The Clitoris

So, since I’ve mentioned the clitoris in the several past entries, let’s talk about it a little more. The clitoris is oftentimes the most misunderstood part of women’s genitalia. Men seem to know little about it, and many women don’t know much more about it than men. What is it? What does it do?

The etymology of the word clitoris is uncertain, but may have derived from the Greek kleitoris, meaning “little hill.” The clitoris, sometimes abbreviated as “clit,” is the homologous structure of the penis found in males. (Though, to be more biologically accurate, the penis is the homologous structure to the clitoris in females.) Normally, all female mammals have a clitoris, the spotted hyena possibly have the most interesting clitoris. Not only does the spotted hyena urinate through its clitoris, unlike all other mammals, but it also gives birth through its clitoris.

In humans, the clitoris is usually a small, “button-like” projection in the genitalia that is nestled in the anterior of the labia. Only the tip of the clitoris is visible and the interior shaft can reach up to five inches in depth. Like a penis, a clitoris becomes stiff and swollen when aroused. However, because the urethra is separate from the clitoris and sexual intercourse and childbirth occur through the vagina, the clitoris seems to only function for sexual pleasure. The clitoris has thousands of nerve endings, much more densely clustered than those in the penis.

Masters and Johnson argued in 1966 that clitoral orgasm is the only type of orgasm [169].   After examining vaginas closely, they found that the tissue of the vagina itself was incapable of producing an orgasm. While on the surface, this argument is very easily rebuked, Masters and Johnson had a more complex argument. They argued that clitoral tissues extends throughout the vulva and vagina, thus what is felt to be vaginal stimulation is simply an extended form of clitoral stimulation.  Of course, many people have criticized this argument as it clearly does not address how orgasms can be achieved through stimulation of distant body parts such as the breast.

The clitoris has often been a target of misogynistic fear, as evidenced by some of the motives in female genital modification and mutilation.  Amnesty International estimates there are 6,000 incidences of female genital mutilation every day.  Of course, misogyny is not the only reason for this practice but it is a driving force.  The clitoris is a symbol of evil to various cultures whose beliefs range from babies dying if they come in contact with a clitoris during childbirth to a woman’s sexuality being untamable if she has an intact clitoris.  As it is important in these cultures to ensure the children a man’s wife bears are indeed his children, a clitoridectomy (and other forms of mutilation) is seen as a way of ensuring a woman will remain faithful to her husband.

Of course, there is much more that could be said about the clitoris in general and clitorises in particular, but this is just meant to be a beginning basis of discussion of the clitoris.  So, any question or comments?  I’d love to hear from you!

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3 thoughts on “The Clitoris

  1. Pingback: 2010 in review « Finding Eve: A Young Woman’s Guide to Gynecology and Obstetrics

  2. This should be taught in school. Imagine how much happier women would be if they were being taken care sexually — the way they should be.

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