Genitalia and Queer Bodies in Early-Modern Europe

Genitalia Header

For much of the early-modern period, the only explanation for differences in sexual desire was differences in genitalia. The concept is an appealing one, genitals are the parts of the body used for sex, therefore they must be the root of all sexual difference. The idea that one might have a 'sexual orientation', a psychological state with no obvious cause, did not emerge until much later. Although queer people were categorised into pathologised types, such as the tribade or the lesbian, until the eighteenth century, these were anatomical categories as much as sexual ones. 

Approaches to genitalia were, however, far from scientific. Access to cadavers, particularly ones with anomalous genitals was rare, access to living subjects was rarer. Until the seventeenth century, no-one would have labelled themselves an 'anatomist', and gynaecology and urology did not emerge until the nineteenth century. Those that recorded and made claims about anomalous genitals and the foundation of queerness recorded findings poorly, with no systematic means of evaluating claims, and influenced deeply by pre-existing cultural norms about genitalia. It may seem surprising that some of the claims made about the vulva, the clitoris and the hymen shown in this exhibit are so ridiculous, but men of this period systematically disregarded the accounts of women and made claims that could have been disproved by simply asking women whether they were true.

Some of the misconceptions about genitalia displayed here are still perpetuated to this day. If there is anything this exhibit shows, it is that patriarchal and cis-heteronormative attitudes towards the body make science worse. While genuine scientific analysis has disproven the claims made by early-modern anatomical tracts, a vast number of people still have an effectively early-modern perception of the hymen and the clitoris. Intersex people, who were documented in early modernity, are still mostly misunderstood, and undergo 'corrective' surgery at birth to adapt them closer to binary sex. Making these misconceptions visible demonstrates that intersex people are not aberrations with no history, but are part of a long cultural process of inventing binary sex and dismissing the bodies and experiences of those who don't fit that model. Contentious claims about what sex is, and who is of what sex make the foundations of policy around the world, insofar as that is true, the history of sex and its construction as a 'scientific' concept should be examined and questioned.

The uterus, a foetus, the hymen and female genitals

The Erotic Politics of the Hymen

In many ways, the hymen does not exist. In both early modernity and the present, the hymen is imbued with cultural and erotic meaning that it does not hold, its importance is mythological. While there was no scientific and rigorous discipline of gynaecology in the eighteenth century, midwives and physicians were required to understand the construction of the hymen, predominantly to determine the virginity of women whose purity was brought into question, but also to treat the after-effects of pregnancy effectively. The hymen is, therefore, one of the best-documented and least understood parts of the vulva, with much of its study searching for properties that were not there.

Cultural myths about the hymen still persist, so to clarify: the hymen is a fleshy membrane that is situated at the opening of the vagina. This membrane has a gap which can stretch, some hymens sit only at the base of the cavity, others encircle the cavity. Some hymens are imperforate, and some have many perforations, although these examples are rare and usually require medical attention. During penetrative sex, the hymen may tear such that it bleeds, although it doesn't break or 'pop'. A hymen can bleed after multiple instances of penetrative sex, or not bleed at all. The hymen may appear less 'intact' if a person has had penetrative sex or has given birth, but this is not necessarily the case, and the hymen can heal over time. Importantly, the hymen is not a reliable marker of virginity. 

In early-modern Europe, virginity carried cultural and legal meaning that could determine much of the outcome of one's life. Particularly for propertied men, ensuring that your future wife had no bastards was vital to maintain the line of inheritance. Sex before marriage was also a sin, particularly for women, who were condemned even if they did not consent, and could lead women to be left destitute. As evidenced in The Case of Catherine Vizzani (1751), virginity could also change your perceived moral quality, as Bordoni was remembered as a virgin due to the appearance of his hymen, and therefore was of sound moral quality. The practice of inspecting hymens, as well as checking for blood on the wedding bed, was, therefore, a particularly important aspect of anatomy. When a nation could rise or fall due to the quality of a membrane, thorough investigation of that membrane was vitally important.

Even though there is no such thing as a 'virginal' hymen, European anatomists recorded and categorised hymens such that it was easier to identify virgins. Problematically, the appearance of a 'virginal' hymen was decided not based on science, but on cultural assumption, which was then formalised and determined to be medical fact. It is unsurprising that even today so many claim to know how to identify 'virginal' hymens because men invented them such that they could be easily found.

The hymen as it was known by early-modern anatomists, and as we know it today, is a myth. The qualities popular culture imbues it with are not present, and it has been constructed to police sexual behaviour and legitimise patriarchal violence. In the early-modern period and in the present day, gynaecology is politicised and science misused for cultural ends.

Sexual Organs of the Male, the Female and Hermaphrodites (1796) Three Figures of Foetuses with Hermaphroditic Genitals (1749)

Intersexuality and the Invention of Binary Sex

The concept of binary sex is a simplification of biological reality derived from cultural biases, which is reinforced by an ahistorical view of anatomical science. While humans are in many ways sexually dimorphic, hower humans are less dimorphic than similar mammals. Sexual similarity correlates with complex social behaviours and co-operation in animals, as less sexually diverse species are able to co-operate more successfully, as humans do.

Our lack of sexual dimorphism is a sign of our advancement regarding knowledge and capacity for critical thinking. Binary sex is categorised by phenotype, not genotype, humans believed in the sex binary long before we believed in genetic science. The phenotypical trends we use to define sex are not definitive, as humans develop in diverse and complex ways. There is a lot of overlap and there is no reliable marker of that can be used to separate males and females regarding things such as body tissue composition, skull shape, brain size or height.  

The desire to define binary sex arises from a need to separate men and women in order to maintain a patriarchal society. For men to maintain their higher status it was important to show the distinct differences especially regarding what women lack. Genitals are the way we are assigned our gender at birth still to this day. Some of us have our assumed gender stated when we are still in the womb. Cultural ideas of masculinity differ between cultures and across time. Our ideas of the feminine and masculine often conflict, for example how we view muscular gain. Muscular men are perceived as strong, large and 'buff', their muscularity reinforces an imagined model of male bodily perfection, muscular women are perceived as toned, graceful and athletic or as overly masculine, even when the same biological changes occur. Importantly, much of this gendering is done by the interpretation of the individual, they are not wholly products of external culture, but also of the way individuals view themselves.

Intersex people can have atypical genitalia, such as an enlarged clitoris, internal testicles instead of ovaries, a phallic urethra as part of the vulva and so many other things that are outside of our cultural conception of what male or female genitals look like. Intersex people can also have genitals that fit into these norms but may have chromosomes that don’t align with their genitals or have other chromosomal combinations such as XXY. It is unknown how many people have XX or XY chromosomes as XXX, XYY and XYYY rarely lead to medical complications.  

Intersex people have been pathologised for at least as long as there have been records of them. Many intersex babies are mutilated, and cosmetic surgery is performed on their genitals far before they have the ability to consent to it. Many parents are told it is compulsory or better for their child by their doctors or otherwise misinformed. Very few intersex people actually need surgery in their genitals or reproductive organs in order to lead a happy healthy life. The mutilation of their genitals is often psychologically harmful and can lead to medical complications that last a lifetime. Some intersex people do require surgery before or around the age of puberty to help avoid medical complications, however, this rarely leads to their genitals looking more typically male or typically female as a result. Intersex people are much more common than most people ever realise, 2 in 100 people have intersex traits.

Intersexuality presents a threat to misogynistic ideologies because it demonstrates the diversity of human sex. Sex diversity demonstrates that men and women are not defined by their genitals, and therefore that ideas and policies reliant on this unscientific definition of sex are falsely based. Sex diversity also shows that transgender people, who often are not perceived as being the sex of their identified gender, or have genitals that are the product of surgery, are as 'naturally' men and women as cisgender people. Cisnormativity is a cultural invention, not an innate human quality or the result of scientific observation, and should be treated as such.

Cover of <em>Onania or, the Heinous Sin of Self Pollution</em> (1756)

Lesbianism, Onanism and the Female Phallus

Aside from the hymen, the clitoris was the most important part of the vulva in the early-modern period. An enlarged clitoris was evidence of homosexual or onanistic practices, although it was debated whether enlargement caused or was caused by sexual deviance. While it is possible for clitorises to be enlarged, and some formations of intersex genitals feature a phallic clitoris, many accounts of enlarged clitorises were fantastical. Early-modern travel writers, anatomists and moralists constructed a 'female phallus', a clitoris that could be so long that it dangled to one's ankles, that could deploy from the body such that it was kept warm, that ejaculated, and that was used for penetrative sex with women.

Women who were believed to have these phallic clitorises were known was tribades, from the Roman myth that Prometheus, when shaping the genitals of humans, occasionally mixed up the placing of a penis on a man, placing it on a woman instead. Tribades were often portrayed as masculine, predatory and sexually insatiable. While writers focused on the homosexual activities tribades engaged in, they were also associated with onanism and an excess of sexual desire in general. The threat tribades posed was great, they were more appealing to women than men were, could cuckold men, and could reproductively replace them. 

The mythical tribade reflects the view that sex could only be initiated between a penis and a vagina, and that men with penises must be present in all erotic relations. Because men could not imagine a world without them, it became necessary to invent qualities to explain how lesbians could exist. Although the safety of women was often invoked in arguments to attack tribades, they were the result of male anxieties about changing sexual practices and the threat of female power.

For more on the history of genital anatomy, and its intersection with queerness see:

Easton, Fraser. ‘Gender’s Two Bodies: Women Warriors, Female Husbands and Plebeian Life’. Past & Present, no. 180, 2003, pp. 131–74.
Hillman, David, and Mazzio, Carla. The Body in Parts: Fantasies of Corporeality in Early Modern Europe, Routledge, 1997.

Lanser, Susan Sniader. The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830. The University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Laqueur, Thomas Walter. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, Harvard University Press, 1992.
Read, Sara. Menstruation and the Female Body in Early-Modern England, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.