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clitoris

 

Around the 16th century, European physicians “discovered” the clitoris and its role in female sexual response. This interest cast new light on possibilities for sexual activity between women.

LHMP entry

Introduction by Marilyn B. Skinner

The general scope of the work is language used to describe or refer to sexual and excretory acts, either as the primary meaning of the words, as a standard euphemism, or as ad hoc metaphorical or poetic reference. From the context of usage, especially the nature and formality of the text, one can identify hierarchies of offensiveness.

Chapter 1: Sex and the Middle Ages

Preface

Early Modern England (16-17th century) was developing a vocabulary and symbology to describe and express intimacy between women and female non-normative sexuality. This was taking place in various genres, including travel narratives, medical texts, and works of marital advice. At the same time, women were developing an evasive coded language to express such desires in their own lives. In this context, Sappho was invoked not only as a symbol of female lyricism, but also to represent and make reference to erotic bonds between women.

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).

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.

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.

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.

The introduction begins with a consideration of the play Il Pastor Fido (The Faithful Shepherd) and the interpretation of a key scene in art, when the shepherd Mirtillo -- having disguised himself as a woman to gain access to the object of his desire, the nymph Amarillis -- comes upon the nymphs holding a kissing competition among themselves. He enters the competition (still in disguise) and is crowned the victor by Amarillis (the scene commonly portrayed in paintings).

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.

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