The Image Speaks (Cyd Sturgess, The University of Sheffield)
During the late nineteenth century, Germany and the Netherlands witnessed an unprecedented growth in discourses on sexuality, galvanised by the pioneering research of central European sexologists. These early explorations into the field of human sexuality were driven by the impulses of a post-Darwinian era and a desire to categorise the sexual behaviours and inclinations of the modern world. By the turn of the twentieth century, studies on the subject of ‘homo-sexuality’ had grown increasingly popular in Europe and many of the most influential publications on the topic, such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (1886) and Havelock Ellis’ Das konträre Geschlechtsgefühl (Sexual Inversion, 1897), suggested that the phenomenon was a result of gendered ‘inversion’.
Influenced by the earlier theories of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, ‘inversion’ was understood to be the biological reversal of traditional gendered behaviour. According to sexologists, the term ‘invert’ could be applied to men who exhibited traditionally feminine traits and appearances, and women who displayed masculine behaviours and a physical likeness to the male sex. Same-sex desire appeared most often, therefore, simply as a by-product of the process of gendered inversion.
These sexological theories were transmitted to the general public through a broad range of popular media throughout the interwar era, and by the mid-1920s the figure of the ‘virile lesbian woman’ had become a widespread trope in newspaper satire. Yet, although the masculine woman appears to have been commonly associated with female same-sex desire at this time, my current research suggests that constructions of gender and sexuality were, in fact, far more complex during the interwar era than has previously been assumed.
Although sexological research focused primarily on binary oppositions (male- female, masculine-feminine, heterosexual- homosexual), non-heterosexual women in Berlin and Amsterdam appear to have moved relatively freely between the categories ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ at this time, depending on the gendered presentation of their desired partner. From the research I have conducted thus far, it also seems that many women would not have defined their identities primarily in terms of their choice of sexual partner.
Our contemporary category ‘lesbian’, then, with its implicit sexual, gendered and political meanings, would probably have meant little to the women-who-loved-women during the interwar era. Yet, our continued dependence on binary oppositions and discrete sexual labels means that it remains difficult for historians to conceive of ways in which women may have experienced gender and sexuality in the past that do not fit within our contemporary categorisations.
It was this issue that motivated me to participate in the Image Speaks project. Using the medium of photography, I wanted to highlight more visually the pitfalls of assuming that gender and sexuality can be separated into distinct binary oppositions. Using traditionally ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ lighting and pose, my collection of images demonstrates how it is possible to transgress, and oscillate between, the strict boundaries of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’. More importantly, however, these images underscore the inefficacy of our contemporary categories to chronicle the complex sexual and gendered spectrums of human experience, both in the present and in the past.