Understanding the Clitoris Historically

Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Remote Ready Biology Learning Activities

Remote Ready Biology Learning Activities has 50 remote-ready activities, which work for either your classroom or remote teaching.

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Biology 103
2005 First Paper
On Serendip

Understanding the Clitoris Historically

Norma A


Physiologically, the clitoris is crucial to female sexual pleasure; culturally, narratives about the organ's structure and function illuminate sexual mores, women's roles, and social agendas. Anatomical understandings of the clitoris have been shaped by social factors, but scientific stories about the organ and other aspects of women's sexuality have been invoked as social attitudes change. In this paper, I will trace the history of the clitoris in the West, including outlining our contemporary anatomical understanding of the organ. This description is including in the body of the paper to avoid privileging our contemporary understanding given this paper's historical approach, but at times I rely on the lens of modern anatomy. Increased accurate information about the clitoris in anatomy's terms has not necessarily corresponded to greater sexual liberty.

In ancient Greece and Renaissance Europe, mainstream society considered women as lesser or deformed men; contemporary understandings of female genitalia supported this conception. The ancient Greek physician Claudius Galen argued that women and men had differently located, but essentially equivalent genitalia. As the more perfect sex, men had sufficient body heat to allow genital protrusion, while weaker women's genitilia remained hidden from view. Galen's idea of equivalent anatomy persisted until the discovery of the clitoris in the seventieth century, when two Italian anatomists, Gabriel Fallopius and Renauldus Columbus, separately claimed to "discover" the organ. Apparently these men did not consider women's experiences of the clitoris sufficient; "discovery" meant men's scientific understanding. Eighteenth century Europe reconceived of gender as binary, and began to think of men and women as separate sexes as anatomists produced detailed depictions of women. These shifts in thought were not mobilized to empower women. Rather, they corresponded to an increasing social sentiment that women were weak, irrational and intellectually inferior. Even as society reconceived of gender and established the category of women, it still understood menstruation as an illness. Major Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean-Jacque Rousseau and Charles Montesquieu thought that women's hidden passion had the potential to disrupt social stability. Later, as most anatomists reconceived of the clitoris as part of women's reproductive or urinary systems, the concept of women's sexual pleasure faded (1).

Sigmund Freud saw the clitoris as a sexual organ, but believed that clitoral pleasure represented an immature stage of development. Freud believed that young girls equate the clitoris with the penis and engage in clitoral masturbation. When a girl realizes that she and her mother lack phalluses, she ceases clitoral masturbation out of embarrassment at her inferior equipment and turns away from her mother; sexual attraction shifts to the father (2). For a woman to achieve maturity, she must shift her sexual experiences to her vagina (3). Freud's understanding of the clitoris propels important aspects of his larger theory, including the Oedipal complex. His understanding of female sexuality normalized heterosexual intercourse. Rebecca Chalker and Anne Koedt argue that Freud set the stage for the following century's grounding of female sexuality in male preference, although the history outlined above suggests that this concept had far deeper roots ((1) and(4) ).

As 1960s and 1970s feminists articulated a new vision of female sexuality, they mobilized a new vision of the clitoris. Anne Koedt argues, in direct opposition to Freud, that the site of female orgasm is always the clitoris, even when women experience vaginal stimulation thus the clitoris should be the site of female sexuality. The longstanding myth of the vagina orgasm, Koedt argues, is rooted in patriarchal systems that confuse women about their bodies and subordinate female sexuality to male pleasure. In light of her new understanding of the clitoris' function, Koedt calls on her readers to rethink sexuality and normalize new practices that ensure all parties' pleasure ((4)). Influenced heavily by Koedt's essay "The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm," which was distributed at the 1968 Women's Liberation Conference, feminists centered their narratives designed to change sexual norms on the clitoris. Physiologically equating the clitoris with the penis as the site of sexual pleasure legitimized female sexuality; these women saw themselves as deconstructing traditional conceptions of female sexuality based on reproduction or male pleasure. Intertwined with this agenda for sexual change were attempts to enact political change by empowering women and changing their social roles ((5)).

