Very recent scientific studies have taken the clitoris away from the haze of indifference that impeded its visibility and understanding. With no apparent function other than pleasure, it traditionally didn’t have the scientific relevance of the penis. According to the author of this text this cultural phenomenon projects social practices that are profoundly rooted in our own representation of the human body.
As everyone knows, people draw penises on walls or toilets. Erect, with a clearly exposed glans, testicles and sometimes pubes where they should be and a squirt of semen. I don’t know the psychological or sociological reasons that make people draw penises (the only big mistake in precision is that they aren’t normally to scale: often on the generous side), but it does say something about our culture: we know what a penis is like, we can draw it and recognize it, without any academic formation.
The penis is general culture.
On the other hand, people don’t draw clitorises and other parts of the female genital apparatus. People don’t talk about them either: a conversation about female genitals is full of questions on how to improve orgasms, if you can reach it through penetration or only by external stimulation of the clitoris, if the G-point exists and where. A drawing of feminine genitals, be it by those who draw penises on walls or others, would have more question marks than anything else.
The clitoris -and what goes with it- is still a mystery.
I’m not saying that people who draw penises but can’t locate the clitoris are ignorant. If they are, they aren’t more so than science was until recently – until last century, and not even at the start of it, but in the year 1998, when the urologist Helen O’Connell published a study that changed part of the world, the one that cared. Let’s start with a captatio benevolentiae, a rhetoric resource that (generally through false modesty) allows for orators to obtain the receptor’s good disposition. The difference is that the orators generally4 knew what they were talking about, and their humility and affirmations of insufficiency didn’t become a resource of style. This isn’t my case. I’m not a scientist, neither do I specialize in the analysis of the history of science, so my approach towards the subject is rather from the perspective of popular culture and the science of divulgation.
Perhaps the fact that I have a clitoris and I don’t feel like I have the right to talk about it, already says a lot about the difficulties of the subject. Maybe being so close to the clitoris, and nevertheless, in the midst of the 21st Century, at 40 years of age, not knowing much about it, (looking at illustrations and magnetic resonances I puzzle over whether it’s upside down or not) is symptomatic of a silence and an ignorance that I share with a part of the population that is bigger than I imagine.
Perhaps I’m someone who could draw a penis with my eyes closed, but can’t find the clitoris. And maybe it’s not my fault.
“Perhaps the fact that I have a clitoris and I don’t feel like I have the right to talk about it, already says a lot about the difficulties of the subject. Maybe being so close to the clitoris, and nevertheless, in the midst of the 21st Century, at 40 years of age, not knowing much about it, is symptomatic of a silence and an ignorance that I share with a part of the population that is bigger than I imagine.”
All I can say for sure is that I’m not alone in my disorientation. It can be said with certainty that the existence of the clitoris has been known with precision at least since the 16th Century: even before, but the lack of consistent taxonomy to designate it and the confusion among those that declared to be the first to discover it, along with the fact that relevant anatomists (Galeno, Vesaluis) denied its existence, complicated things. In the 16th Century, two anatomists, Colombo and Fallopio (of the tubes) separately reclaimed their discovery. And around the 19th Century Georg Kobelt illustrated it with clarity and beauty, according to O’Connell herself, that considered that her own work of dissection and magnetic resonances had proved, and improved, these illustrations.
O’Connell also carried out the task of establishing the nerve endings and the continuity of the parts and dimensions of the clitoris that Kobelt didn’t undertake.
Neither a button nor small
The story of the clitoris goes back and forth between silencing and exposure -paradoxically, in some cases, simultaneously. In the first half of the 20th Century, Gray’s Anatomy -one of the books of anatomy par excellence, used for the formation of medics- simply excluded the clitoris (in spite of having included it previously: this change, whose reasons are ignored, was the work of one medic, Doctor Charles Goss). The 1985 edition of Last’s Anatomy (that O’Connell found herself obliged to use for her exam to qualify as a surgeon) undermined the importance of the clitoris (ignoring it almost without mention) and didn’t include images of it -while he dedicated two pages to the penis. In fact, Last’s Anatomy was one of the elements that motivated O’Connell’s research. It defined some elements of the female genitals as a “failure” of the formation of male genitalia. Let’s remember that this wasn’t in the Victorian times but in 1985.
