interview with Charlotte Wolff – alternatives to the word ‘lesbian’

Charlotte Wolff, pioneer in the field of lesbian and bisexual studies, on why she thinks the word “lesbian” is “absolutely idiotic”. 

James D. Steakley’s interview with Charlotte Wolff in June, 1981, West Berlin:

Wolff: It is my aim, I am driven to do it, to go into some subject, into some land of science or art where nobody has been before. It sounds odd, because somebody always has been there before, somewhere, sometime. There is nothing new in the world… many have said it. Yet, the pioneer spirit certainly drove me to do the first, if I may say so, the first scientific study on lesbianism, Love Between Women. Incidentally, I called my book “Love Between Women” because I think that the nomination “lesbian” is absolutely idiotic.

Steakley: Could we talk about that? Why do you think the word “lesbian” is idiotic?

Wolff: Well, “idiotic” is very strong. You see, it is a woman who loves women, this is what I want to call her. Why go back to Lesbos for the word, to Sappho – who, by the way, was a bisexual woman. Of course, all her greatest poems, her great art, is concentrated on her love for women. Yet, I call her bisexual – I cannot now go into the exact meaning of this word; you can read it in my books. Anyhow, to relate women of our time to six hundred years before the birth of Christ, and then give them the name “lesbian,” seems to me ridiculous.

Steakley: You think it’s a mythologization or falsification of some kind?

Wolff: No, not a falsification, because love between women, as love itself, is as eternal as any love. It has a quality which does not essentially change. Therefore it’s not a falsification; rather, it’s too much of a specification. This word “lesbian” makes it too specific, and it relates it to a special point in history to which it does not belong exclusively. Also, like the words “love” and “God” and so many others, it has acquired a general denigration of the state of being and the state of loving, which should be neither diluted in meaning nor falsified. Though I am not always believed by the women who love women, I do think that romanticism and love, the aesthetic sense, play a very particular part in love between women. The word “homosexuality,” generally related to males, is also not right to me. I would call it “love between men.” If anybody thinks “love” is perhaps too general, at least you can have some idea of what it is. The nomination “homosexuality” again leaves out the essential point. It leaves out the emotional. Why should the word suggest primarily “sex between men”? – Unless we talk about prostitution, for which I have no prejudice at all: Why not? – But if we speak of the real, essential relationship between men, I would also say the decisive point is emotion. Could you agree to that, Jim?


Wolff: Of course, a woman who comes into a new form wants to grasp at something which comes from a previous time. What it really is, is not yet born. I tried in my book, Love Between Women, to coin a new term. I said, the essential thing is emotion. Then let’s call it “homoemotionality between women”: a female homoemotionality.

Steakley: It’s related to the word “homophilia.”

Wolff: Yes, though the word “homophilia” is too weak. You can be homophilic even if you’re heterosexual. That is not direct enough. It doesn’t hit the point. “Homoemotional” does. But there’s another difference. In my view, the emotion is far stronger for women as a rule, and implies a far stronger center than for men. But I want to emphasize at once that emotion naturally has not only a neurotic aspect; real emotion is directly erotic. Without the erotic element you have no emotion at all. Therefore, the sexual aspect of what still is called “lesbianism” is bound up with the homoemotion. I was just in Dilsseldorf and had a disputation with three professors on my book, Bisexuality. I said that sex without emotion is a more or less onanistic reflex. The reaction was terribly funny. The only one who understood me was a professor of theology, a Roman Catholic. The psychiatrists only spoke about the pleasure principle. “Leave me alone with your pleasure principle,” I said. “You are incarcerated in an old idea which is hardly useful anymore.” This idea of Freud on the pleasure principle is old hat. Any sex which is not a product of the erotic imagination – which in itself can only come from emotion – can make no sense, can be no inspiration for the human being at all. That’s what Magnus Hirschfeld said so wonderfully: homosexual love is life-giving for both body and soul.

Charlotte Wolff (30 September 1897 – 12 September 1986) was a German-British physician whose writings on lesbianism and bisexuality were influential early works in the field. She studied at several German universities, was a student of Husserl and Heidegger, and received her M.D. in 1928 from Humboldt University in Berlin. She fled to France in 1933 and settled permanently in London in 1936, where she practiced as a psychiatrist for many years. She was made a Fellow of the British Psychological Society in 1941. Publications include: The Human Hand (1942), A Psychology of Gesture (1942), The Hand in Psychological Diagnosis (1951), On the Way to Myself (autobiography, 1969), Love Between Women (1971), An Older Love (novel, 1976), Bisexuality (1977).

Steakley, James D., and Charlotte Wolff. “Love between women and love between men: Interview with Charlotte Wolff.” New German Critique 23 (1981): 73-81.

Featured Image: Sappho by William Adolphe Bouguereau


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