Do most successful lesbian relationships follow the butch/femme dynamic?

September 16, 2010

This is a great question, and so I turned to the research literature for some answers. All 20 studies that I read agreed there needs to be more review of this dynamic, but below I present some important findings. The research largely agreed that butch/femme dynamics are not related to relationship satisfaction, and that the butch/femme dynamic is changing due to social influences.

Lesbian relationships - butch femme

When you look at butch/femme dynamics and relationship satisfaction, internalized homophobia and discrimination were associated with lower relationship quality and both domestic violence perpetration and victimization. Outness and butch/femme identity were largely unrelated to relationship variables. (Psychology of Women Quarterly, Sep, 2005)

Relationships with unequal power balance reported less satisfaction and more problems, but relationships with the ‘butch-femme’ dynamic did not report these inequalities any more than other relationships. (Sex Roles, Apr, 1984)

Butch and femme women seem to form their sexual identities in the same manner, when compared to bisexual women. (Archives of Sexual Behavior, Feb, 2009)

Butch women reported drinking alcohol more frequently and in greater quantity, smoking more cigarettes, and using marijuana more frequently than young femme women. (Substance Use & Misuse, Jul, 2008.)

The butch/femme dynamic has changed over time, but all studies agree that this must be studied more.

The terms used to designate the different roles of lesbian couples in Bulgaria, “masculine” and “feminine lesbian,” do not have high importance for the majority of lesbians who are part of the club scene. Butch/femme appears to be an old-fashioned way of approaching lesbian relationships in Bulgaria today. Most young lesbians regard their relationships as a game between equals who may decide to play a division of roles for the sake of variety and pleasure. (Journal of Lesbian Studies, 2002)

Many black gay women in the 1970s did not distance themselves from the use of physical presentations of gender as an organizing mechanism for their relationships and for lesbian community life. During this time period, the use of the butch/femme identification meant something very important to these women, and remains an important part of their identity. (Signs, Aug, 2006)


  1. In Canada, for women over 40, the butch/femme dichotomy seems to play a role primarily in urban settings. My observation is that highly masculine-presenting women tend to be lower wage earners (probably related to discrimination, but also perhaps to alcoholism). As I work with LGBT youth, the butchy girls seem to be using the esthetic in much the same way as straight youth take on sub-culture roles – goth, emo, preppy, jock, whatever. There seem to be many lesbians, girls and women who live well between the extremes of butch and femme as they move about the streets and in their families. Perhaps it is Canadian to be less extreme in general?

    Comment by Karla — October 31, 2010 @ 7:07 pm

  2. Thanks for opening up the discussion on this topic. I can’t even begin to speak to what the younger generation is doing, but I will say what I see as a baby boomer (born in the early 1960’s). If you’d asked me 10 years ago if women were in butch/femme relationships due to politics or internalized heterosexism or whatever, I may have agreed. I have a gut feeling, though, that a lot of women who perceive themselves as butch are not putting themselves into roles that are borne of something negative. My ‘gut’ is that many of them have a gender orientation that is truly male. That is, many would probably be trans if they could accept that in themselves. I’d say this is just one subset of butch women though. I think the whole topic of lesbian love relationships is fascinating anyway, as that is my work and I love it!

    Comment by Barb Elgin — November 1, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

  3. Interesting information – I would agree that Butch and Femme look very different now than they did in the 50’s with regards to politics and acceptance, but there are still a lot of ‘classic’ Butch/Femme identifiers in most Butch/Femme couples.

    Still that ‘dance’, still an ebb and flow of masculine and feminine energy between women.
    Nice article.

    Comment by ButchFemmePlanet — November 19, 2010 @ 4:45 pm

  4. Many of the Second Wave Feminists who were adamantly anti-butch/femme as a re-expression of oppressive patriarchal archetypes chose “androgynous” gender expression as a “correct” expression of lesbian feminism; of course, that “androgynous” look was really a watered down pseudo working class rural butch look (flannel shirts, jeans, short hair) on middle class urbanized primarily white women. It was okay to be “butch” looking, just not too butch, and you couldn’t claim that as your gender expression, just as you could not claim a “femme” look as your gender expression; why the decision to narrow down female gender expression when seeking to widen our opportunities for self-expression in all other ways seems especially counter-intuitive and counter-productive in retrospect. I suspect there was some public desire to “signal” sexual orientation for partnering and for community contact, and a femme expression wouldn’t have done that without also mis-signaling straight men, therefore the other option was a more butch expression, a watered down butch expression, even as those same lesbians were rejecting actual butches.

    I believe that anti-butch/femme reaction by radical lesbian feminists was a classist shorthand for an actual rejection of the assumptions of a power differential between butches and femmes; that the sexist inequality between men and women would naturally be replayed in precisely the same way between butches and femmes, and q.e.d. the butch/femme dynamic was sexist and anti-feminist. I found it interesting that the research cited here show that while relationships with unequal power balances report more problems and higher dissatisfaction, butch-femme relationships “did not report these inequalities any more than any other relationship” .

    Most of the lesbian feminist couples I socialize with are clearly butch/femme in their gender expressions, despite claims of “equal androgyny”. I remain surprised that the gender expressions of butch or femme in the white lesbian feminist community is actually considered to be a subverted desire to be a heterosexual male or a heterosexual female and therefore a rejection of lesbianism and feminism. It’s as ignorant and oppressive as the tie that sometimes happens in my community of color that any expression of homosexuality is actually considered a subverted desire to be white and therefore an internalized racist rejection of color. Crazy, no? Sometimes, as a feminist femme lesbian of color, I am surprised that my head has not exploded from all the crap that people come up with to justify some poorly considered prejudice.

    Do some butches want to be transmen? Probably some. Do some femmes want to be with straight men? Probably true, too. But in my progressively longer lifetime, I have known a lot more adamantly “androg” lesbian feminists (and separatists) who are now married heterosexuals. I suspect you really can’t tell a lesbian book by her cover.

    Comment by Through It — November 22, 2010 @ 8:38 pm

  5. These comments are really thought provokoing…I like your comments “Comment by Through it-NOvember 22, 2010″…especially….”I suspect you can’t tell a lesbian by her cover”….LABELS!!! Who needs them? We spend to much time analyzing our lives…and too little time enjoying them and each other….always concerned with who thinks what about us…

    Comment by Rahno Godfrey — January 6, 2012 @ 11:39 am

  6. Hmmm…I’m femme and my partner is butch. I never thought we were trying to be any way in particular. I think we were born like this! We are being ourselves! She doesn’t want to be a transgender either. We are the way we are and our family works! We have kids and they call us mammabear and papabear. The kids call us gubby and wife. Gubby = girl hubby

    On the feminist thing…I thought I knew what that meant until I started talking to some self-proclaimed feminists. Now I don’t know what it means to be feminist. Why would a woman have to conform to be a feminist? My mom raised 3 kids in her lipstick and heels and never had a job in her life. She did exactly what she wanted to do…I’d consider her a feminist.

    Comment by Anonymous — August 24, 2012 @ 8:05 pm

  7. I think that radical feminists did serve a purpose in there attempt to get rid of gender roles. Yes some women are by societys standards more masculine by nature, while others are more feminine. This is no different for men. All this is fine, radical feminism should not have insisted all lesbians adopy an androgynouse look and role, this is where they went wrong.

    What they did do right is change some things, like why should everyone fit one of two roles, and why should there be rules about who can date who, why should a masculine woman not date another one of her kind etc. Before radical feminism, both streight and lesbian relationships were tied up in gender based rules.

    Radical feminism was based upon an idea that all gender was a social construct, and that women had the worst role to play out in society, this was exstended to femme lesbians. Butch women were then seen as like men by a movement that saw masculinity as a problem. Yes society is unequal and it does favour men, but not just because there masculine, its never favoured masculine women in the same way, thats because there still women.

    For this reason radical feminists did masculine women dammage, and are the reason why masculine women of today may turn to being trans in greater numbers then before (some were always trans).

