The clitoris is a female erogenous zone that makes up a part of the vulva, or external female genitalia. Located at the top of the vulva (closest to the navel of a woman) the clitoris contains more nerve endings than any other body part, male or female. The clitoris is made up of two parts. The external clitoris, or glans, is small, pearl shaped, and partially covered by the clitoral hood. Internally, the clitoris has crus on either side that extend back several inches in a wishbone shape. Similar to the penis, the glans and the crus of the clitoris become erect during arousal.
The clitoris contains thousands of nerve endings that can help women reach orgasm. However, this information was not always widely known. It can be difficult to understand how a body part that has always existed never received any attention, but the female body and the notion that women could seek sexual an idea that people always accepted. Even today, the notion remains controversial in many cultures.
Renaldus Columbus first described the clitoris in 1559. Anatomists before him had noted the structure but had been reluctant to publish their findings because of the cultural taboo surrounding female sexuality. The existence of the clitoris was not widely accepted and much debate surrounded its function.
The role of the clitoris in orgasm has long been disputed. In the early 1900s, Sigmund Freud claimed that clitoral orgasms were inferior to vaginal orgasms. He believed that the clitoris was a masculine structure, somewhat like a small penis, and that women should strive to have orgasms through vaginal stimulation. Freud believed that women achieved sexual maturity by switching the focus of their pleasure from the clitoris to the vagina.1 Critics of Freud believe that his theories are very male-centric. Commonly known as “penis-envy”, Freud’s theories suggested that women could become jealous, and in some cases, neurotic, from their envy of the male anatomy. This notion may be reflected in Freud’s analysis of the clitoris.
Later, both Kinsey in the 1950s and Masters and Johnson in the 1960s recognized the importance of the clitoris in helping females achieve sexual pleasure. They found the clitoris to be much more erotically sensitive than the vagina. The vagina has less nerve endings, which is why some women may find it harder to orgasm through vaginal stimulation alone. In 1953 on his study of female sexual behavior, Kinsey declared that the clitoris was the sole producer of sexual pleasure in females and that intercourse helped women achieve psychological satisfaction, but not physical release.2
Masters and Johnson supported Kinsey’s views. In their laboratory observations of the female sexual response, Masters declared, "All orgasm involves direct or indirect stimulation of the clitoris." Thus, if a woman had an orgasm from coitus, Masters and Johnson claimed that her clitoris was being stimulated inadvertently during intercourse, producing orgasm.2
During the 1960s and 1970s, the feminist movement gained momentum across the western world and many women felt empowered by the idea that orgasms were not solely reliant on penile/vaginal penetration. Many feminists believed that intercourse made women feel inferior to men and tried to popularize the idea that women were faking vaginal orgasms. This vendetta against the vaginal orgasm may have been due to their own inability to achieve sexual pleasure. They insisted that the clitoris should be the sole focus of sexual attention, not the vagina. The idea that orgasms could be reached by two women or through masturbation showed that a woman did not need a man to achieve sexual pleasure.
Today, people are far more educated than they used to be about the erotic sensitivity of the clitoris. Some women get their clitoris pierced in order to provide enhanced stimulation. Many vibrators and other sex toys are oriented toward clitoral stimulation and do not necessarily involve the vagina. Some women are able to reach orgasm though vaginal stimulation. Nowadays, more attention is now being placed on the clitoral stimulation to achieve female sexual pleasure.
Though the complete understanding of the clitoris’ role in sexual stimulation has been relatively recent, the cultural significance of the clitoris is far older. In some parts of the Middle East and Africa, many young girls are forced to receive clitorectomies, in which parts of the clitoris and surrounding tissues are cut from the body. Other parts of the vulva may also be removed or sewn together. Depending on location and culture, these practices vary in severity. In some cultures, only the glans of the clitoris is snipped away, however, more extreme practices of female circumcision involve the removal of the entire glans and crus of the clitoris. These procedures are done for a variety of cultural and religious reasons. The more extreme procedures are performed to ensure that the female will never experience orgasm or even sexual pleasure. This practice is widely seen as immoral and considered by many to be a violation of human rights. While female circumcision is traditional in many cultures, it is commonly considered a form of genital mutilation in others.
1. Hall, Lesley A. Clitoris. The Johns Hopkins University Press 2006. Web.
2. Arndt, Bertina. (2004) The Vagina Makes a Comeback 2004. Web.
Last Updated 8 May 2015