Illustrated by Kelly Doherty/OutWrite
This article was originally published in our Fall 2022 print issue “Satanic Panic.“
In the broader scheme of American history, the Satanic Panic was one of many moral panics that got mainstream culture whipped up into a frenzy about the supposed threatened integrity of the ideals they held near and dear to their hearts. These moral panics were often a misdirected reaction to underlying issues; the public’s reaction to this was often to scapegoat other groups to deflect from the true cause of these issues. In America during the 1980s, the sexual abuse of children was finally being confronted after years of being ignored; and the public’s response to that frightening prospect was to turn to an equally frightening cause (to deflect from the more uncomfortable idea that it was really people they knew and trusted that were sexually abusing their children): Satanists. The reason why Satanists in particular were blamed is thought to be found in a book — “Michelle Remembers” by Lawrence Pazder and Michelle Smith — in which a woman (Michelle) supposedly recounts the abuse she suffered at the hands of Satanists. Although its claims were quickly disproved, its rhetoric took hold and Satanists became the perceived perpetrators of child abuse.
Lesbians have also been scapegoats of similar moral panics and have been closely connected to Satanism in the past, which may explain why they, along with gay men, were also victims of the Satanic Panic (read Kristin Haegelin’s article, “Think of the (Straight) Children” for more).
“Satan’s Harvest Home,” a pamphlet produced anonymously in 1749 in London, condemns the supposed moral corruption that was taking place in Great Britain at the time; lesbians were mentioned briefly in this pamphlet in connection with Sappho — the WLW Greek poet for which the word “sapphic” got its roots — and blames her for inventing the “game of flats,” in which women gain sexual pleasure with “flat” contact between genitalia (better known nowadays as scissoring) without men. The anonymous author calls it a “new sort of Sin,” and the title connects the contents of the pamphlet (which also include sodomy, effeminacy of men, and prostitution) to actions of Satan.
Nearby, in France, lesbianism was strongly connected to Satan, likely due to its Catholic leaning. One novel by Denis Diderot, titled “The Nun,” outlines the struggles of a young girl forced to be a nun. At a convent, the head nun is revealed to be a lesbian and makes advances on the girl. When she rejects her by staying pious and chaste, the head nun goes insane.
Diderot’s intention with “The Nun” was to critique the corruption of the Catholic Church, but the fact that he did so using lesbianism is significant — in the book, lesbianism was equated to manipulation, desecration, and even pedophilia.
Another French novel, titled “The New Sappho, or The History of the Anandryne Sect,” depicts lesbians separated from the church in a cult-y setting of their own, where they honor Sappho and her lovers in a temple. This cult-like organization of lesbians are equated to incubi, — demons that seduced women — so the Satanic dimension remains.
Moreover, some of these religious sentiments connecting lesbians to Satanism still exist today. Beyond the protesters that never fail to show up to Pride Parades in June, holding signs whose slogans like “homosexuality is a sin” never seem to change from year to year (unoriginal much?), lesbianism has a religious connotation in other parts of the world as well. A magazine in Georgia (the country in Eastern Europe, not the state in America), published an article titled “Order of Lesbian Women,” which depicts Satanist lesbians who have orgies and chop people up with axes, so clearly the religious connotations that connect lesbianism to Satanism are not completely relics of the past.
However, some lesbians and sapphic women reclaim the “Satanist” correlation in their own ways. Much like how Lil Nas X made the music video to his hit song, “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name),” with themes of Satanism and devil worship to poke fun at people who call gay people Satanists just for existing, lesbians and sapphics claim the “witch” or “Satanist” term in a tongue-in-cheek, playful way. Some of my favorite women-loving-women artists on Instagram, including @jeniferrprince and @kelsijosilva, have art depicting WLW as witches, vampires, nosferatu, and even the devil herself. In these cases, it is less about actually being members of the Satanist religion or practicing witchcraft, and more a cute, fun reimagining of the labels that are used to harm us. In this way, WLW take a label that was cast upon them unwillingly to designate them as feared degenerates of society and turn it on its head into a source of fun Halloween merch that I am more than considering buying.
In a way, this reclamation may also have much deeper implications. In many of these historical texts, lesbians’ connection to Satanism was largely born out of Christian (mostly Catholic) fear and the need to assign a scary name to that fear. The supposed moral crime of lesbians was, according to Christians, sexual freedom and promiscuity, and sexual pleasure without the aid of men. This was a direct threat to the norm of a heterosexual, nuclear family in Europe, hence the fear and demonization. By reclaiming titles such as “witch” and “Satanist,” lesbians also recognize their independence from men and emphasize the deeply meaningful community that can be found in bonds between women and other non-men.
Author: Emma Blakely (They/She/He)
Artist: Kelly Doherty (She/Her)
Copy Editors: Bella (She/They), Jennifer Collier (She/They)