Andrew Siegel MD 3/18/17
The clitoris—possessed by all female mammals—is a complex and mysterious organ. Even the word itself–and the way it rolls off the tongue as it is pronounced–is a curiosity. Many men (and women as well) are relatively clueless (“uncliterate”) about this unique and fascinating female anatomical structure. The greatest challenge of achieving cliteracy is that so much of this mysterious lady part is subterranean–in the nether regions, unexposed, under the surface, obscured from view–and therefore difficult to decipher.
The intention of this entry is to enable understanding of what is under the (clitoral) hood, literally and figuratively. Regardless of gender, a greater knowledge and appreciation of the anatomy, function and nuances of this special and unique biological structure will most certainly prove to be useful. In general terms, proficiency and command of geography and landmarks on the map is always helpful in directing one to arrive at the proper destination. Consider this entry a clitoral GPS.
The clitoris is mostly subterranean–what you see is merely the “tip of the iceberg.” The white lines indicate the “rest of the iceberg.”
(By Remas6 [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)
Mountainous and Hilly Female Terrain
The vulva (the external part of the female genital anatomy) consists of hilly terrain. It is well worth learning the “lay of the land” so that it can be traversed with finesse. The mons pubis (pubic mound) is the rounded and prominent mass of fatty tissue overlying the pubic bone, derived from the Latin “mons,” meaning “mountain.” Located beneath the lower part of the mons is the upper portion of the clitoris. The word clitoris derives from the Greek “kleitoris,” meaning “little hill.”
Lower abdomen, mons pubis and pudendal cleft
By Wikipicturesxd (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The Epicenter of Female Sexual Anatomy
The clitoris is arguably the most vital structure involved with female sexual response and sexual climax. It is the only human organ that exists solely for pleasure, the penis being a multi-tasker with reproductive and urinary roles as well as being a sexual organ. However, I would argue that nature had much more than simply pleasure in mind when it came to the design of the clitoris, with the ultimate goal being reproduction and perpetuation of the species. If sex was not pleasurable, there would little incentive for it and pregnancies would be significantly fewer. Think about non-human mammals—what would be their motivation to reproduce if sex were not pleasurable? (Male chimps and female chimps do not sit down together and plan on having a family!) So, pleasure is the bait and reproduction is the switch in nature’s clever scheme.
The clitoris, like the penis, consists largely of spongy erectile tissue that is rich in blood vessels. The presence of this vascular tissue results in clitoral swelling with sexual arousal, causing clitoral fullness and ultimately a clitoral “erection.”
Comparison of penis (left) and clitoris (right), each largely composed of spongy, vascular, erectile tissue
By Esseh (Self-made. Based on various anatomy texts.) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Clitoral size is highly variable from woman to woman—certainly as much as penile size. A very large clitoris can resemble a very small penis.
Interesting trivia: The female spotted hyena, squirrel monkey, lemur, and bearcat all have in common a very large clitoris referred to as a “pseudo-penis.” When erect, it appears like the male’s penis and is used to demonstrate dominance over other clan members.
The most sensitive part of the clitoris is the “head,” which is typically about the size of a pencil eraser and located at the upper part of the vulva where the inner lips meet. Despite its small size, the head has a dense concentration of nerve endings, arguably more than any other structure in the body. Like the penis, the head is covered with a protective hood known as the “foreskin.”
The head is really the “tip of the iceberg” because the vast majority of the clitoris is unexposed and internal. The clitoris (again like the penis) has a “shaft” (although it is internal) that extends upwards towards the pubic bone. The extensions of the shaft are the wishbone-shaped “legs” that turn downwards and attach to the pubic arch as it diverges on each side. Beneath the legs on either side of the vaginal opening are the clitoral “bulbs,” sac-shaped erectile tissues that lie beneath the outer vaginal lips. With sexual stimulation, these bulbs become full, plumping and tightening the vaginal opening.
One can think of the legs and bulbs as the roots of a tree, hidden from view and extending deeply below the surface, fundamental to the support and function of the clitoral shaft and head above, comparable to the tree’s trunk and branches.
Image above by OpenStax College – Anatomy & Physiology, Connexions Web site. http://cnx.org/content/col11496/1.6/, Jun 19, 2013., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30148635, no changes made to original
The Clitoral Response
With sexual arousal and stimulation, the clitoris engorges, resulting in thickening of the clitoral shaft and swelling of the head. With increasing clitoral stimulation, a clitoral erection occurs and ultimately the clitoral shaft and head withdraw from their overhanging position (clitoral “retraction”), pulling inwards against the pubic bone (like a turtle pulling its head in).
Interesting trivia: The blood pressure within the clitoris at the time of a clitoral erection is extremely high, literally at hypertensive (high blood pressure) levels. This is largely on the basis of the contractions of the pelvic floor/perineal muscles that surround the clitoral legs and bulbs and force pressurized blood into the clitoral shaft and head. The only locations in the body where hypertension is normal and, in fact, desirable are the penis and clitoris.
Why The Pelvic Floor Muscles Are Vital To Female Sexual Health And Clitoral Function
During arousal the pelvic floor muscles help increase pelvic blood flow, contributing to vaginal lubrication, genital engorgement and the transformation of the clitoris from flaccid to softly swollen to rigidly engorged. The pelvic floor muscles enable tightening of the vagina at will and function to compress the deep roots of the clitoris, elevating clitoral blood pressure to maintain clitoral erection. At the time of climax, they contract rhythmically. An orgasm would not be an orgasm without the contribution of these important muscles.
Bulbocavernosus muscle (pelvic floor muscle that supports and compresses the clitoral bulbs)
Ischiocavernosus muscle (pelvic floor muscle that supports and compresses the clitoral legs)
(Above two images are in public domain, originally from Gray’s Anatomy 1909)
During penetrative sexual intercourse, only a small percentage of women achieve enough direct clitoral stimulation to achieve a “clitoral” orgasm, as this is usually restricted to women with larger clitoral head sizes and shorter distances from the clitoris to the vagina. Depending on sexual position and angulation of penetration, the penis is capable of directly stimulating the clitoral head and shaft, typically in the missionary position when there is direct pubic bone to pubic bone contact. However, vaginal penetration and penile thrusting does directly stimulate the clitoral legs and bulbs and the thrusting motion can also put rhythmic traction on the labia, which can result in the clitoris getting pulled and massaged.
Interesting trivia: Magnetic resonance (MR) studies have shown that a larger clitoral head size and shorter distance from the clitoris to the vagina are correlated with an easier ability to achieve an orgasm.
The clitoris plays a key role in achieving orgasm for the majority of women. An estimated 70% of women require clitoral stimulation in order to achieve orgasm. Some women require direct clitoral stimulation, while for others indirect stimulation is sufficient. Only about 25% of women are capable of achieving orgasm via vaginal intercourse alone.
With increasing sexual arousal and stimulation, physical tension within the genitals gradually builds and once sufficient intensity and duration of sexual stimulation surpasses a threshold, involuntary rhythmic muscular contractions of the pelvic floor muscles, the vagina, uterus and anus occur, followed by the release of accumulated erotic tension and a euphoric state. Thereafter, the genital and clitoral engorgement and congestion subside, muscle relaxation occurs and a peaceful state of physical and emotional bliss and afterglow become apparent.
Clitoral orgasms are often described as a gradual buildup of sensation in the clitoral region culminating in intense waves of external muscle spasm and release. In contrast, vaginal orgasms are described as slower, fuller, wider, deeper, more expansive and complex, whole body sensations. The truth of the matter is that all lady parts are inter-connected and work together, so grouping orgasm into “clitoral” versus “vaginal” is an arbitrary distinction. Most women report that both clitoral and vaginal stimulation play roles in achieving sexual climax, but since the clitoris has the greatest density of nerves, is easily accessible and typically responds readily to stimulation, is the fastest track to sexual climax for most women.
There is a clitoral literacy movement that is gaining momentum. Please visit:
http://projects.huffingtonpost.com/cliteracy for more information on the clitoris and this campaign to foster awareness of this curious organ.
Wishing you the best of health,
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Dr. Andrew Siegel is a practicing physician and urological surgeon board-certified in urology as well as in female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery. Dr. Siegel serves as Assistant Clinical Professor of Surgery at the Rutgers-New Jersey Medical School and is a Castle Connolly Top Doctor New York Metro Area, Inside Jersey Top Doctor and Inside Jersey Top Doctor for Women’s Health. His mission is to “bridge the gap” between the public and the medical community that is in such dire need of bridging.
Author of MALE PELVIC FITNESS: Optimizing Sexual & Urinary Health http://www.MalePelvicFitness.com
Author of THE KEGEL FIX: Recharging Female Pelvic, Sexual and Urinary Health http://www.TheKegelFix.com (much of the material from this entry was excerpted from this book)