne Bonny, two swashbucklingly fabulous, cross-dressing 18th-century pirates who couldn’t resist each other’s booty.) Rupp convincingly argues that since the very beginning of history, countless women have ardently pursued their physical and romantic passions for each other despite the horrific punishments they often faced if caught; for hundreds of years, a European woman convicted of having sex with another woman could be exiled, flogged, imprisoned, and (like for those accused of witchcraft) executed by drowning or burning at the stake. Another chapter, describing the flourishing queer subculture of Berlin in Germany’s Weimar Republic of the 1920s and ’30s and its subsequent destruction by the Nazis, reminds the reader all too poignantly never to take hard-won sexual freedoms for granted.

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