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enlarged clitoris


Associated with medical interest in the function of the clitoris, starting in the 16th century, there arose a persistant myth that an enlarged clitoris (long enough for penetrative sex) was associated with lesbianism, either as cause or effect.

LHMP entry

[Note: I’d like to remind readers of my convention that my commentary and critique of articles is typically enclosed in square brackets, unless it’s clear enough from context that I’m speaking in my own voice. Otherwise non-bracketed text is meant to be understood as a summary of the article.

[Note: the use of the word “hermaphrodite” and its definitions in this article and the texts it examines is in reference to a historic concept--one that reflected a specific social construction. It is acknowledged and emphasized that “hermaphrodite” can be an offensive term in modern language in the context of gender, sexuality, or physiology.]

Traub looks at methodological issues currently facing lesbian history as a field. It faces the contrasting problems of a continuist approach versus considering alterity (with its regular charges of anachronism against the other approach). Traub feels both models have outlived their usefulness. She notes Faderman as an example of the continuist approach, i.e., that there is a single connected “history of lesbianism”.

The late 16th and 17th century fascination with hermaphrodites would give the impression that such persons were common. As well as the volume of discourse on the topic, the nature is different from previous medieval discussions and later early modern ones. The opinions and positions are contradictory, even when limited to the medical community, and include both formal and informal expertise (e.g., surgeons versus midwives). The focus of this article is specifically on the discussions of learned physicians, in order to narrow the range of variables.

This chapter looks at the context of non-normative sexuality as discussed in “professional” texts (legal, medical, theological). They show the variety of practices considered to be present and of concern. A great deal of this chapter is something of a “review of the field” and concerns not only texts specific to early modern Spain, but ones that would have formed part of the background understanding of the time.

Mills asks (rhetorically) why medievalists rarely discuss transgender frameworks of interpretation, given that medieval people had much clearer ideas about that topic than anything that might be called “sexuality.” Moral polemics focused less on sex acts themselves, than on disruptions of gender, in particular those that violated the strict binary contrast of “male = active, female = passive.” Androgynous (or intersex) persons were recognized as existing, but were required to choose a consistent binary gender identity (or celibacy).

In this chapter, Faderman moves on from 16-18th c male ideas of what lesbian sex might consist of, to the stock “lesbian narratives” in which those ideas appeared, and to the social and political motivations behind how lesbian sex was used as a literary tool or weapon. She uses Mathieu François Mairobert’s L’Espion Anglois (1777-8) as a prototype of pornographic treatments of lesbian sex in the 18th c and later.

In this chapter, Faderman explores the types of sexual activity between women that were portrayed in literature written by men. Authors such as Brantôme describe tribadism, with one woman atop another rubbing the genitals together, or the use of a dildo to perform penetrative stimulation.

Crompton provides an in-depth study of European and American laws addressing homosexual acts between women, from 1270 on. Prior to this study, the general historical understanding was that lesbians were ignored by the law, based mostly on an unwarranted generalization from English law. In fact, lesbian acts were criminalized in legal systems in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland, and were considered equivalent to male sodomy.

Friedli provides an extensive examination of “passing women” -- defined as women (using current terminology, it might be better to say “persons assigned female at birth”, but Friedli uses “women” and I will follow that here) who live, work, and/or marry as men for some period during their lives. This is specifically distinguished from theatrical cross-dressing or overt cross-dressing as a sexual signal. While the phenomenon is far from confined to the 18th century, there seems to have been a fascination with it in England, beginning in the late 17th century.


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