Battling The Clit Crisis

Battling The Clit Crisis

Written by Mary Katharine Tramontana

Picture a vagina. Go on, picture it. Chances are good that what your imagination has conjured is actually a vulva—the external female genitalia—and not a vagina, the muscular canal that leads into the uterus.

If you got it wrong, you’re in plentiful company. Opening recently in London, the world’s first Vagina Museum is technically not devoted to vaginas, but rather to gynecological anatomy. Founder Florence Schechter is well aware of the distinction. “As soon as they walk in the door, people learn the proper names,” she tells me in a phone interview. Precedent exists for this type of institution: “There was a penis museum in Iceland, but no vagina equivalent,” Schechter says. But the vagina, of course, is not the female equivalent of a penis—the clitoris is.

Language confusion is rampant when discussing female bodies and pleasure; that much is clear from the news coverage of the Vagina Museum, most of which repeats pervasive errors. Such errors (committed by news organizations including Time, the BBC, Huffington Post, Bustle, Forbes and The Daily Beast) include the conflation of various terms for female anatomy or incorrectly implying that the penis is the anatomical counterpart of the vagina. Indeed, in news reports, in common conversation and even in medical settings the word vagina is used erroneously in place of vulva or even clitoris. The clitoris comprises the glans, the highly sensitive external hooded bud at the top front of the vulva, and a substantial internal structure of erectile tissue that becomes engorged when fully aroused (and is discernible externally). These mistakes perpetuate a serious problem that leads to, among other things, a vast orgasm inequality between men and women. “Even The New York Times misuses ‘vagina,’” psychologist Harriet Lerner tells me by e-mail. And referring to the new London museum, she says, “Men would not be pathetically grateful for an institution that confused a scrotum and a penis. It’s madness.”

Since 1976 Lerner has been researching the effects of the mislabeling of female genitalia. Her attempts to raise vulva consciousness have been met with “profound resistance,” she says. Yet such efforts are necessary. “How can clarity about female sexuality flourish when what is visible and pleasurable to the developing girl cannot be named?” When people use the word vagina when what they really mean is vulvaclitoris or labia (the inner and outer folds of the vulva), it is a type of deletion, an erasure—“a psychological genital mutilation,” Lerner says. “Language can be as powerful and swift as the surgeon’s knife. What is not named does not exist.” Lisa Jean Moore, professor of sociology and co-author of The Body, agrees. When she worked at a nonprofit San Francisco sex information line as a grad student in the 1990s, one of the most common questions callers asked was “Where is the clitoris?”

“There’s a fundamental lack of clitoral knowledge,” Moore says. For example, the misperception that the clitoris is small and difficult to find is quite common. (The internal portion of the clit is, in fact, rather large, measuring around four inches in total.) Misunderstandings like this contribute to widespread inaccurate notions about female pleasure, like the idea that women orgasm from vaginal penetration alone. It’s the clitoris—the densely nerve-rich part of the vulva with 8,000 nerve endings in the tip alone—that is responsible for female orgasm (via either direct or indirect stimulation). And lack of knowledge about the clitoris—its location, its function—means that women are less likely to climax during sex with men.

A 2015 survey of women ages 18 to 40 found that many respondents attributed their difficulty orgasming during straight sex to either not enough clitoral stimulation (38 percent) or not the right kind of clitoral stimulation (35 percent). And one of the largest and most comprehensive studies of sexual behavior in the world, a 2016 British survey, found that the most common problem for women was difficulty achieving orgasm with their male partners; men’s biggest problem was orgasming too quickly.

“We need to correct, rather than perpetuate, the incomplete, anatomically incorrect picture that ‘Boys have a penis and girls have a vagina,’” says Lerner. Ignoring the clitoris comes at the cost of women’s pleasure: When women have sex with men, they enjoy a substantially lower number of orgasms than men do. But it doesn’t have to be this way: When women have sex with women, they orgasm about as much as men.