    Masculine women get descrimination on both sides of things, from streight people for being gay, from streight people for none gender typical expression as many streight men see masculine womens identity as an expression of there dislike of male attention and o other value but that, while streight women take masculine women as a personal insult along the lines of “she must want to be a man”. But what streight people think tends to change the more information they have, i think radical feminists are responsible for the whole of the mess masculine women have left for them today.

    This is because when redical feminists took on a masculine identity and claimed the word lesbian as a political thing, as an alternative any woman could use they gave lesbians a load of baggage. Being a lesbian was no longer a gay woman, it was a code for man hating feminist, and masculine womens gender expression was there uniform. All while real were having there spaces taken over,

    the radical feminists left feminism in droves, they left feminism, many wished they had children, most were not real lesbians (as they did not have to have sexual(they call it objectification) interests in women to be considered lesbian, just the right politics), some of them are still around and are now spending there days wipping up hate against transwomen.

    Today we have a situation on the scene where there is less space for masculine women, unless you stay androgynouse or are trans. And to compound the problem, transpeople are being blamed for this.

    Comment by lindsey — January 10, 2013 @ 4:16 am

  8. I can name a few examples julie bindal for one…

    Comment by lindsey — January 10, 2013 @ 4:20 am

  9. Radical feminism did not damage only lesbians. RF’s erroneous supposition that gender roles are purely contrived damages society as a whole. Masculinity and men are illegitimately discredited. Women naturally inclined to motherhood are degraded. Children suffer from neglect as these women attempt conformity to RF by focusing energy away from kids, and so they underachieve at motherhood. Regretfully, simply saying this will likely elicit anger from many RFs and I imagine that my phrase “underachieving at motherhood” is heard by RFs as chauvinist propaganda to keep women in chains. And so it is that RFs see the most natural of drives, like motherhood, only through the lens of their ideology. None of this is to say that being a “radical masculinist”, my term for chauvinists who really do want to keep women as servants, is any better. And this is the whole point: it is very challenging for human beings to let go of their argument, their positionally, to see the simple truth, whatever it may be.

    Comment by Jcbinsc — April 27, 2013 @ 9:55 pm

  10. Im back and want to say that months after writing the above comments about radical feminism im back to say that i got it all wrong. Radical feminists have not made things bad for lesbians, there objection to the butch femme dynamic was the best thing that ever happened to lesbians. Women in society are categorized based on how close they fit to the socially excepted definition of woman. Women being classified as butch or masculine is misogyny, as whats really going on when a woman is classed as butch is someone is deciding whats acceptable behavior or expression from a woman. Its about saying those clothes, mannerisms or interests are male interests. That is misogyny. Also when lesbians are together people always ask who takes the mans role, they try to work out who “the woman” is among them. And how do they themselves decide if they are butch or femme, by how well they as individuals fit the social gender boxes of female.

    Why should lesbians pair up based on how well they fit into patriarchal versions of woman? Why should there be rules among lesbians of who can date who. All the taboos about two butches being together etc, its almost homophobic bc its really saying the butches are the dudes who cannot go down with each other and must be buddies and bear hug each other or fight it out. Yet its ok for two femmes to be together, almost like the straight man who says he does not mind two women together just not two men.

    No radical feminists have not made being a masculine woman hard, its misogyny that does that. masculine woman is just a concept, any woman who presents a certain way will be typed as butch, over time it can become an internalized identity.

    Women are categorized in many ways men are not. As blondes, brunettes, redheads, with personalities to go with them! As career women, ever eared of a career man or a professional man?

    Comment by lindsey — June 7, 2013 @ 7:51 am

  11. […] Do most lesbian relationships follow the butch-femme dynamic? Written by Sam Garanzini in 2010, this article was constructed for lesbian couples asking why the butch-femme relationship dynamic is so common. It started as a simple email to Sam. As it turns out, this dynamic is heavily researched in the academic world. Now it has been downloaded 8100 times, and linked across the internet. https://www.gaycouplesinstitute.org/blog/2010/09/16/do-most-successful-lesbian-relationships-follow-t… […]

    Pingback by Top Gay Couples Institute Relationship Blog Articles | Gay Couples Institute — October 6, 2016 @ 7:41 am

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