The Misunderstood Clitoris
With a dizzying 8,000 nerve endings (twice that of the penis), the clitoris is complex, to say the least.
Medical textbooks cover the anatomy of the penis ad nauseam, but the clitoris? Often barely rates a mention. It’s time the clitoris got its day in the sun and we’re going to shed some light on it.
Clitoris comes from the Greek kleitoris, which translates to “little hill” and “to rub.” The clitoris’ external anatomy is a small part of the actual organ, 90% of which is internal. It’s intertwined with the pelvis, urethra, the vagina and labia – so, kind of a big deal. Despite the fact that every woman has a clitoris, it took more than 2,000 years of civilization to really understand it. Many anatomy textbooks still don’t even get it right.
“The external anatomy is a small part of the actual organ, 90% of which is internal. It’s intertwined with the pelvis, urethra, the vagina and labia – so, kind of a big deal.”
Professor Helen O’Connell, Australia’s first female urologist did the first comprehensive anatomical study of the clitoris in 1998 and a follow up in 2005, looking at the clitoris under MRI. What she found revealed the anatomy books at the time were flat out wrong. Textbooks showed the clitoris against the pubic bone, flat. While O’Connell found “it exits in three planes, with bits going everywhere.” The inside of the clitoris is connected to the glans by the corpora cavernosa, spongy erectile tissue. The corpora cavernosa branches off the crura, which extend around the vaginal canal like a wishbone. Underneath are the crura, clitoral sac-like tissue structures that become engorged with blood when you get aroused. The clitoris also sends out stimulation to 15,000 nerves in the pelvis (why it feels like the earth is shaking during orgasm).
Looking back over time, there’s been conflicting information about the clitoris, which hasn’t helped. Magnus, a scholar in the Middle Ages, said the clitoris was similar in structure and evolutionary origin to the penis but not the same functionally. Many disagreed. In 1486, The Malleus Maleficarum, a guide to finding witches, said the clitoris was the devil’s teat and any woman who had one was considered a witch.
Fast forward to modern times and let’s all give kudos to France for including the clitoris in sex ed conversations. They introduced an anatomically correct 3D clitoris in 2016, to educate French schoolchildren. And why wouldn’t they? We spend all this time educating on the penis, why not the clitoris? They are actually quite similar. In fact, all human embryos start as female. At the two-month gestational marker testosterone kicks in for male fetuses and the penis develops. And while nobody would notice the clitoris getting hard, vestibular bulbs do engorge with blood during arousal and there’s an erection of sorts. If women really learned about, studied and understood this special part of themselves, they could better navigate their own sexual pleasure.
In a particularly enlightening ‘life imitates art’ moment, Sydney-based artist Alli Sebastian Wolf created an anatomically correct gold clitoris in 2017, called the glitoris. She took it to public events like Mardi Gras or women’s marches. Some people thought it was a squid, and a couple of OB-GYNs confessed they had no idea what a clitoris actually looked like, before that moment. (Collective gasp.) We can hopefully all agree that the clitoris should have its moment so women everywhere can see the clitoris for what it really is – a beautifully constructed organ, unselfish and unapologetic in its function for pleasure.