A Brief History of the Clitoris


That’s right, everyone – it’s not a myth.

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"Clitoris Clit Piercing Diagram from The Cunnilinguist" by Alex B Porter is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

What do these three things have in common: the moon, Viagra, and the molecular structure of DNA? Seems like an unlikely group, right? Wrong. In fact, the one uniting factor amongst the list is that they were all discovered by humankind before we discovered the clitoris.

Yep. Let that sink in. Clitoris. Clitoris. Clitoris. It’s not a dirty word, and it certainly shouldn’t be one that we avoid saying.

Despite being with us literally throughout the entirety of human existence, the clitoris is not something that has always been acknowledged as real and existing. Even when its existence became widely accepted, its functions were still debated for centuries until its complete discovery in 1998 (everybody say: thank you, Helen O’Connell). But before I get ahead of myself delving into the misogynistic intricacies of the clitoral ‘myth’, let’s trace it back to where it all began: Ancient Greece.

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"Lesbians in Mycenae" by Nagarjun is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Before its discovery in 1998, women had been being edged (we wish literally) with the discovery of the clitoris since around 460BC, when Hippocrates was born. Though the Ancient Greek beliefs meant that medical interactions with the female body both pre and post-mortem were extremely limited, Hippocrates did notice something in the female pelvic region which he called a ‘columnella’, meaning little column. However, what he believed the function of the columnella to be (if indeed he believed it had any function at all) was largely uncertain.

Around 500 years later, the first-century Greek physician Claudius Galen was next in what would become a long line of men desperately trying to understand the female anatomy and getting it so, so wrong. He argued that the female anatomy was a reversed version of the male anatomy, with the ovaries becoming the female equivalent to testicles, and the clitoris being, essentially, an unfinished penis. He pinned the stunted growth of the clitoris to the suggestion that female bodies have a lower body temperature than male bodies – which is not only false, but really just makes no sense. And yet, his hypothesis stuck for around a thousand years to come.

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"Salem Witch Trials Attractions" by Salem State Archives is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

After almost a millennium of people using the clitoris to evidence female inferiority, in the mid fifteenth-century, it was given a brand new and exciting nickname: ‘the devil’s teat’.

Amidst a sweeping craze of accusing any woman you mildly disliked of being a witch, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger found a way to connect the clitoris to the practice of witchcraft. In their treatise ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, they linked witchcraft to women with uncontrollable lust, the site of this lust being, of course, the clit. They even used this theory to develop a new test for witchcraft, suggesting that if you stimulated the clitoris, and it became engorged, then the owner of the clitoris was unquestionably a witch. Foolproof.

Representations of the clitoris as evil and witchy must have sparked excitement amongst physicians everywhere, because all of a sudden, in the sixteenth century, everyone seemed to want to take credit for its discovery. This began in 1559 with Matteo Realdo Colombo, who named it the ‘Amor Veneris’, meaning the love of Venus (cute, right?). Somewhat amazingly, for perhaps the first time in history, he managed to identify its function as the ‘sublime organ of female pleasure’ without suggesting that this pleasure was either unnatural or unholy. He even provided suggestions for how to bring pleasure to the Amor Veneris, recommending that men tried rubbing their penises against the clitoris to elicit an orgasm. 

Even though his ideas weren’t completely accurate, you have to give Colombo some credit for actually acknowledging the clitoral orgasm as a very real and not at all shameful aspect of female sexuality. Luckily, this was a view that would never change – right?

Enter Freud, our favourite and notoriously never misogynistic twentieth-century neurologist.

"Freud - Exploring the unconscious mind" by One From RM is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Remember that time Ben Shapiro basically outed himself on Twitter by announcing to the world that his ‘doctor wife’ had assured him it was medically abnormal for women to get wet during sex? Well, it might seem like an odd connection to draw, but this tweet always pops back up in my mind when I am forced to think about Sigmund Freud.

In the early twentieth-century, Freud launched a full-scale attack on the clitoris, amongst many other aspects of the general female experience. He labelled it an ‘infantile organ’, suggesting that to become a mature woman, it was necessary to learn to transfer your orgasm from your clitoris to your vagina (something which is obviously not possible). He suggested that a vaginal orgasm was the only correct kind and told women that it was their responsibility to decide to achieve it, even going as far as to suggest that an inability to achieve vaginal orgasm was a sign of mental illness.

His beliefs surrounding ‘penis envy’ (a feeling of lack in women for not having a penis) meant that he viewed the clitoris as an inherently masculine form of compensation for this ‘lack’ which needed to be disassociated from female sexual experiences. These views erased at least 1,700 years of progress by circling back to a Galen-esque view of the clitoris as, once again, a ‘small penis which does not grow any bigger’.

"'Viva la vulva!'" by WarmSleepy is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

30 years after the death of Freud, the damage done by his misogynistic and unscientific arguments finally started to see itself reversed. In 1966, William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson pioneered the reunion between the clitoris and the medical world. Not only did they identify clitoral stimulation as necessary for most women when trying to reach orgasm, they also dispelled many long-standing misconceptions surrounding female sexuality.

It was a bright day for women everywhere. Finally, after what seemed like forever, the clitoral reclamation was in sight. However, medics still had a long way to go. In 1976, Thomas P. Lowry and Thea Snyder Lowry’s book The Clitoris was still basing its arguments on research done on cows. And so, the wait for a medical professional to involve living, human women in a study of the clitoris continued.

Finally, in the 1990’s, the unofficial Queen of the Clitoris, Helen O’Connell, began making waves in the medical world. By 2005, she had produced the first MRI images of living, aroused women, and discovered that the clitoris was not only connected to both the urethra and vagina, but that it was also around ten times bigger than most people had previously thought it to be. O’Connell finally broke the cycle of viewing the clitoris through the lens of the penis: she discovered that it was not, in fact, just an ‘unfinished penis’ made up of erectile tissue, but rather that it had its own unique (and beautiful!) shape and properties.

It goes without saying that the medical world still has a long way to go in reversing the gender bias which has historically shaped it. However, the wealth of research that continues to be carried out surrounding the clitoris does give us some hope. It finally seems that the world is on track to recognizing that maybe, just maybe, women’s involvement in sex can accompany an element of pleasure.

That maybe, just like men, we deserve to enjoy sex too.

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