05/03/2012 02:22 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Myth of the Violent Lesbian

"I was kidnapped once by a gang of lesbians. They tied me up and forced me to watch Prisoner: Cell Block H over and over again. It was almost unbearable."

This tongue-in-cheek comment was posted on a website aimed at lesbians and gay men monitoring homophobia. It was one of the hundreds of responses to the latest rumour about violent lesbians taking over the world.

Lesbians being threatening and violent is an age-old stereotype that goes way back. In 1954, for example, the psychiatrist Frank S. Caprio wrote in his book, Female Homosexuality, "Usually, the aggressive lesbian becomes jealous of her feminine passive partner. One lesbian informed me that she threatened to kill her friend if she threatened to go out with a man."

In 2007 the myth was peddled in the form of a segment on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor titled, "Violent Lesbian Gangs a Growing Problem." The fall 2007 issue of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report summarized the segment thus:

A "national underground network" of pink pistol-packing lesbians is terrorizing America. "All across the country," they are raping young girls, attacking heterosexual males at random, and forcibly indoctrinating children as young as 10 into the lesbian lifestyle, according to a shocking June 21 [2007] segment on the popular Fox News Channel program, "The O'Reilly Factor."

The rumour began partly as a response to the case of Wayne Buckle, a DVD bootlegger who was attacked by seven women, described by witnesses in court as a "lesbian gang" in New York City. The women claim that Buckle had subjected them to homophobic abuse after one of them resisted his advances, which Buckle denies. "It was a hate crime against a straight man by a ton of lesbians," said Buckle from his hospital bed soon after the attack. "This is what the world is coming to."

According to the 2007 O'Reilly Factor segment there was a "national underground network" of such gangs, including at least 150 in the Washington, D.C. area alone. The gangs, the rumour goes, go by names like GTO (Gays Taking Over) or DTO (Dykes Taking Over) and are supposedly infiltrating schools and lying in wait for young girls in the toilets. No evidence has been uncovered since the report that any such gangs exist.

What is it about lesbians that instils fear in people? Why are we often viewed as either lipsticked sex-kittens who exist to titillate men or terrifying bull-dykes leering at helpless females in prison shower rooms?

Lezzers are also often seen as sexual predators and sadists. Prisoner: Cell Block H featured a character named Joan Ferguson, also known as The Freak, who would put on a pair of leather gloves as a precursor to sexually assaulting terrified prisoners whom she'd decided needed to be punished.

The fear comes from misogyny. It is about men knowing we are outside their direct control. Men can get terribly excited by lesbians in a variety of ways. We feature a lot in pornography, both taking part in girl-on-girl action and, with monotonous regularity, fighting each other in boxing rings, mud baths, and military uniform. Why is aggression between lesbians such a popular male fantasy?

Even within the wider gay community lesbians are often perceived as violent. In 2007 Tom McFeely, the owner of a hotel in Sydney, Australia that caters to gay men, applied to have his hotel exempted from nondiscrimination laws so that it could refuse entry to heterosexuals and lesbians. Claiming that heterosexual women "ogled" his gay male customers, he said that he also "feared attacks by lesbians." A tribunal ruled in the McFeely's favor, concluding that "[s]ometimes ... lesbian groups insult and deride and are even physically violent towards the gay male patrons."

Significance was placed on multiple killer Aileen Wournos' sexuality in seeking an "explanation" of her crimes. U.S. tabloids dubbed her the "lesbian highway hooker," and much discussion of her reasons for killing focused on her being a "man hater," a phrase often synonymous with "lesbian." During the trial of serial killer Rosemary West in the U.K., the prosecution described one victim as having endured "violent and aggressive" lesbian sex at the hands of Rosemary, almost as if the fact that West sometimes had sex with women added to the repulsive nature of her crimes.

Just like the rumours about the marauding lesbian gangs, popular culture often reflects the belief that lesbians prey on young girls for sex. The lesbian vampire film, a subgenre of the horror movie, depicts predatory, blood-sucking lesbians targeting vulnerable heterosexual women and "infecting" them with a lust for blood and lesbianism.

Although TV these days depicts a variety of lesbians, some script writers still rely on the criminally deviant stereotype. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which trails the investigations of a team of Las Vegas forensic scientists, has on more than one occasion routinely depicted lesbian characters as being driven to kill by their sexuality; they are shown as either desperate to hide their sexual orientation or psychotically jealous of their lovers.

As a result of living so much of our lives in fear of homophobic attacks, might there something in us that makes us want to bask in the notion that we could be seen as frightening? In the 1980s and '90s in the U.K. and U.S., some lesbians, keen to shake off the "fluffy" image, formed direct action protest groups such as the Lesbian Avengers. In the U.S. there is even a range of lesbian action dolls, "Bobbie Dolls," created as a counter to Barbie. The 12-inch plastic dolls are dressed in leather jackets and have muscles rippling under tight T-shirts and, of course, tattoos. During the 1980s some lesbians even experimented with sadomasochistic sexual practices, but the craze was short-lived.

Lesbians have long been seen as unstable, mentally ill, predatory, and just plain mad.
Are we bothered? More to the point, are we scary? I am pleased to admit that I actually think we are, but in the nicest possible way.