Klein, Ula Lukszo. 2021. Sapphic Crossings: Cross-Dressing Women in Eighteenth-Century British Literature. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville. ISBN 978-0-8139-4551-4
Chapter 3: Penetrating Discourse and Sapphic Dildos
* * *
How do cross-dressing women work around the “missing penis,” both in sexual and everyday contexts? Biographical narratives often show a fascination for the mechanical details, such as Christian Davies’ urination device, or the artificial penises used for sex by Mary Hamilton and Catherine Vizzani. While such a descriptions may take a condemnatory tone, they also advertise the erotic possibilities between women that these devices signal. There is a voyeuristic tone in which the scenes of dildo-mediated sex are produced by men for men, and yet cannot entirely escape the implication that men may be irrelevant to women’s sexual pleasure, regardless of whether one woman is playing a male role.
At the same time, narratives involving the adoption of an artificial penis can have the strongest resonances with trans narratives. Klein discusses how the narratives work awkwardly around this topic, alternating pronouns by context. The historic authors consistently presented their subjects as women, some of whom had lesbian desires, but modern historians have explored their context within a gender continuum where the reference points of “butch lesbian” and “trans man” do not have hard boundaries.
Within this fluid landscape, Klein focuses in this chapter on the dual themes of how female cross-dressers may use a prosthetic as part of their presentation, which in turn becomes a material focus for the (male) authors to imagine same-sex desires.
Earlier in the 18th century, the dildo appears in a genre of comic or satirical literature that is more focused around solitary use, but again suggests the potential irrelevance of men to women’s pleasure. The phallus becomes separated, not only from male bodies, but from the context of masculinity entirely.
The penis was considered not simply a piece of anatomy but the sign of male status. It is the usurpation of that status that constitutes the central offense committed by cross-dressing women. But anatomy was also considered to control or generate desire, such that women with female same-sex desires were assumed or suspected of having masculinized anatomy—either a large clitoris or an intersex body. The genre of spontaneous sex-change stories, in which assigned female persons first developed sexual desires for women and then developed male appearing genitals, legitimized this theory and delegitimized the femaleness of all women who desired women.
But in narratives that emphasize the female nature of cross-dressing women—that exclude a physiological framing for the desire—this focus on the penis as the driver of desire for women is destabilized. Thus cross-dressing narratives become a key space for negotiating the shift from the galenic one-sex two-gender model, to the two-sex model, regardless of whether cross-dressing women are then assigned to a third gender. Medical and scientific literature in this era was obsessed with cataloging and labeling, to which cross-dressing women were a challenge. Where previous eras might have resolved the conflict with a narrative of physiological transformation, 18th century narratives instead emphasized the femaleness of cross-dressers, resulting in a preoccupation with potential sites and contexts of exposure: the bathroom and the bedroom, as it were.
The use of a dildo by cross dressing women placed her in the most heavily condemned group, even in places like England where the condemnation was social rather than legal. But 18th century literature was full of dildos, whether in solitary use, or with two femme women pleasuring each other. Multiple examples are given.
Dildos are generally played for humor or titillation, sometimes bringing in an element of xenophobia in being depicted as a “foreign visitor.” In general, the dildo is depicted as an independent male presence within women’s erotic space. Only occasionally, when appropriated more overtly as attachable masculinity (when one woman straps it on to engage in sex with another) do the texts veer into unease. That unease becomes overt anxiety when the dildo serves as part of a more complete masculine presentation. Dildos destabilize masculinity from two angles: the ability to appropriate it, and the ability to render it irrelevant.
In general, 18th century clothing obscured the question of anatomy, and clothing itself was the most powerful gender marker. Most cross-dressing narratives don’t touch on concealment strategies around washing, dressing, and urination. But a few treat the question as a point of curiosity. One re-printed edition of the Christian Davies biography adds a note about the use of a “urinary instrument,” though this detail may have been added by an editor rather than being part of Davies’ own story. In this added anecdote, the “little silver tube” was the inspiration for Davies’ cross dressing, when she found it abandoned in haste in the bed of a cross-dressing a female soldier. This creates an image of a literal “inheritance” of a cross-dressing tradition.
The pop culture familiarity with dildos makes it impossible to ignore the sexual implications of the flirtations that cross-dressing women engaged in with other women, even when such flirtations are framed in the text as being only part of the disguise—a way to act male among other men.
Although the dildo, in one sense, emphasizes a phallocentric understanding of sex, it blurs the concept of sexual difference. Rather than people being divided into those who do, or do not, have a penis, the penis becomes an optional accessory. It contradicts the image of a “natural” body and becomes one more tool with which a constructed masculinity can be assembled.
In some continental legal cases, the use of a dildo when cross-dressing seems to have been the boundary that, if crossed, could warrant the death penalty. But even this was rare (and nonexistent in England), and no such executions are known after the mid 18th century. Rather, in narratives such as Mary Hamilton, Catherine Vizzani, etc. the use of a dildo was characterized and sometimes prosecuted as fraud and imposture.
There is a brief discussion of the extensive documentary evidence for “female husbands” in the 18th century, though this isn’t connected directly to dildo use. There is a discussion of Henry Fielding’s contradictory satirical purposes in writing The Female Husband, his fictionalized biography of Mary Hamilton. When Fielding’s Hamilton tells one of her lovers that marriage to her would provide “all the pleasures of marriage without the inconveniences” (that is, pregnancy) it sums up male fears about the possibility of their irrelevance. These fears are both embodied and softened by the use of oblique and coded language about dildo sex, referring to it as “to indecent to speak of.” Modesty, supposedly an attribute of women, is instead ascribed to the male author and audience, to protect them from facing an explicit description of the artificial nature of masculinity.
There is a discussion of how the preceding themes play out in the narrative of Catherine Vizzani, and then a discussion of the use and symbolism of the dildo in Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (Fanny Hill), where the instrument is primarily a sex toy rather than used for masculine presentation.