Tribadism or tribbing, commonly known by its scissoring position, is a form of non-penetrative sex in which a woman rubs her vulva against her partner's body for sexual stimulation, especially for ample stimulation of the clitoris. This may involve female-to-female genital contact or a female rubbing her vulva against her partner's thigh, stomach, buttocks, arm, or other body part (excluding the mouth). A variety of sex positions are recorded, including the missionary position.
The term is usually used in the context of lesbian sex, and originally encompassed societal beliefs about women's capability of being penetrative sexual partners. Women accused of having been penetrative during sexual activity were subject to ridicule or punishment. In modern times, the term refers to various forms of frottage between women without any negative connotations. It may also involve vaginal penetration by use of the fingers, a dildo or double penetration dildo, or refer to a masturbation technique in which a woman rubs her vulva against an inanimate object such as a bolster to achieve orgasm.
History and culture
Etymology and usage
The term tribadism derives from the Greek word τριβάς (tribas), "a woman who practices unnatural vice with herself or with other women", which derives from the verb τρίβω (tribō), "rub". In ancient Greek and Roman sexuality, a tribas, or tribade, was a woman or intersex individual who actively penetrated another person (male or female) through use of the Clitoris or a dildo. This did not begin to refer exclusively to eroticism between women until Late Antiquity. Because penetration was viewed as "male-defined" sexuality, a tribas was considered the most vulgar lesbian. The Greeks and Romans recognized same-sex attraction, but as any sexual act was believed to require that one of the partners be "phallic" and that therefore sex between women was impossible without this feature, popular mythology pictured lesbians as either having enlarged clitorises or as incapable of sexual enjoyment without the substitution of a phallus. This appears in Greek and Latin satires as early as the late first century.
In English texts, tribade is recorded as early as 1601, in Ben Jonson's Praeludium (Poem X in The Forest), to as late as the mid-nineteenth century; it was the most common lesbian term in European texts, through the proliferation of classical literature, anatomies, midwiferies, sexual advice manuals, and pornography. It also came to refer to lesbian sexual practices in general, although anatomical investigation in the mid-eighteenth century led to skepticism about stories of enlarged clitorises and anatomists and doctors argued for a more precise distinction between clitoral hypertrophy and hermaphroditism. "More often, however, [European] writers avoided the term, instead euphemistically invoking 'unnatural vice,' 'lewd behavior,' 'crimes against nature,' 'using an instrument,' and 'taking the part of a man.'" In the eighteenth century, where the term saw one of its most popular uses, it was employed in several pornographic libels against Marie Antoinette, who was tried and roundly convicted in the press as a tribade. "[Her] rumored tribadism had historically specific political implications," stated author Dena Goodman. "Consider her final (fictive) testimony in The Confession of Marie-Antoinette: 'People!' she protests, 'because I ceded to the sweet impressions of nature, and in imitating the charming weakness of all the women of the court of France, I surrendered to the sweet impulsion of love...you hold me, as it were, captive within your walls?'" Goodman elaborated:
As proof of the "excellence" of her character, she generously provides details of her amorous liaisons. Her husband's "incapacity in the venereal act" and the vital heat of her temperament forced her to turn for sexual satisfaction to the comtesse d'Artois, then Cardinal de Rohan, but even these efforts could not slake her sexual thirst. "Fucking was such a great need for me that I was forced to take into my service la Jule de Polignac, the most lascivious, libertine, intriguing, ostentatious woman who ever existed." Mare-Antoinette then specifies precisely what made sex with a woman so appealing: "Adroit in the art of stimulating the clitoris," La Polignac's attentions produced "one of those rare pleasures that cannot be used up because it can be repeated as many times as one likes."
"By the Victorian era, tribadism tended to be constructed as a lower class and non-Western phenomenon and often was associated with the supposed degeneration of prostitutes and criminals," stated author Bonnie Zimmerman. By the twentieth century, "tribade had been supplanted" by the terms sapphist, lesbian, invert, and homosexual, as tribade had become too archaic to use. Fricatrice, a synonym for tribade that also refers to rubbing but has a Latin rather than a Greek root, appeared in English texts as early as 1605 (in Ben Jonson's Volpone). Its usage suggests that it was more colloquial and more pejorative than tribade. Variants include the Latinized confricatrice and English rubster.
Sex positions and other aspects
Tribadism is a common sexual practice among women who have sex with women (WSW). Although the term is often applied to the act of vulva-to-vulva stimulation, it encompasses a variety of sexual activity. In addition to the "scissoring" position, which involves the partners interlocking their legs in a position similar to the shape of scissors and pressing their vulvae together, tribadism may involve a missionary position, a woman on top position, a doggy style position or others, or simple movement of the woman's vulva against her partner's thigh, stomach, buttocks, arm, or another body part. Vaginal penetration by use of the fingers or by use of a dildo may be accompanied, and so sometimes "mutuality and reciprocation tend not to be the main objective, although satisfaction for both partners through different means most definitely is its aim". Women who enjoy or prefer tribadism report enjoyment of whole-body contact, the experience of timing hip movement and feeling their partner's motions without manual stimulation, which is considered exciting, erotic and a much easier way to achieve orgasm due to ample clitoral stimulation.
