Toronto
2 min

Lesbian ecstasy

Men's war-time secrets betrayed to Cult Of The Clitoris

COURTROOM. The newspaper editor turned the libel hearing into a circus. Credit: Xtra files

Near the end of World War I, the lesbians belonging to a secret “Cult Of The Clitoris” in Britain were identified as a threat to wartime national security.



In 1918, starlet and dancer Maud Allen performed the title role of Salome in a private, by-subscription-only performance of Oscar Wilde’s play.



Shortly before the opening, the rightwing paper The Vigilante printed an editorial about the show’s star under the heading “The Cult Of The Clitoris.”



“It suggested that if one could get their hands on the subscription list for Maud Allen’s Salome, they would have a list of the first few thousand of ‘The 47,000,'” says Jodie Medd, an English professor at Carleton University.



This oblique statement referred to an earlier piece that claimed there were 47,000 men and women in England who were subject to German influence due to their perverse sexuality.



“Wives of men in supreme positions were entangled,” wrote editor and publisher Noel Pemberton-Billings in that first article. “In lesbian ecstasy the most sacred secrets of state were betrayed. The sexual peculiarities of members of the peerage were used as a leverage to open fruitful fields for espionage.



“All the horrors of shells and gas and pestilence introduced by the Germans in their open warfare would have but a fraction of the effect in exterminating the manhood of Britain as the plan by which they have already destroyed the 47,000.”



Allen responded by suing The Vigilante for libel, saying she’d been accused of lesbianism. Editor-in-chief Pemberton-Billings said he hadn’t written the second, unsigned editorial, but took full responsibility for its contents.



“Pemberton Billings served as his own defence, which turned the courtroom into a circus,” says Medd.



Central to his defence was the argument that Allen knew the meaning of the word clitoris. “The idea that because Allen was a lesbian she had secret knowledge about what the clitoris was and how it worked was used by Pemberton-Billings as proof that homosexuality was a secret cult,” says Medd.



It had to be explained to the court where the clitoris is and its connection to lesbianism. It was considered obscene to reprint the word clitoris in the press, so the whole trial was veiled by titillating secrecy in the public imagination.



But before the trial ended, Pemberton-Billings retracted his allegation that Allen was a lesbian and claimed that she had misread the editorial from the beginning. Because of the confusion, Pemberton-Billings was let off and Allen’s career was ruined by the scandal.



Female homosexuality, unlike sex between men, was never illegal in England, but this was just one of many court cases involving lesbianism in the early 20th century.



“Because of its lack of legal standing there is the popular idea that lesbianism was invisible,” says Medd, whose doctoral dissertation explored lesbian sex scandals in this period. Medd argues that the opposite was actually the case – women’s sexuality was not as clearly defined and lesbianism was perceived everywhere.



“The femme fatale, the unsatisfied married woman, the decadent bourgeoisie woman, the innocent girl – these were all figures of lesbianism,” says Medd. “Only later in the century did the stereotype of the masculinized ‘invert’ become dominant.”



The undefined nature of the lesbian threat made it perfect for galvanizing fears around national security. “Allen was cast as the classic femme fatale luring wives from their husbands and infiltrating the state.”