The word lesbian dates back at least to 1732 and lesbianism appears in the 1870 Oxford English Dictionary meaning sexual orientation rather than a reference to Sappho and inhabitants of Lesbos. Lesbian as an adjective is in the 1890 Oxford English Dictionary and as a noun by 1925. Until the early twentieth century lesbian was interchangeable with Sapphist.
An updated view on this wider definition has to do with the girl crush as written about by Stephanie Rosenbloom in The New York Times. Rosenbloom defines a girl crush as "that fervent infatuation that one heterosexual woman develops for another woman who may seem impossibly sophisticated, gifted, beautiful or accomplished." Such girl crushes may trigger the same kind of feelings involved in a romance; and although not sexual in nature, these feelings may sway relationship dynamics if the object of the crush learns about them. This broadening of the meaning for lesbian as any woman who bonds with another woman became known as woman identified woman. However, this usage has been criticized as desexualizing lesbians. Cheshire Calhoun wrote in 1995, "When feminist woman loving replaces lesbian genital sexuality, lesbian sexual identity disappears into feminist identity.
The earliest known written references to same-sex love between women are attributed to Sappho (the eponym of sapphism), who lived on the island of Lesbos in ancient Greece from about 625 to 570 BCE and wrote poems which apparently expressed her sexual attraction to other females. Modern scholarship has suggested a parallel between ancient Greek pederasty and the friendships Sappho formed with her students. Lesbian relationships were also common among the Lacedaemonians of ancient Sparta. Plutarch wrote "love was so esteemed among them that girls also became the erotic objects of noble women.
Accounts of lesbian relationships are found in poetry and stories from ancient China. Research by anthropologist Liza Dalby, based mostly on erotic poems exchanged between women, has suggested lesbian relationships were commonplace and socially accepted in Japan during the Heian Period. In medieval Arabia there were reports of relations between harem residents, although these were sometimes suppressed. For example Caliph Musa al-Hadi ordered the beheading of two girls who were surprised during lovemaking. During the 12th Century, Etienne de Fougères derided lesbians in his Livre des manières (about CE 1170), likening them to hens behaving as roosters, and reflecting a general tendency among religious and secular authorities in Europe to reject any notion women could be properly sexual without men.
Recent cultural changes in Western and a few other societies have enabled lesbians to express their sexuality more freely, which has resulted in new studies on the nature of female sexuality. Research undertaken by the U.S. Government's National Center for Health Research in 2002 was released in a 2005 report called Sexual Behavior and Selected Health Measures: Men and Women 15-44 Years of Age, United States, 2002. The results indicated that among women aged 15-44, 4.4 percent reported having had a sexual experience with another woman during the previous 12 months. When women aged 15–44 were asked, "Have you ever had any sexual experience of any kind with another female?", 11 percent answered "yes".
There is a growing body of research and writing on lesbian sexuality, which has brought some debate about the control women have over their sexual lives, the fluidity of woman-to-woman sexuality, the redefinition of female sexual pleasure and the debunking of negative sexual stereotypes. One example of the latter is lesbian bed death, a term invented by sex researcher Pepper Schwartz to describe the supposedly inevitable diminution of sexual passion in long term lesbian relationships; this notion is rejected by many lesbians, who point out that passion tends to diminish in almost any relationship and many lesbian couples report happy and satisfying sex lives.
Not all lesbians express their sexual orientation in their behaviors. According to a 1990 study of The Social Organization of Sexuality, out of 131 women who self-reported same-sex attraction, only 42 women (32%) had sex with another women.
In Western societies, explicit prohibitions on women's homosexual behavior have been markedly weaker than those on men's homosexual behavior. During the 1990s, dozens of chapters of Lesbian Avengers were formed to press for lesbian visibility and rights. Same-sex marriage has now been legalized in Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, Canada, South Africa – and Norway (on January 1st, 2009) – but it is still not permitted by many countries. In 2004 Massachusetts became the first state in the United States to legalize same-sex marriages.
In the United Kingdom, lesbianism has never been illegal. In contrast, sexual activity between males was not made legal in England and Wales until 1967. Lesbianism was left out of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885; a common anecdote stating that Queen Victoria did not believe sex between women was possible is likely apocryphal. A 1921 proposal, put forward by Frederick Macquisten MP to criminalize lesbianism was rejected by the House of Lords; during the debate, Lord Birkenhead, the then Lord Chancellor argued that 999 women out of a thousand had "never even heard a whisper of these practices. In 1928, the lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness was banned for obscenity in a highly publicized trial, not for any explicit sexual content but because it made an argument for acceptance. Meanwhile other, less political novels with lesbian themes continued to circulate freely.
