A case study on sexual inversion from 1919

[Studies in the Psychology of Sex by Havelock Ellis, 1919, vol. 2 “Sexual Inversion” (p 235–244).

Case study of a sexual invert (homosexual) named “Miss D.” The date of birth is not provided, but from details in her narrative I can tell she is at least 35 years old at the time of the interview, which was published in 1919, so she may have been born in the 1870s or 1880s.]

Miss D., actively engaged in the practice of her profession, aged 40. Heredity good, nervous system sound, general health on the whole satisfactory. Development feminine but manner and movements somewhat boyish. Menstruation scanty and painless. Hips normal, nates small, sexual organs showing some approximation toward infantile type with large labia minora and probably small vagina. Tendency to development of hair on body and especially lower limbs. The narrative is given in her own words:—

“Ever since I can remember anything at all I could never think of myself as a girl and I was in perpetual trouble, with this as the real reason. When I was 5 or 6 years old I began to say to myself that, whatever anyone said, if I was not a boy at any rate I was not a girl. This has been my unchanged conviction all through my life.

“When I was little, nothing ever made me doubt it, in spite of external appearance. I regarded the conformation of my body as a mysterious accident. I could not see why it should have anything to do with the matter. The things that really affected the question were my own likes and dislikes, and the fact that I was not allowed to follow them. I was to like the things which belonged to me as a girl,—frocks and toys and games which I did not like at all. I fancy I was more strongly ‘boyish’ than the ordinary little boy. When I could only crawl my absorbing interest was hammers and carpet-nails. Before I could walk I begged to be put on horses’ backs, so that I seem to have been born with the love of tools and animals which has never left me.

“I did not play with dolls, though my little sister did. I was often reproached for not playing her games. I always chose boys’ toys,—tops and guns and horses; I hated being kept indoors and was always longing to get out. By the time I was 7 it seemed to me that everything I liked was called wrong for a girl. I left off telling my elders what I did like. They confused and wearied me by their talk of boys and girls. I did not believe them and could hardly imagine that they believed themselves. By the time I was 8 or 9 I used to wonder whether they were dupes, or liars, or hypocrites, or all three. I never believed or trusted a grown person in consequence. I led my younger brothers in everything. I was not at all a happy little child and often cried and was made irritable; I was so confused by the talk about boys and girls. I was held up as an evil example to other little girls who virtuously despised me.

“When I was about 9 years old I went to a day school and began to have a better time. From 9 to 13 I practically shaped my own life. I learned very little at school, and openly hated it, but I read a great deal at home and got plenty of ideas. I lived, however, mainly out of doors whenever I could get out. I spent all my pocket money on tools, rabbits, pigeons and many other animals. I became an ardent pigeon-catcher, not to say thief, though I did not knowingly steal.

“My brothers were as devoted to the animals as I was. The men were supposed to look after them, but we alone did so. We observed, mated, separated, and bred them with considerable skill. We had no language to express ourselves, but one of our own. We were absolutely innocent, and sweetly sympathetic with every beast. I don’t think we ever connected their affairs with those of human beings, but as I do not remember the time when I did not know all about the actual facts of sex and reproduction, I presume I learned it all in that way, and life never had any surprises for me in that direction. Though I saw many sights that a child should not have seen, while running about wild, I never gave them a thought; all animals great and small from rabbits to men had the same customs, all natural and right. My initiation here was, in my eyes, as nearly perfect as a child’s should be. I never asked grown people questions. I thought all those in charge of me coarse and untruthful and I disliked all ugly things and suggestions.

“Every half-holiday I went out with the boys from my brothers’ school. They always liked me to play with them, and, though not pleasant-tongued boys, were always civil and polite to me. I organized games and fortifications that they would never have imagined for themselves, led storming parties, and instituted some rather dangerous games of a fighting kind. I taught my brothers to throw stones. Sometimes I led adventures such as breaking into empty houses. I liked being out after dark.

