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'I clitorize, you clitorize, they clitorize...': The Anatomy of Female Homoeroticism in the Roman Empire

Rebecca Flemming

Cambridge University

As is now reasonably well-known, several medical works of the Roman imperial period contain chapters ‘on the excessively large clitoris and clitoridectomy’, texts which, since they join this female anatomical surfeit with masculinized sexual desires, have been discussed in recent scholarship about ‘lesbianism before sexuality’, as the title of this panel so aptly phrases it (see esp. Brooten 1996; also Boehringer 2007). Omitted from the debate so far, however, is the alternative angle on the clitoris and its erotic potential provided by another medical writer, the late first-century AD physician Rufus of Ephesus in his treatise On the Naming of the Parts of the Human Body. This paper takes that passage as its starting point, opening up a dialogue with the more familiar pathological sequences to explore ancient clitoral sex, including between women, in more detail. It will argue that it is both patterned by and escapes from phallic models, adding further depth and complexity to the picture of Roman female homoeroticism, and in some particularly intriguing ways.

Rufus provides (109-112) a rich account of the vulva, focused topographically and lexically on the ‘kleitoris’ as some call the fleshy muscle in the middle of the ‘cleft’ which divides the genitals, they also ‘say that lascivious touching of this part is “to clitorize” (kleitoriazein).’ The text is unclear whether this touching is of the self, by another woman, or by a man, presumably all these possibilities are encompassed by the term. In any case, this passage stands in some contrast to the passages dealing with the diseased excess and excision of this part. Not that Rufus is particularly positive about clitorizing, but his negativity qualifies the touch not the haptic object itself, indeed his preferred term for that object is ‘numphē’, which also means newly-wed or young bride or rosebud. Rufus’ rough contemporary, fellow-physician and citizen, Soranus of Ephesus, is specific that this small piece of genital flesh is so-called because ‘it hides like a young bride’ (Gynaecology 1.18). The contrast is thus between the clitoris as modest recipient of lasciviousness and as active wrong-doer, urging women into a male sexual role, as it does in the surviving late antique versions of Soranus’ lost chapter on the ‘hupermegethos numphē’. The details vary but the latinizations of Caelius Aurelianus (Gynaecia 2.112) and Muscio (177), as well as Paul of Aegina’s abbreviated Greek (6.70), all report a suggestion that the oversized female part can become tense and erect like a man’s and drive affected women towards intercourse. The language—venus, coitus, sunousia—is neutral and inclusive, both female and male partners are possible.

In one sense, then, Rufus offers another of those chance glimpses round the edges of the dominant sexual paradigm in the Roman world that scholars have increasingly come to value (e.g. Boehringer, 2014; Oliver, 2015). He simply acknowledges that women may enjoy touching themselves or each other: this mutual masturbatory pleasure shares its reciprocity with Juvenal’s Maura and Tullia, for example, as they drunkenly ‘straddle each other in turn’ in Satire 6 (311). While the pathological passages variously enact, and indeed enforce, that paradigm. An excessively large clitoris may endow a woman with masculine sexual desires, which she will act on (in some rather vague way), but this nasty and transgressive situation is surgically remediable. It is, however, also worth considering the relationship between the shy and overly forward numphē a bit further: thinking about the locations of desire and pleasure, the figuration of sexual activity in both cases to see whether there is a single system in play after all.

Session/Panel Title

Lesbianism Before Sexuality

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