Let’s start with anatomy and etymology, shall we?
The clitoris is a small button-like protuberance located at the top of the labia minora (the “little lips” inside the vulva). Clitoris comes from the Greek word kleitoris, which may mean “key” or “latch” or “hook” or from a word meaning “side of a hill.”
The clitoris, as it turns out, is a tremendously important organ for sexual pleasure in females, but because its anatomy is so hidden and its purpose so inscrutable, only recently have imaging techniques begun to reveal the breadth and depth of the clitoris.
- The clitoris and the male penis are “homologous,” which means they have similar biological structures. They’re made of the same stuff. Like the penis, the clitoris has a very sensitive head or glans (that’s the part you can see peeking out), a shaft that extends into a woman’s body, an external hood that is like the foreskin. But there’s also a whole bunch of stuff inside, and that’s now referred to as the “clitoral network”—a complicated internal structure that winds around the vulva and into the vagina and is composed, like the penis, of erectile and other tissues.
- The clitoral network has perhaps twice as many nerve endings as the penis (about 8,000 vs. 4,000), and when aroused, may affect 15000 more, making it extremely sensitive and critical sexual pleasure. In fact, some sources suggest that the G-spot is really part of the clitoral network.
- Genetic makeup, steroid overdose, and testosterone use can cause clitoral enlargement, which is called clitoromegaly.
- The clitoris becomes larger after childbirth, and it stays sensitive throughout the lifespan, including after menopause, although both Dr. Barb and Dr. Oz say you have to use it or lose it. (Hear that, gals!)
- The clitoris is the only human organ that has no function other than sexual pleasure.
- Other female mammals also have clitorises of various sizes. (That of the female bonobo is big enough to “waggle” when she walks, according to this article.) Female spotted hyenas are the only mammal whose clitoris is used for urination, sex, and birthing young (ye gads!), making both sex and birth quite challenging and acrobatic for hyenas.
- In cultures that practice female genital mutilation (FGM), the clitoris and sometimes all or part of the labia minora is ritually cut off, often unhygenically and without anesthetic. The practice is rooted deeply in some Middle Eastern and North African cultures and has to do with ideas about purity, modesty, and female sexual desire.
- As you might imagine, the clit has accrued a lot of colorful names: rosebud, cherry pit, love bud, nubbin, doorbell, bald man in a boat. In some Middles Eastern countries, it may be called a sesame seed, lentil, or chickpea, depending on its size.
- During sexual arousal, the entire clitoral network becomes engorged, just like a penis. This includes tissue within the vagina and labia minora. Everything swells.
- Most women (something like 70 percent) can’t orgasm with vaginal stimulation alone, which leads us to the necessity of clitoral stimulation to dependably orgasm. There are lots of tricks to help this along.
Stay tuned. We'll follow up with another installment.
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