The Clitoris: historical myths and facts

I'm still collecting these! These are a few of my own notes plus information supplied in response to a request on the Histsex list. If you have anything to contribute, please e-mail me.

Article on the clitoris in history

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The spotted hyena female has a very large clitoris, such that it is often mistaken for the male. In fact, in ancient natural histories the hyena is described as an animal which changes back and forth between the two genders. Two Aesop fables are based on this idea. In Babrius and Phaedrus (Loeb Classics) 242 & 243 (p 470) a fox remarks that it doesn't greet the hyena because it doesn't know whether to address it as a male or female, and when one hyena propositions another the second replies, "Alright, but what you do to me someone else will do to you." The Epistle to Barnabus 10.7 in the Apostolic Fathers also remarks on the Hyena sex change. The reason for the enlarged clitoris is the high levels of androgens in the female pup. The androgens are necessary to keep the female pup as aggressive as her brothers; otherwise she probably wouldn't survive their aggression in the close confines of the den.

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Bernadette Brooten, Love Between Women, has a good section on ancient medical literature dealing with the clitoris and clitoridectomies to cure tribadism (pp 162-171). Also, there is a curious epigram by Martial (7.67) in which he describes a tribad who penetrates both boys and girls. With what does she penetrate them? The epigram does not say, but implies she has a penile-like clitoris.

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The 'discovery' of the clitoris by Renaissance anatomists: 1559: Realdo Columbo discovers clitoris ('so pretty and useful a thing') (De re anatomica); 1561: Gabrielle Fallopio disputes Columbo's priority

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Sinistrari, a Roman inquisitor of the early sixteenth century, fantasized about women with elongated clitorises raping men. He also claimed that only women with excessively large clitorises could engage in 'sodomy' with one another. If a charge was brought against a woman, competent midwives should examine her to ascertain if her clitoris was enlarged.

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John Thomlinson (young clergyman) diary entry for 3 March 1717 'Sir John Brownlow's lady abused other women with her clitoris etc...' (excluded from the published edition) (cited in Jeremy Black, review of A. Vickery The Gentleman's Daughter in Archives 101)

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One of the letters from (alleged) sufferers from the ill-effects of self-abuse published in the anonymous C18th pioneering anti-masturbation tract Onania, or, the heinous sin of self-pollution and all its frightful consequences (in both sexes) considered with spiritual and physical advice to those who have already injured themselves by this abominable practice dated 16 October 1735 purports to come from a 'young female creature' who had been taught the practice from the age of 11 by her mother's chambermaid, and they 'shamelessly pleasured one another, as well as each ourselves', until such time as the writer developed a 'Swelling that thrust out from my Body, as big, and almost as hard, and as long or longer, than my Thumb, which inclines me to excessive lustful desires... which greatly frightens both me and my Maid'. This is explained in a note to the letter as 'no more... than a Relaxation of the Clitoris, a Thing common to many of the sex, both single and married, who are vigorous and lascivious, and have given themselves to the practice of SELF-POLLUTION for any length of time. In some Women it extends itself and is enlarged when inflated, to the exact Likeness and Size of a human Penis erect'. (But similar cases have been successfully treated by the author.) 'It was the Like case of this Lady's that gave Rise to the Report of the Two Nuns at Rome, having changed their Sex, and which made such a Noise in the City, that the Pope upon hearing of it, gave Orders for their being inspected by some Cardinals.' Dr Carr's Medicinal Epistles no 16, Concerning Two Nuns reported to have changed their Sex, is quoted at length. It contains an extensive discussion of the clitoris and cases of anomalous size.

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'By the late eighteenth century, scientific interest in the clitoris was spurred on the by debunking of human hermaphrodites, that is, the debunking of the existence of humans with both sets of genitalia. What medical men had mistaken for the penis was actually an enlarged clitoris, an enlargement that many medical men had to explain away by pathologizing the clitoris through masturbation, or lesbianism, or the uterine furor, or racialized categories, or physiological monstrosity. In the midst of a lecture on the female organs of generation, William Hunter, for example, felt compelled to state "it is impossible [for] a woman with a large clitoris can [sic] copulate with another, because the skin does not go around the clitoris, as it does around the penis, but ties it down so that it can never be detached like the penis." What drives this need to insist that sex/penetration between women is physiologically impossible? Because the clitoris might, even to a trained eye, pass for a penis, it had to be disciplined by pathology. The force of this discipline stems from the fact that the enlarged clitoris violates a key physiological law, the accepted translation of form into function. Although the enlarged clitoris is visually like a penis, its visual similarity does not betoken similarity of function. Either physiology is founded upon a error or the clitoris must be made monstrous, an example of form that has no function except to deceive.'

