The clitoris is often touted as the only organ in a woman’s body designed solely for pleasure. But for decades, scientists have debated whether it might also serve some reproductive function. A new piece of research is now weighing in, suggesting that the elusive organ actually plays a role in encouraging conception.
The clitoris first appeared in Western literature back in 1545, when it was believed to have a urinary function. But in 1559, Italian anatomy professor Realdo Colombo realized its sexual purpose, describing it as “the seat of a woman’s delight”, although not everyone (mainly men, of course) agreed. It was even suggested that the organ had zero function and did not exist in healthy women.
Flash forward 450 years and the clitoris is still a bit of a mystery. We know it definitely plays a big role in sexual pleasure, but is that its sole function? Sheffield-based sex scientist and independent research investigator Roy Levin thinks not, having conducted a review of research papers on the matter. His findings are published in Clinical Anatomy.
Examining 15 studies published between 1966 and 2017, Levin concluded that in addition to providing pleasure, stimulation of the clitoris also leads to physical changes that encourage successful fertilization of the egg. For example, by elongating the vagina, it moves the cervix, the lowest part of the uterus equipped with a tiny passage that allows sperm to enter, further into the body. This process, known as “vaginal tenting”, stops the sperm from entering the uterus before their mobile tails are activated and ready to propel them forwards.
In addition to this process, Levin says that clitoral stimulation enhances blood flow to the vagina, increases lubrication, and affects pH, which all aid reproduction.
“All these genital changes taken together are of major importance in facilitating the possibility of reproductive success (and thus gene propagation) no matter how or when the clitoris is stimulated – they reveal its overlooked reproductive function,” Levin writes.
Levin notes that his paper might be seen as an attack on female sexuality by reducing sexual pleasure to something that serves a procreational function, but argues that its reproductive purpose does not outweigh its role in producing sexual pleasure.
“The clitoris thus has both procreative (reproductive) and recreative (pleasure) functions of equal importance,” he writes.
Levin also uses his argument to criticize female genital mutilation (FGM), or female circumcision, a practice used in various communities that involves mutilating or removing the clitoris. It is most prevalent in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, and is generally carried out on young girls. It is often used to deter girls and women from having pre-marital or extra-marital sex. As noted by the World Health Organization, it has no health benefits and causes only harm – from pain and bleeding to urinary issues and even death.
In addition to the physical and psychological trauma FGM causes, Levin notes that it could also harm fertility, making it harder to conceive.
While Levin makes an interesting case, more research is needed to back up his findings. Perhaps future studies will be able to shed new light on the purpose of the clitoris and settle this age-old debate.