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Learning to Be a Lesbian Online

Trying to understand my sexuality one Google search at a time.

Josie Thaddeus-Johns

Josie Thaddeus-Johns

I first realized I was into girls on a coach trip through Europe with none of my friends. With no one to analyze my behavior with, one girl at the back of the bus just held my attention and made me want to hang out with only her, all of the time. Suddenly, everything I knew about how I fancied people was, literally, crushed.

At 23, I was just starting to believe I had my shit together with relationships. As the holiday romance fizzled out, I was left in an awkward in-between situation, figuring out how these feelings for one person translated into an attraction to the other half of the population.

At first glance, it seems fun! More people to create intrigue with is always preferable. Catching eyes on the train, obsessing over the meanings of text messages, making out at bus stops: More drama in interpersonal relationships just means more excitement in this heterodull world we call life.

The first problem was I didn't know any lesbians. Or, for that matter, anything about lesbian culture, having ignored girl-on-girl subtext my entire life. While my friends at university had been flipping sexualities weekly, I was living my straightest life. I just didn't get why my housemates were obsessed with The L Word, or were following Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson's relationship with such interest. It had seemed like an extracurricular interest, a hobby. Now, years later, here I was, puffing up to the sidelines like a latecomer to softball practice. "So, guys, what did I miss?" Except with no teammates to ask.

What was I looking for? Well, it's easy to see, even as a brand new baby dyke, all pink and shiny out of the heterowomb, that being a lesbian is a lot like being in a cult. In Cruel Intentions, Sarah Michelle Geller tells Selma Blair, nefariously persuading her to get promiscuous with her stepbrother, "We all do it, it's that just nobody talks about it." Naïve Selma Blair, alone in the room afterwards, celebrates with a lame little fist-pumping dance, whispering, "Secret society! Secret society!" This was me, celebrating my newfound semi-lesbianism--psyched about all the new opportunities, but generally very unclear on the secret society's rules.

More drama in interpersonal relationships just means more excitement in this heterodull world we call life.

In my naive Sapphic confusion, I did what any self-respecting child of the Internet would do: I Googled it. After all, the Internet has the answer to everything: "where's my closest Domino's," "how large is a Domino's large," "how many slices of pizza can a human fit in her mouth at once." And now: sexuality in just 19 keystrokes: "H-o-w t-o b-e a l-e-s-b-i-a-n."

But, for the first time in my living memory, the Internet did not sate my search for knowledge. In a twist of fate that will surprise no one, looking for the rules of a cult that doesn't exist does not work. And yet, I kept on imagining I would find something I hadn't seen before, that would explain what I was missing out on. The Internet is a never-ending portal of knowledge! It seemed unbelievable that I could have a feeling of ignorance that would go unanswered by its holy wisdom. Yet nothing hit the spot.

Case in point: Number one search result for "how to be a lesbian" is: "How to be a lesbian (with pictures)" courtesy of Wikihow. Generally, this is a pretty useful article. It's also the definition of cringe. You would think these "pictures" would be useful to spot yourself in the lesbian how-to, but they actually look like the kind of illustrations on the safety sheet in an airplane seat pocket. Everyone is white and wearing "comfortable clothes" in pastel shades, and it's all extremely sanitized and unhot. Despite this, I feel like if you could follow these (subpoints include "Be true to yourself," "Go in with an open mind," and "Let relationships develop naturally") you would probably have a great time and be a really well-adjusted gay girl. Most of them also work for straight people.

But who follows Wikihow instructions? Suffice to say: not me, and I had no time for this dicking around. Zero dicking around here. This was the lesbian grade one textbook, and I wanted the gay Infinite Jest.

Secrecy seemed (and still does seem) to be hardwired into the way that lesbians are perceived both by themselves and outsiders. And I love secrets. I'm the kind of person you can easily wind up by pretending there's a secret feud brewing between two friends: I just want to be in on the gossip. Textbooks don't cover conspiracies, secret signs, and fascinating subtext, these things that I was convinced had to exist.

However, when most people think about lesbian secrets, they think sex. Two years down the line from this mystery-seeking escapade (a spoiler: I made it out alive), people frequently ask me about how lesbians have sex, and these people are invariably not interested in having lesbian sex.

Which is OK! Curiosity is not evil. It is, however, really fucking annoying to have to explain to e.g., some random heterobro sitting next to you on a plane that actually no, you don't want to answer their questions about how you get down, no matter whether their ex-wife dumped them for a woman. I don't know you and even if I did, I don't want to know about exactly what you get up to in the bedroom. Just because I mentioned my girlfriend doesn't mean I want to hear everything else you've mentally hashtagged "lesbian."

