Clitoral History: A Tale of Love, Loss, and Discovery

Clitoral History: A Tale of Love, Loss, and Discovery

Nursing Clio is happy to welcome Nicole Lock as today’s guest author. Nicole is a first year master’s student in Media Studies at the University of Oregon. Her current research interests center around health communication from an ecofeminist perspective. She is particularly concerned with the medicalization of female bodies and the reproductive system.

I didn’t discover my clitoris until I was a freshman in high school. It may have been mentioned in some measly sexual education class, but it definitely failed to register as the only organ with a purely pleasurable function. If the teacher had mentioned that over 8,000 nerve endings exist on the clitoral glands alone, while the internal structure had bulbs and legs that were also sources of pleasure, my ears definitely would have perked up. The clitoris has a history of being glossed over, not just in sexual education courses, but also in medical research. It wasn’t until 1998, when urologist Helen O’Connell published her findings regarding the internal structure of the clitoris, that the medical world finally had a true understanding  of its size and scope. The organ, so central to female pleasure, has endured a long history of cultural and social norms that have hindered its appreciation and understanding. The Western history of the clitoris has many lessons to teach us about the ways female sexuality has been misled, discounted, oppressed, and even enjoyed.

The clitoris has long been subject to male dominated views of sexuality. Women and their genitals were considered inverted versions of men in ancient Greece and in Renaissance Europe. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that European scientists began to think of men and women as separate sexes. Females were still considered the lesser of the sexual binary; menstruation was still considered an illness; and women were still considered weaker than men.[1] Who actually discovered the clitoris? I am sure women and men have had their own awareness of its existence throughout time, but medically, it is debatable who first identified it. Renaldus Columbus has been credited as the first to describe the external clitoris in 1559. However, I would argue that the true hero is Dr. Helen O’Connell; she was the first to outline, in detail, both the external and the larger internal structure of the organ.

Regardless of who can claim the right to put their name on the clitoral “discovery,” its realization, by the medical and anatomical world, ushered in ideas and norms around female pleasure and orgasm. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the work of Sigmund Freud began to take its hold on popular notions about healthy female sexuality. According to Freud, achieving vaginal orgasm was a sign of maturity accomplished by transferring the center of orgasm from the clitoris to the vagina.

photoIn 1953, Alfred Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in which he dismissed the vaginal orgasm, instead looking to the clitoris as the center of female sexual pleasure. As Carolyn Herbst Lewis points out, Kinsey’s distinction between vaginal and clitoral pleasure was not taken seriously by physicians in the 1950s and 1960s. In her article, “Waking Sleeping Beauty: The Premarital Pelvic Exam and Heterosexuality during the Cold War,” Lewis navigates the ways in which female heterosexual health was consistently linked to the vaginal orgasm, and how the vaginal orgasm was linked to stable marriages and a secure community.[2] As if that weren’t enough pressure on women, premarital pelvic exams were conducted to ensure women were STI free, as well as to prepare them for vaginal penetration. These physicians did not deny the existence of the clitoris, nor did they deny the clitoral orgasm; instead, the clitoral orgasm was degraded into being the orgasm of the adolescent and immature. Mature woman should be able to accomplish vaginal climax.

The clinical research of William Masters and Virginia Johnson began the process of finding a scientific understanding of the clitoris, and shortly thereafter, feminists of the 1960s and 1970s began writing about a new vision of female sexuality with the clitoris at the forefront. Anne Koedt’s, The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm, established the clitoris as the site of female sexual pleasure and described the obsession with vaginal orgasm as being rooted within a patriarchal system that has confused women about their bodies and subordinates female sexuality to male pleasure. What is so threatening about a woman’s pleasure center not involving the penis? Does this mean we have to admit that women are also sexual beings outside of the male fantasy?

Fast forward to 1998 and MRI technology was finally being used to gain further understanding of the clitoris. It has been a long road for Western science and society to wrap their heads around the clitoris, though one could argue, we are still working on it. Today, the clitoral orgasm is not considered immature, yet mainstream media portrayals of heterosexual sex almost never allude to clitoral stimulation, and for real life women, thirty percent experience difficulty climaxing. The obsession with vaginal orgasm has yet to go away. As can be seen in Thomas Foster’s article, The Myth of the Vajazzled Orgasm, productions such as The Vagina Monologues have increased the level of comfort when it comes to using the word vagina but “may unfortunately only further obscure the importance of the clitoris.”

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American culture still has a long way to go in our thinking about female sexuality. Sexual health and sexual fulfillment are very important to the overall mental and sometimes physical well-being of many women. As science continues to make its anatomical discoveries, it is important to keep in mind the cultural and social beliefs that hinder and frame sexuality for all genders. It is also imperative to understand that sexuality cannot be reduced to just anatomy; there are many ways to achieve sexual satisfaction that depend on a myriad of factors. All in all, the clitoris has more than earned a respectful place within our culture, and it’s time to ensure it receives the attention it deserves.

[1] Rebeca Chalker, The Clitoral Truth: The Secret World at Your Fingertips. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2000.

[2] Carolyn Herbst Lewis, “Waking Sleeping Beauty: The Premarital Pelvic Exam and Heterosexuality during the Cold War.” Journal of Women’s History 17:4 (2005), 86-110.

Featured image source: Vintage Printable, which identifies it as a diagram by Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) used in botany lectures in the mid-1850s. Believed to be in the public domain.