The clitoris is possibly the most powerful pencil eraser-sized nubbin' on the entire planet, but also the most controversial.
Since 1970, when Anne Koedt published the groundbreaking Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm, the clitoris has slowly but surely been moving to the fore of women's sexual pleasure. In the article, Koedt fiercely critiqued the prevailing idea that women primarily achieved orgasm through vaginal intercourse, painting the vaginal orgasm as a "myth" perpetuated to keep women bound to men for sexual pleasure. Contemporary studies of female anatomy suggested that women could achieve stronger, better orgasms through clitoral stimulation, and the clitoris became more than an organ; it became a symbol of female liberation from patriarchal control. Radical “second wavers” in the 1970s urged all women to shun sexual penetration and opt for clitoral stimulation. Lesbian love became a political statement, and women who claimed to achieve orgasm vaginally were scorned.
In some ways, the distinction between clitoral and vaginal orgasms polarized feminists. Koedt, Ti-Grace Atkinson, and others saw the vagina as a site of female repression, while Germaine Greer and her colleagues argued that the female orgasm was an internal, full bodied experience to be achieved through penetration and stimulation alike. Much of this divide between women persists today: I was taught that some women were more sensitive vaginally, and others more receptive to clitoral stimulation. Both “types” of orgasms can be used to shame modern women: women who cannot achieve orgasm through penetration still “fake it,” and some lesbians may feel pressure to suppress their desire for penetration of the vagina, a desire sometimes thought of as exclusive to heterosexual women.
But as it turns out, there isn't actually a difference between these two types of orgasms. I repeat: there are no two types of female orgasm. In 2009, French doctors Odile Buisson and Pierre Foldes constructed a three-dimensional sonography of the clitoris and discovered something with the power to revolutionize the way we think about our sexuality: the clitoris is HUGE and INTERNAL. The system of nerve endings extends into the pelvis, and is in fact far larger on the inside than it is on the outside. When stimulated, the erect clitoris tightens around the vagina. This means that “vaginal orgasms” are actually caused by the clitoris, not nerves on the vaginal walls themselves. Whether brought on by penetration or external stimulation, all orgasms are clitoral.
This information is powerful and has the potential to free many women from any shame about their sexual needs. It’s okay to like penetration, and it’s okay to prefer external stimulation; you aren’t “wrong” or “confused” about your own body. We all have a clitoris, and that clitoris is responsible for all of our orgasms, no matter how they are achieved.
The erect clitoris is shown in yellow, engulfing the vagina, shown in blue.
This is also great news for women who have been subjected to female genital mutilation and had their external clitoris removed. Dr. Foldes has performed surgeries on women who have undergone female circumcision, as it is sometimes called, and has reintroduced the ability to feel sexual pleasure to thousands of his patients.
How can the enormity of the clitoris not be discovered until 2009 (that's 4 years ago, people), and how can so many women still be unaware of it?!
Sadly, female sexual pleasure is still largely overlooked in research and academia, and, as a result, many women lack access to the information that can help them understand their bodies. This breakthrough leads a new tide in sexual awareness, and the liberation of women from sexual shame. We should never feel ashamed or embarrassed about the way we experience sexual pleasure; penetration is not necessarily a tool of the patriarchy. This new research enables us to throw away the outdated concept of the "right" way to orgasm. We all come (ahem) from the same organ - the big, beautiful clitoris - and that is something to celebrate.
Sketch of the internal clitoris, shown in red
Thanks to Museum of Sex and University of Illinois at Chicago, Professor Lyde Sizer, and Jane Gerhard's Desiring Revolution: Second-wave Feminism and the Rewriting of American Sexual Thought
Images via Museum of Sex, Jess Fink via TheMarySue.com and Women's Health in Women's Hands