The history of the clitoris

It’s easy to laugh at the mistakes of scientists in millennia past (and scream into the void out of frustration) at their deep misunderstanding of female anatomy since the first “discovery” of the clitoris. But it’s more than just a gaffe to forgive and forget, and we aren’t as far removed from these pioneers of anatomy as we might think. A dark history of erasing the clitoris pervades modern medicine, resulting in innumerable dangerous health inequalities, and women and girls continue to suffer as a result.

Before we dive into the rich history of men failing to identify the clitoris until Australian urologist, Helen O’Connell, published Anatomical Relationship Between Urethra and Clitoris in 1998 (yes, 1998), let’s review the anatomy of the clitoris: 

The clitoris is comprised of multiple parts including the glans clitoris (the external portion of the clitoris which contains 8,000 nerve endings, twice that of the penis) and clitoral hood, the clitoral body and paired crura and vestibular bulbs.

Excluding the glans clitoris, the organ is composed of spongy erectile tissue and is the only organ whose sole purpose is sexual pleasure, reaching up to ten centimeters from the tip of the glans to the end of one crus (a singular crura). 

Armed with the (correct) knowledge of clitoral anatomy, we give you… a brief history of the clitoris. 

1486: Germany was seemingly overrun with witches, inspiring Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger to publish The Malleus Maleficarum, a guidebook for identifying and extirpating witches. Kramer and Sprenger asserted that the clitoris (not thus named until the 17th century) was the “devil’s teat” and its presence confirmed witch-status. 

1543: Andreas Vesalius, considered the father of anatomy for his book, On the Fabric of the Human Body, declared that the clitoris existed only in “hermaphrodites.” Vesalius also illustrated vessels between the vaginal canal and breasts because he believed menstrual blood became milk. 

1559: Renaldus Columbus, an Italian Professor of Surgery at Padua University (of no relation to Christopher Columbus, who also possessed a knack for “discovery”) wrote about a female appendage that would “throb with brief contractions” during sexual intercourse causing a woman’s “semen” to flow in his book, De Re Anatomica. Columbus named this appendage “Veneris, vul dulcedo,” meaning “the love or sweetness of Venus.” 

1615: The word “clitoris” first appeared in the English language to describe the organ and was derived from the ancient Greek word “kleitor,” meaning “little hill.”

Early 1900s: Sigmund Freud declared, “The elimination of clitoral sexuality is a necessary precondition for the development of femininity since it is immature and masculine in nature,” suggesting women forgo clitoral orgasm for the more sophisticated sexual gratification of their male partners. 

1947: Dr. Charles Mayo Goss, editor of the 25th edition of the esteemed Gray’s Anatomy, chose to remove the clitoris from the publication entirely. Whether this move was intentional or accidental is unknown, but the omission went largely unnoticed for many years. 

1998: Helen O’Connell, Australia’s first female urologist, published a groundbreaking study called Anatomical Relationship Between Urethra and Clitoris in the Journal of Urology that finally explored the relationship between the urethra and surrounding erectile tissue by dissecting eight female cadavers. The study concluded that the current anatomical descriptions of female genital anatomy were inaccurate. 

2005: Following the findings of her previous study, Dr. O’Connell set out to discover the full extent of the clitoris and published her findings in Anatomy of the Clitoris. She found that it is impossible to convey clitoral anatomy in a single diagram, showing only one plane as was typical in textbooks of the time. The study also found that the vestibular bulbs are a part of the clitoris, the distal urethra and vagina are related structures and altogether these structures form a tissue cluster that is the center of female orgasm. 

2009: French researchers Odile Buisson and Pierre Foldés produced the first three-dimensional sonography of a stimulated clitoris.

2016: Independent French researcher, Odille Fillod, created the first full-size three-dimensional model of a clitoris using 3D printing technology with the goal of distributing the printable clitoris to schools in France to improve sex education. 

There you have it. You need not look far to see the impact of erasing and even criminalizing the clitoris in the modern world. Great attention is paid to preserving men’s sexual sensitivity during surgery by avoiding certain nerves and blood vessels.

Women are not extended the same courtesy, as no such research exists on preserving clitoral tissue during surgery. A prime example of this problem is the episiotomy, an incision made in the perineum (sometimes without the mother’s knowledge), the area between the vaginal opening and anus, to widen the passage during childbirth. But as we’ve learned, the clitoris is not an outward appendage – it is a significantly sizable organ that sits in the pelvic area.

Many providers are not aware that this incision can cause permanent damage to the clitoris, thus impacting a woman’s ability to feel pleasure. The clitoris is also often damaged during cesarean sections, hysterectomies and other procedures involving the reproductive organs. 

And can we blame doctors for this naiveté when textbooks used from grade school to medical school don’t even contain accurate depictions of female anatomy? The 1985 edition of Last’s Anatomy, which inspired Dr. O’Connell to pursue her study of the clitoris, contains two full pages of penis illustrations and not a single illustration of the clitoris, referring to female genitals as a “failure” of male genital formation.

The Oxford Dictionary still defines the clitoris as a “small, sensitive, erectile part of the female genitals at the anterior end of the vulva,” akin to 15th century descriptions of the organ. When discussed in society, women’s full sexual anatomy is commonly and incorrectly reduced to a single word: vagina. 

We have a long way to go and centuries of misinformation to unlearn in order to achieve sexual health equality. But acknowledging the treatment of the clitoris throughout history, its impact on modern medicine and what all of this means for society today is a great place to start. 

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