The clitoris is the female sexual organ. Its visible button-like portion is near the front junction of the labia minora (inner lips) of the vagina. Humans are not the only animals to possess a clitoris. Other animals, including ostriches and mammals, also possess them. In fact, the clitoris comes from the same source as the penis—an outgrowth in the embryo called the “genital tubercle”. This tubercle develops into either a penis or a clitoris, depending on the presence or absence of the protein tdf, which is codified by a single gene on the Y chromosome. Unlike the penis, however, the clitoris does not contain the distal portion of the urethra and is not used for urination.
There’s a lot more to the clitoris than meets the eye. Although the external part of the clitoris (or the “glans”) is only about the size and shape of a pea, as MoSex, the official blog of the Museum of Sex puts it,
“most of the clitoris is subterranean, consisting of two corpora cavernosa (corpus cavernosum when referring to the structure as a whole), two crura (crus when referring to the structure as a whole), and the clitoral vestibules or bulbs. The glans is connected to the body or shaft of the internal clitoris, which is made up of two corpora cavernosa. When erect, the corpora cavernosa encompass the vagina on either side, as if they were wrapping around it giving it a big hug! The corpus cavernosum also extends further, bifurcating again to form the two crura. These two legs extend up to 9cm, pointing toward the thighs when at rest, and stretching back toward the spine when erect.”
So yeah, pretty big.
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As it turns out, studies suggest that knowledge of its existence and anatomy is scant in comparison with that of other sexual organs, likely due to cultural stigma around the female body and female sexual pleasure in particular. Indeed, little research was done into the stimulated clitoris until the 1990s, when scientists used MRIs to investigate the inner workings of the vagina (similar technology had been used to research the penis in the 1970s, indicating a clear lack of equal application). Some scientists now believe that the clitoris is the cause of all female orgasms, although they are often divided into vaginal, G-Spot and clitoral orgasms. In Wallen and Lloyd’s 2011 article, “Female sexual arousal: Genital anatomy and orgasm in intercourse”, the authors state that “since the ‘60s, the notion that some women experience orgasm during intercourse solely from vaginal stimulation has been questioned and currently the most common view is that all women’s orgasms during intercourse are triggered by direct or indirect clitoral stimulations.”
Back to the clitoris itself. The glans (external part of the clitoris) contains approximately 8,000 sensory nerve glands—more than anywhere else in the human body and close to twice that in the head of the penis. But with great power comes great responsibility. While some women derive extreme pleasure from stimulation of the clitoris, for some women too much stimulation can be uncomfortable or even painful. Thus, some women instead prefer stimulation of the surrounding parts. Understandably so, as the visible portion of the clitoris is so densely packed with nerve endings. Therefore, preferred clitoral stimulation methods vary from woman to woman, and can even vary for an individual woman from one sexual encounter to another. So let’s all treat clitorides with the respect that they deserve, and remember another quote from MoSex—“What works for one woman may not work for another. In other words, it’s all custom under the hood.”