A Guide to Scissoring

What is scissoring—the quintessential lesbian sex act or a fictive spectre perpetuated by heteropatriarchial standards?

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Apr 5 2018, 7:22pm

Photo by Broadly. 

Chances are, if you’ve seen lesbian porn—and we know you have because it’s the most popular category of all time on PornHub—you’ve encountered “scissoring.” You also may have heard the term on TV shows like Glee and South Park, seen it portrayed in movies such as Blue Is the Warmest Color, or heard it referenced by bands like the Scissor Sisters, Tribe 8, and Scissorfight.

But what, exactly, is scissoring? Is it dry humping? Is it a position? A rite of passage? Is it the quintessential lesbian sex act or a fictive spectre perpetuated by heteropatriarchial standards? And how prominent is scissoring outside of porn?

According to some queer celebs like comedian and Orange Is the New Black star Lea DeLaria, scissoring is adamantly “not a thing.” That may be because queer women rarely ever want to be associated with anything that the mainstream porn industry calls “lesbian sex”—which tends to involve thin, white, cisgender women with french-tip manicures stabbing at each other’s cervixes. And which has frustratingly deceived the heterosexual world into thinking that the “only way” lesbians fuck is by basically giving each other naked lap dances. Scissoring has also been dissed for ergonomic reasons—certain scissoring positions can feel less like sex and more like punishing yoga—and, as we’ll explore later in this piece, non-penetrative sex in general is often downplayed, dismissed, or outright denied as sex at all.

The concept of scissoring (and what lesbian sex entails generally) is so fraught that the queer website Autostraddle conducted an entire survey to parse the dirty details of its readers’ feelings and approaches to the sex act. Their results? Scissoring is not only “a thing,” it is also a regular part of nearly 40 percent of respondents’ sex.

So, now that we’ve established that scissoring is something that queer women engage in, let’s put some other mysteries surrounding it, well, to bed.

What is scissoring?

Scissoring, at its most broad and expansive, involves the genitals of a female-identified person rubbing against another female-identified person’s body—such as their genitals, thighs, ass, torso, and, though this may be a little too liberal, the arms have also been mentioned. (Wikipedia goes wild and even includes masturbating with inanimate objects in its definition of scissoring, but that’s bananas and we’re not counting it.) Scissoring can involve penetration, either with fingers or a dildo, though it doesn’t have to—and penetrative sex isn’t typically what comes to mind when one encounters the term.

What does come to mind when one imagines scissoring is usually a genital-to-genital endeavor, generally with the sex-havers’ legs entwined to create a scissor-like effect—get it? For those already confused, try this: Using your index and middle fingers, make two Vs with both hands. Now rub them together where the webs of the hands meet. Voila, you just mimicked a sex position that would startle your grandmother.

Like many sex acts, scissoring can be achieved in a variety of positions, including missionary, the cowgirls (standard, reverse, and reverse-reverse, i.e. riding ass-grinding), and side-by-side (also called the dirty spoon or forking). The limits of scissoring positions really only depend on your imagination and the flexibility of your hamstrings.

Scissoring is also called tribading, tribbing, or tribadism. And scross cultures, scissoring has been euphemistically likened to “making tortillas” (Latin America), “gimlets” (France), a “game of flats” (based on an 18th-century British card game), and “polishing mirrors” (China). So, there’s more mental imagery for you.

Other words for genital grinding include “frottage” (rubbing, not gender specific), “frot” (man on man), “frotteurism” (man on nonconsensual person aka a felony), and “intercrural sex” (non-penetrative grinding, aka dry humping aka high school). But that’s actually not what “tribadism” originally meant.

Where did scissoring come from?

The ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t have words that specifically described female sex acts. In fact, they couldn’t even conceive of two women having sex at all without a “phallic” component, hence the first use of “tribade” (in the late first century) referred to a woman who penetrated other women (and men! Peggers of antiquity represent!) with dildos or their clits. In mythology and in works of art (made by men, of course) tribades were depicted as women with enormous clitorises (clitorides, for the plural-correct) that could penetrate people.

In late antiquity, the word “tribade” eventually became associated with the female-female sex act we think of as scissoring today, through a combination of the Greek words τρίβω (tribo), meaning “to rub,” and τριβάς (tribas) meaning "a woman who practises unnatural vice with herself or with other women."

(Fun tangent! The verb “lesbiazein”—“to act like someone from Lesbos”—in classical Greek was originally slang that meant performing fellatio, and “sappho” was associated with prostitution.)

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According to Robert Norton’s Myth of the Modern Homosexual, “tribade” came to refer to “the most common (vulgar) lesbian in European texts” for three centuries, from 1601 to the mid-1900s. But the prudish yet revered Oxford English Dictionary left all references to tribadism out of its dictionary altogether, because it did not include sex slang. Norton also notes that the OED incorrectly listed the first use of “lesbian” as appearing in 1870, even though it was used to mean same-sex female relations in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Despite being maligned, mocked, misconstrued, and erased from history, scissoring has doggedly persisted. It may have taken 2,000 years of rubbing people the wrong way (sorry!), but scissoring is finally, tentatively starting to be embraced for its versatility, reciprocal pleasure, and occasional ergonomic feats. While no single act will ever be the defining lesbian sex act, because queer sex is as limitless as queers themselves, scissoring is a sex act that is definitely here to stay.