The word lesbian originally referred to an inhabitant of Lesbos, an island in Greece where an ancient Greek lyric poet named Sappho lived. Some of her poems concerned love between women. Whether Sappho was a lesbian in the modern meaning of the term or a poet who described lesbians is not known. While she did write poems about love between women there is some dispute as to how her writings can be interpreted. Sappho’s literary association with love between women led to the term sapphism as another term for lesbianism.

Other words used to describe lesbianism over the past 200 years have included amor lesbicus, urningism and tribadism.

There are many slang terms for lesbians including dyke and bulldyke. Both are almost always regarded as pejorative when used by outsiders but many within the lesbian and queer communities have reclaimed their usage.


Sexual activity between women is as diverse as sex between heterosexuals or gay men. Women in lesbian relationships may not identify as lesbian, but as bisexual. As with any interpersonal activity, sexual expression depends on the context of the relationship. Like anyone else (regardless of sexuality) lesbians can be promiscuous or committed, ashamed or proud.

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There is a wide spectrum of lesbian behavior and (as with much human behavior) generalizations can be misleading. Recent cultural changes in western and a few other societies have enabled lesbians to express their sexuality more freely, which has resulted in new studies on the nature of female sexuality.

There is a growing body of research and writing on lesbian sexuality which has brought some debate about the control women have over their sexual lives, the fluidity of female sexuality, the redefinition of female sexual pleasure and the debunking of negative sexual stereotypes.

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One example of the latter is lesbian bed death, a term invented by sex researcher Pepper Schwartz to describe the supposedly inevitable diminution of sexual passion in long term lesbian relationships, the notion of which is rejected by the lesbian community, pointing out that passion tends to diminish in almost any relationship and many lesbian couples reportedly enjoy happy and satisfying sex lives.

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