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LHMP #202 Donoghue 1993 Imagined More than Women: Lesbians as Hermaphrodites

Full citation: 

Donoghue, Emma. 1993. “Imagined More than Women: Lesbians as Hermaphrodites” in Women’s History Review 2:2 199-216.

Publication summary: 

A survey of the intersecting concepts of the hermaphrodite and the tribade in 17-18th century British writing.

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The general topic of this article is the ways in which women who had sex with women in 17-18th century Britain were marginalized from the category of “women” via the imagined figure of the hermaphrodite, combining in the image of the tribade who was endowed with a penis-equivalent, either in the form of an enlarged clitoris or sometimes a prolapsed vagina capable of performing penetration. This article traces that image through various genres of literature, both popular and professional.

In early modern Britain “romantic friendships” between women were tolerated and even encouraged as long as they were considered non-sexual, and prosecutions for lesbianism, per se, were practically unknown. But a variety of other means were available for persecuting women who had sex with women, especially social satire. Women who passed as men, including those who married women--of which there are a surprisingly large number, when you dig though the evidence--were obvious targets for overtly transgressing the rigid gender boundaries. But lesbian activity was a motivation for accusations of gender abnormality even when cross-dressing wasn’t involved.

The idea of the hermaphrodite as a person with intermediate or indeterminate physiological sex had a long tradition with many changes over the centuries in how hermaphrodites were understood, defined, and regarded. Homophobia was a regular factor in attitudes toward hermaphrodites due to the problem of defining what constituted “natural” sexual activity for a hermaphrodite.

[Note: The historic concept of the hermaphrodite sometimes focused on physiology and thus corresponds to intersex conditions, but sometimes it focused on gender performance that transgressed heteronormative norms, and thus encompassed homosexual behavior. Because of these shifting definitions, it’s more useful to use the outmoded--and admittedly potentially offensive--term “hermaphrodite” as used in the historic texts under consideration, than to try to substitute a less offensive modern term that would fail to reflect the necessary ambiguity.]

In the early modern period, where “sodomy” had shifted to being used almost exclusively for men, the sexual implications of hermaphroditism had become attached almost exclusively to women, and specifically to the image of the tribade. That attachment went both ways: persons identified as hermaphrodites were assumed to be involved in tribadism, and women who engaged in sex with women were assumed to have hermaphroditic anatomy. Within this conflation, contradictory positions were asserted that female homosexual activity caused hermaphroditic anatomy, but also that hermaphroditic anatomy drove one to desiring homosexual relationships. By this means, women who had sex with women could be classified out of the category of “normal women” thus isolating them as freaks of nature and protecting the category “woman” as being inherently heterosexual.

But there is no clear progression of theory. Both contradictory positions regularly show up in the same texts. At the same time, many of the authors express doubts over whether “hermaphrodite” as a physiological category actually existed at all. (There are regular cases of women who had sex with women being examined to determine if they were hermaphrodites with a negative result, but the lack of the expected physiology never seemed to undermine the theory.) Medical manuals sometimes tried to develop specific metrics for how the “normal” clitoris should appear.

The primary category of texts discussing hermphroditism are medical manuals (or sometimes pseudo-medical literature that was intended more to titillate). Although these can be a useful source of information about lesbian activity in history, the works themselves are generally hostile in tone. Classical sources such as Lucian and Martial contributed to the position that if a woman made love to a woman she was, by definition, imitating a man. These texts also laid the groundwork for the confused causality. (Is a woman called a hermaphrodite because she has sex with women or does she have sex with women because she’s already a hermaphrodite?)

The legal implications of these theories, as well as the law’s role in enforcing gender performance, can be seen in an anecdote reported in the Supplement to the Onania about a person living in Toulouse who was initially described as having a prolapsed vagina that “some pretended...she had abused it that way.” That is, that she had used it to perform penetrative sex. Examining physicians gave their opinion that the organ was actually a true penis and that therefore the person was male, at which the magistrates ordered the person to “go in man’s habit.” Evidently the visual evidence was questionable enough that the subject of this pronouncement began making a living by exhibiting themself as a freak, whereupon contradictory medical opinions asserted that they were a woman after all and the prolapse could be cured. This cure was apparently effective, but “she [was] forced to resume her female dress, to her great regret.”

This anecdote demonstrates many of the confusions and contradictions around the topic. [Unremarked in the commentary is the role of personal gender identity suggested by the phrase “to her great regret”. But transgender readings were not as much a part of the awareness in sexuality research of the ‘90s.] The focus of the anecdote is on the question of correct diagnosis, based not only on anatomy but on desires and behavior. The subject must either be fit into the box of “male” and their behavior presentation required to match their apparent anatomy and desire for women, or they must be fit into the box of “female” and the anatomy treated to conform to expectations (and presumably the sexual desire be suppressed).

A similar case of shifting requirements and definitions imposed on an ambiguous person by the medical, legal, and religious authorities is that of Anne Grandjean in 18th century Grenoble. The teenaged Anne told her confessor that she experienced sexual desire for girls, whereupon her confessor told her that if she desired women she must actually be a man and should dress as one. (This approach follows a metric for hermaphrodites that dates back to Aristotle, where he directed that a hermaphrodite’s gender should be defined based on how they could best be fit into a heteronormative paradigm.) [Note: Anne Grandjean’s example is a good place to consider the difficulties of distinguishing transgender identity from an imposed transgender performance, whether it was imposed by external authorities as in this case, or by the paradigms available in the society for expressing same-sex desire.]

