Historicizing Narratives of Queer Women: Lesbianism, Childhood Sexual Abuse, and Christian Conversion Therapy

By Ricky Shear, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Dr. Lauren Gutterman, Assistant Professor in the Department of American Studies, led the April 25th session of the Humanities Institute’s Faculty Fellows Seminar. She discussed her unpublished essay, “Out of Egypt: Lesbian and Ex-Lesbian Child Sexual Abuse Survivors’  Narratives, 1978-2003,” which “investigate[s] the ways lesbianism and childhood sexual abuse have been historically intertwined from the late nineteenth century to the present.”

“Out of Egypt” outlines how some psychologists from the 1920s to the 1970s claimed that childhood sexual abuse contributes to homosexuality. These psychologists generated various theories based on their research, several of which claimed that the psychological impact of women’s abusive sexual experiences with men in childhood caused them to turn to lesbianism. Gutterman also documents the successful efforts of lesbian survivors of incestuous sexual abuse in the 1970s and 1980s to shed light on the prevalence and traumatic effects of childhood sexual abuse, offer support to other survivors, and “refute simplistic understandings of incest [and childhood sexual abuse] as a cause of lesbianism.”

Aspects of the lesbian feminist movement against sexual abuse influenced and were co-opted by the Christian conversion therapy movement of the 1980s and 1990s that perpetuated the belief that childhood sexual abuse causes lesbianism, according to Gutterman. Like the lesbian feminists speaking out against childhood sexual abuse, Christian conversion therapists insisted that survivors were in no way responsible for the abuse done to them and that sharing personal stories of abuse publicly could both draw attention to the issue and be “healing and therapeutic.” However, Gutterman points out, whereas lesbian feminists understood lesbianism as a potential source of healing, communal support, and political agency, Christian conversion therapists portrayed it as “emotionally harmful and morally wrong.”

Gutterman told Faculty Fellows that she pursued this project to continue her work in documenting and analyzing the experiences of queer women, a group that she believes is underrepresented in academic publications. She explained that while interviewing queer women previously married to men about their experiences of marriage, sexual desire, and coming out for her forthcoming book, Her Neighbor’s Wife: A History of Lesbian Desire within Marriage, her interviewees disclosed unsolicited histories of childhood sexual abuse. These disclosures drew her attention to how relevant the perceived connection between childhood sexual abuse and lesbianism had been to these women’s lives and inspired her to explore the history of that connection and its impact on queer women. Ultimately, historicizing the linkage between childhood sexual abuse and lesbianism caused Gutterman to conclude that “[n]arratives of surviving sexual abuse can and have served more than one political purpose” and that we should “remain attuned to” the variety of ways different groups may shape and employ those narratives to achieve their political goals.

Gutterman invited the Faculty Fellows to workshop her essay and Fellows responded with collegial advice and questions. Fellows also asked Gutterman to discuss contemporary perspectives on the relationship between childhood sexual abuse and lesbianism. She explained that one contemporary point of view holds that a disproportionate number of queer women have experienced childhood sexual abuse because queer children are more likely to be socially isolated and therefore more likely to be victimized. Fellows were particularly interested in how Christian conversion therapists came to adopt aspects of feminist understandings of sexual abuse. Gutterman suggested that some feminist ideas about sexual abuse became mainstream and were disassociated enough from feminist ideology by the early ‘90s to be accessible and appealing to non-feminist (or even anti-feminist) movements that saw themselves as offering support to survivors of sexual abuse. Fellows also discussed how Gutterman’s account of American culture’s initial underestimation of the prevalence and long-term psychological impact of childhood sexual abuse caused them to reflect on other under-examined histories of sexuality and sexual abuse, for example, in ancient Greece and colonial Spain.

See the Humanities Institute’s website for more information about the Faculty Fellows Seminar and the 2018-2020 class of Faculty Fellows.

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