But back then, as a little lesbian-secret-seeker, this was a scary attitude! Sex is always stupid and taboo: This just made it even more so. No one wants to be the annoying person on the plane who's prying and asking irritating questions. It's also Really Uncool to ask about how to have sex. It was uncool when I remember people doing it for straight stuff at 15. At 23, it's inconceivably terrible for anyone with any kind of pride.

As a teenager looking for information on straight sex, it was a very different story. Women's magazines were a big source of data, but (although I didn't care about it at the time) they pretty much ignored girl-on-girl sex. Cosmopolitan tried to get in on the action last year and were universally ridiculed for their list of sex positions featuring images of pubeless barbies wearing flower garlands and silk ties while rubbing random body parts together in ways that can be arousing for no one. It's such an embarrassing article that I'm actually glad it arrived two years past the point of my panning the Internet for lesbian gold.

Of course, Cosmo's tips for straight women are also pretty laughable. The difference is that straight women have a billion other ways to learn about sex--the formats and codes of straight sex are built into education about how to live in the world (particularly how women live in the world) from day one. All this Googling, in essence, was a way to counteract this deluge and speed-learn it, in a month-long crash course. If anyone is thinking "what about lesbian porn?" I am happy to inform you that even 2012-me wasn't stupid enough to think that male-gaze-friendly lesbian porn represented any kind of sex ed reality.

Unfortunately the search engine results have pretty much the same amount of male focus. "How to eat girls out" is up there with the most depressing search results page of all time, where sad men talk about cunnilingus as a method of mind control over their girlfriends. It all seemed to be techniques to "prove yourself" to your woman as a "real man"? (Do I want to be a 'real man' now I like girls? What is gender? What is sex? What is life? Where's the nearest Domino's?)

I also spent lots of time looking for lesbian celebrities and obsessing over anyone even vaguely bisexual. Nowadays I just read lesbian subtext into everything, which is much more entertaining (don't tell me this Nicki Minaj and Beyonce video in which THEY EAT EACH OTHER'S BURGERS is not homo) because real life lesbians who will identify as such are few and far between. Googling a list of 100 famous lesbians and finding a list of 99 people from The L Word plus Ellen Degeneres? Too depressing to believe in.

Looking for better lists of lesbians led me deeper into actual lesbian media, which was obviously better in some ways (hi, reality, so nice to meet you). In others, it offered a whole new set of pitfalls. Here, I had found the cult leaders. Wide-eyed and confused, I was enthralled by the scary clichés gay girls write about themselves.

The first and most horrifying is "lesbian bed death,"--think of the people waiting for their lesbian bed birth! The idea that long term lesbian sex is "intrinsically doomed" to decline is a prevalent truism that just isn't all that true. It's actually masochistic that people in the lesbian community still sometimes talk like this is a thing. (See: Alex and Piper in Orange Is The New Black.) Research around the phenomenon has been widely criticized for its heterocentric methodology; even Googling it, I feel icky. Lesbian bed death needs to die.

Another myth I kept coming across in my search is the idea that lesbians don't want to have sex with bisexual or previously straight girls out of fear that they'll end up as an "experiment." This, I think, is a very scary perception to throw around. If the bar for entry to sleeping with women is "already knowing you're super gay," then how can you know you want to sign up? Working this stuff out is hard; it really doesn't need to be any harder. Now that I've learned the lesbian ropes, a potential partner's sexual history barely registers as a problem. I've had entire dates with girls where we have exclusively referenced encounters with men, and yet I still made out with them at the end.

There is, however, a reason why everyone thinks lesbians are "fucking each other in an incestuous ladysexpuddle." As a fledging lesbian I was overwhelmed by the thought that this could be true; three years down the line, and yep, it happens. There are just so many more options for hookups in a lesbian friendship group. Trying to explain the romantic backstory of my current lesbian friendship group to anyone outside the bubble would be, in a word, complicated.

As a "confident bisexual" today (my editor's words, not mine), these clichés become true because everyone struggling to work out their identity reads/listens/watches the same stuff. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, our level of tolerance for, e.g., our group of friends becoming more and more incestuous, gets a lot higher when we hear that's just how it is.

Looking back though, I wonder if I really needed to put myself in this position of cliché-building, entirely through my own need to create a sufficient background for my sexuality. Wouldn't it have been great to create my own identity without anyone else's stuff influencing me?

Now, I can't remember how the process ended. I'm probably still looking for a way to be part of the cult. But I think I've also realized that information that is only as good as it makes you feel. The other day, a new queer friend was talking to a longtime friend about me. "Wait, when was Josie not queer?" they said, assuming I had always been into multiple genders. I guess all that Googling paid off.