“In the winter I made and rigged boats and went sailing them, and I went rafting and pole-leaping. I became a very good jumper and climber, could go up a rope, bowl overhand, throw like a boy, and whistle three different ways. I collected beetles and butterflies and went shrimping and learned to fish. I had very little money to spend, but I picked things up and I made all traps, nets, cages, etc., myself. I learned from every working-man I could get hold of the use of all ordinary carpenters’ tools, and how to weld hot iron, pave, lay bricks and turf, and so on.

“When I was about 11 my parents got more mortified at my behavior and perpetually threatened me with a boarding-school. I was told for months how it would take the nonsense out of me—‘shape me,’ ‘turn me into a young lady.’ My going was finally announced to me as a punishment to me for being what I was.

“Certainly, the horror of going to this school and the cruel and unsympathetic way that I was sent there gave me a shock that I never got over. The only thing that reconciled me to going was my intense indignation with those who sent me. I appealed to be allowed to learn Latin and boys’ subjects, but was laughed at.

“I was so helpless that I knew I could not run away without being caught, or I would have run away anywhere from home and school. I never cried or fretted, but burnt with anger and went like a trapped rabbit.

“In no words can I describe the severity of the nervous shock, or the suffering of my first year at school. The school was noted for its severity and I heard that at one period the elder girls ran away so often that they wore a uniform dress. I knew two who had run away. The teachers in my time were ignorant, self-indulgent women who cared nothing for the girls or their education and made much money out of them. There was a suspicious reformatory atmosphere, and my money was taken from me and my letters read.

“I was intensely shy. I hated the other girls. There were no refinements anywhere; I had no privacy in my room, which was always overcrowded; we had no hot water, no baths, improper food, and no education. We were not allowed to wear enough clean linen, and for five years I never felt clean.

“I never had one moment to myself, was not allowed to read anything, had even not enough lesson books, was taught nothing to speak of except a little inferior music and drawing. I never got enough exercise, and was always tired and dull, and could not keep my digestion in order. My pride and self-respect were degraded in innumerable ways, I suffered agonies of disgust, and the whole thing was a dreary penal servitude.

“I did not complain. I made friends with a few of the girls. Some of the older girls were attracted to me. Some talked of men and love affairs to me, but I was not greatly interested. No one ever spoke of any other matters of sex to me or in my hearing, but most of the girls were shy with me and I with them.

“In about two years’ time the teachers got to like me and thought me one of their nicest girls. I certainly influenced them and got them to allow the girls more privileges.

“I lay great stress upon the physical privations and disgust that I felt during these years. The mental starvation was not quite so great because it was impossible for them to crush my mind as they did my body. That it all materially aided to arrest the development of my body I am certain.

It is difficult to estimate sexual influences of which as a child I was practically unaware. I certainly admired the liveliest and cleverest girls and made friends with them and disliked the common, lumpy, un-educated type that made two-thirds of my companions. The lively girls liked me, and I made several nice friends whom I have kept ever since. One girl of about 15 took a violent liking for me and figuratively speaking licked the dust from my shoes. I would never take any notice of her. When I was nearly 16 one of my teachers began to notice me and be very kind to me. She was twenty years older than I was. She seemed to pity my loneliness and took me out for walks and sketching, and encouraged me to talk and think. It was the first time in my life that anyone had every sympathized with me or tried to understand me and it was a most beautiful thing to me. I felt like an orphan child who had suddenly acquired a mother, and through her I began to feel less antagonistic to grown people and to feel the first respect I had ever felt for what they said. She petted me into a state of comparative docility and made the other teachers like and trust me. My love for her was perfectly pure, and I thought of hers as simply maternal. She never roused the least feeling in me that I can think of as sexual. I liked her to touch me and she sometimes held me in her arms or let me sit on her lap. At bedtime she used to come and say good-night and kiss me upon the mouth. I think now that what she did was injudicious to a degree, and I wish I could believe it was as purely unselfish and kind as it seemed to me then. After I had left school I wrote to her and visited her during a few years. Once she wrote to me that if I could give her employment she would come and live with me. Once when she was ill with neurasthenia her friends asked me to go to the seaside with her, which I did. Here she behaved in an extraordinary way, becoming violently jealous over me with another elderly friend of mine who was there. I could hardly believe my senses and was so astonished and disgusted that I never went near her again. She also accused me of not being ‘loyal’ to her; to this day I have no idea what she meant. She then wrote and asked me what was wrong between us, and I replied that after the words she had had with me my confidence in her was at an end. It gave me no particular pang as I had by this time outgrown the simple gratitude of my childish days and not replaced it by any stronger feeling. All my life I have had the profoundest repugnance to having any ‘words’ with other women.

