The clitoris may be one of the least known organs of the female anatomy. It may be the size of a pea, but it packs a mighty punch thanks to thousands of nerve endings and an exclusive and unique function that speaks of pleasure.
However, the clitoris is notoriously understudied, as is anything related to women’s sexual health. While that may be the case, there are still some facts that we do learn about the clitoris you might be surprised to learn.
The clitoris has more than 10,000 nerve endings
A 2022 study revealed that the clitoris has far more nerve endings than initially believed by 8,000. As it turns out, that 8,000 number was culled from an old study of livestock, not people, which was initially pointed out by activist Jessica Pins in a Medium article. Dr. Maria Uloko, assistant professor of urology at the University of California San Diego, and Dr. Blair Peters, an assistant professor at Oregon Health and Science University and a reconstructive surgeon, worked together on the study using samples from phalloplasty surgeries, which is the creation of a penis as part of gender-affirming care. To put that into perspective, the clitoris has 10,000 nerves, while the palm of the hand — a larger area — has 17,000.
Hygiene is important
You may not have thought too a lot about clitoral hygiene — but maybe you should, says Dr. Debby Herbenick, a sexuality researcher at Indiana University and author of Coregasm training.
“It’s normal for the clitoris and clitoral hood to collect smegma, which is formed from a combination of the body’s natural oils, dead skin cells, and other fluids,” explains Herbenick. “It can be white or yellow and look like a soft, crumbly cheese. Smegma is not contagious nor is it a sexually transmitted infection. However, it can build up and make it difficult for the clitoral hood or, for people with penises, the foreskin to retract. The best way to prevent smegma buildup is to wash your genitals—no soap is needed, just water and a hand.
Uloko points out that while the clitoral hood mechanism is similar to the foreskin on an uncircumcised penis, it doesn’t come with the same instructions. Children born with penises are taught “foreskin hygiene,” he says, but they “never teach little girls, or parents of little girls, or people with vulvas how to properly clean” the clitoral hood and clitoris.
The clitoris can be even longer than the penis
The head of the clitoris may be relatively small, but the organ is far beyond what we see. The clitoris comprises an internal structure that is shaped like a wishbone and includes two 10-centimetre-long shafts, as well as an internal bulb.
The clitoris and the penis are very similar
According to Uloko, the reason the penis and clitoris have “the same anatomy” is because, in the uterus, they were the same. Both the clitoris and the penis develop from what is called the ambisexual genital tubercle.
“The only reason they look different is because, in the womb, little boys, if they were born genetically male, have a surge of testosterone that causes their tiny clitoris to stretch into a penis,” notes Uloko.
The genitalia begin to differentiate around 9 weeks of pregnancy, when the genital tubercle begins to form into a clitoris or penis.
The clitoris has a very special function
The clitoris is the only organ in the body designed solely for pleasure, yet it often doesn’t get enough love in the bedroom, thanks, in part, to the myth that vaginal stimulation is ideal for orgasm. In fact, some researchers have argued that vaginal orgasms are actually a myth and that they stimulate the vagina without stimulating the clitoris is impossible.
Whether vaginal orgasms are real or just clitoral orgasms by another name, Herbenick points out that the clitoris is the “most sensitive part of the vulva” and therefore should be treated as such.
“It’s no surprise that many people with vulvas require targeted clitoral stimulation for orgasm or find that clitoral stimulation makes orgasming easier,” she says. “This can be done by using your fingers or a vibrator to stimulate the clitoris during vaginal penetration or intercourse. It can also be done through cunnilingus, or oral sex on the vulva. Paying close attention to the clitoris can help, although always ask your partner what kind of stimulation they prefer.
Uloko calls the organ a “cheat code” for pleasure, noting, “If we took what we know about the penis and also focused on the clitoris, people would have better sex.”
The clitoris relies on testosterone
Although we tend to associate the male sex organs with testosterone, Uloko says the clitoris, which contains erectile tissue, is actually “very testosterone dependent.”
“To have a healthy, robust clitoris, you need healthy levels of testosterone, and in reality, people with ovaries actually produce 1,000 times more testosterone than they do with estrogen,” she explains.
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