Richard C. Sha, 'Scientific Forms of Sexual Knowledge in Romanticism', in Romanticism on the Net, special issue on Romanticism and Sexuality

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Isaac Baker Brown, in Surgical Diseases of Women (3rd edition, 1866) claimed that 'The deplorable effects of this baneful habit [self-abuse], both on the physical and mental health, have been less considered in the case of females than of males, and yet they are of equal gravity, and probably as prevalent. The radical cure of the habit is, however, fortunately in our hands'. He went on to add 'The necessity for the excision or amputation of the clitoris, when much enlarged, has been recognised by surgeons generally; but I would go further and say, that this operation should be resorted to in all cases where that organ is found in a abnormal state, and where constitutional symptoms are traceable to its irritation''A long experience of cases in which self-induced irritation of the clitoris was an exciting or aggravating cause of disease' convinced him that 'cauterization, actual or potential, could not be depended upon as a remedial agent.... I was thus led to the more frequent use of excision'. He performed clitoridectomies at his London Surgical Home, 1860s, claiming that this cured epilepsy, hysteria etc, and was drummed out of the London Obstetrical Society after an acrimonious meeting and much flak in the medical press. (Would the average Victorian doctor have been able to locate the clitoris in the first place?). The subject more or less vanished from medical literature, though I was recently informed that references have been found to clitoridectomies being performed on women patients for persistent self-abuse in at least one lunatic asylum in Scotland,

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1880's: Mary Putnam Jacobi, early US woman doctor, makes a number of comments about why it is important for women to have orgasms during sex.

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C19th concept that a supposedly 'enlarged' clitoris signified various forms of female moral degeneracy: nymphomania, masturbation, tribadism (lesbian activity). However in 1897 Havelock Ellis notes in Sexual Inversion that lesbians do not necessarily have large clitorises. From his own rather restricted (3 cases in which he had 'precise information') observations and the works of Krafft-Ebing and Magnus Hirschfeld he concluded that 'the clitoris is more usually small than large' and in some instances even 'more or less underdeveloped', adding that this was corroborated by the observation of Parent-Duchatelet that 'women with a large clitoris... seem rarely to be of masculine type.'

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1905: Freud works towards differentiation of clitoral/vaginal orgasms (the latter being defined as the 'mature' version); this is further worked out in 1925 essay: 'Female Sexuality" (or was that 1930?)

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W Blair Bell, in his chapter on 'Disorders of Function', in Thomas Watts Eden & Cuthbert Lockyer's The New System of Gynaecology (1917), in the section on 'Psychical Disturbances of Puberty', advocated excision to protect girls' health from the ills of masturbation in certain cases - 'the girl who is not suffering with excessive sexuality, but rather, with the fascination of a bad but pleasant habit, to the detriment of her moral and physical equilibrium' - giving details of one particular case in which he had successfully applied it. This is a rather curious example, given that in other works Watts Eden and Lockyer, e.g. Gynaecology for Students and Practitioners (1916 and subsequent edition) themselves specifically did not recommend clitoridectomy in cases of hypertrophied clitoris.
Blair Bell claimed elsewhere in the same chapter that 'In adult women, before the menopause, the changes towards masculinity associated with suprarenal hyperplasia and neoplasia may be most marked. Menstruation ceases, the breasts shrink, the clitoris enlarges, hair grows on the face and on the body with masculine distribution, the voice deepens, and last but not least, profound psychical changes have been shown to occur, a previously gentle woman becoming rough and aggressive.'

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The 1918 'Cult of the Clitoris' Case:

'Maud Allan [ a dancer enacting Wilde's Salome] had taken exception to the linking of her name with the heading "Cult of the Clitoris" [in Noel Pemberton Billing's journal Vigilante and sued him for libel]. What was implied here by the term "clitoris"? From late eighteenth-century through into the early twentieth century, one of the most consistent medical characterizations of the anatomy of the lesbian was the claim of an unusually large clitoris. Not only was the clitoris associated with female sexual pleasure separate from reproductive potential, but lesbians were assumed to be masculinized, and the supposed enlarged clitoris was one signifier of this masculinity. In presenting lesbians' bodies as less sexually differentiated than the norm more masculine - it was inferred that they were atavists - throwbacks to an earlier evolutionary stage and thereby "degenerates". It was held that progressive differentiation of the sexes was one of the hallmarks of evolutionary progress. An enlarged clitoris or the inference of deviant genitalia was also given as the signifier of black women's sexuality and of nymphomania. Lesbians, black women and nymphomaniacs were all grouped together as possessors of a 'primitive' sexuality. By the late nineteenth century, a number of sexologists were questioning some of these assumptions.... Many doctors, however, still held to the older belief.'