Jewish religious teachings condemn male homosexual behavior but say little about lesbian behavior. However, the approach in the modern State of Israel, with its largely secular Jewish majority, does not outlaw or persecute gay sexual orientation; marriage between gay couples is not sanctioned but common law status and official adoption of a gay person's child by his or her partner have been approved in precedent court rulings (after numerous high court appeals). (Marriage in Israel is heavily regulated by official religious bodies; in the case of Judaism, the body in question is traditionalist.) There is also an annual Gay parade, usually held in Tel-Aviv; in 2006, the "World Pride" parade was scheduled to be held in Jerusalem.
Western-style homosexuality is rarely tolerated elsewhere in the Muslim world, with the exception of Turkey where there are no laws or discriminative policies against lesbianism. It is punishable by imprisonment, lashings, or death in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Though the law against lesbianism in Iran has reportedly been revoked or eased, prohibition of male homosexuality remains.
Many lesbian couples seek to have children through adoption, but this is not legal in every country. Other lesbians raise children together with their husbands.
In some countries access to assisted birth technologies by lesbians has been the subject of debate. In Australia the High Court rejected a ban on access to in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments for lesbian and single women. Immediately after this High Court decision, Prime Minister John Howard amended legislation in order to prevent access to IVF for these groups, effectively overruling the High Court decision and enforcing the Roman Catholic position, which raised indignation from the gay and lesbian community as well as groups representing the rights of single women.
Many lesbians have been involved in women's rights. Late in the 19th century, the term Boston marriage was used to describe romantic unions between women living together, often while contributing to the suffrage movement. Lesbian feminism gained renewed popularity in North America and Western Europe during the "second wave" of the 1970s and early 1980s. By the end of the 1970s lesbian feminism was accepted as a field of study within academic institutions, although mostly as a branch of feminist disciplines. More recently, lesbian feminism has emerged as an expression of dissatisfaction with the 1970s era second wave feminist and gay liberation movements.
Lesbian feminist texts have examined the influence of institutions such as patriarchy, capitalism and colonialism on gender and sexuality with mixed success, sometimes describing lesbianism as a rational result of alienation and dissatisfaction with these institutions. In her 1980 essay Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, Adrienne Rich characterized heterosexuality as a violent political institution making way for the "male right of physical, economical, and emotional access" to women. Other key thinkers and activists have included Rita Mae Brown, Audre Lorde, Marilyn Frye, Mary Daly and Sheila Jeffreys.
Lesbian Separatism is one specific type of Lesbian feminism.
Before the influence of European sexology emerged at the turn of the Twentieth Century, in cultural terms female homosexuality remained almost invisible as compared to male homosexuality, which was subject to the law and thus more regulated and reported by the press. However with the publication of works by sexologists like Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Havelock Ellis, Edward Carpenter, and Magnus Hirschfeld, the concept of active female homosexuality became better known.
As female homosexuality became more visible it was described as a medical condition. In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), Sigmund Freud referred to female homosexuality as inversion or inverts and characterized female inverts as possessing male characteristics. Freud drew on the "third sex" ideas popularized by Magnus Hirschfeld and others. While Freud admitted he had not personally studied any such "aberrant" patients he placed a strong emphasis on psychological rather than biological causes. Freud's writings did not become well-known in English-speaking countries until the late 1920s.
This combination of sexology and psychoanalysis eventually had a lasting impact on the general tone of most lesbian cultural productions. A notable example is the 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, in which these sexologists are mentioned along with the term invert, which later fell out of favour in common usage. Freud's interpretation of lesbian behavior has since been rejected by most psychiatrists and scholars, although recent biological research has provided findings that may bolster a Hirschfeld-ian "third sex" interpretation of same-sex attraction.
Since the 1980s lesbians have been increasingly visible in mainstream cultural fields such as music (Melissa Etheridge, K.D. Lang and the Indigo Girls), television (Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie O'Donnell, and Portia de Rossi), sports (Martina Navrátilová, Amélie Mauresmo, Lisa Raymond and Billie Jean King) and in comic books (Alison Bechdel and Diane DiMassa). More recently lesbian eroticism has flowered in fine art photography and the writing of authors such as Pat Califia, Jeanette Winterson and Sarah Waters and Stella Duffy. There is an increasing body of lesbian films such as Desert Hearts, Go Fish, Loving Annabelle, Watermelon Woman, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Everything Relative, and Better than Chocolate (see List of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender-related films). Classic novels such as those by Jane Rule, Vin Packer, Ann Aldrich, and Ann Bannon have been reprinted. Moreover, prominent and controversial academic writers such as Camille Paglia and Germaine Greer also identify with lesbianism.