The Clitoris

O' Winged Wishbone

History (Western)

"The tale of the clitoris is a parable of culture, how the body is forged into a shape valuable to civilization despite and not because of itself.
Thomas Laqueur

The Greeks understood that male and female genitalia were made up of analogous components: the male external and therefore superior; the female internal, inverted, and inferior. This view persisted until the 18th century when an even less complementary, separate-sex paradigm began to displace it.

In the 16th century, as if no one had ever noticed it before, two Italians issued competing claims for the discovery of the female penis. One of them, Gabriel Fallopius, did succeed in having his name attached to the tubes between the ovaries and uterus. Despite this controversy, a hundred years later, Reinier De Graaf described the internal clitoris and remarked, “We are extremely surprised that some anatomists make no more mention of this part than if it did not exist at all in the universe of nature.”

It is interesting to note that during De Graaf's time, folk belief held that female orgasm was necessary for conception. Midwives offered the newly betrothed advice on how to accomplish the task. Over the next few centuries, various pressures of evolving sexual politics distorted attitudes toward female sexual response and by the mid 19th century, physicians blamed all manner of illnesses and neuroses on genital dysfunction. In the UK, Isaac Baker Brown, publicly promoted the practice of clitoridectomy as a cure-all, and records show that young women submitted to the procedure for problems as insignificant as irregular menstruation. Others offered their female patients a weekly therapy of stimulation to what they called hysterical paroxysm, or orgasm.

In the 1840's, German doctor George Ludwig Kobelt rediscovered the clitoris. He mapped the entirety of the organ including the cavernosa, crura, and bulbs. While his discoveries did not impact the content of subsequent medical texts, his work is once again referenced today and one of his diagrams is included in this website.

With the notable exception of another rediscovery at the beginning of the 20th century, most anatomy texts, including those issued today, remained vague about the clitoris, and focused on comparisons with the male rather than fully describing female genital anatomy.

Recent Discoveries

"The clitoris is a structure about which few diagrams and minimal description are provided, potentially impacting its preservation during surgery."
Dr. Helen O'Connell

The mid 20th century work of sexologists, and the social justice movements of the 1960's led to further rediscoveries of the clitoris. Psychiatrist Mary Jane Sherfey described the organ as part of her challenge to the destructive Freudian dualism of clitoral versus vaginal orgasms. His belief that only immature females achieved orgasm through clitoral stimulation caused generations of women shame and confusion over their sexual response.

The Boston women's health collective 1970 publication Our Bodies Our Selves provided detailed drawings of the female sexual organ in both relaxed and aroused states. They included the crura, shaft, and glans as part of the clitoral complex, but not the bulbs. In 1981, A New View of a Woman’s Body by the Federation of Feminist Women’s Health Centers provided the first contemporary description of the internal clitoral organ. However, none of these works has had an impact on anatomy texts. In fact, according to a study by researchers Moore and Clark, they led to a kind of backlash, "In sum, scholarly focus on the clitoris appears to be minimal, relatively dwarfed by phallocentric narratives, images, and fascinations."

Today a few medical researchers, utilizing new imaging technology in addition to traditional techniques, are clarifying the anatomy and attempting to standardize the nomenclature of the clitoris. Among these are Australian urologist Dr. Helen E. O’Connell, researcher Dr. Claire C. Yang, and French gynecologists Dr. Odile Buisson and Dr. Pierre Foldès.

In 2003, Yang and colleagues published the first MRI imagery of the clitoris in pre- and postmenopausal women. In her 2005 Report Anatomy of The Clitoris, Helen O'Connell described the anatomy of the internal clitoris, and reviewed its rediscovery through history. French researchers Dr. Odile Buisson and Dr. Pierre Foldès published a 3-D sonography of the stimulated clitoris in 2008. Dr. Foldes has pioneered new surgical techniques that help restore some function to women who've undergone genital mutilation.


Chalker, R, Fish. (2002). The Clitoral Truth: The Secret World at Your Fingertips. New York: Seven Stories Press

Buisson, O, Foldes, P, Paniel, B. (2008). Sonography of the Clitoris. The Journal of Sexual Medicine. Volume 5, Issue 2, pp. 413–417.

Gage, Suzann. (1981). The Clitoris: A Feminist Perspective. A New View of a Woman’s Body. Feminist Health Press. pp. 33-57.

Laqueur, Thomas. (1990). Making sex: Body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Moore, LJ, Clarke, AE. (1995). Clitoral Conventions and Transgressions: Graphic Representations in Anatomy Texts, c1900-1991. Feminist Studies. Vol. 21, No. 2, pp. 255-301.

Neill S., Lewis, F. (2009). Ridley's The Vulva, 3rd Edition. New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell.

O'Connell, HE, Kalavampara, Sanjeevan V., Hutson, JM. (2005). Anatomy of The Clitoris. The Journal of Urology. Volume 174, Issue 4, Part 1 , pp. 1189-1195.

O'Connell HE, Hutson JM, Anderson CR, Plenter RJ. (1998). Anatomical Relationship Between the Urethra and Clitoris. The Journal of Urology. 159: 1892–7.

O'Connell, HE, DeLancey, J. (2005). Clitoral Anatomy in Nullipardous, Healthy, Premenopausal Volunteers using unenhanced Magnetic Resonance Imaging. The Journal of Urology. Volume 173, Issue 6 , pp. 2060-2063.

Sheehan, E. (1981). Victorian Clitoridectomy: Isaac Baker Brown and His Harmless Operative Procedure. Medical Anthropology Newsletter. Aug. 12(4), pp. 9-15.

Sherfey, MJ. (1973). The Nature and Evolution of Female Sexuality. New York: Vintage Books.

Suh DD, Yang CC, Cao Y, Heiman JR, Garland PA, Maravilla, KR. (2003). Magnetic Resonance Imaging Anatomy of the Female Genitalia in Premenopausal and Postmenopausal Women. The Journal of Urology. Volume 170, Issue 1 , pp. 138-144.

Suh DD, Yang CC, Cao Y, Heiman JR, Garland PA, Maravilla, KR. (2004). MRI of female genital and pelvic organs during sexual arousal. The Jounral of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology. 2004; 25, pp. 153–162.