Last week, feminist icon Gloria Steinem made headlines for slipping on a "clit ring" — that is, a ring in the shape of a clitoris.
Surprised by what it looks like? You're not the only one. The female clitoris has long been a mystery, so much so that researchers hadn't examined it internally until an MRI study in the late 1990s, and it wasn't until 2009 that sonography revealed how the clit actively functions during sex.
"Believe it or not, lots of people don't even know what a clit is, let alone where it is," clinical psychologist and sex therapist Marianne Brandon told Mic. "A penis is an extremely obvious part of the anatomy. It can't be missed, and it can't be misunderstood. Unlike a clit, it's obvious when a penis likes something, or doesn't like something. Also unlike a clit, there are not parts of the penis hidden under the skin."
But just because it's hidden doesn't mean we shouldn't know what it is, or even say the word out loud (when's the last time you heard anyone say "clitoris" on TV? And no, that one Seinfeld episode doesn't really count). It's about time we finally get honest — and educated — about the clitoris.
The clitoris is an organ solely devoted to pleasure.
In fact, it's the only organ in the human body made for that purpose alone. While there are plenty of spots on both men and women that serve as pleasure points (oh hello, penis), they serve other purposes, such as means for reproduction. The clit, on the other hand, does not serve a reproductive purpose at all; it's just there to give women pleasure.
The clitoris is much larger than you think.
The clit is more than just the little nub that resides under a hood at the top of the vagina. That top part is just the glans, while the internal clitoris consists of two corpora cavernosa, which also form two crura, or legs, that extend up to nine centimeters in length. That's the wishbone-like shape Steinem displayed when she flashed her clit ring.
The clitoris isn't just a small "lady penis."
Although men seem to think they won the lottery by having a penis, when it comes to sensitivity, women are the real winners. According to the Museum of Sex, the outer part of the clit contains roughly 8,000 sensory nerve fibers. This makes it not only the most sensitive part of a woman's body, but also much more sensitive than the penis, which contains around half as many nerves.
But it does get hard.
No matter their final appearance, sex organs develop from the same embryonic cells, and they're similarly connected to the nervous system. In fact, the outer part of the clit (the aforementioned glans) is analogous to the head of a penis (also called, unsurprisingly, the glans). Just as a penis gets hard and erect due to a surge of blood during arousal, so does the clitoris. After orgasm, that hardness goes away, and the clit returns to its normal state.
The clitoris is the key ingredient to our orgasms.
There's a reason we now hear about the "C spot." "Most sex researchers would say that the majority of women need clitoral stimulation to orgasm," Brandon explains. Researchers have found that 75% of women are unable to have an orgasm during intercourse without some sort of clitoral stimulation.
Even when it's a "vaginal orgasm," the clitoris definitely matters.
We tend to talk about "vaginal orgasms" vs. "clitoral orgasms" as two separate things. But some experts say that pressure or stimulation of the internal clitoris can be a source of pleasure, something that can happen through vaginal or even anal penetration.
Debates over the existence of the "vaginal orgasm" might actually be semantic ones, then. "Because the clitoris is actually such a large organ, some sex researchers say it's nearly impossible for a woman to orgasm without her clitoris being stimulated in some way," Brandon says, if even indirectly during thrusting. As such, "what we once considered to be a vaginal orgasm is actually an internal clitoral orgasm," according to the Museum of Sex.
The scientific debates rage on, but one thing's certain: Trying to nail down whether an orgasm was "vaginal" or "clitoral" seems less important than understanding how important the clitoris is for both.
It's a body part that grows.
While the clit size may not matter for ego purposes as penis size does, it has been suggested that the smaller the clit, the more difficult it is for women to achieve orgasm. However, even those with a small clitoris can have hope for the future, because unlike the penis, the clit grows with age. At 32, a woman's clitoris is four times the size it was when she reached puberty; after menopause, it's seven times the size was when a woman was born.
The clitoris isn't always obvious.
If a woman can't find her clit, she shouldn't expect a partner to find it, either. Although some are large enough in size, others are so small they can be completely covered by vulva tissue, and locating them can be tough. After all, only a quarter of the clitoris resides outside the body. But finding it is key, meaning a woman shouldn't feel shy about guiding her partner. (Here are some tips.)
For the clit, distance does matter.
Not only do clits come in different sizes, but also they can be closer or further from the vagina. A 2014 study found that women who have a hard time reaching orgasm had on average five to six more millimeters between their clit and their vagina than women woman who could orgasm more easily. Location really is everything.
The clitoris is finicky.
Because the clitoris is so sensitive, Brandon says, she sees women being more specific about their preferences for how they want to be touched. "[Men] rarely tell me, 'She touches too hard, too soft, she tickles, her hands are cold.' Women say those things all the time about how men touch their vulvas, clitorises included. Women are finicky, and so are their clitorises," she told Mic. It's not quite so easy to get off for a woman — but it's worth figuring out how. Which leads us to...
The clitoris is utterly misunderstood.
Because clits are so hard to understand, and if 75% of women need to have their clitoris stimulated in order to orgasm, then knowing how to do so is crucial for good sexual experiences.
Unfortunately, both men and women lack information. A 2005 study of 833 undergraduate students found that "women were not more likely than men to be able to locate the clitoris on a diagram," and "overall, neither men nor women out-performed the other sex on the clitoral knowledge measures."
But tellingly, the researchers found that "self-exploration appears to be the most helpful source of information for learning about the clitoris," and knowledge of the clitoris was highly correlated with orgasm during masturbation.
In short, women finding out about their own body parts and pleasure, whether through physical exploration or real-life education such as the Cliteracy Project, can lead to increased pleasure in their sexual lives — with themselves and others.