“Last’s Anatomy defined some elements of female genitals as a “failure” of the formation of male genitalia. Let’s remember that this wasn’t in the Victorian times but in 1985.”
Motivated by this book -by what it lacked- Helen O’Connell studied female corpses and came to the conclusion that the structure of the clitoris was not limited, as it was previously thought, to a little “button”, or (as the definition in the RAE in 2019), a “small, fleshy erectile organ protruding from the front of the vulva”. Melissa Fyfe explains that according to a study undertaken in 1998 by O’Connell and her team (later confirmed in 2005 by electromagnetic resonances), that what protrudes is the gland (which is in fact small, and what we’re used to calling clitoris), but the is clitoris actually under the public bone, curving (this part is around 4 centimetres long) and then it divides into two “legs” 9 centimetres long, and bulbs of around 7 centimetres. All these parts are made of spongey tissue and have erections just like the penis. We know that the clitoris has erections. But we didn’t know that it’s far from being small, or that it has a complex system of nerve endings that are double those of the penis, or -as O’Connell states- that the medical concern to maintain these nerve endings in a hysterectomy surgery is light years from the care taken to respect those of the penis.
This discovery -that the clitoris is more powerful than we knew- in Melissa Fyfe’s words, managed to “rewrite modern science concerning this”. Consequently, the discovery also rewrote art: artist Sophia Wallace created the project Cliteracy (a play between «clitoris» and «literacy») that enunciates -puts into perspective- the absurdity of this abandonment and tries to repair it by providing information about the subject in the form of brief comments on sexuality in general, pleasure and the silencing of female pleasure by a patriarchal and misogynous science, and also refers to O’Connell’s research. As well as this she has made what is considered to be the first anatomically correct sculptural representation of the clitoris:
The question, of course, is why the wait: why the erasing and absence of the clitoris in medical books and research, especially considering the promising Kinsey Reports, that -in spite of having various problems- at least express an interest in the pleasure of both men and women in the 1950s. Kobelt’s illustration was going in the right direction concerning female pleasure. For PhD Alicia Bonaparte, professor of Sociology in Pitzer College, these erasures happen because of a “concern for social and moral hygiene… There is a fear of the clitoris because it’s truly a centre of pleasure”. PhD Mark Blechner attributes it to the gender of the anatomists: “It’s hard to imagine that if a woman had been in charge of those anatomy books she would have left out the clitoris”. He also quotes the myth of Tiresias and the declaration that women feel more pleasure than men (Tiresias would know this, having been both man and woman). In this way, Blechner affirms, men envy women’s capacity to experience pleasure, and that is behind the official erasing of this pleasure: erasing the clitoris from books or defining it in phallocentric terms.
“The clitoris is an organ that, as far as we know, is exclusively for pleasure (compared to the penis that has other functions as well). It is an organ that doesn’t play a “productive” role: it isn’t reproductive, it isn’t urinary, it doesn’t play a vital role in the physical or social body. In this way compared to the penis, the clitoris is biologically useless.”
From this perspective the clitoris is threatening to patriarchy, it isn’t trusted because it constitutes a source of pleasure. Pleasure is not discussed: the clitoris is an organ that, as far as we know, only serves the function of pleasure (compared to the penis that has other functions as well). It is an organ that doesn’t play a “productive” role: it isn’t reproductive, it isn’t urinary, it doesn’t play a vital role in the physical or social body -and because of this it isn’t essential when it comes to studying it, or finding out about it and seeing how it works. In this way compared to the penis, the clitoris is biologically useless.
This is perhaps the other reason for its erasure and abandonment. It’s not that it’s a female organ exclusively dedicated to pleasure and as such has generated mistrust, fear and/or indifference in male researchers (which is nevertheless probably true and wouldn’t be such a new thing in the history of sexuality). It is also, as pleasure itself, useless in a society of production, where importance is given to what is provably relevant for the functioning of the world, for the maintenance of the status quo and for its commercialization. Pleasure that isn’t associated with (re)production or with commodification doesn’t have a place in this world. The masculine organ is necessary for building and maintaining the civilization; the female organ is not.
