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A Historical Guide to the Clitoris

Did you know that the clitoris is the only organ in the human body, male and female, with an exclusively pleasurable function? That the clitoris is a complex organ with at least 18 different functional parts, about 10 centimeters in length? Or that the clitoris is made of the same erectile tissue as the penis?

Chances are you’re not aware of the entire size and scope of the clitoris, which is not surprising considering the full anatomy of female genitalia wasn’t discovered until 1998, long after we put a man on the moon and invented the internet.

Less of a Button, More of an Iceberg

Most people think of the clitoris as the “little magic button,” referring to that bundle of sensitive nerves located at the top of the vaginal opening. But really this small pink nodule, called the glans, is just the tip of a much larger internal clitoral structure, hidden from the human eye. Extending internally from the glans is a wish-bone like structure that hugs the uterus and vagina—made up of the body (or shaft), the corpora cavernosa, and the paired crura and vestibular bulbs.

Some research suggests that the elusive G-spot isn't an actual physical entity, but instead a part of the clitoral network. It is thought that when you are stimulating the "G-spot," you are actually stimulating the internal parts of the clitoris. As such, the clitoris plays an instrumental role in vaginal orgasms as well as clitoral orgasms.

Female and male genitalia are not as different as most people think. The clitoris, not the vagina, is the female homolog to the male penis. Both organs develop from the same genital tubercle of the fetus, and have glans, a shaft, and foreskin (known as the clitoral hood in females). They are also similar in size—about 4 inches non-erect—and become engorged and enlarged with stimulation. Additionally, they are both dense with nerve endings, although the clitoris has twice as many nerve endings, around 8,000.

Erased from History

When doctors have been studying male and female genitalia since the first millennium, why has it taken us until the 21st Century to come up with a complete and accurate map of the clitoris? As it turns out, the clitoris has a long history of being discredited, dismissed, and casually erased from medical textbooks and anatomy diagrams, reflecting a pervasive fear of female sexuality.

In 300 B.C.E. Aristotle characterized women as “mutilated men” and the clitoris as a failed attempt at a penis. The anatomists and doctors that acknowledged the clitoris in the first millennium and beyond seemed to bolster Aristotle’s view, continually describing the clitoris as a sort of rudimentary masculine organ. In 1545, for example, French anatomist Charles Estienne undertook the first dissection of the clitoris and published his findings, which were anatomically incorrect and referred to the clitoris as the woman’s “shameful member.” Progress was made in the 19th Century when German anatomist Ludwig Kobelt drew the first detailed anatomy of both the external and the internal clitoris, but did not last long. In 1947, Dr. Charles Mayo Goss deleted the clitoris from the Gray’s Anatomy, a renowned and influential textbook of human anatomy.

It makes sense that clitoris has a long history of being censored in our patriarchal society where women are seen as mothers and as reliant on men. The clitoris does not have a reproductive function. It is only for pleasure--pleasure that does not depend on a penis or penetration. In this way, the clitoris is a rebel, and if you are lucky enough to have one, you might want to take some time to get to know it.


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