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Sappho & Alcaeus (Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1881)


Sappho Was a Right-On Girl-Lover!
 by Linda Frankel
On Lesbos there was a school teacher named Sappho who had consenting sexual relationships with her adolescent students. This was no ordinary school; for the teacher was a priestess of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and sexual passion. All the pupils were girls. Today we call all women who prefer women lesbians in honor of Sappho. Yet it has occurred to no one that Sappho preferred girls. Like Socrates she dallied with her young students and tended to be just as ecstatic about the joys of such love as the boy-loving sage of Athens.

      How do we know how the girls felt about it? Sappho quotes her student Atthis as saying:

Sappho, if you will not get up
and let us look at you
I shall never love you again
Get up, unleash your suppleness
lift off your Chian nightdress

(Fragment 43 in SAPPHO: A NEW TRANSLATION by Mary Barnard, University of California Press 1958)

      This does not strike me as an invitation to a tea party, but is rather a refreshingly frank exhibition of adolescent sexuality. One does not berate one's teacher for refusing to get undressed unless one happens to like looking at her naked.

      Contemporary sexual morality would condemn Sappho out of hand, but the ancients called her "divine Sappho". Sexual relationships between student and teacher that involved mutual consent were actually considered in a positive light. Learning intimacy from an experienced adult was considered beneficial for the young and a significant part of their education. Sappho would not have been so well thought of if the girls she taught hadn't grown to an admirable womanhood through her guidance.

      If the lesbian community of today were aware that their foremother, Sappho, was a lover of girls, they might not be so quick to condemn NAMBLA.  Maybe they might listen to NAMBLA's viewpoint with an open mind. Perhaps more girl-loving lesbians will begin to speak out, so their voices can be added to NAMBLA's effort for sexual reform. They are letting NAMBLA fight a battle that is theirs too.

      For all those women who may read this and who know I am speaking to them, let me close with a benediction from Sappho:

The gods bless you
May you sleep then
On some tender
girl friend's breast.

(Barnard, Fragment 96)
 


From the NAMBLA Bulletin, Vol. 4, No. 3, Pg. 9, 1983
Copyright © NAMBLA, 2007

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