Art & Photography / In Pictures

The History of Women Performing Lesbianism for Men

Taschen's provocatively titled new book focuses on the time-honoured act of female love performed for an invisible male spectator

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The Sixties© Kishin Shinoyama, Courtesy of Taschen

We’re all aware that we mustn’t judge books by their covers. But should we judge them by their titles? What if a title itself is a fib, or something intended to make us squirm? Such is the way with Lesbians For Men, a book whose title takes female sexual orientation and places it firmly under the male gaze. The fib, of course, is that many of the women featured aren’t actually lesbians at all: they’re pretending. But as the book beautifully demonstrates, there’s a long-standing tradition of “lesbianism” as a performative sexualised gesture, rather than an act carried out for the participants’ erotic gratification. The subjects of the images may well be enjoying themselves, but that is purely incidental: in reality, these photographs exist to satisfy heterosexual male pleasure.

Whatever stance you take on this contentious issue, there’s no denying the beauty, grace, and sensuality of the images presented in Taschen’s new volume. Unlike much contemporary pornography – or, at least, the sort created for heterosexual male consumption – the women in these images are solely pleasuring one another: there's no suggestion of a male waiting in the wings for an invite to join in. The unseen male is the viewer of the image; the subjects are a distillation of lesbian eroticism presented with an absence of masculinity (although the omnipotence of its gaze). 

As Taschen’s ever-brilliant sexy books editor Dian Hanson puts it: “straight men have always had a thing for lesbians, or more correctly, essentially straight women willing to do other women for their viewing pleasure... When a man sees two women together there’s no jealousy that another man’s getting the woman he can’t; just the joy of everything he likes times two, and the unshakeable fantasy that women that wild would surely invite him to join in.”

The luxurious tome provides more than 300 photographs as a testament to this, and claims to be the first book acknowledging the inherent falsehood of “lesbianism” performed for the male gaze; making it plain that these images are created solely with men in mind. It also examines why they were created, and offers a photographic history of “girls times two”.

The foreword delineates the trajectory of lady-love imagery from Victorian nudes, or French postcards in the late 19th century; the fetish-heavy 1920s-30s work of Czech photographer Jacques Biederer; “some very rustic rubber strap-on” action and “lingerie wrestling” in the 1950s; to the effect the feminist movement of the 1970s impacted the way women themselves approached ideas around lesbianism: “all around me women were nudged and prodded towards pussy,” Hanson writes. There’s also acknowledgment of the devastating impact of the 1980s AIDS epidemic and how it fostered a more cautious and often regressive outlook on same-sex relationships and sexual liberation. 

In presenting its visual history, the book also sidelines as an interesting documentary into idealised female bodies from a male perspective. While the fashion world’s ‘perfect’ shape has vacillated wildly over the last century, it seems that, as a titillating erotic object, the ideal form for a woman’s body has remained largely consistent. For the most part, it’s about generous tits and asses, and little waists. The only exception, of course, is pubic hair, the trends for which range from a gloriously hirsute 1970s bush, to the bald sheen of a mid-00s Hollywood-waxed foof.

Today, women are more likely than ever to discuss bisexual, lesbian or polysexual desires, so it could be argued that we’re hitting a sort of ‘golden era’ for images depicting girl-on-girl lust. Let’s hope these attitudes aren’t quashed under whatever social or political upheavals might be foisted upon us next, and that sisters maintain an open conversation about doing it, and each other, for themselves.

Lesbians for Men by Dian Hanson is out now, published by TASCHEN. 

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