Counterfeit Perversion: Vita Sackville-West’s Portrait

  • Georgia Johnston


One can see the influence of sexology in the writings of Vita Sackville-West, who directed her writings about lesbianism toward her own self, through autobiography and fictionalized autobiography. Sexology gave Sackville-West the ability to present the lesbian as an observed type. The rhetoric sexology gave Sackville-West is vital, especially when one realizes that the rhetorical settings she uses in her memoir Portrait of a Marriage are made up, one, of expectations of her gendered role and, two, of terminology emerging from sexology. She clothes these two coexisting rhetorical settings in language of authenticity with two results: the expectations place her in a role that actively precludes a self-positioning outside a gendered role as wife, and the terminology of the science sexology allows her to justify her lesbianism outside of the family dynamics of morality even though that justification requires her to split her identity. Despite this necessary split, sexology helped Sackville-West, counteracting a gendered moral discourse that required that lesbianism be a vile moral degeneracy. Though still abnormal and perverted, lesbianism can be presented as a naturally occurring biological type of sexuality. Analyzing the spread of this ideology of sexuality in culture, Laura Doan writes, is “notoriously difficult,” but, she notes, “we know that during this period the educated elite, including feminists, were becoming familiar with some of the categories of sexual behaviors and identities.”


Gender Role Moral Judgment Subject Position Original Emphasis Male Homosexuality 
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© Georgia Johnston 2007

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  • Georgia Johnston

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