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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #69c Traub 2002 - The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England (Chapter 2)

Full citation: 

Traub, Valerie. 2002. The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 0-521-44885-9

Publication summary: 

This is a sizable work, tackling the broad topic of female homoeroticism in 16-17th century England. This work is one of a number to address (and disprove) the notion that lesbianism--by name and by definition--is a purely modern concept.

Chapter 2: "A certaine incredible excesse of pleasure": female orgasm, prosthetic pleasures, and the anatomical pudica

Social and professional attitudes towards the purpose and nature of sexual pleasure were shifting in the early modern period, and the same attitudes that licensed (indeed, encouraged) women's pleasure in procreative heterosexual sex inadvertently opened the doors wide to women's sexual pleasure when neither procreation nor heterosexuality were involved.

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In this chapter, Traub looks at medical views of female erotic pleasure, the understanding of orgasm, and the “rediscovery of the clitoris”. She opens with the story of the Spaniard Catalina de Erauso who dressed and passed as a man through many adventures both in Spain and the New World, but returned to living as a woman when convicted of murder in order to escape execution. One key factor in her plea was her status as an “intact virgin”. This arbitrary physical state was considered the crucial attribute of “innocence” despite her admitted history of erotic encounters with women. In a context that considered heterosexual sex within marriage as the only legitimate form of eroticism, women could still find ways of satisfying themselves by using cultural blind spots to their advantage. In looking at the contrasting genres of medical texts and obscene literature, a contradiction emerges between the position that female erotic satisfaction was essential for healthy procreation, and an underlying distaste for female anatomy.

Women took action for their own purposes across the spectrum of erotic objects. The framework of patriarchal marriage in obedience to parental dictates was subverted most often for the purpose of a chosen, but disapproved, heterosexual partner. Virginity may have been nominally prized, but a significant percentage of brides were pregnant at the marriage. Despite official disapproval from the church and law, betrothed couples were granted a great deal of latitude in sexual interactions. And popular culture recognized that men and women were equally interested in sex. This same attitude was reflected in both medical and behavioral literature, which viewed a mutual enjoyment of sex as essential for a prosperous marriage, though religious literature overlaid it with a tone of “as long as you don’t seek it out for its own sake.”

Humoral theory, which still held sway in medicine, viewed orgasm (in the form of the emission of humors) to be essential for bodily balance. Beliefs about the effects of unbalanced humors fed into advice regarding how to stimulate desire in a partner, but also to the prescription of masturbation (or manual stimulation by another person) for unmarried persons who lacked the approved outlet. The “hand of a skillful midwife and a convenient ointment” are prescribed for the “greensickness”, a label given to sexual frustration in women. As female orgasm was believed to be as important to conception as male emission, these instructions carried a professional air.

Another changing aspect of medical thought at this time was the view of woman as an “imperfect man”, which was beginning to shift to (in theory at least) a view of both sexes being perfect for their own kind. In this context, the “rediscovery” of the clitoris by anatomists may have gone some way to redeeming the “perfection” of women, as the organ was correctly understood to be a homologue to the male penis. Initially (and incorrectly) believed to be involved only in urination, it came to be understood as the locus of sexual pleasure for women.

But all this focus on the desirability of female arousal and satisfaction, on the use of foreplay to enhance that arousal, and on the stimulation of the clitoris as the means of that satisfaction, left open the possibility of enjoying sex without the alleged end-goal of conception. In this context, the substitution of a dildo for the male organ completes the shift from procreation to pleasure. But with this shift, we move from medical and behavioral advice to obscenity, from the merely bawdy to the pornographic. In this context, the image of women instructing each other in the pleasures of non-procreative sex merges seamlessly with the image of lesbians, engaging in sex with each other for its own sake (though always -- in the literature -- for the purpose of the male reader’s arousal).

In terms of activities, equipment, and effects, medical literature and pornography are very little distinguished. And there was a constant anxiety that medical writings would be condemned as obscene. Medical works were often censored in later editions (always the parts on female anatomy) due to fear that they would put ideas into the reader’s mind. Both genres of literature shade off into misogynistic disgust at the edges. In both cases, there is sometimes a sense that men’s sexual pleasure barely suffices to repay for the unfortunate necessity of interacting with female genitals. (Women, in contrast, are considered to be repaid in pleasure for the dangers of childbirth.)

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