The story is told that when the British legislators of Queen Victoria’s era were preparing laws to criminalize sexual behaviors between adults of the same gender, they had originally planned to outlaw both male and female homosexuality. However, or so goes the story, when the Queen was apprised of these plans, she was shocked and ordered the law minister to withdraw those passages referring to lesbianism. After all, said Victoria, what would two women do together?

Perhaps this story is apocryphal; whatever its lineage, it is certainly metaphoric of the manner in which invisibility has been an aspect of the social discourse regarding lesbian sexuality. Lesbian sexuality is defined here as nonexistent; what, after all, could women do sexually without a man and his penis present? But this question could apply to any woman regard­less of the object of her desire. The implications of the invisible lesbian are that all women are sexually invisible in the absence of a man. This image of lesbian sexuality as an ersatz, or incomplete sexual self, has colored the external social realities in which lesbians develop an internal sense of sexual self. Those milieux have been ones in which we have been dispos­sessed of the linguistic and conceptual categories with which to describe and define private sexual experiences. I am aware of no language spoken by large linguistic groups in which women are positively described as other than targets of male sexuality, rather than as actors with personal agency in the absence of men.

This invisibility of lesbian sexuality, with its subtext regarding the dependence of women’s sexual selves on the presence of a man, can be found when so-called lesbian images are produced by mainstream cultures. This genre is characterized by narratives like D. H. Lawrence’s The Fox, in which a lesbian couple befriends and then is invaded and supplanted by a man. Even literature written by lesbians prior to the introduction of a self­conscious lesbian-positive politic reflected this theme of the lesbian as in­complete and therefore sexually potentially invisible. For instance, Ste­phen, the hero/ine of The Well of Loneliness sends her beloved Mary off to a sexual relationship with a man because this will be ultimately more sat­isfying to her. In this collection of images, lesbian relating (and by infer­ence, the sexual woman) is at best comforting, but neither sexual nor passionate in the way that only real (e. g., with a man present) sexuality can be.

In more recent times, there is the example of commercial (produced by men for heterosexual men and their partners) so-called soft porn (e. g., no images of violence against women) in which lesbian scenes are included. As Bright (1995) notes in her review of some of this media, even the very best and most erotic images of women pleasuring other women are inevi­tably, in this medium, transformed into a heterosexual scene in which the women’s interactions are constructed as present for the arousal of the man who is brought into the picture, or where the women do not reach their ultimate sexual fulfillment until the man has had intercourse with them both. The inference that can be drawn from this text is that women are sexually incomplete and potentially sexually invisible when a man is not present. What is meant to be arousing about these scenes is the beauty of the women, and the anticipation of the man’s appearance. The so-called lesbian of these scenes, and woman in general by implication, is sexually impotent and invalid except as an object. Even when she is using a dildo on another woman, the supposed penis substitute is defined by the story line as less sexually agentic and satisfying than the genuine article, since the levels of moaning and groaning and simulated ecstasy rise when the flesh version is used instead of the silicon one.

This sort of image is in tune with those of heterosexual relating avail­able in almost any popular medium today. Sex for women with men is portrayed as overpowering and extraordinarily pleasurable. In feature film after feature film, the viewing audience is offered scenes of women tearing off their clothing, being pressed against walls, into muddy fields, or down on desks by a man, and coming to apparent orgasm almost immediately on penetration, which itself follows only seconds of frenzied kissing and cloth­ing removal. Similar scenes fill the pages of novels. Here, the inference is that the mere presence of a man creates instant arousal in women, and that penetration with the penis is profoundly pleasurable and a quick source of orgasm to women, wonderful above all else. (This is not to suggest that penetration is unpleasurable—it is rather to note that this specific form of penetration, by a man’s penis, is the only form so privileged by this nar­rative.)

The heterosexist message that can be derived from these contrasting and consistent images of male-created sexual fantasy is that women only exist sexually when a man is present. Despite all of the display of flesh and simulated sexual activity on today’s screens, we appear to have come little distance from Queen Victoria in our ability to envision women as sexually potent and active when there is no man around.

The implications of this heterosexist narrative on women’s sexual selves is potentially deadly and undermining. The image of lesbian impo­tence becomes a device for communicating several things to all women. First, it conveys that sexual relating between women, and consequently the sexuality of the individual woman, is not genuine sex. The manner in which dildos are portrayed by the heterosexist narrative is instructive and paradigmatic.

One could construct a dildo as an instrument of pleasure for a woman who chooses and enjoys penetration in her own time (e. g., not simply when a partner with a penis is capable of erection) and at her own speed, and in her own choice of company (alone or with a partner of either sex). But instead, dildos are defined as a less-than-adequate penis substitute, always joyfully put aside when the actual penis becomes available. What a woman does alone, or with another woman, is sexually inadequate in this construc­tion. The lesser-than status of the lesbian is simply the status of the human without a penis, or a woman.

Second, there is the message that genuine pleasure is impossible for women absent a man. Women’s ability to relate to themselves or other women sexually is portrayed as inferior. In a society that values speed in all things, from our computers to our sex heroes, the lengthy caresses of a woman to herself or another woman are not up to the efficient and over­poweringly pleasurable heterosexual intercourse experience offered by men. Even the terminology used in common discourse to refer to sexual relating is profoundly heterosexist; the things that women do to pleasure themselves or other women are defined as foreplay or fondling or caressing; sex always and only is shorthand for heterosexual intercourse. The language of sex is founded in the experiences of penis-bearing people.

The linguist Suzette Haden Elgin (1984) has used the device of a science fiction narrative to comment on how languages in general are shaped by the experience of men, and that the admission of women’s lan­guage into a discourse potentially reshapes not only language but reality. The poverty of language in the common discourse for lesbian sexual relat­ing is simply a version of the heavy dependence on terms that are centered in male erotic experience that include penile penetration, language inform­ing the perceived realities of the sexual self for women. In the lives of women it is not only lesbians who lack a common language to describe sexual activity (or as one woman participant in a sexuality workshop noted, there is no female equivalent term for jerking off, leaving women to be clinical and call it masturbation, or romantic (e. g., self-pleasuring, a term that never caught on very well).

Thus, one aspect of the heterosexist narrative of female sexuality is that women are sexually nonexistent on their own. As Murphy (1991) has noted, this nonexistence extends to the social sphere, where sexuality is only implied. Two women together in a restaurant without a man’s presence are women alone. The company of the other woman is rendered invisible, due to the underlying implication that a woman ceases sexually (and in consequence, socially) to exist in the absence of a man. For some feminist to have stated that “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” was quite a revolutionary message, because it implicitly confronted multiple layers of heterosexist construction of women as only existing sexually in the heterosexual context.