Today, mainstream scientific sources describe the clitoris' sole purposes as sexual pleasure, and provide basic information on the clitoris' structure. Generally two to three centimeters long, ((6)) the human clitoris is composed of two corposa carnova, or sponge-like areas made of caterpilary tissues that contain numerous nerve ending. ((7)) Human sexual organs develop from a part of the fetus called the genital tubercle. If the fetus is male, the tubercle becomes the penis. In females, it initially grows into two separate corposa carnova, which combine into the clitoris as the fetus develops. The exterior and easily sexually stimulated portion of the clitoris is located above the vagina's opening. ((6)) With 8,000 nerve fibers, the organ is the most sensitive point on the human body, making it particularly well equipped for its sexual function. ((8)) This singular function distinguishes it from the penis, which also serves urinary and direct reproductive purposes ((3)).

This understanding, compiled from brief anatomical descriptions, provides scientists and laypeople with useful basic information. However, it also normalizes this version of genitalia at risk of alienating those born with different structures. Those who write such descriptions would do well to acknowledge variation. Additionally, Modern science does not always afford the clitoris adequate, or even accurate attention. A recent study suggests that many textbook descriptions lack detail or contain errors ((9)). I intended to give more attention to the clitoris from a biological perspective, but had trouble locating information about the clitoris in my library and internet research. More sources must exist, but my trouble locating information about issues such as the clitoris' role in physiological arousal is telling.

Feminists today continue to invoke the clitoris as a source of female sexual power today, sometimes including scientific or historical descriptions. In an important passage from her 1999 book "Women: An Intimate Geography," Natalie Angier's makes female sexuality powerful and mysterious through a portrait of the clitoris. Beginning with a personal anecdote, Angier argues that women do not engage with the issue of clitoris size; that they do not know what scales to think on, or what, if anything, size implies. She goes on to intertwine scientific description with poetic language, and portrays the clitoris a mysterious organ that defies medical efforts at complete understanding or control. For Angier, understanding the clitoris scientifically is important, but one must also realize and rejoice in its limitations. The clitoris' mystery and defiance are, she argues, empowering ((8)). Two other recent works cited above, Chalker's The Clitoral Truth and Segal's Straight Sex invoke anatomical and historical descriptions to reclaim the clitoris as a source of female sexual power.

If we take mainstream anatomy's current understanding of the structure and function of the clitoris as correct, there is no linear relationship between how accurately a society or writer understandings the clitoris and the sexual role it or she prescribes for women. More accurate information has not necessarily corresponded to greater sexual liberation. Most people in ancient Greece thought of women as deformed men, but that society acknowledged female sexual pleasure more than later Europeans who better understood female anatomy. For some feminists, the scientifically dubious claim that women cannot orgasm vaginally proved empowering. The contemporary lack of scientific attention to the clitoris may be indicative of attitudes towards women's sexuality, but attempts at social change must be coupled with other strategies besides increased research. Scientific understandings alone cannot create social change; indeed, scientific conceptions of the clitoris cannot be separated from social forces. Understandings of female anatomy are deeply embedded in cultural attitudes about women's sexuality; scientific stories are created and read under social influences.

1) Chalker, Rebecca. The Clitoral Truth: The Secret World at Your Fingertips. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2000.
2) an excerpt from Freud's Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis
3) an excerpt from The Oxford Companion to the Body on the clitoris in history
4) the text of the essay "The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm"
5 Segal, Lynne. "The Clitoral Truth" from Straight Sex: Rethink the Politics of Pleasure. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1994.
6) an Encyclopedia Britannica article on the clitoris
7) a Wikipedia article on the clitoris
8) an excerpt from Women: An Intimate Geography
9) the abstract of an article entitled "The Anatomy of the Clitoris" from the Journal of Urology


| Course Home | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:53:16 CDT