The Big Clit Club: How bodies are used to police women

In 1892, Dr Robert Morris wrote a book called Is Evolution Trying to Do Away with the Clitoris and spoiler alert – he believed that it was. He wasn’t the only one. At the end of the 19th century, around the same time that they began studying and philosophizing the homosexual, the medical community became obsessed with the clitoris. Dr Morris argued that the clitoral hood was a symptom of evolutionary processes, slowly rendering the tiny bundle of nerves ineffective and expendable.  He and his medical buddies claimed that some socially ‘advanced’ women had no clitorises at all, and shockingly, these women were all white and wealthy.

The lack of clitoris was supposed to indicate a woman’s chasteness; her lack of sexuality signalling her social position, her value. Women’s clits were supposed to be invisible because women themselves were supposed to be invisible.  Dr Morris may have written about evolution trying to do away with the clitoris, but perhaps what he was really wondering was whether evolution was trying to rid the world of women, or at least the outspoken, outside-the-lines kind of women, who didn’t necessarily rely on men for financial, emotional or sexual support. Even though women are arguably allowed to be sexy now, allowed to want sex, we are still expected to be small and invisible, to not want too big or be too much.

As a queer woman, had I been alive in the 1800s, the men in white coats would have labelled me as an inherently violent, mannishly insane degenerative. They would have justified these beliefs by suggesting that my clitoris was hypertrophic, which is a fancy word for too big. Scarily, my too big clitoris could have been used to penetrate and infect young women or feminine men with my immoral demeanour and raging queerness. Interestingly, the largeness of a clit was not thought to be inherent or genetic, but the consequence of transgressing social mores. To that end, steps could be taken to avoid the dreaded engorging of the clitoris.

Except of course, for women of colour. I will spare you the racism of direct quotes from old school medical journals but the gist was that women from Africa had such enormous clitorises that they effectively functioned as penises. White doctors worried that these clits could ‘prevent the approach of the male’ (Eugene Barnardy, Proceedings of the Philadelphia County Medical Society) and heaven forbid women have any semblance of control over their own sexual experiences. Interestingly, the association of both lesbians and women of colour with abnormal clitorises meant that black women were often assumed to be queer themselves, or at least overtly sexual beings, slaves to their bodily impulses. I wonder why that sounds familiar.

Luckily for rich white girls, if they stayed at home, far from the damning influence of the industrial sewing machine, they could hope for long, happy lives without ever knowing the life ruining sensation of a stimulated clitoris. Back in the day, industrial sewing machines were huge monsters that were operated with the knee, emitting strong vibrations.  According to historian Margaret Gibson, these vibrations were blamed for ‘attacks’ of ‘erections’ and ‘ejaculations’ amongst the working class women that operated the sewing machines. She wrote, ‘as a form of involuntary masturbation, sewing machine usage led to many degenerative symptoms: loss of appetite, a pale complexion, fatigue, uncontrollable ‘voluptuous sensations’ and eventually pain’. Gee, it’s a good thing that none of those things are the result of an exploitative capitalist system that paid women far less than their labour was worth!

In the opinion of the medical community, this indirect stimulation of the clitoris through manual labour had the power to transform women into violent, aggressive lesbians. It wasn’t all sex and sewing machines though; some women were arrested simply because their clits were a little fleshier than average. Sex workers, as working class women who regularly participated in non-procreative sexual activity, were also included in the big-clit-club. Their inclusion added a touch of the criminal to everyone who transgressed gender boundaries by being poor, or going to work, or kissing girls or being black.

As well as being arrested, many women were thrown in asylums on account of their clitoris size. The idea that repeated stimulation or masturbation without ‘a drop of seminal fluid to refresh and protect from disease’ (Medical News 1884) – eww – would eventually lead to all kinds of terrible things, including exhaustion and mental deterioration. Women’s mental hospitals of the time were often over-crowded and a large percentage of the women imprisoned in them were queer. Doctor’s anecdotes suggested that even when women entered as straight as an arrow, they were likely to lean more significantly to the left by the time they went home. Treatments at these mental facilities often included clitordectomies, a procedure that involved removing part of or the entire clitoris.

The hilariously saddening truth is that the doctors didn’t measure that many actual clitorises. They measured a few sure, but after that they simply circulated a few stories of lesbians (known as female inverts) and women of colour with large clits and hey presto, cultural stigma! The connection, through the clitoris, to the working class, criminality and nymphomania meant they could justify the persecution of any and all of these women. White lesbians lost their racial privilege. Women of colour could be accused of rape. Any woman expressing voluptuous desire for anybody could be locked away from society in an asylum or threatened with a clitoridectomy.

Most people these days would recognise the ridiculousness of body parts standing in for moral aptitude, wouldn’t they? Yet, women are still constantly reduced to their bodies. Society segments us into tiny pieces and then points at those pieces as evidence of our deviance. Too wide thighs must mean that we are lazy. Eyebrows too bushy? Maybe we spend too much time at work and not enough time making our faces look good. Wearing shorts in the summer must mean that we care more about sex than modesty and our own value as human beings. We are the sum of our body parts and nothing more.

There is a reason that people think lesbians and feminists are fat; that their bodies are too big, too intrusive to be taken seriously. There is a reason that black women are seen to be at once too sexual and too angry. That any time any of us expresses frustration at any of this, someone somewhere whispers, she must be on her period. While the focus has shifted away from the nerve-riddled bundles of joy in our pants, there is still an expectation that we reduce ourselves to nothing by adhering to social expectations of femininity. There is still an expectation that we choose silence over sex, silence over work, silence over difference, silence over anger.  Our bodies are to blame for our rebelliousness and are punished accordingly with diets and chemicals and sometimes even rape.

Women are not all the same. Some belong to the big clit club, and some have no clitorises at all. Some are queer, some are black, some are poor, and some of us have day jobs that we wish we could give up in favour of more time in front of a sewing machine. We don’t always experience oppression in the same ways but in many ways our struggles are still intertwined and still very much centred on our bodies.

Image: Oscar Keys

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IMG_8437_1Gemma Killen is a PhD Candidate in Gender Studies at the Australian National University. Her current work focuses on the ways in which queer women’s identities become embodied and are made meaningful in online spaces. In 2015, Gemma moved to Canberra from Adelaide where she wrote for the Adelaide University magazine OnDit. She was also published in Wet Ink, an Australian magazine for emergent creative writing. As a writer, Gemma wants to produce gender-focused work that is accessible and creative.

 

This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.

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One Comment

  • LS commented on August 22, 2016 Reply

    100 million FGM every year.
    With partial or full removal of the clitoris. It’s horrifying reality.

    Plastic surgery to remove excess labial protrusion to feel more feminine or normal. It’s fashionable. Like a smaller nose or pinning back ears or braces.

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