“I was much less interested in sex matters than other children of my age. I was altogether less precocious, though I knew more, I imagine, than other girls. Nevertheless, by the time I was 15 social matters had begun to interest me greatly. It is difficult to say how this happened, as I was forbidden all books and newspapers (except in my holidays when I had generally a reading orgy, though not the books I needed or wanted.) I had abundant opportunities for speculation, but no materials for any profitable thinking.

“Dreaming was forced upon me. I dreamed fairy-tales by night and social dreams by day. In the nightdreams, sometimes in the daydreams, I was always the prince or the pirate, rescuing beauty in distress, or killing the unworthy. I had one dream which I dreamed over and over again and enjoyed and still sometimes dream. In this I was always hunting and fighting, often in the dark; there was usually a woman or a princess, whom I admired, somewhere in the background, but I have never really seen her. Sometimes I was a stowaway on board ship or an Indian hunter or a backwoodsman making a logcabin for my wife or rather some companion. My daythoughts were not about the women round about me, or even about the one who was so kind to me; they were almost impersonal. I went on, at any rate, from myself to what I thought the really ideal and build up a very beautiful vision of solid human friendship in which there was everything that was strong and wholesome on either side, but very little of sex. To imagine this in its fullness I had to imagine all social, family and educational conditions vastly different from anything I had come across. From this my thoughts ran largely on social matters. In whatever direction my thoughts ran I always surveyed them from the point of view of a boy. I was trying to wait patiently till I could escape from slavery and starvation, and trying to keep the open mind I have spoken of, though I never opened a book of poetry, or a novel, or a history, but I slipped naturally back into my non-girl’s attitude and read it through my own eyes. All my surface-life was a sham, and only through books, which were few, did I ever see the world naturally. A consideration of social matters led me to feel very sorry for women, whom I regarded as made by a deliberate process of manufacture into the fools I thought they were, and by the same process that I myself was being made one. I felt more and more that men were to be envied and women pitied. I lay stress on this for it started in me a deliberate interest in women as women. I began to feel protective and kindly toward women and children and to excuse women their responsibility for calamities such as my school-career. I never imagined that men required, or would have thanked me for, any sort of sympathy. But it came about in these ways, and without the least help that I can trace, that by the time I was 19 years of age I was keenly interested in all kinds of questions: pity for downtrodden women, suffrage questions, marriage laws, questions of liberty, freedom of thought, care of the poor, views of Nature and Man and God. All these things filled my mind to the exclusion of individual men and women. A soon as I left school I made a headlong plunge into books where these things were treated; I had the answers to everything to find after a long period of enforced starvation. I had to work for my knowledge. No books or ideas came near me but what I went in search of. Another thing that helped me to take an expansive view of life at this time was my intense love of Nature. All birds and animals affected me by their beauty and grace, and I have always kept a profound sympathy with them as well as some subtle understanding which enables me to tame them, at times remarkably. I not only loved all other creatures, but I believed that men and women were the most beautiful things in the universe and I would rather look at them (unclothed) than on any other thing, as my greatest pleasure. I was prepared to like them because they were beautiful. When the time came for me to leave school I rather dreaded it, chiefly because I dreaded my life at home. I had a great longing at this time to run away and try my fortune anywhere; possibly if I had been stronger I might have done so. But I was in very poor health through the physical crushing I had had, and in very poor spirits through this and my mental repression. I still knew myself a prisoner and I was bitterly disappointed and ashamed at having no education. I afterward had myself taught arithmetic and other things.

“The next period of my life which covered about six years was not less important to my development, and was a time of extreme misery to me. It found me, on leaving school, almost a child. This time between 18 and 24 should, I think, count as my proper period of puberty, which probably in most children occupies the end years of their school-life.

“It was at this time that I began to make a good many friends of my own and to become aware of psychical and sexual attractions. I had never come across any theories on the subject, but I decided that I must belong to a third sex of some kind. I used to wonder if I was like the neuter bees! I knew physical and psychical sex feeling and yet I seemed to know it quite otherwise from other men and women. I asked myself if I could endure living a woman’s life, bearing children and doing my duty to them. I asked myself what hiatus there could be between my bodily structure and my feelings, and also what was the meaning of the strong physical feelings which had me in their grip without choice of my own. [Experiences of physical sex sensations first began about 16 in sleep; masturbation was accidentally discovered at the age of 19, abandoned at 28, and then at 34 deliberately resumed as a method of purely physical relief.]  These three things simply would not be reconciled and I said to myself that I must find a way of living in which there was as little sex of any kind as possible. There was something that I simply lacked; that I never doubted. Curiously enough, I thought that the ultimate explanation might be that there were men’s minds in women’s bodies, but I was more concerned in finding a way of life than in asking riddles without answers.

“I thought that one day when I had money and opportunity I would dress in men’s clothes and go to another country, in order that I might be unhampered by sex considerations and conventions. I determined to live an honorable, upright, but simple life.

“I had no idea at first that homosexual attractions in women existed; afterward observations on the lower animals put the idea into my head. I made no preparation in my mind for any sexual life, though I thought it would be a dreary business repressing my body all my days.

“My relations with other women were entirely pure. My attitude toward my sexual physical feelings was one of reserve and repression, and I think the growing conviction of my radical deficiency somewhere, would have made intimate affection for anyone with any demonstration in it, a kind of impropriety for which I had no taste.

“However, between 21 and 24 other things happened to me.

“During these few years I saw plenty of men and plenty of women. As regards the men I liked them very well, but I never thought the man would turn up with whom I should care to live. Several men were very friendly with me and three in particular used to write me letters and give me much of their confidence. I invited two of them to visit at my house. All these men talked to me with freedom and even told me about their sexual ideas and doings. One asked me to believe that he was leading a good life; the other two owned that they were not. One discussed the question of homosexuality with me; he has never married. I liked one of them a good deal, being attracted by his softness and gentleness and almost feminine voice. It was hoped that I would take to him and he very cautiously made love to me. I allowed him to kiss me a few times and wrote him a few responsive letters, wondering what I liked in him. Someone then commented on the acquaintance and said ‘marriage,’ and I woke up to the fact that I did not really want him at all. I think he found the friendship too insipid and was glad to be out of it. All these men were a trifle feminine in characteristics, and two played no games. I thought it odd that they should all express admiration for the very boyish qualities in me that other people disliked. A fourth man, something of the same type, told another friend that he always felt surprised at how freely he was able to talk to me, but that he never could feel that I was a woman. Two of these were brilliantly clever men; two were artists.

“At the same period, or earlier, I made a number of women friends, and of course saw more of them. I chose out some of some chose me; I think I attracted them as much as, or even more than, they attracted me. I do not quite remember if this was so, though I can say for certain that it was so at school. There were three or four bright, clever, young women whom I got to know then with whom I was great friends. We were interested in books, social theories, politics, art. Sometimes I visited them or we went on exploring expeditions to many country places or towns. They all in the end either had love affairs or married. I know that in spite of all our free conversations they never talked to me as they did to each other; we were always a little shy with each other. But I got very fond of at least four of them. I admired them and when I was tired and worried I often thought how easily, if I had been a man, I could have married and settled down with one or the other. I used to think it would be delightful to have a woman to work for and take care of. My attraction to these women was very strong, but I don’t think they knew it. I seldom even kissed them, but I should often have cheerfully given them a good hugging and kissing if I had thought it a right or proper thing to do. I never wanted them to kiss me half so much as I wanted to kiss them. In these years I felt this with every woman I admired.