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'But she was discredited still further through being deemed to have inappropriate sexological knowledge. Pemberton-Billing asked her if she was acquainted with the term "clitoris". She answered: "Yes, but not particularly"' He then informed the court that out of twenty-four people to whom he had shown the libel, only one, a barrister, knew what it meant. Dr Cooke said that he had shown it to fifty or sixty friends of his and none of them had known what it meant. (One hopes they were not doctors.) When Pemberton Billing called Captain Spencer as a witness, he was asked about the "Cult of the Clitoris" title. He replied that he had tried to find a title "that would only be understood by those whom it should be understood by". Spencer had telephoned a village doctor and was given the term "clitoris' and told that it 'was a superficial organ that, when unduly excited or overdeveloped, possessed the most dreadful influence on any woman, that she would do the most extraordinary things". He added 'An exaggerated clitoris might drive a woman to an elephant.".... "Of course, clitoris is a Greek word", announced Dr Cooke, "it is a medical term [...] nobody but a medical man or people interested in that kind of thing, would understand the term."'

Lucy Bland, 'Trial by Sexology? Maud Allan, Salome, and the "Cult of the Clitoris" Case'

in Lucy Bland and Laura Doan (eds.) Sexology in Culture: labelling bodies and desires

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Literary reference: In episode 15 of Joyce's Ulysses, the protagonist Bloom, worried about the troubles a drunken younger man might encounter in the red-light district, has followed him into a bordello. At one point, about halfway through the episode (about 15.2340 in the Gabler edition), Bloom's father, whose last name was originally Virag, "appears" to Bloom and gives him sexual advice about the prostitutes in the bordello's sitting room. Among other things, Bloom's father "says": VIRAG (cynically, his weasel teeth bared yellow, draws down his left eye with a finger and barks hoarsely ) Hoax! Beware of the flapper and bogus mournful. Lily of the alley. All possess bachelor's button discovered by Rualdus Columbus. Tumble her. Columble her. Chameleon. [ The sentence "All possess..." contains the "C.F.," of course.... ]

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According to Edna St Vincent Millay's sister Norma, one night when they were living together in Greenwich Village the poet came in and went into her sister's room. There 'without any conversation that I can remember, she told me that I had a little piece of flesh between my legs and that I should rub it back and forth. And when I thought I couldn't stand it anymore, then I should keep on rubbing it'. Norma claimed that 'I had no idea what a clitoris was', and attributed Floyd Dell, her sister's then lover, as the source of the information. (quoted in Nancy Milford, Savage Beauty: the Life of Edna St Vincent Millay, 2001), Though another biography of Millay, Daniel Mark Epstein, What Lips My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St Vincent Millay, 2001, strongly implies that Millay was well-acquainted with the potential of the clitoris (from affairs with both women and men) before she ever met Dell.

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Importance given to need for clitoral stimulation by interwar British feminist writers of sex advice connected with the birth control movement (and well into the 1950s):

Marie Stopes, Married Love (1918):
'Woman has at the surface a small vestigial organ called the clitoris, which corresponds morphologically to the man's penis, and which, like it, is extremely sensitive to touch-sensations. This little crest, which lies anteriorly between the inner lips round the vagina, enlarges when the woman is really tumescent, and by the stimulation of movement it is intensely roused and transmits this stimulus to every nerve in her body.'

Helena Wright, The Sex Factor in Marriage (1930):
'In the centre in front, is a small round body, about the size of a pea, movable to a slight extent, and coated with delicate membrane, which is always more or less moist. Its anatomical name is the clitoris. This little organ is capable of giving the most acute sensations; the tissue of which it is made is similar to that of the penis, and during sex stimulation it has the same power of filling with blood, and thereby becoming larger and harder than it is in an inactive state. The only purpose of the clitoris is to provide sensation; a full understanding of its capabilities and place in the sex-act is therefore of supreme importance.'

