It seems remarkable to me that well into the twenty-first century we still have so much to learn about many parts of the human body.
Organs we’re all very familiar with – ones we take for granted – still have the power to surprise, in terms of new discoveries about their structure, function or evolution.
Top of the list of the most misunderstood of organs must surely be the clitoris? A structure whose function seems to be entirely about providing sexual pleasure to its bearer.
Incredibly, the structure of the clitoris was hotly debated by anatomists until just a decade ago when it was found that the organ was a lot more complicated than had been thought.
The text books had to be thrown out the window because this organ – really an anatomical constellation – actually comprises the opening to the vagina and the front part of the urethra, as well as the organ formally known as the ‘clitoris’.
French researchers have recently made a 3D printed model of the clitoris that’s going to be used in schools to help educate children about sex. This has prompted some in the media to proclaim that it heralds the start of a new sexual revolution.
The 3D print of the clitoris is a thing of beauty. At first glance, it reminded me of a ‘my little pony’ toy my daughter once owned.
As I looked for longer I saw a bright pink stick insect, then a penguin, and the reproductive organs of a beautiful orchid.
The model shows us just how complicated the clitoris really is, and how it’s woefully misleading to describe it as simply the female equivalent of a penis. It’s not.
Now, if we take a perspective centred entirely within the human experience, it may be right that the clitoris functions only to provide sexual pleasure. After all, research shows that stimulation of the clitoris is the main way women achieve orgasm.
But the complexity of it’s structure shows us that there must be a lot more to this organ than meets the eye. Is it an organ of pleasure for other animals as well?
It might come as a surprise to learn that not only is the clitoris found across the mammals, it’s also found in birds. Just within our own group of mammals – the primates – its size, shape and function vary enormously.
Compared to our cousins, it’s externally rather small, the head (glans) sitting within the lips (labia), and all of it hidden beneath a hood, until it is aroused.
Still, I suspect the human clitoris is a lot more sensitive to stimulation, especially given that we’ve still no idea if any other mammal enjoys female orgasm.
Now, contrast this with the spider (or squirrel) monkey of South America. Their clitoris dangles between the legs – all five centimetres of it – being longer even than the penis.