“Occasionally, I experienced slight erections when close to other women. I am sure that no deliberate thought of mine caused them, and as I had them at other times, too, when I was not expecting them, I think it may have been accidental. What I felt with my mind and what I felt with my body always at this time seemed apart. I cannot accurately describe the interest and attraction that women then were to me. I only know I never felt anything like it for men. All my feelings of desire to do kindness, to give presents, to be liked and respected and all such natural small matters, referred to women, not to men, and at this time, both openly and to myself, I said unhesitatingly that I liked women best. It must be remembered that at this time a dislike for men was being fostered in me by those who wanted me to marry, and this must have counted for more than I now remember.

“As regards my physical sexual feelings, which were well established during these few years, I don’t think I often indulged in any erotic imaginations worth estimating, but so far as I did at all, I always imagined myself as a man loving a woman. I cannot recall ever imagining the opposite, but I seldom imagined anything at all, and I suppose ultimate sex sensations know no sex.

“But as time went on and my physical and psychical feelings met, at any rate in my own mind, I became fully aware of the meaning of love and even of homosexual possibilities.

“I should probably have thought more of this side of things except that during this time I was so worried by the difficulty of living in my home under the perpetual friction of comparison with other people. My life was a sham; I was an actor never off the boards. I had to play at being a something I was not from morning till night, and I had no cessation of the long fatigue I had had at school; in addition I had sex to deal with actively and consciously.

“Looking back on these twenty-four years of my life I only look back on a round of misery. The nervous strain was enormous and so was the moral strain. Instead of a child I felt myself, whenever I desired to please anyone else, a performing monkey. My pleasures were stolen or I was snubbed for taking them. I was not taught and was called a fool. My hand was against everybody’s. How it was that with my high spirits and vivid imagination I did not grow up a moral imbecile full of perverted instincts I do not know. I describe myself as a docile child, but I was full of temptations to be otherwise. There were times when I was silent before people, but if I had had a knife in my hand I could have stuck it into them. If it had been desired to make me a thoroughly perverted being I can imagine no better way than the attempt to mould me by force into a particular pattern of girl.

“Looking at my instincts in my first childhood and my mental confusion over myself, I do not believe the most sympathetic and scientific treatment would have turned me into an average girl, but I see no reason why proper physical conditions should not have induced a better physical development and that in its turn have led to tastes more approximate to those of the normal woman. That I do not even now desire to be a normal woman is not to the point.

“Instead of any such help, I suffered during the time that should have been puberty from a profound mental and physical shock which was extended over several years, and in addition I suffered from the outrage of every fine and wholesome feeling I had. These things by checking my physical development gave, I am perfectly convinced, a traumatic impetus to my general abnormality, and this was further kept up by demanding of me (at the dawn of my real sexual activity, and when still practically a child) an interest in men and marriage which I was no more capable of feeling than any ordinary boy or girl of 15. If you had taken a boy of 13 and given him all my conditions, bound him hand and foot, when you became afraid of him petted him into docility, and then placed him in the world and, while urging normal sexuality upon him on one hand, made him disgusted with it on the other, what would have been the probable result?

“Looking back, I can only say I think the results in my own case were marvelously good, and that I was saved from worse by my own innocence and by the physical backwardness which nature, probably in mercy, bestowed upon me.

“I find it difficult to sum up the way in which I affect other women and they me. I can only record my conviction that I do affect a large number, whether abnormally or not I don’t know, but I attract them and it would be easy for some of them to become very fond of me if I gave them a chance. They are also, I am certain, more shy with me than they are with other women.

“I find it difficult also to sum up their effect on me. I only know that some women attract me and some tempt me physically, and have done ever since I was about 22 or 23. I know that psychically I have always been more interested in women than men, but have not considered them the best companions or confidants. I feel protective towards them, never feel jealous of them, and hate having differences with them. And I feel always that I am not one of them. If there had been any period in my life when health and temptation and money and opportunity had made homosexual relations easy I cannot say how I should have resisted. I think that I have never had any such relations simply because I have in a way been safeguarded from them. For a long time I thought I must do without all actual sexual relations and acted up to that. If I had thought any relations right and possible I think I should have striven for heterosexual experiences because of the respect that I had cultivated, indeed I think always had, for the normal and natural. If I had thought it right to indulge any sort of gratification which was within my reach I think I might probably have chosen the homosexual as being perhaps more satisfying and more convenient. I always wanted love and friendship first; later I should have been glad of something to satisfy my sex hunger too, but by that time I could have done without it, or I thought so.”