Helena Wright, More about the Sex Factor in Marriage (1947):
'It is no exaggeration to say that since the clitoris is the essential organ of sexual sensation in women, and that rhythmic friction is the only stimulus to which it can react, orgasm failure at the outset of sexual experience is unavoidable if the clitoris is not discovered and correctly stimulated.'

With detailed instruction as to how to locate and identify the clitoris and experiment with stimulation to find the best.

Joan Malleson ['Medica'], Any Wife or Any Husband (1950):
'The majority [of women] find their greatest sexual feeling is situated in the front and outer part of the vaginal passage, at the sensitive small area which is medically termed the clitoris.....

The only purpose of these external parts is that when they are stimulated by gentle stroking with the finger tips, the woman's sexual feeling will be roused. Nature has placed them there entirely for this purpose - indeed, this is their only use - and the person who thinks that they are not to be enjoyed or touched is defying natural laws. Many wives are aware that the full use of the outer clitoral area will alone bring them satisfaction, yet they are too afraid either to ask, or to allow their husbands to touch this part of their body in the proper way.'

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'The famous Professor Halban of Vienna who, Vachet had noted, had performed sex change operations on men had also performed sexual surgery on women. His efforts in this area were praised by Marie Bonaparte in a 1932 paper which she presented on the problem of frigidity. Freud, she pointed out, had demonstrated that normal women gave up the clitoris as their chief source of sexual pleasure and moved on to experience the mature vaginal orgasm. Unfortunately, therapists found that for many women the clitoris remained regrettably eroticized. The psychoanalytically enlightened had to recognize this lag as a sign of women's infantilism if not their bisexuality. Bonaparte conceded that for some the problem was due to the fact that their clitoris was too far from the vagina. The answer to such a fixation clitoridienne, she suggested, was surgical intervention to cut and move the clitoris to a more suitable locale so that the excitement it engendered would aid rather than detract from genital penetration. Bonaparte concluded her amazing essay, which came complete with disturbing photographs of the procedure, by hailing the modern surgeon's ability to aid the psychoanalyst.'

Angus McLaren, Twentieth Century Sexuality: A History (1999)

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Risque blues song by Lil Johnson: Press My Button (Ring my Bell) (1936):

'I said, "Give it to me baby, you don't understand

Where to put that thing

Where to put that thing

Just press my button, give my bell a ring!"'

Full version at Harry's Blues Lyrics Online

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From Joan Wyndham, Love is Blue: A wartime journal (1986):

'I don't know whether it's Hans's fault or mine, but I don't feel a thing. Of course, I just love being in bed with him and kissing him, but apart from that nothing happens.'

' I know a doctor,' Oscar said, 'a friend of mine went to him who had the same problem as us, and it seems we've got a thing called a clitoris, which makes us have an orgasm.'

' Yes,' I said, 'I've heard about that before.'

'Well, Dr Schliemann says they're very often not big enough, and he gives you some kind of ointment to make them grow.'

This thought so inspired us that we looked up Dr S in the phone book, and made an appointment to see him that very afternoon.

The consulting room was rather depressing, with a faint smell of antiseptic. A greenish light filtered through the blinds on to the huge mahogany desk. It was like being in an aquarium. A small, balding chap with glasses came in and said cheerily, 'Well, who's the first victim?'

Oscar went to sit in the waiting-room, and I was laid out on a couch and examined in a most embarrassing way.

Aha!' said Dr Schliemann, peering through his bifocals, 'I see you haven't got a man in your boat!' He sounded rather pleased at this discovery.

Then he went on to explain about the clitoris being a kind of magic trigger, but not to worry if I hadn't got one because he would give me a special cream to rub on every night. It costs thirty bob, and in no time at all he guarantees that I will have a clitoris 'long enough and strong enough to hang a copper kettle on'!

I duly forked out the thirty bob and received a small silver tube with printed instructions on it.

....

Oscar and I had been rubbing away like mad with the magic cream for over a week now. She does it when I'm in the bath, and vice versa.

Neither of us has noticed any appreciable difference in the length of our clitorises (clitori?) but we're certainly having plenty of orgasms! In fact we find orgasms are quite easy to have provided there aren't any men around, doing all the wrong things.

