Alexandra Fine, Credentialed Sexologist, M. Psych | Written by Dame
If you have a clitoris, those are four words you never want to hear from a new sexual partner.
To get serious, most people (those with vulvas and those without) think very little about their anatomy. They know what makes them feel good, of course, and they probably know the scientific names for the key sex organs – although many people may be more familiar with their slang names than their scientific ones.
Actually being able to define the clitoris can help in several ways, though.
First, it lets you converse more accurately with a health professional when you’re having pain or dealing with a medical issue.
Perhaps more importantly, understanding sexual anatomy can help you and your partner(s) to have serious discussions about erogenous zones: what you like, what you don’t, and what you can do to achieve mutual sexual satisfaction and a better sex life.
So what is the clitoris? If you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor, let’s plunge right in.
The Mystery of the Clitoris
Most people who’ve reached sexual maturity are at least aware of the clitoris. Those who don’t have one may think of it as either the small button (technically called the glans clitoris, or just the glans) above the vagina – or as the “thing they’re supposed to play with.” Those who own clitorises, of course, are likely to have more specific awareness of the organ’s location and the sexual responses they feel when it’s stimulated.
However, there’s a lot more to know about the clitoris, including the fact that it isn’t just an external organ. The clitoris is an entire system of body parts, both external and internal.
It’s understandable that many people are largely in the dark when it comes to the clitoris. In fact, the 1948 edition of Gray’s Anatomy – the authoritative text on human anatomy since the mid-19th century – removed the clitoris from its diagrams and explanations of the vulva.
No one has ever understood that odd decision made by editor Dr. Charles Mayo Goss. Theories include Goss agreeing with Freud that the organ is a “small penis which does not grow any bigger” and that clitoral sexuality is “childish,” or more general “concerns” about morality and hygiene. The organ’s existence was miraculously restored to Gray’s Anatomy in 1955. Yet even today, many medical diagrams incorrectly picture the clitoris and other parts of the vulva, and a few texts still refer to the clitoris simply as the female penis.
Back in the 16th and 17th century, Italian and Dutch anatomists actually had a pretty good, albeit rudimentary, understanding of female genitalia. However, Freud’s declarations about the relative unimportance of the clitoris largely relegated it to the anatomical dust heap. When it was discussed after that only the glans was mentioned.
It took another 50 years or so before a true understanding of the clitoris was widely circulated and accepted, thanks to Australian urologist Dr. Helen O’Connell. She and her team examined cadavers, compared them to existing anatomy texts, and confirmed their findings by doing MRIs on a number of patients. Her detailed study on the anatomy of the clitoris, supported by further research by Odile Buisson and Pierre Foldès, revealed that the organ is much more than just the glans. (There is still debate among some experts in gynecology, like Vincenzo Puppo, on whether O’Connell’s descriptions require further clarification.)
So What Is the Clitoris?
O’Connell’s work showed that the clitoris is really an entire system with 18 different components, almost all of them located inside the body.
External Parts of the Clitoris
Let’s look at the outside first. We’ve already mentioned the glans clitoris, located above both the vagina opening and the urethra, toward the top of the vulva.
There are two reasons most people focus on the glans. One is that it’s the prominent external part of the clitoris. The other is that it’s the most sensitive part of the entire system, with more than 8,000 nerve endings (more than in the tip of the penis!) able to produce immense pleasure during clitoral stimulation.
Fun fact 1: the glans never ages, and continues to grow throughout life.
Fun fact 2: even experts on “female sexuality” can’t agree on whether the glans becomes erect during “female sexual pleasure” and before “female orgasm.” (Spoiler alert: it does.) Needless to say, researchers generally cling to outdated gender stereotypes.
There are several other parts of the vulva which aren’t technically parts of the clitoris, yet are very important to it. The labia majora and labia minora (outer and inner lips) form concentric ovals around the glans. The outer lips are primarily for protection, and are one of the areas where pubic hair grows. The inner lips provide even more protection, and also secrete some of the natural lube that makes sex play more comfortable.
There’s also the clitoral hood, which is a fold of skin formed where the two sides of the labia minora meet. It protects the glans from friction, but usually retracts during sexual arousal (or can be pulled back if necessary for sexual stimulation).
One note before we move on. Some people feel dissatisfied with the appearance of their glans and labia, but everyone’s external elements look a little different. Their appearance generally has no relation to sexual health or sexual pleasure, and there’s no such thing as “normal” shapes, colors or size.
Internal Parts of the Clitoris
Here’s where we get to the “hidden parts” of the clitoris under the skin. Put your biology goggles on for a few minutes.
Behind the glans is the clitoral body, which runs through the pelvis and is connected to the pubic bone by a ligament. The clitoral body is largely composed of two spongy areas of erectile tissue known as corpora cavernosa, which diverge in the shape of a wishbone and then extend into two crura (legs). Experts may argue over whether the glans becomes erect during arousal, but they agree that the corpora cavernosa and crura definitely do. (The two chambers in the penis which become erect are known by the same name.)
The female corpora cavernosa are each capped by expandable vestibular bulbs. The bulbs of the clitoris and the crura fill with blood during sexual arousal, causing the structure of the clitoris and the vulva to expand.
This action serves several purposes. It increases the sensitivity of the vulva, while also putting pressure on the vaginal canal – causing the release of lubrication and increasing the sexual pleasure felt during both clitoral play and penetration. In fact, Buisson and Foldès argue that G-spot orgasms (and ejaculation) may occur because the sensitive parts of the clitoris are pulled so close to the vaginal wall.
That’s enough biology for now. Let’s answer a few questions and clear up a few misconceptions.
FAQC (Frequently Asked Questions about the Clitoris)
Q: Are the clitoris and penis basically the same?
A: Actually, they’re what are called homologues. They’re similar in genetic information and physical attributes, and are formed from the same embryonic cells. During fetal development, however, the DNA in those with Y chromosomes activates the mechanism by which a penis develops. In those without Y chromosomes, the formation of a clitoris (or what society thinks of as “female genitalia”) progresses naturally.
Q: Why is the clitoris such a big deal to those who have one?
A: To put it simply: pleasure. The clitoris is one of most sensitive erogenous zones known to humans, and its stimulation produces sensations unlike any other. To put it in mathematical terms: one of the major studies conducted on the subject found that more than one-third of vulva owners couldn’t reach orgasm without clitoral stimulation, while only about 18% were able to climax from just vaginal penetration.
Q: Are clitoral orgasms that much different than vaginal ones?
A: Ask those who’ve experienced both, and you’ll hear nearly unanimous agreement that they feel very different. Ask anatomists, though, and you’ll learn that the answer is more complicated. The clitoris plays a big role in the sensations experienced during vaginal play, and “achieving orgasm” is a subjective description based on individual preferences, feelings and desires. As Pfaus et. al. summarized in their important study, the application of sex-specific descriptions of orgasms “only serves to obfuscate and hide the truly remarkable variety of orgasmic experiences a woman (sic) can have.”
Q: Am I making the most of my clitoris?
A: If you haven’t spent time exploring your erogenous zones, it’s quite possible that you’re not. Experimentation with fingers, sex toys (be sure to use the right type of vibrator), partners, friction – and imagination – may lead you to surprising and delightful new discoveries about one of the most important areas of your body.
Q: Why was removal of the clitoris performed in the past?
A: Sadly, the procedure known as female genital mutilation (or female circumcision) is still practiced in some societies. The goal of removing or damaging the glans was – and unfortunately, still is – to make sex less pleasurable, in order to discourage the mutilation victim from cheating on a partner. The practice is thankfully illegal in most developed nations.