At a period rather later than that dealt with in this narrative, the subject of it became strongly attracted to a man who was of somewhat feminine and abnormal disposition. But on consideration she decided it would not be wise to marry him.

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13 thoughts on “A case study on sexual inversion from 1919

  1. Yeah, this resonates a fair piece. What a fascinating woman. What is this nonsense about “infantile” genitals? Did this dude not realize that everything described here constitutes normal variations, not to mention that it sounds like she was starved during puberty.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I have a theory on that. Flipping through these books I noticed they were looking for reasons to call homosexuals infantile because of a Freudian belief that the homos are stuck at some earlier stage of development. They probably already had the idea in their heads that she was infantile and were looking for a reason to use this word.

      Liked by 4 people

  2. One thing that strikes me is how she talks about the feeling of having a man’s mind in a woman’s body. Sounds familiar—not for myself, but for what a lot of trans people say. I can relate to some of what she says, though. She sounds as though she experienced disconnection between her “selfhood” and her body. Not feeling as though her body were the proper house for her self.

    I wonder how much of that came from her being so remarkably precocious (it seems to me) in terms of her instinct for what society was doing to her. Some of it sounds like modern-day feminist theory. The part about her imagining herself as a man making love to a woman, for example, sounds like she was adopting the male gaze—maybe because she sensed she was actively discouraged from taking her place as an owner and creator of her own world and body. Maybe it’s that (and this goes for today’s trans people, too) our society doesn’t have a place for people who don’t feel that the available roles describe or fit them well enough.

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  3. It’s interesting that some of you who aren’t even lesbians are saying you identify with her. Certainly a lot of the things she says about her early childhood are still true today–enforcing nonsensical gender roles on children and punishing them for playing with the wrong toys.

    Liked by 2 people

    • All in how one defines “lesbian.” I have seen a number of lesbians express reservations about “political lesbian,” so I avoid using any variant of the term about myself, as I don’t seem to quite fit, but yes, in reading this piece I promptly thought “that’s me in a former life.” Not “lesbian wannabe” so much as “lesbian coulddabeen.”

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  4. In all the case studies in this book, there is a huge element of sexual repression and you can see it in this story too. All the women interviewed reported sexual feelings for other women and they also reported, usually with pride, that they repressed those feelings as much as possible. They also report feeling shame after times when they did have sex. It’s so sad to me what homophobia and Victorian sexual repression did to women.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow, she sounds like an amazing woman. I would have liked to have dated her!

    “…led me to feel very sorry for women, whom I regarded as made by a deliberate process of manufacture into fools…”

    This is so insightful.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Oh I’m glad I finally started following your blog yesterday! This is such a fascinating piece. I keep saying there needs to be a “Handbook for Lesbians” and this kind of personal account from the past should be in the first chapters. Although her experience is clearly a product of her times (I’ve been reading about that time period lately, too) so much of her story still resonates. As for the feeling like a man in a woman’s body, what else could she feel like when those were the only two options available to her? I don’t know how many accounts I’ve read of disidentified/detransitioned women (including my own) that have come down to, “If I had only known other women like me I never would have thought I had to be male.”

    Looking forward to more from this book – history is always fascinating, even more so when you see hints of yourself in the pages.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow. This was an amazing read. I’m so happy you took the time to type it up. There’s so much in here, wow.

    I related to a lot of what she was saying about growing up, about feelings of adoration for other girls/women from a young age. It sends me back, makes me remember a lot of teachers myself (my 10th grade English teacher who looked like Snow White, god, she was so pure and precious and kind, I utterly adored her).

    But damn, this school she was sent to! Latin being a “boy’s subject”! This woman was so utterly deprived of humanity, yet with such a strong impetus to be alive, to love. Wow.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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