Despite the fact that the vast majority of women don’t orgasm from vaginal penetration, the erotic script that permeates much of Western culture is that “penis in vagina equals sex.” For that we can thank society’s deep-rooted patriarchal focus on straight men’s pleasure; famously, in the early 1900s Sigmund Freud theorized that there were two types of orgasm, vaginal and clitoral. Under Freud’s thinking, orgasms generated from vaginal penetration were what “mature” women experienced; female orgasms that did not involve a penis were “immature” and a sign of neurosis. Freud popularized the pervading myth that the vagina is the seat of female pleasure.

Alfred Kinsey disproved Freud’s theory in 1953, finding that women orgasm easily and reliably from direct clitoral stimulation, in about four minutes when masturbating. Similarly, researcher Shere Hite determined in the 1970s that 95 percent of women orgasm easily within minutes when they masturbate. Orgasm can be cake with external clitoral stimulation. We now know that the vast interconnected nerve endings of the internal clitoris mean that all orgasm is clitoral. But today’s (male-dominated) mainstream porn, literature and cinematic depictions of sex still mainly ignore the clit and portray women orgasming only from vaginal penetration. Freud’s theory, which dominated medical and psychoanalytic thinking in the 1950s, has never died: The idea that women who don’t orgasm from penetration are abnormal is still common.

“Little girls know where their clitoris is,” says artist Sophia Wallace, speaking by phone from Brooklyn. “They discover how to pleasure themselves. Then they go through this system of sex education, religion and culture that is obsessed with their vaginas, so by the time they’re in their 20s or even later, they’re coming to me, saying, ‘I thought something was wrong with me. I thought the fact that I needed my clitoris stimulated directly in order to orgasm meant that I was damaged and it wasn’t real orgasm.’ It’s devastating.”

Wallace, who pioneered contemporary clit knowledge with her viral 2012 project Cliteracy, says her work is constantly censored. “People are going to great lengths to avoid acknowledging the clit as the source of orgasm,” she says. “If you’re trying to get someone off who has a dick, you’re going to immediately address their dick. Why should that be different for clits?” Failing to acknowledge the clitoris as the central source of female pleasure is a systemic societal failure, and the consequences are serious: It diminishes women’s entitlement to sexual satisfaction and agency. “That the clit is an autonomous organ is radically threatening for people who are invested in the status quo,” Wallace says. Indeed, the idea that a penis is not required for a woman’s pleasure entirely upends the standard erotic script. It’s telling that the publisher of 1960’s The Housewife’s Handbook on Selective Promiscuity, which explains that the clitoris is key to female orgasm, was convicted and sent to jail for distributing obscene materials.

Queer theorist Eve Sedgwick noted in 1990 that “Ignorance effects can be harnessed, licensed and regulated on a mass scale for striking enforcements—especially around sexuality.” Ignorance could be neutralized by education, but only 29 states mandate sex ed, and of those, only 17 require medically accurate content; it’s not unusual for lessons to be framed in terms of reproduction and not at all about shared pleasure. Because the clit’s reproductive function is overlooked, and because female sexuality is still a largely taboo subject culturally, it’s far from assured that the clitoris is even included in the curriculum. That schools ignore female pleasure anatomy—deliberately or otherwise—is no surprise; many modern dictionaries still define the clitoris as the “small” external glans, eliding the large internal clitoral structure. (Though it’s no recent discovery; German anatomist Georg Ludwig Kobelt illustrated the clitoris as we know it today in the mid-1800s.) Over the years, the clitoris has appeared and disappeared from standard medical texts such as Gray’s Anatomy. To counteract this erasure, in the 1980s women began publishing their own anatomical guides, including A New View of a Woman’s Body, which shows the full internal portion of the clitoris. Despite these efforts, some major medical textbooks still exclude the clitoris; others include it in anatomical illustrations but fail to explain its function or describe it as an organ. These books are used to educate and train doctors. In other words, “medically accurate” sex ed doesn’t mean much for girls seeking knowledge about their own sexual pleasure.

What must be done to combat such systemic suppression and ignorance? How do we eradicate an idea so entrenched in our institutions that even feminist efforts perpetuate it? We begin with education. We teach children (and adults) about the clitoris—where it is, how essential it is for pleasure—and we insist on identifying body parts by their appropriate names. It’s really not so complicated, and it’s certainly not neurotic.