Let me introduce you to someone you should have met a long time ago:
This is your clitoris. It’s about 100mm long. Its tip has whopping 8,000 nerve endings; twice as many as the penis. Around 95% of this structure sits inside your body. And most of us have no idea that this epicenter of arousal exists, let alone how it works. We’ll fix that in a moment.
The most outrageous aspect of this topic is not the anatomy; most of us intuitively know that the female sexual response extends far beyond the external genitalia. But how is it possible that in 2014, with all of the world’s advanced technology at our fingertips, we still have myths about female sexuality? Sexual self-awareness is integral to wellbeing, autonomy, relationships and physical and emotional health. From STDs or sexual abuse prevention – through to contraception and cancer awareness; we cannot protect, cherish or fully enjoy something if we do not know it exists.
And it is not just the clitoris. Science and sexology is in two minds on the g-spot, a-spot, c-spot, anatomical measurements that might predetermine vaginal orgasm, female ejaculation/emissions/squirting – and the list goes on.
So I don’t have this topic covered at all. No one does, really. And I don’t want to add to the confusion, so I’m going to outline the aspects of our anatomy that medical science seems to be able to agree on. Because, quite frankly, women deserve to know that their genitals are pretty bloody amazing.
The clitoris consists of three erectile tissue parts. The external clitoris is called the ‘glans’. It’s 3.5mm long on average, but its size has no bearing on its function.The internal clitoral tissues consist of a ‘body’ and ‘wings’. The clitoral ‘body’ is called the corpora cavernosum; made up of a pair of spongy erectile tissue structures that, when erect, wrap around and squeeze the sides of a vagina (like a hug). They branch down into two ‘wings’ known as the crura, creating a wishbone-looking structure.
When stimulated, the crura fill with blood and move from pointing down towards the hips, to stretching straight back, towards the spine. During erection, the muscles that surround these wings (the ischiocavernosus and bulbocavernosus) produce continuous involuntary contractions, which radiate as far as the uterus, anus and vagina.
On either side of the vaginal opening (beneath the labia majora) are the clitoral vestibules – also known as the vestibular bulbs. They become engorged with blood, putting pressure on the vaginal entrance,increasing tightness and pushing the vulva outwards. This helps to trap blood, causing the clitoral erection. Orgasmic spasms release the blood back into the circulatory system.
But there’s more. The clitoris gets larger with age. At age 32, it’s four times bigger than it was during our teen years, which might explain why some women experience their ‘sexual peak’ after the age of 30.
In reality, female clitoral erectile tissue is 10 times more extensive in our bodies than we’ve been lead to think. Yet the structures that form our erotic hub are still routinely described in medical textbooks as just ‘external’ genitalia.
So does a lack of information in this area actually impact women’s sexual identity and enjoyment?
Clinical psychologist and sex therapist Christine Bagley-Jones believes it does. She also believes the disparity between male and female genital awareness forms a barrier to sexual equality.
“Relative to the massive body of literature, research and pharmaceutical funding that goes into understanding and treating male sexual dysfunction, there’s an obvious disinterest in identifying, demystifying and explaining the female internal and external genitalia. This has a significant impact on the way we understand and treat women’s sexual arousal disorders,” Ms Bagley-Jones says.
“Science and sexology’s treatment of female erogenous anatomy is indicative of wider social apathy – and archaic taboos. When you talk to women about sex, you realise how many live without sexual fulfillment. There’s a significant, silent percentage out there who have never orgasmed with a partner.”
Ms Bagley-Jones has been treating women suffering from vaginismus and other sexual disorders for 15 years. She says it is easily treated, but requires a woman to understand her anatomy.
“Research shows a correlation between female masturbation, self esteem and confidence; so the first step in therapy is to understand how a woman’s body responds to sexual stimulation,” she says.
“It’s ridiculous that the jury is still out on so many aspects of female sexual function. With new imaging technology redefining the structure, we need women to contribute to the conversation about how the clitoris is to be re-described.”
It wasn’t until 1998 that the complete anatomy of the clitoris was visualised for the first time, by Australian urologist Helen O’Connell using a MRI machine. Despite the fact that more than half the world’s population has this previously-undescribed organ, 16 years later, its existence is still not common knowledge.
More recently, French researchers Odile Buisson and Pierre Foldès created the first complete 3-D sonogram of the stimulated clitoris, which can be viewed below. We are slowly making inroads.
Most women can orgasm easily. But most cannot climax from penetration alone. In 1905 Freud proposed that the vaginal orgasm was the ultimate sign of female sexual maturity; feeding the patriarchal belief that men should be in control of the female orgasm through penetrative sex and reinforcing the reproductive imperative of intercourse, which renders the external clitoris redundant.
Cultural norms – and in modern times, pornography – have turned this misguided belief into a beast for many women. All the while, millions of women have been lying there, mentally berating themselves for not being solely satisfied by the penis earnestly banging away between their legs. Nothing kills female arousal as effectively as making women feel inadequate, unnatural or frigid. The vaginal ‘orgasm maturity’ myth has been a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Italian sexologist Dr Vincenzo Puppo is on a mission to bust these and other damaging myths about the female body. His research (here) argues that the natural locus of female pleasure lies in the clitoris and that “female sexual dysfunctions are popular because they are based on something that doesn’t exist, i.e. the vaginal orgasm”.
He says that women who claim to orgasm through vaginal penetration alone, are actually achieving climax through the stimulation of their internal erectile tissues (otherwise known as the ‘internal clitoris’).
Shere Hite’s research in the 1970’s showed that 70% of women who could not orgasm during intercourse were able to do so through masturbation. So it seems strange that over 40 years later, magazines are still devoting front covers to Freudian misnomers while sex ed and medical textbooks continue to neglect true anatomy.
Personal fulfillment aside, does this play a role in terms of gender equality? In parts of the world, female genital mutilation is still commonplace. Labioplasty rates are skyrocketing while cosmetic filler gels are injected into the vagina to provide ‘G-Spot enhancement’. ‘Cunt’ has been misappropriated as the most derogatory word in the English language. And most young boys will be introduced to female sexuality via online content that depicts women being denigrated, objectified or abused.
And all the while, most females don’t even know what their own sex organ actually looks like. These are all links in a chain that strangles our efforts for equality in general.
Arousal is intuitive for most women. In the absence of a prominent external organ that makes itself obvious – to reassure us that we are indeed ‘hard’ and ready to go – most women experience a vague, internal understanding of their sexual response; a swelling, fullness, contractions, pulsing, heat, lubrication, tugging, tingling, sensitivity. But wouldn’t it be good if everyone truly knew the tissues and systems involved?
And there’s a lot to be celebrated. When it comes to sexual function, females get the better end of the stick (given up trying to rephrase that one). Women have an almost unlimited climatic potential. Multiple orgasms. Orgasms that can last minutes. The only human organ that exists solely for pleasure. And it’s twice as sensitive as the penis. Premature climax isn’t a problem for women because they don’t have a refractory period, and contrary to popular thought, the majority of women studied by the Kinsey took a similar amount of time to orgasm as men.
So why are men constantly described as being ‘wired for sex’? If we truly understood female anatomy, perhaps we’d say that men are equipped for reproductive sex, and women are in fact more wired for pleasure-seeking sex. As Natalie Angier says in Woman: An Intimate Geography, women “never bought Freud’s idea of penis envy: who would want a shotgun when you can have a semiautomatic?” (for an accurate and beautiful description, flick to page 64 of her book here.
A 2012 exhibition by artist Sophie Wallace explored the contradiction between the overt sexualisation of females in the mass media, and the fact that most people are illiterate when it comes to understanding actual female sexuality. The exhibition asserted that porn perpetuates the belief that authentic female enjoyment is not an important aspect of sexual interaction. It’s part of a wider paradox that sees us simultaneously sexualise the female body at every turn, while lacking a true understanding of female sexuality itself.
Through art, the exhibition depicted the basic structure of the female clitoris as most people had never seen it. Wallace coined the word ‘cliteracy’ to urge an awareness of female genital anatomy.
While her artwork oversimplified the anatomy, it filled public spaces and attracted the attention of mainstream press, providing a rare insight into genuine female sexuality. Amongst other questions she raised, Wallace queried whether gynecology and urology surgeons trained to avoid cutting our internal clitoral structures during abdominal or pelvic floor surgery, as they do for men wherever possible. In writing this piece I spoke to two obstetrician gynecologists who declined to go on the record. They said medical science displays a disinterest in female genital anatomy that profoundly impacts on women’s sexual health.
One specialist told of discovering undiagnosed tumors in patients that were so advanced, the clitoris had been buried by cancer – but because the women were unaware of their anatomy, they hadn’t even noticed their bodies were being devoured by disease. Another doctor expressed concerns over the “huge” percentage of women who lack an accurate understanding of their genital anatomy, while others, who are perfectly normal, want to look “infantile” in order to meet social expectations.
In 2002, Australian gynecologist Graeme Reeves unnecessarily removed a 58 year old woman’s clitoris without her consent during a surgical procedure. The doctor – who was impotent – justified his actions by explaining that the patient’s husband was dead, so it didn’t matter if she had no clitoris. He was jailed in 2011 but released two years later in an appeal to the High Court, who found his three-year sentence was an excessive punishment for his crime.
It’s not good enough.
So what can we do about this?
- Educate ourselves. Read about our anatomy.
- When you are sexually aroused, consciously envision all those wonderful components in your body, working away. Bagley-Jones says you’ll be surprised by the sensations you can suddenly appreciate from a different perspective.
- If you don’t have a satisfying sexual relationship with yourself or your partner, get help from a professional that knows what they’re talking about.
- When you explain the female anatomy to your children, don’t overlook these structures. Male or female, they’re an important cog in a wheel that will be integral to their self-esteem and relationships in the future.
- Talk to other women. You’ll be surprised how few of them understand what’s going on in their bodies; and how few of them feel comfortable talking about it. It’s up to us to spread the news; science, medicine and the media aren’t going to do it for us.
When we look at how female sexual function is set up in our bodies, it gives us yet another reason to celebrate the incredible creatures we are. But we still have a long way to go. The next sexual revolution we need to have, is with our own bodies.
Interested in learning more? Here’s some fascinating reading: try The Clitoral Truth by Rebecca Chalker, or Dr Vincenzo Puppo’s research. And if you get a chance, watch the documentary G Spotting: A Story Of Pleasure And Promise.
Liz is a journalist, writer, stylist and owns a Brisbane based PR firm. She has four daughters, a menagerie and a cherished collection of power tools. www.lizsharp.com.au
How many women do you know who are actually educated about this? Do you agree there’s a big problem with the clitoris undervalued and under acknowledged in our society?