The Clit, Revisited

By Anne Johnakin

Diagram credit: Psychology Today


The clitoris was dissected for the first time in 1545 by Charles Estienne, who proclaimed that its only purpose was urination.[1] I’ll be honest with you: for far too long, I thought he was right. And frankly, I don’t blame myself. But the fact that my younger self knew just as much as a physician from the 16th century is worrisome. In sex education, the clitoris is barely mentioned. In the 1947 edition of Gray’s Anatomy, a seminal medical text, the clitoris was erased by the editor.[2]

When he discovered it, Estienne named this brand new organ “the shameful member.”[3] Many texts reference the clitoris as a failure of a penis, perhaps inverted or simply a “poor homologue.”[4] [5]Freud’s claim that an orgasm reached by clitoral stimulation was “immature” became the widespread view of female sexuality.[6] Even today, the clitoris is viewed at best as unimportant and at worst as shameful. It’s not hard to guess why: we now know that the sole purpose of the clitoris is not urination, it is orgasm.[7]

Female pleasure has never been a priority. Vaginal sex has always been seen as purely reproductive. We don’t need to cum to reproduce, so why cum at all? As society moves towards sex-positivity, we’re trying to equalize pleasure. But we’ve ignored the female orgasm for so long, it’s become shrouded in myth, confusion, and shame. The problem may be complex, but the answer is simple: for most, orgasm requires stimulation of the clitoris.[8]

Spare Rib’s first Sex Edtion in 1993 published a half-page diagram of the vulva and clitoris. After all, how else would Dartmouth men learn where the clitoris is? Cluelessness about the clit is a good joke. I can relate: the learning curve is steep. Surely, some of this responsibility is on the partners of people with clits. If you are having sex with someone, it’s the bare minimum to know the basics of how to satisfy them. But there is a systemic reason why people don’t know where the clitoris is: for most of human history, no one cared to look for it.

While grand strides have been made in studying the clitoris, there have still only been 11 articles on its anatomical dissection published worldwide since 1947.[9] The first comprehensive study of the clitoris was published in 1998, five years after the first Sex Edition. In 2005, there was the first MRI study. Most of the research has been conducted by one woman, Dr. Helen O’Connell. A urologist and professor from Australia, O’Connell is thought of as the world’s leading scientist when it comes to the clitoris.[10] In her TEDx Talk, “Get Cliterate,” Dr. O’Connell smiles as she hoists a large box of hot pink 3D printed clitorises onto her lap, and pulls out one to show to the camera.[11] A model that without her scholarship wouldn’t have existed.

When Spare Rib published the diagram of the clitoris, they had no reason to suspect their information was only surface deep. Dr. O’Connell’s biggest finding in her 1998 paper was just how big the clitoris really is. It’s often described as a little nub, but 90% of the clitoris lies below the surface.[12] The glans clitoris is a wishbone shape made out of erectile tissue, meaning it gets larger with arousal. It is made up of 8,000 nerve endings, two times more than that of the penis.[13]

The clitoris is made up of three parts: the glans, the crura, and the bulbs. Rather than a distinct organ, the clitoris is more connected to the urethra and vagina than we previously thought. Its neurovascular system is complex and wide-reaching.[14]

Dr. O'Connell was propelled into the field because the medical textbooks she used in school devoted many pages to the anatomy of the penis, but only one to the clitoris.[15] Even today, OB GYNs do not learn the full extent of the clitoris’s nerves and vascaluture.[16] A striking omission from OB GYN textbooks is the dorsal nerve, which supplies the thousands of nerve endings to make the clitoris so sensitive. A comprehensive study of the clitoris prevents damage of these nerves during surgery.[17]

Learning more about the clitoris also has a real effect on pleasure. We now know that “vaginal orgasms” are not “mature” as Freud asserted, but simply mythical.[18] Recent studies suggest that what we think of as the G-spot in the vaginal canal is actually the internal structure of the clitoris.[19] Debate about this subject continues, but we can be sure that the vagina and clitoris are not two distinct organs, and a holistic approach in both study and pleasure is worthwhile.

Dr. O’Connell concludes her paper “The Anatomy of the Clitoris” with: “The tale of the clitoris is a parable of culture, of how the body is forged into a shape valuable to civilization despite and not because of itself.” Scientists like Dr. O’Connell are doing incredible work, but it doesn’t change the fact that they are playing hundreds of years of catch-up. All bodies deserve the same care and treatment, and we should ask more than the historical record of minimizing clitoral orgasms and inventing biology to justify it.



[1] Gross, Rachel E. “The Clitoris, Uncovered: An Intimate History.” Scientific American. Scientific American, March 4, 2020. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-clitoris-uncovered-an-intimate-history/.

[2] “You Don't Know What You Don't Know About The Clitoris.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com. Accessed June 13, 2021. http://projects.huffingtonpost.com/cliteracy/history.

[3] Gross, “The Clitoris, Uncovered.”

[4] Fyfe, Melissa. “Get Cliterate: How a Melbourne Doctor Is Redefining Female Sexuality.” The Sydney Morning Herald. The Sydney Morning Herald, December 7, 2018. https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/health-and-wellness/get-cliterate-how-a-melbourne-doctor-is-redefining-female-sexuality-20181203-p50jvv.html.

[5] Wahlquist, Calla. “The Sole Function of the Clitoris Is Female Orgasm. Is That Why It's Ignored by Medical Science?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, October 31, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/nov/01/the-sole-function-of-the-clitoris-is-female-orgasm-is-that-why-its-ignored-by-medical-science.

[6] “You Don't Know What You Don't Know About The Clitoris.”

[7] Wahlquist, “The Sole Function of the Clitoris is Female Orgasm.”

[8] Wahlquist, “The Sole Function of the Clitoris is Female Orgasm.”

[9] Wahlquist, “The Sole Function of the Clitoris is Female Orgasm.”

[10] Fyfe, “Get Cliterate.”

[11] Get Cliterate | Professor Helen O'Connell | TEDxMacRobHS. YouTube. YouTube, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JMRZF0Eq3vQ&ab_channel=TEDxTalks.

[12] Gross, “The Clitoris, Uncovered.”

[13] “The Clitoris Has 8,000 Nerve Endings (and Nine Other Things We Learned from a New Artwork).” The Irish Times. The Irish Times, January 23, 2017. https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/health-family/the-clitoris-has-8-000-nerve-endings-and-nine-other-things-we-learned-from-a-new-artwork-1.2947694#:~:text=There%20are%20more%20than%208%2C000,of%20those%20in%20a%20penis.

[14] O’Connell, Helen E., Kalavampara V. Sanjeevan, and Johnn M. Hutoson. “Anatomy of the Clitoris.” Journal of Urology 174, no. 4 Part 1 (2005): 1189–95. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.ju.0000173639.38898.cd.

[15] Fyfe, “Get Cliterate.”

[16] Pin, Jessica. “The Nerves and Vasculature of the Clitoris Are Absent from OB/GYN Literature.” Medium. Medium, July 20, 2019. https://jessica86.medium.com/ob-gyns-dont-learn-the-nerves-and-vasculature-of-the-clitoris-ccc56e55ac90.

[17] Gross, “The Clitoris, Uncovered.”

[18] “You Don't Know What You Don't Know About The Clitoris.”

[19] Hoag, Nathan, Janet R. Keast, and Helen E. O'Connell. “The ‘G-Spot’ Is Not a Structure Evident on Macroscopic Anatomic Dissection of the Vaginal Wall.” The Journal of Sexual Medicine 14, no. 12 (2017): 1524–32. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsxm.2017.10.071.