Although some people are still unaware of the clitoris' immense pleasure-producing power, it is a fairly well-known fact that the clitoris contains thousands of nerve endings that help women reach orgasm. However, this information was not always available. It is true that women have always had clitorises, so it may seem like people should have known about clitoral sensitivity long ago. But the female body and the notion that women could seek sexual pleasure --just as men could-- was not something that people have always known.
The clitoris was first described in 1559 by Renaldus Columbus. Many anatomists before him had already discovered it, but they just hadn't publicized their discoveries verbally because female sexuality was such a taboo topic. The presence of the clitoris was not accepted by everyone, and there was much debate as to its existence and its function.
The role of the clitoris in orgasm has long been a topic of controversy. In the early 1900s, Freud claimed that clitoral orgasms were inferior to vaginal orgasms. He believed that the clitoris was masculine, somewhat like a small penis, and that women should try to have orgasms by vaginal stimulation. Freud believed that women achieved sexual maturity by switching the focus from the clitoris to the vagina (Hall).
Later, both Kinsey in the 1950s and Masters and Johnson in the 1960s recognized that the clitoris is important in helping females achieve sexual pleasure and orgasm. They found the clitoris to be much more sensitive than the vagina and to be a source of pleasure for most women. The vagina contains fewer nerve endings and does not produce orgasms for most women. 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 (Arndt, 2004).
Kinsey's views were supported by Masters and Johnson, in their laboratory observations of the female sexual response, Masters declared that "All orgasm involves direct or indirect stimulation of the clitoris." Thus, if a woman had an orgasm through intercourse, Masters and Johnson claimed that her clitoris was being stimulated inadvertently through intercourse and the clitoris was producing the orgasm, not the vagina (Arndt, 2004).
During the 1960s and 1970s, the feminist movement gained momentum, and many women felt empowered by the idea that orgasms were not usually due to penile/vaginal penetration. Many feminists believed that intercourse was a way of making women feel inferior to men, and tried to popularize the idea that women were faking vaginal orgasms and that the clitoris should be the sole focus of sexual attention, not the vagina. The idea that orgasms could even be reached by two women or through masturbation showed that a woman did not need a man to achieve sexual pleasure, an idea that was unpopular with many people. The size of the clitoris was also debated. Some said it was a tiny organ, but it is actually much larger than originally thought. Including all the tissue that lies underneath the skin, it can be up to 9 cm in length and 6 cm in width in young women (O' Connell, 2003).
Today, the clitoris and its capacity for producing sexual pleasure in females seems to be well known. In most female magazines that have a section on sex, clitoral stimulation is often presented as the route to sexual pleasure. Some women now get their clitoris pierced because this is supposed to provide extra stimulation. Many vibrators and other sex toys are oriented to clitoral stimulation and do not necessarily involve the vagina. Although some women are able to reach orgasm though vaginal penetration, much more attention is now being placed on the clitoris and ways to stimulate it.
In many nations it seems that the discovery of the clitoris and the ability of women to orgasm without intercourse --or even a partner-- is a great thing. However, the clitoris is still viewed negatively in some places around the world. In some parts of the Middle East and Africa, many young girls are forced to receive clitorectomies, which are dangerous operations in which the clitoris and nearby tissues are removed. Other parts of the vulva may also be removed or sewn together. These procedures are done for a variety of cultural and religious reasons, and the more extreme ones ensure that a girl will never experience orgasm or even sexual pleasure.
For centuries, the clitoris was an unspeakable part of the female body, and only recently has it become well-known by many people. Modern sexologists appreciate its importance for female sexual gratification. Many regret that female genital mutilation is still practiced around the world and that young girls are forced to undergo such a painful procedure. We can only hope that the day will come when the clitoris is viewed by all as a beautiful thing that contributes to the pleasure of both men and women, instead of something that must be taken away by a painful and mutilating procedure.