Stories like these are found in English literature in increasing numbers in the late 17th century. The 1678 publication Wonders of the Little World had a chapter entitled “Such Persons as have changed their Sex” detailing 24 cases from classical to contemporary sources. All but one of the 24 cases involved a change from female to male--a direction that was framed as the more logical as it was consider a change from the “less perfect (woman)” to the “more perfect (man)”. Donoghue notes that focusing on female-to-male stories also avoided the anxiety-provoking image of the loss of a penis. [Note: As is often the case, this observation is not discussed in the context of several hormonally-based intersex conditions which can, in fact, result in an assigned-female body developing a penis in adolescence.]

Medical theories on women with a hermaphroditical “penis-analogue” organ shifted from considering the organ to be a prolapsed vagina in the 16-17th centuries, to considering it to be an enlarged clitoris in the 17-18th centuries. Several stories in Wonders of the Little World involved the prolapsing of the vagina during sex and especially in connection with the breaking of the hymen (with both heterosexual and homosexual activity being possible of causing this). But this motif disappears from the literature after the early 18th century.

The clitoral theory appears in parallel earlier, but becomes the predominant model beginning in the late 17th century in texts such as Jane Sharp’s The Midwives Book (1671). This theory focused on the understanding of the clitoris as a source of sexual pleasure and assigned it the ability to become enlarged and erect due to stimulation, moving into hermaphrodite territory if it became large enough to be capable of penetration.

Authors, such as Sinibaldus in his Rare Verities (1687), did not necessarily assert this as a change of sex, even when it offered the possibility of enacting what was considered a man’s role in sex. He notes, “Wherefore heretofore there hath been laws enacted against feminine congression, because it is a thing that happens too common and frequent.” Despite the presence of a penis-analogue, but act is still considered “feminine congression”. But Sinibaldus, like Sharp, considered that lesbian desire was caused by deviant anatomy.

The opposite position--that deviant anatomy was caused by lesbian activity--was a concern of moralists such as the Italian monk Sinistrari, who discussed the definition of female sodomy, concluding that sodomy could only occur between women if there were a clitoris large enough to accomplish penetration. This became a significant preoccupation of the “enlarged clitoris” school of thought. The Onania has several stories (purportedly reported by the women involved) of how excessively engaging in trabadism resulted in permanent enlargement of the clitoris.

[Note: Donoghue mentions that the idea of clitoral penetration lingered “well into the nineteenth century” but the motif showed up being treated as a serious medical observation even as late as the 1960s in David Reuben’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. Doing a fact-check on that item has reminded me of just how awful that book was, and now I need to go bleach my brain.]

Racism was another aspect of “othering” lesbian activity in the early modern period. British writers who wanted to mock lesbianism as decadent would assign it to the Italian or French aristocracy. When they mocked it as a product of gender segregation, they would locate their stories in Turkish baths, Persian harems, or French convents. The normalization of women driven by enlarged clitorises was transposed to India or Africa. (Stories of female genital mutilation were used as “proof” that the women in question must have enlarged genitalia that required removal. But note that one of the stories in the Onania about a woman with an enlarged clitoris in England ended with a claim that she had needed to have it surgically removed. And this is not the only example of female genital mutilation performed as "medical necessity" in early modern Europe.) By this means, the examples of lesbian activity in Britain could be dismissed as isolated eccentricities, not part of a normal range of variation.

With the rise of the enlarged clitoris theory of lesbianism, the term “tribade” became equated with clitoral penetration (in contrast to its earlier implication of simply rubbing the genitals together). But the question of causation was still unresolved. Donoghue quotes a number of different sources that alternate (often within the same text) between considering that lesbian activity resulted in enlargement of the clitoris, or that an enlarged clitoris--stimulated by regular casual rubbing by clothing--resulted in excessive desire (which evidently could only be satisfied by women?). In addition to a number of stories from The Supplement to the Onania, anecdotes are offered from Giles Jacob’s A Treatise of Hermaphrodites (1718). The latter in particular includes a number of detailed near-pornographic stories that suggest the normality of women engaging in sexual relations together with only penetration becoming problematic, although the anecdotes can’t be considered positive in any way.

The “lesbian as hermaphrodite” also appears in literature of the 18th century, as in Anthony Hamilton’s Memoirs of the Count Grammont with its predatory, mannish Mistress Hobart. Mistress Hobart’s desires are treated as fairly harmless by the other court ladies until rumors circulate implying that Hobart was a hermaphrodite with an organ that might be capable not only of penetration but of causing pregnancy.

Hermaphrodite imagery also features in William King’s vicious satire The Toast in which “Myra” (a transparent stand-in for his target, the Duchess of Newburgh) is mocked as a bisexually promiscuous hermaphrodite, surrounded by a train of “tribades and lesbians,” and described in terms of physical monstrosity. Toward the end of the poem, Myra is granted an actual penis by the goddess Venus, to better suit her desires.

Donoghue concludes with one more positive literary take on hermaphroditic imagery in connection with same-sex desire: the poem by Aphra Behn that is the source of the article’s title. Behn praises her subject as being desirable both as woman and as a youth, framing this as a way to excuse desire by a woman for another woman. This turns the hermaphrodite argument around, as gender ambiguity becomes the basis for being desired by both genders, rather than desiring both.

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