Until recently, researchers overlooked the clitoris as unimportant, embarrassing at best, or simply nonexistent. In early modern Europe, it was called “a new and useless part,” according to a study in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. In 1545, a French physician named it membre honteux, which translates to “the shameful member” and argued that its only function was for urination, according to Scientific American. The fact that he recognized its existence at all was anomalous.
It wasn’t until 1998 when urologist Helen O’Connell first published a groundbreaking and complete anatomical study of the clitoris. Even then, the stated purpose of the study was to compare female anatomy and “whether it was comparable to male anatomy.” It isn't.
O’Connell found that existing descriptions of female genital anatomy, to use the researchers’ language, were inaccurate. Instead, the clitoris is much more than a small nub. It’s a complex structure of erectile tissue that extends from the visible clitoral shaft (what you probably think about when you think about the clit) into bulbs that reach down to the vaginal opening and swell during arousal. As Calla Wahlquist describes in the Guardian, “It looked like an otherworldly shape...It looked like an orchid. It was beautiful.”
Even so, today the clitoris still doesn’t get a lot of coverage in research. According to Caroline De Costa, an obstetrics and gynecology professor at James Cook University in Australia and the editor of ANZJOG, speaking to the Guardian, “It is not discussed. I go to conferences, I go to workshops, I edit the journal, I read other journals. I read papers all the time, and never do I find mention of the clitoris.”
The same biases, fears, and misunderstandings that prevent the clitoris from featuring in scientific publications are also part of what keeps it from featuring in discussions of sexual pleasure. The clitoris has 8,000 nerve endings, or two to three times as many as the penis. Yet as Wahlquist argues, it doesn’t receive the corresponding attention either publicly or medically.
What does this lack of knowledge mean for women and pleasure?
The persistent lack of knowledge and interest in female pleasure has meant it has become secondary to the male orgasm. We see this today with what is termed the Pleasure Gap (you can visit our article here to find out more).
When something like the clitoris is excluded at a scientific level, it’s also often excluded on an individual level. As Rachel E. Gross writes in Scientific American, “This arrangement has implications in the bedroom, in the classroom and on the operating table.” This has partly led to what’s called the pleasure gap, or the difference in orgasms between cis women and cis men in heterosexual relationships.
Focusing on orgasms isn’t even the whole story. According to Katherine Rowland, author of The Pleasure Gap, thinking of the pleasure gap like orgasms = pleasure hides how other disconnects, like between brain and body, actions and feelings, and orgasms and real pleasure, are also part of the picture.
“Looking at orgasm as the ultimate barometer of women’s satisfaction ignores the larger universe in which sexuality takes place — which is what allows women to derive pleasure and meaning from their encounters. It also dismisses the critical aspect of desire — the delight of wanting and of being wanted,” Rowland tells Oprah Daily.
Many people believe that people with vaginas can orgasm from penetrative vaginal sex, rather than clitoral stimulation, and that such orgasms are where sexual pleasure begins and ends. The clitoris, which is the only organ dedicated exclusively to sexual pleasure, deserves a whole lot more attention.“Ignoring the clitoris and acting like that’s not the focus for orgasm is just not going to happen,” O’Connell says.
Once you’ve taken a look at the full clitoris, it’s time to use that knowledge during self-pleasure or sex with your partner. Download the Lover app and take a look at all the ways you engage with your and your partners’ pleasure.