Some lesbian and bisexual women do not engage in the "scissoring" position; this may be because they find it uncomfortable, because they object to the act and feel that it is not representative of lesbian sexual practices and is more attributable to the male fantasies of the heterosexual porn industry, or simply because it is not a part of their sex lives. The Raw Story states, "Whether [the scissoring position] describes a traditional or even common lesbian act remains up for debate." Some sources, however, such as Shere Hite's 1976 and 1981 research, show that women may enjoy performing the scissoring position with other women because it is a variation of vulva-to-vulva contact or can allow for maximum vulva-to-vulva contact and therefore an elevated level of intimacy.
"Scissoring" is commonly used as an umbrella term for all forms of tribadism, and many lesbian and bisexual women are unaware that some of the sexual acts they include in their lovemaking are aspects of and are formally labeled tribadism, as tribadism is commonly omitted from mainstream sex research. Judith Halberstam, in her book Female Masculinity, stated, "If we trace the use of the term forward into present, we find that tribadism is one of those rarely discussed but often practiced sexual activities, and the silence that surrounds it now is as puzzling as the discourse it produced in earlier centuries." She added that Sigmund Freud had nothing to say on the subject, and few contemporary lesbian sex books even discuss it.
According to older studies, approximately one-third of lesbian women used tribadism, or body contact, as a means of achieving orgasm (Saghir & Robins, 1973; Jay & Young, 1977). Masters and Johnson's 1979 study on lesbian sexual practices found that vaginal penetration with dildos is rare, and that lesbians tend to do more overall genital stimulation than direct clitoral stimulation, which is also often the case for heterosexual relationships. In 1987, a non-scientific study (Munson) was conducted of more than 100 members of a lesbian social organization in Colorado. When asked what techniques they used in their last 10 lovemaking sessions, 100% were for kissing, sucking on nipples, and manual stimulation of the clitoris; more than 90% reported French kissing, oral sex, and fingers inserted into the vagina; and 80% reported tribadism.
In 2003, Bailey et al. published data based on a sample from the United Kingdom of 803 lesbian and bisexual women attending two London lesbian sexual health clinics and 415 women who have sex with women from a community sample; the study reported that 85% of the women engaged in tribadism (whether genital-to-genital contact or rubbing genitals against another part of a partner's body), and, like older studies, that vaginal penetration with dildos or such penetration with other sex toys among women who have sex with women are rare.
As with any exchange of bodily fluids during sexual activities, genital-to-genital tribadism has the potential to transfer sexually transmitted infections (STIs/STDs) if those are present in one or more of the partners. AIDS.gov and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health state that genital-genital and genital-body contact can spread STIs such as HPV, pubic lice (crabs) and herpes and that "wearing clothes and for herpes, avoiding contact if sores are present, reduces the risks". Other safe sex options, such as use of a dental dam or a cut-open condom, may also be practiced. However, there "is no good evidence" that using a dental dam reduces STI transmission risks; studies show that using a dental dam as a protection barrier is rarely practiced, and that, among [women who have sex with women], this may be because the individuals have "limited knowledge about the possibilities of STI transmission or [feel] less vulnerable to STIs [such as HIV]". For further safe sex precautions, the American Family Physician advises lesbian and bisexual women to avoid unprotected contact with a sexual partner's menstrual blood and with any visible genital lesions.
In popular culture and other media
Tribadism has been referenced in various aspects of popular culture. The glam pop band Scissor Sisters derived their name from the scissoring position. Jake Shears of the group stated that while many of their songs have gay themes, they do not want to be labeled a gay band; they "are first and foremost a pop band". Other bands named after tribadism include lesbian punk band Tribe 8 and all-male group Scissorfight.
Genital-genital tribadism was depicted three times during the "D-Yikes!" episode of the cartoon South Park, referred to in the episode as scissoring. The episode is credited with having popularized the term scissoring, with The Raw Story stating, "Though the band 'Scissor Sisters' takes its name from descriptions of the act, it wasn't until scissoring was dramatized in the 2007 'South Park' epis[o]de 'D-Yikes' that it achieved wide recognition in mainstream culture." The term additionally received mainstream recognition after the episode "Duets" of the television series Glee had characters Santana Lopez and Brittany S. Pierce reference scissoring while making out. The scene received some criticism for possibly being inappropriate for children.
In 2010, in response to California State University, Long Beach refusing to advertise the play "The Night of the Tribades" on the Seventh Street marquee because of the word "tribades" in its title, approximately 24 theater arts majors protested in front of Brotman Hall by simulating tribadism (including scissoring). "When you put tribade into a Google search image, apparently it comes up with the word tribadism, which is a sex act and they decided it was inappropriate," stated one student.
- Frot (the male-male version of frottage)
- Intercrural sex (sexual practice of a male placing his penis between his partner's thighs and thrusting to create friction)
- Vanilla sex
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