We live in a utilitarian society that seeps into even these intimacies, masculine and feminine. Medicine maintains the utilitarian pattern that permeates into almost all social activities. Feminine pleasure, not being reproductive, is not essential. In general, the phenomena of health related to quality of life (not serious dermatological problems, illnesses that aren’t life or death, for example), are investigated less. The attitude towards researching the body and health, have to do with treating illnesses, not with wellbeing- not with living well. Finally, not with health itself. Science’s abandonment of the clitoris is a symptom: it has to do with the undermining of female sexuality, but also with indifference towards happiness: health conceived poorly as the absence of serious problems.
Masculine masturbation: source of humour
The abandonment of the clitoris as an object of study compromises men too. Virginie Despentes writes in King Kong Theory that for men -surprisingly- patriarchy isn’t easy either, and she lists some of these difficulties: “Being anxious about the size of penis. Knowing how to please women sexually without her telling you how. (…) Not having any sexual culture to improve orgasms”. When I read this for the first time it made me think. Sure. What I’ve seen in those (old) magazines in the hairdressers or in the doctor’s waiting room talk a lot about the ways in which women can have better orgasms (well, people with a clitoris). I haven’t seen on the other hand, the same for men. Proving Despentes right, a google search on «how to improve orgasms» took me to nine pages for the female orgasm (of relative reliability: they advise you to exercise more and, my favourite, to drink milk with saffron) while only one page was concerned with the male orgasm. So, women should have better orgasms (and if they don’t it’s their fault for not following advice) and men don’t need to improve them. Everyone loses.
In this way, we live in relative abandonment of the organs that produce pleasure. The lack of studies on the clitoris shows us an ideological bias that exists in many realms of the studies of female sexuality. But the bias against one gender rarely only affects that gender. Upholding the ignorance on the clitoris is the same as maintaining ignorance on how to interact with it, and that also affects men who live with the pressure of feeling that they should give women pleasure without knowing how -perhaps they don’t even know that they can also improve their own pleasure.
So, back to O’Connell’s study and the work of Wallace. In 1998 and 2012 in science and art, we were given information about the clitoris that wasn’t available before. We have the science; we have the artistic representation. But both qualify as high culture: they aren’t relevant for the everyday life of women and men not in some way involved in general culture -which gives us the ability to draw a penis and not a clitoris-. How can this happen?
I think about our utilitarian society. If we can manage to sell something related, we can rest on the fact that all we know about the clitoris will be public. Hollywood represents the reflection of our imaginary, where male masturbation is a frequent source of humour (when something becomes the source of a joke it means it’s so recognizable as a reference that it can be a parody). Female masturbation on the other hand is not typical in movies or series (apart from pornography where it’s presented as something prior to an epic penetration, an unrealistic fetish in terms of the importance of the clitoris). I think it’s not only about female pleasure itself being a threat, but that it doesn’t sell unless it’s combined with other forms of pleasure -and that it no longer effectively exists in itself by itself.
Therefore, I think that the solution is not ideal -it implies turning the clitoris as it is into an exchangeable good: replacing a clitoris that we hardly know for one that we imagine. As well as not being ideal for being utilitarian, it’s an idea that would take us back to where we are now. As I stated above, it’s an idea that occurs in pornography, without needing a change in paradigm: commodification capitalizes the female orgasm in such an unreal way that it doesn’t help in this way (perhaps it does in other ways, but that’s something else). And I finally turn to a subject I haven’t discussed: what about transsexuals? What happens to a trans man with a clitoris, with tans women too? Where are the works of art that value their ability to feel pleasure? Where is there a better formation for doctors that treat them, more research on the effects of hormones and surgeries, on their anatomy and the one they want to have? What is their space? How can we open a space for minorities when half of the people on the planet had to wait until 1998 to have access to knowledge of their organ of pleasure?
 Despentes, V. (2018). Teoría King Kong. Literatura Random House.