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You’ve got Nerve:  An abbreviated discussion of the clitoris aka “Clit-story”

February 26, 2021

By Catherine Chavaree (she, her, hers), Office Assistant and Community Organizer, Mabel Wadsworth Center 

“Clitoris”- a word that might provoke discomfort from some and giggles from others, admittedly me included, until recently. Not to say I’ve become desensitized to one of the most sensitive anatomical structures to exist (a clitoris contains approximately 8,000 nerve endings), but working in reproductive healthcare certainly shifts one’s perspective on the human body. Normalizing human sexuality, and dismantling the shame and confusion surrounding it, is central to the mission at Mabel Wadsworth Center, something I’m increasingly appreciative of.  The origin of the word clitoris is thought to be derived from the Greek “kleitoris”, roughly translating to “little hill”. This makes some sense, given what humanity has been able to visualize of the clitoris for almost all of recorded history. According to Merriam Webster, the clitoris is “a female erogenous organ that consists of an externally visible, highly innervated small conical structure or glans that lies at the anterior junction of the labia minora above the urethral opening and is continuous internally with a short body of paired cylinders of vascular, erectile tissue which branch into curved extensions or crura attaching to the undersurface of the pubic bones and with two elongated masses of erectile tissue situated near each side of the vaginal and urethral openings”. I realize that there is a lot of anatomical jargon to dissect in that last sentence. Speaking of dissection, the clitoris was reportedly first dissected in 1545 by a French physician, who dubbed it “membre honteux” or “the shameful member”. The online dictionary also notes that “the clitoris develops from the same embryonic mass of tissue as the penis”. Male sexuality is often at the forefront of discussions about human sexuality, and even the act of sex is often portrayed in media (film and pornography alike) as concluding with a male’s orgasm. Because clitorises are a source of orgasm for many people, it is easy for embarrassment to take over when discussing this structure. I also wonder if our lack of familiarity and discomfort with female sexuality is responsible for jokes regarding the “difficulty” of achieving a clitoral orgasm. Additionally, not everyone who possesses a clitoris is a woman and not everyone who has a penis is a man; we know that gender identity is entirely distinct from one’s genitals. It’s important to note here that this binary view of sex organs fails to acknowledge intersex individuals, and that human genitalia actually exists on a spectrum. While this is a topic that merits its own entire blog post, it would be myopic to ignore that the size of the external clitoris is intrinsically connected with the experience of many intersex individuals who received an arbitrary assignment of gender at birth. I really enjoy this graphic of the Prader scale, as it can help concisely conceptualize this for people who may have never considered this before: 

(image source)

 

Seemingly, the clitoris is a structure that has remained shrouded in mystery. Even its pronunciation is ambiguous; I’ve heard it pronounced with emphasis on the second syllable, “kli-TOR-iss” and more recently, I’m told the correct pronunciation sounds like “klit-uh-riss”, giving equal weight to all three syllables. 

The human clitoris is typically visualized as a small circular structure that sits in the center of the vulva, above the vaginal opening and atop the urethra. However, this is only the externally visible portion, which varies in size across individuals, and the remaining 90% of the structure is actually internal! Urologist Helen O’Connell is largely responsible for our current knowledge of the clitoris. Prior to 1998, when she took the lead on a comprehensive anatomical study of the clitoris, anatomy textbooks only showed the external portion of the clitoris. Then it wasn’t until 2005 (yes, only since 2005) that MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) allowed O’Connell and her research team to present a full scope of the clitoris. Not simply a nub, but a much more intricate structure, I kept encountering iceberg analogies in my research (“the majority of it is ‘beneath the surface’”). The clitoris was likened to a “wishbone” in one of the articles that follows, a visual I can actually get down with. Even still, it was not until 2009, well within our recent collective memories, that the clitoris was shown in its stimulated state using 3D sonography. Here is the clitoris in its fully visualized glory:

(image source)

And here we have a 3D print of the clitoris, imperative for true anatomical understanding, surely to be a vital learning tool for years to come. For scale, this approximates 10 cm in length!

(image source)

It certainly has come a long way from the “shameful member” days (460 years later), but shame and dismissiveness undoubtedly hindered progress to the clitoris and did it a disservice. The more open we can be about something as intimately connected to us as our clitorises, the better equipped we will be on a journey of bodily autonomy, pleasure, and self-acceptance. 

Want to learn more about this amazing body part? Here is what I found helpful in writing this piece, but couldn’t fit all of it here: