In the 1980s, Dr Helen O’Connell was a medical student. She read Last’s Anatomy – a medical textbook – and what she found made her angry. Or rather, what she didn’t find. In the anatomical drawing of the vulva, the clitoris WAS MISSING.
It gets worse (doesn’t seem possible but read on).
This wasn’t just a problem in Last’s Anatomy. In lots of medical textbooks Dr O’Connell was finding that the male sex organs would be described in full, but female sex organs would be described without clarity, without depth and with a big dollop of sexism.
For example, the clitoris would be referred to as ‘a little penis’, suggesting it was but a poor imitation of the male anatomy. An understanding of how the clitoris worked and what it was for was missing.
In contrast, the penis would be described in detail, including nerves that related to sensation and pleasure.
Dr O’Connell describes this immense silence in medical textbooks and research as a kind of ‘intellectual clitoridectomy’. If you don’t name it, you don’t attend to it – it doesn’t exist.
Well, Dr O’Connell was 100% certain that it did exist. And she wasn’t going to listen to the messages from the medical establishment about the importance of the clit. It wasn’t simply a ‘little penis’. She had an idea that there was more to the clit than met the eye.
And thank goodness she went with her gut on this one.
In 1990 Dr O’Connell embarked on research that would finally give the world a picture of just how incredible the clit really is.
O’Connell did dissections on donor cadavers and mapped the nerves that went from the spine to the clitoris. Through this mapping she found that there was an immense number of nerves going to what was, at that time, thought to be a very small organ. There had to be more going on here.
So she did a second study and discovered the shape of the clitoris.
And what does it look like?
A lot of us are aware of the small, pea shaped ‘head’ of the clitoris that sits underneath the clitoral hood. Its official name is the glans. But there’s a lot more going on under the surface.
Dr O’Connell found erectile tissues stretching down either side of the wall of the vagina – these are the crura (plural) or crus (singular). She also found that there are two bulbs that sit beneath the labia (the vestibular bulbs). The bulbs and the crura are made of erectile tissue and when sexually aroused, they fill with blood and get bigger.
This is why penetrative sex can feel good and why rubbing and touching the glans and the vulva can feel good when having sex! It also explains why you might notice that the colour of your vulva changes (increased blood flow into those erectile tissues).
So, what do you need to know about the clitoris? There’s so much to learn that you may want to do your own research, but here’s a hot take for you:
Your clitoris is as individual as your face.
You know how everyone’s nose is a bit different? Well, clitorises are all different too. They’ve got the same basic, recognisable shape, but how the crura wrap around the vaginal wall, how close the vestibular bulbs are to the labia, indeed how big the hood around the glans of the clit is – all these things are unique to a person, so it makes sense that different things will feel pleasurable.
I know we’re always banging on about diversity at Women’s Health Tasmania but it is important to say that our vaginas and clitorises are all different. We’re bombarded with misinformation from porn about how orgasms and sexual pleasure work for women. The best thing you can ever do for yourself is learn about your own vulva, your own vagina and what feels good to you!
There’s literally so much to know about the clitoris. And now there’s a movement among women to make the world CLITERATE: literate about the clitoris!
If you want to become more cliterate – a place to start might be the Clitoris Summit which brings together scientists, doctors, health consumers, activists and artists to share research and reflections on the clitoris in medicine, science and culture. They have a range of presentations all about the clitoris that you can watch online: www.clitoris.io