Book Review E M Etorre

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“Lesbians, women and society” by E.M.Etorre

Until recently, I have never been associated with any part of lesbian culture. Then, a close friend informed me that at the age of 22, she was coming out as a lesbian. I then realised that my understanding of lesbians and lesbianism was purely based on social stereotypes. I therefore felt it would be useful and interesting to gain a more informed understanding of this lifestyle choice and its consequences in a social context. As a result I will be reviewing the book, ‘Lesbians, women and society’ by E.M.Ettorre with the view to establish a sound understanding of the text, in turn I hope to identify what the author is trying to achieve through her research, what key problems she is addressing and what conclusions she makes. I am also trying to identify the evidence from which her claims are made and how successful her interpretation of the data has been whilst identifying any limitations that there are. I will then go on to situate this research in the wider cultural debate and briefly acknowledge other researchers critiques and conclusions in relation to Ettorre.

Ettorre says her book will, ‘tell us why lesbians, as a unique group of women, exist’ (1980: 1) and says her research is trying to understand the social implications for women of homosexuality (1). She tells of several key questions that were important to her when beginning her research, ‘Why has there consistently been more concern for homosexual men than lesbians? How is homosexuality in and general and lesbianism in particular analysed? What are the effects of these analyses? And how do previous analyses relate to the aims of this book?’ (3) These questions all seem important and interesting, yet it is difficult to see throughout how these questions actually relate to the conclusions she presents. By limiting her research participants to primarily lesbians, these questions can never objectively or fully be answered as they concern the whole of society rather than just the lesbian population.

However, that is not to say that the book is not successful in what it does do, and that is provide a comprehensive account of what it is to be a lesbian. She describes in detail, ‘The social reality of lesbianism’. Using quotes from her research subjects, she describes the reality of being a lesbian in London in the late 1970’s. This ranges from what she calls the ‘closet life’ (40) lesbians who hide away from people knowing, ‘There are a lot of people that I feel would not be able to accept it’ (40) to lesbians that acknowledge societies change in attitude, ‘We’re in the middle of a big change……It’s changing rapidly in leaps and bounds’ (36). In the chapter, ‘Lesbian consciousness and practice’ she talks of the ‘types of lesbians’ with the most prominent form being ‘social lesbianism’ (118). Although defining lesbianism into types could be useful she tends to make very generalising statements that instead of highlighting lesbian issues, with the aim of integration into mainstream society, in fact situates lesbians further away, ‘Society responds negatively to the lesbian image and lesbians are aware of this’ (121). This hinders her research somewhat as earlier she had presented evidence that society was changing, yet here this is not acknowledged. She very much exposes herself here as a strongly feminist lesbian and we get the sense that her own opinions rather than objective research is presented.

She does however present some interesting points, particularly when she situates lesbianism in relation to her contemporary social and cultural context. She argues that through socialisation, ‘culture presents vivid images and ideas of acceptable social behaviour’ (16), stating that the problem with society’s contemplation of lesbianism stems from the fact that, ‘sexual activity remains a biologically discriminating process based on those who reproduce, women, and those who do not reproduce, men (17). She further identifies the relationship between power and sexuality and states that the, ‘patriarchal capitalist society’ (17) in which we live means women lose out. The male is the dominant and the female the sub-dominant and this is where the confusion arises in the lesbian relationship:

‘To recognise the existence of lesbianism is to admit that women are sexual beings in and of themselves and that they do not need men in this basic way’ (7).
This, Ettorre says, creates an obvious tension between the heterosexual and homosexual lifestyles. Again this is an interesting point but still fails to acknowledge the key questions she identified above.
Her evidence and data was collected from, ‘Four main areas…..Lesbian documents, Field notes, Questionnaires and Interviews’ (1980: 183). The majority of evidence presented however is quotes from several of her research subjects. She tends to explain and analyse with her own opinions and although this is useful, it occasionally feels as though there is a lack of academic analysis. In chapters 3 and 4 she provides tables of data to support her points; however she tends to simply describe the results rather than provide explanation for them.
There are also other limitations in her research data. One question she asks (about lesbian identity linked to identity as a woman) is presented rather ambiguously and not explained in enough detail. The fact that the question could be interpreted in several ways means it is not focused enough to collect meaningful data, a problem that can also be highlighted in other areas in her research.
A further limitation that she herself addresses is that of objectivity. Being a lesbian herself created a tension with objectivity that demands the ‘detachment, distance and removal [from what she was studying] in order to be value-free’ (13). Ettorre stated that she saw herself as an ‘insider and outsider in the lesbian experience’ but as a reader I thought these boundaries became increasingly blurred throughout and it was difficult at points to distinguish the objective view. She further acknowledges that she only interviews lesbians from London, therefore limited in geographical scope and the research has a middle-class bias. (2) It would be interesting to see whether the findings would be different in other parts of the country and among other social classes.
The concept of what it means to be a lesbian and the consequences that it has have been studied in several books around this time and after, and more contemporary sources have shown the debate furthered in several ways. In the book, ‘Queer Studies’ (1996) Sherrie Inness extends Ettorre’s idea of ‘types of lesbians’ tending to be less generalising in her categories. She talks of ‘butch’ and ‘femme’ lesbians (1996: 11) but acknowledges that these terms can mean different things to different people and the ability to move between categories is recognised. This is also echoed in Laura Markowe’s research particularly concerning ‘Lesbians with some heterosexual background’ (1996: 177). She suggests that many lesbians ‘learn’ of their lesbianism later in life and Markowe uses several quotes from case studies to illustrate their experiences. It was interesting to learn how once heterosexual lesbians perceive and are reacted to when they come out or realise they are in fact lesbian. Ettorre’s research may have benefitted from talking to these women as they provide a more rounded picture of the lesbian debate. Their reasons for the lack of confidence or awareness of their lesbianism earlier could be more interesting than researching lesbians that have felt comfortable from the start to acknowledge their choice of sexuality.
Another difference I have noticed in more contemporary research into lesbianism is that it is much less focused on questions of what it is to be a woman, and a lesbian. Laura Markowe does acknowledge that there are gender differences in society, ‘Women’s position in society is socially, culturally and economically different from that of men’ (1996: 61), and these differences between men and women are acknowledged but it seems it is given now that lesbian equals woman. As Gilligan says, ‘femininity may be seen as defined through attachment…..and is viewed as the negation of masculinity’, (1996: 65) but it is not separate from lesbianism or any woman’s sexuality.
The more recent debate on the fluidity of sexual identity and expression is presented by Paula Rust who tells how, ‘identity changes occur as individuals become more accurate or more honest about describing their locations on the sexual landscape’ (1996: 75). Ettorre could possibly be accused of being too stagnant and fixed in her explanation of sexual identity compared to more recent debate in the field.
In conclusion I think Ettorre’s book goes some way into exploring what it means to be a lesbian and she presents some of these ideas very well. However, her research has several limitations that prevent it from being a fully comprehensive report. This could be a result of context of composition and also that she was limited in her research subjects to a particular area and class of lesbians. I identified the key problems that she claimed to be addressing and found that in fact these problems were not addressed throughout her research. I defined where she collected her evidence from and explained what conclusions she drew from this. I then went on to explain the wider cultural debate and presented several more contemporary studies that have furthered Ettorre’s arguments. I also showed why these would critique Ettorre’s research in part because of its sometimes generalising and limiting conclusions.

Beemyn, Brett, ed. 1996. Queer Studies: A Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Anthology, New
York: New York University Press
Ettorre, E.M. 1980. Lesbians, Women and Society, London: Routledge
Gibbs, Liz, ed. 1994. Daring to Dissent: Lesbian Culture from Margin to Mainstream, London: Cassell
Markowe, Laura. 1996. Redefining the Self: Coming out as Lesbian, Cambridge: Polity Press
Nield, Suzanne. 1992. Women Like Us, London: The Women’s Press

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