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Something which sheds some light on the above: according to Chandak Sengoopta, 'Transforming the Testicle: Science, Medicine and Masculinity, 1800-1950', in Medicina nei Secoli arte e scienza Journal of the History of Medicine, 3/3 (2001):
'It was suspected that the male hormones increased the sensitivity and vascularization of the [female] external genitals. Their enlarging effect on the clitoris was especially striking and they were soon being recommended for the treatment (preferably by 'by the gentle inunction of an androgenic ointment') of frigidity due to clitoral insensitivity.' Though he adds 'The enhancement of female desire, needless to say, was not a comfortable topic for doctors of the mid-twentieth century.'

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Masters & Johnson in Human Sexual Response (1966) note that any sort of orgasm is OK, and that there is no physiological difference.

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Reported in the New Scientist 1 Aug 1998, the 'discovery' by Helen O'Connell, urology surgeon in Melbourne, that the clitoral nerve system extends much further than the visible external tip of the clitoris. Her article, O'Connell and others, 'Anatomical Relationship Between Urethra and Clitoris', was published in the Journal of Urology, Vol 159, 1998: abstract:

We investigated the anatomical relationship between the urethra and the surrounding erectile tissue, and reviewed the appropriateness of the current nomenclature used to describe this anatomy. A detailed dissection was performed on 2 fresh and 8 fixed human female adult cadavers (age range 22 to 88 years). The relationship of the urethra to the surrounding erectile tissue was ascertained in each specimen, and the erectile tissue arrangement was determined and compared to standard anatomical descriptions. Nerves supplying the erectile tissue were carefully preserved and their relationship to the soft tissues and bony pelvis was noted. The female urethra, distal vaginal wall and erectile tissue are packed into the perineum caudal (superficial) to the pubic arch, which is bounded laterally by the ischiopubic rami, and superficially by the labia minora and majora. This complex is not flat against the rami as is commonly depicted but projects from the bony landmarks for 3 to 6 cm. The perineal urethra is embedded in the anterior vaginal wall and is surrounded by erectile tissue in all directions except posteriorly where it relates to the vaginal wall. The bulbs of the vestibule are inappropriately named as they directly relate to the other clitoral components and the urethra. Their association with the vestibule is inconsistent and, thus, we recommend that these structures be renamed the bulbs of the clitoris. A series of detailed dissections suggest that current anatomical descriptions of female human urethral and genital anatomy are inaccurate.
Though perhaps not found in Gray's Anatomy or other medical textbooks, this 'secret of nature' was certainly already known in the late 1980s (if not earlier) and mentioned in John Bancroft's Human Sexuality and its Problems (2nd edition 1989).

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Perceptions of a different culture. From Moris Farhi, 'Lentils in Paradise: A true and nostalgic account of my visits, as a little boy, to the Women's Baths in Ankara'.
'In Turkey, as in most Muslim countries, the ancient Bedouin tradition whereby women, upon their marriage, shave their pubic hair, has almost acquired the dimensions of a hygienic commandment'. This activity took place in the women's Hamam (public baths), to which children, girls and boys, were admitted free with the women.

As for clitorises, it is common knowledge that, like penises, they vary in size. The Turks, so rooted in the land, had classified them into three distinct categories, naming each one after a popular food. Small clitorises were called "susam", "sesame"; "mercimek", "lentils" distinguished the medium sized ones - which, being in the majority, were also considered to be "normal"; and "nohut", "chick-peas", identified those of large calibre. Women in possession of "sesames" were invariably sullen; the smallness of their clitorises, though it seldom prevented them from enjoying sex to the full, inflicted upon them a ruthless sense of inferiority; as a result, they abhorred children, particularly those who were admitted to the Baths. Women blessed with "lentils" bore the characteristics of their namesake, a staple food in Turkey. Hence, the "lentilled" women's perfect roundness were not only aesthetically pleasing, but also extremely nourishing; in effect, they offered everything a man sought from a wife: love, passion, obedience and the gift for cooking. Those endowed with "chick-peas" were destined to ration their amorous activities since the abnormal size of their clitorises induced such intense pleasure that regular sex invariably damaged their hearts; restricted to conjoining only for purposes of conception, these women were to find solace in a spiritual life. And they would attain such heights of piety that, during labour, they would gently notch, with their "chick-peas", a prayer-dent on their babies' foreheads thus marking them for important religious duties.

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Much more about the clitoris: The-Clitoris.com

Thanks to Ivan Crozier, Greg Downing, David Greenberg, Jonathan Katz, Jim Miller, Florence Binard, Malcolm Shifrin.

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Last modified 30 March 2016