Harriet Walker: Lesbianism – the love that's fair game for all

 

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Turns out there's another meaning to LOL that David Cameron wasn't aware of: "Late-Onset Lesbianism".

Who knew? But according to a lengthy article by Rachel Johnson in this month's issue of Vogue, sexuality – just like dementia or acne – is something that can confound us at any age. Again, who knew? Well, everyone, surely.

Female sexuality is fascinating, endlessly so, because no one – not even women themselves – really understands it. It's a Rubik's cube of prurient interest that everyone wants to get their hands on and apply their own little twist. The current obsession with that novel probably hasn't helped. Figuring out the female sexual psyche is like trying to do really difficult Sudoku while pissed and standing on your head. Much like sex itself, perhaps.

In the latest copy of Tatler, there is a portfolio of "London's smartest and loveliest lesbians", all glamorous to a woman and all decked out in expensive dresses for us to marvel at – shot in loving close-up, presumably so we can check for gills or third eyes. But why the sudden interest? Is lesbianism a trend for spring/summer 2012? What's next on the beach reading list, Sappho? Radclyffe Hall?

This week has been punctuated by various representations and discussions of sexuality, which seem to categorise both the best and worst of modern perceptions of "acceptance". The R&B star Frank Ocean came out in an emotionally complex, moving and virtually unheard-of video that he posted online (in which he failed even to say the word 'gay'), while American TV presenter Anderson Cooper was practically dragged from the closet by the media.

Sexuality shouldn't be a game of hide and seek. As fellow columnist Owen Jones argued in this paper yesterday, "Individuals cannot be castigated for betraying the struggle for gay rights because of what details of their private life they fail to place on public record." Quite right. But the difference in treatment of gay men and lesbians, when it comes to understanding their sexuality, their choices, their options and their place in modern society, is polar, although both end up somehow trivialised.

There is a real ire and handbag-clutching, mortal offence reserved for gay men, while lesbianism is more often glamorised and Photoshopped into something less taboo than it is titillating. Lesbianism in popular culture is the Benny Hill of homosexuality, all winks and nudges and Nothing Too Serious (ie, something they'll grow out of).

While I don't suggest that it's any easier coming of age a gay woman than it is a gay man, there is a far more integrated cultural dialogue around lesbianism – reductive and tokenistic as it may be – than there is around male homosexuality. There is less fear, and a lot less mistrust – presumably because a) men think lesbians are hot, and b) women are a pretty pathetic and unthreatening little lot all round.

I'm thinking of things like Lindsay Lohan's lesbian relationship with Samantha Ronson, which was treated by the popular press with scurrilous curiosity and ribald interest. Of Francis Ford Coppola's version of Dracula, which attempted to ramp up already ridiculous levels of trouser-bulging perviness by throwing in a few gratuitous girl-on-girl snogs that would have vampires spinning in their graves rather than leaping out of them. Of magazine pieces that simultaneously cast lesbianism as cool and cliquey, as well as devilishly gigglesome, naughty and "other".

Remember the reaction when the singer Stephen Gately came out, and when the Daily Mail's Jan Moir speculated on his death. Remember the blushes, the sniggering and the hand-wringing over characters in EastEnders sharing the first on-screen gay kiss – or the gay episode of Hollyoaks that was screened during the dead of night so nobody normal might be tainted by watching it. When Katy Perry sang "I kissed a girl and I liked it", only the most fastidious of Bible-bashers actually worried it might wobble our children from the path of righteousness. But when Frankie Goes to Holywood's "Relax" (which contains only the mildest allusion to a type of rudery that the band itself has never even officially defined) was released, the BBC banned it.

It's strange that lesbianism has enjoyed a public rehabilitation that male homosexuality hasn't. Perhaps it's because being a lesbian was never a criminal activity – Queen Victoria refused even to countenance the existence of such behaviour. Or perhaps it's because the feminine emotional response is characterised as so much more fluid and varied than that of men.

It's depressing, though, because it has roots in the fact that male sexual impulses must be thought of as dangerous, where female ones are just a bit of a game, comical even, and these perceptions don't help anyone, gay or straight. At a time when attitudes should be evolving to match infinite social variety, we seem to be battening down the hatches and becoming ever more entrenched in handy archetypes that won't challenge the status quo. We need to understand that sexuality isn't just black and white – that it can sometimes be more 50 shades of grey.

Twitter: @harrywalker1

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