I'm researching British trials (for a book) and ran across this website. It's got all the fun stuff, sex, scandal, another appearance by Oscar Wilde's nasty tattling lover. . .

Those Victorians did enjoy salaciousness.

From the late 18th Century until the early 20th Century, according to the Shanmonster website, "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.'


'But she [the woman on trial] 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."'

Hey. I thought Victorians didn't like talking about lesbians, or was that just Victoria? I'll have to go do more research on this cult of the clitoris....

No, wait, I just wanted to find out the typical time between arrest and trial in the 188os! I wanted a better understanding of how barristers/solicitors worked (Rumpole isn't enough).

O, damn you, sex and salaciousness! You're eternally distracting and not just to those clit-deprived Victorians.


  1. Eternally distracting indeed!

    That was FASCINATING!! The testimony is a headscratcher though: I asked my friends and they didn't know about this so it must be an arcane word?

    When did "asking your friends" become a legal standard? Sounds fishy.

    (On the other hand, I do have to point out here that suffragettes who were interested in birth control would have also known the word clitoris. They were very well educated medically. So I guess they were lesbians? Or maybe suffragettes and lesbians all deserved to be declared guilty of all crimes.)

  2. What a fun post - and INTERESTING info! (Sorry, Suis', but I am cracking UP at the use of the term 'fishy' in a post about lesbians - absolutely howling here, and not at YOU, just at the inside (OMG, here I go again) humor. *SNORT*

    Can't wait to read this book, Summer Kate. What a bit of research you get to do for your craft.

  3. [History Geek] Fascinating! [/History Geek]

    I think it's precisely because Victorians weren't supposed to talk about sex that they were so obsessed with it. I mean, these are the same people who went around the world as missionaries teaching native peoples that any sexual position other than face-to-face man on top (missionary position) was a one-way ticket to hell.

    To quote the great H.L. Menken, "Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."

  4. The things you learn while researching! Perhaps this is why my books take so long to write. Did you ever find your needed information?

    And thank you, Kate, for the sentiment you left after my mom passed. I appreciate it. Incidentally, she was a fan of Rumpole. :)

  5. I'm left wondering what I need to do to be initiated into the Cult of the Clitoris.

    On a related note, tacky gynecologist joke at my place!

  6. "'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"

    Superficial? It can't be superficial if it can control a woman like that. Really though, when unduly excited my clitoris does make me doing something extraordinary.

    Great post Kate.

  7. Anonymous1:40 PM

    Tate - "superficial organ" as in outside the body.

    OMG - This - 'An exaggerated clitoris might drive a woman to an elephant.' - makes me want to pass out with mirth in one of those laugh or cry dilemmas.

    Kate - I believe Victoria supported laws against homosexuality but refused to recognize the possibility/existence of lesbianism and so there were no similar laws against female homosexuality.


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