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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

The general topic of this chapter is the historic association of the clitoris with transgressive lesbian sex (as opposed to culturally-acceptable same-sex relationships). Traub begins by reviewing Freud's theory that vagina = heterosexual, clitoris = homosexual, and points out that this was not a new concept with him but merely the culmination of a long tradition.

Renaissance drama provides a case study in how lesbian themes and female homoerotic potential can be hidden in plain sight simply by the denial of their possibility. Traub notes that even today one can find vehement denials of homoerotic content in such overtly suggestive works as Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. And less overt content may only emerge into view through an awareness of the era’s understanding and encoding of female desire and forms of female intimacy.

This is a sourcebook of excerpts (in translation) from historic documents relating to France during the 16-18th centuries that relate in some way to same-sex relationships. The documents cover court records, personal correspondence, religious commentary, medical opinion, satire, and political polemic. While most items take an external point of view, some are (or purport to be) from the point of view of homosexuals themselves.

The chapter begins with a survey of the types of published materials that led Lanser to identify the late 16th century as a shifting point in the discourse around sapphic topics. In 1566 a Swiss writer provides an account of a French woman who disguised herself as a man, worked as a stable groom and then a wine grower, married another woman, was eventually unmasked, and was executed. He notes “how our century can boast that beyond all the evils of the preceding ones” and explicitly disclaims any connection between events such as this and the “tribades in ancient times”.

He calls grinding an “illness” and offers various possible causes, including having an “inverted womb” (a variant on the clitoral hypertrophy motif), or a mis-match between the shape of a woman’s vagina and the shape of the penis. Another possible cause he lists is the mother’s diet during breast-feeding. Some women pick up the habit from having sex with concubines. Another explanation is that grinding is a natural appetite, derived from a variant of humoral theory.

This essay is included in the book in English, Arabic, and French. It concerns itself not with homosexuality as a “problem” but with the articulate and literate voices of the women themselves that shine through the writings, even when mediated through male authors. These voices describe the pleasures and attractions of “grinding” as well as speaking to the social context in which it occurred.

An Appendix of Texts from the Arabian Middle Ages Concerned with Female Homosexuality

”On the Mention of Grinding and Grindings” in al-Yemeni, Ahmad Bin Mohamad Bin Åli (d. 850).

Explains the nature of “grinding” and the vocabulary.

Notes the hadith the equates grinding with fornication.

Gives the story of Hind credited as the first “grinder”.

Gives the story of Rughum and Najda (tragic lovers).

Medical references to sex between women include several on the “rediscovery of the clitoris” theme as well as pseudo-medical explanations for same-sex desire, plus some titillating orientalism. Several of the texts cited here are classical but formed part of the corpus of standard medical literature in the Renaissance.


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