Deely-bob, jellyroll-gumdrop, boy in the boat, the electric bell… it’s gone by many names throughout the years, but no part of the human body has been subject to more taboo and misunderstanding than the clitoris. It’s been accused of witchcraft and treason, been cut off, and had acid smeared on it – all this despite the fact that nobody even knew what it fully looked like until 1998.
“How is it possible that we landed on the Moon and walked around 29 years before we discovered the anatomy of the clitoris?” asked Sophia Wallace in her 2014 TEDx talk, “A case for cliteracy.”
“We actually cloned sheep, identified the Higgs boson particle, and only discovered the clitoris 29 years ago.”
So what is this supposedly “mysterious” organ? What does it do? And why did it take so long for science to figure the lil guy out?
Why so mysterious?
It’s not that people didn’t know the clitoris existed – the famously horny Romans knew it as “landica,” while the ancient Greeks called it the “columella,” or “little pillar.” But at some point in the second century CE, everything went clits-up. The Roman anatomist Galen decided, presumably without the input of any of the women in his life, that since clitorides (fine, clitorises) don’t have an equivalent in the male genitalia (we’ll get to that later), that must mean they don’t exist, actually.
So began a long tradition of the clitoris being misrepresented or outright omitted from medical literature, occasionally punctuated by some overexcited anatomist claiming to have “discovered” the organ. People definitely remained confused about it for a long time, with the leading renaissance-era anatomist Vesalius confidently declaring that “healthy women” would not have such a “new and useless part.”
It would take more than 100 years for the true nature of the clitoris to be described – and unsurprisingly, it was by a woman, Jane Sharp. She described how the visible part of the clitoris becomes engorged “when the spirits come into it… [it] makes women lustful and take delight in copulation.”
“The stirring of the clitoris [is] the chief pleasure of love’s delight in copulation,” she wrote, “and indeed were not the pleasure transcendently ravishing us, a man or women would hardly ever die for love.”
The function of the clitoris
This one’s easy. The clitoris has one use and one use only, as far as we know: giving its owner lots of orgasms. For this purpose it has around 8,000 nerve endings packed into an area about the size of a pea – that’s twice the number found in the penis and about 2.5 times as many as are in your fingertips.
No other organ is so pure in its intentions – which has led to debate as to why, exactly, nature would give such a gift. Some evolutionary biologists have suggested that the clitoris is an evolutionary leftover from when our ancestors required orgasm to trigger ovulation, while others think it’s just an otherwise useless byproduct of penis development – sort of the female equivalent of male nipples.
Some other mammals aren’t quite so lucky with their clitorises though – and yes, all female mammals have one. Many species pee through their clitorises the same way as one might through a penis, and most actually have a clitoris bone in there too. Probably worst off of all is the female hyena, whose clitoris can be almost 20 centimeters (8 inches) long, comes with a pair of what looks like testicles (but is actually their fused labia), gets erections, and is the passage through which the animal gives birth.
The clitoris vs the penis
Remember we said that Galen denied the existence of the clitoris based on the idea that there was no male equivalent? To him, and anatomists of his time, the female reproductive system was simple: it was just an inverted male reproductive system. It’s an idea that’s kind of intuitive, which might explain why it still persists today in the absence of good sex ed.
It is, however, nonsense – but not for the reason you might think. It’s not the vagina (the internal tube that connects the vulva to the cervix and uterus, not an all-encompassing term for female genitalia) that is the same as the penis. It’s the clitoris.
What does that mean? Well, first, we’d better cover what the clitoris actually looks like. It’s not, as most of us think of it, a pleasure button the size of a pea. It’s more like a wishbone – and it can be up to 12 centimeters (4.7 inches) in length.
“The clitoris is not a button. It is an iceberg,” said Wallace. “Most of the organ is internal.”
Let’s go back to the beginning – actually, let’s go even further than that. Genitals start to develop at around six weeks gestation, and for the next month or so they are practically indistinguishable between male and female fetuses. It’s not until about 11 weeks into the pregnancy that the external genitalia – the penis and scrotum, and the clitoris and labia – start to diverge.
In other words, “male” and “female” genitalia are actually made of the same stuff, just arranged differently.
“We’ve all been taught that male bodies and female bodies are opposites: the male body sort of sticks out, the female body is solely internal. Well, in fact, there're so many similarities between the penis and the clitoris,” explained Wallace.
“The glans of the penis and the glans of the clitoris – both organs have a glans. There are 3,000 nerves in the glans of the penis. There are 8,000 nerves in the glans of the clitoris. Both organs have a corpus cavernosum. Both organs have crura, like two little legs or wings. Both organs have bulbs of erectile tissue. Both organs get erect. The penis is outside of the body mostly, and the clitoris is inside the body mostly. That's the biggest difference.”
Of course, in the real world, things are very rarely black and white. Genital development is no exception. While rare, it’s perfectly possible for a person’s genitalia to land somewhere in between the clitoris and the penis – and medical diagrams of the possible presentations of these conditions make it all the more obvious how the two organs are connected.
The science of sex
Science has come a long way since the time of Mr “trust me, clitorises don’t exist” Galen – but it’s been a hard slog. Even today, people with clitorises are rarely taught about them or their role in sex, and even major medical textbooks still omit or mislabel the organ in diagrams. Myths persist about how people with vaginas “should” be able to orgasm without clitoral stimulation (thanks, Freud) or even worse, that they simply can’t enjoy sex at all (both of which, you may be relieved to know, are false.)
Hopefully, that should be changing. Many feminist researchers and educators are advocating for a better understanding of the clitoris – something which they say would have many advantages. It would have health benefits: clitoral pain, infections, inflammation, and disease are surprisingly common, explained University of Western Sydney clinician and physiotherapy researcher Jane Chalmers, making greater awareness of the organ “essential.”
Unsurprisingly, demystifying the clitoris also has the potential to improve the bedroom escapades of about half the population – or even more.
“The idea that only men are sexual and women are reproductive is incorrect. Both genders are reproductive and both are sexual,” wrote Jackie Gillard in an article advocating for better clitoris education for kids. “The taboos around sexual enjoyment only perpetuate a disservice to both — women grow up feeling shame for bodily agency and sexual enjoyment, while men grow up not fully understanding the sexuality of their partners or how to satisfy them sexually.”
“[Kids] shouldn’t grow up believing anatomy like the clitoris and its functions are dirty, gross or simply a mystery,” she added. “Or they may go looking to potentially dangerous sources like the internet to have it explained.”