The clitoris may be one of the least understood organs of the female anatomy. It may be pea-sized, but it packs a powerful punch thanks to thousands of nerve endings and an exclusive, unique function that’s all about pleasure.
However, the clitoris is notoriously understudied — as is everything related to women's sexual health. While that may be the case, there are still quite a few facts we do know about the clitoris that you may be surprised to learn.
The clitoris has more than 10,000 nerve endings
A 2022 study revealed that the clitoris has way more nerve endings than the 8,000 initially believed. As it turns out, that 8,000 number was collected from an older study on livestock — not people — which was initially pointed out by activist Jessica Pins in a Medium article. Dr. Maria Uloko, an 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 this in perspective, the clitoris has 10,000 nerves, while the palm of the hand — a larger area — has 17,000.
Hygiene is important
“It’s common for the clitoris and clitoral hood to collect smegma, which is formed from a combination of a body’s naturally occurring oils, dead skin cells and other fluids,” Herbenick explains. “It can be white or yellow and look like soft, crumbly cheese. Smegma is not contagious nor is it a sexually transmitted infection. However, it can build up and make it difficult to retract the clitoral hood or — for people with penises — the foreskin. The best way to prevent smegma build-up is to wash the genitals — no soap is needed, just water and one’s hand is sufficient.”
Uloko points out that while the mechanism of the clitoral hood is similar to foreskin on an uncircumcised penis, it doesn’t come with the same instructions. Children born with penises are taught “foreskin hygiene,” she says, but “they don't ever teach little girls, or parents of little girls, or people with vulvas how to appropriately 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 goes well beyond what we see. The clitoris includes an internal structure that is the shape of a wishbone and includes two 10-centimeter long shafts, as well as an internal bulb.
The clitoris and the penis are very similar
According to Uloko, the reason the penis and the clitoris have “the same anatomy” is because, in utero, they were one and the same. Both the clitoris and the penis develop from what's called the ambisexual genital tubercle.
“The only reason that the they look different is because, in utero, little boys, if they're born genetically male, they have a surge of testosterone that causes their little clitoris to elongate into a penis,” Uloko notes.
The genitalia start to differentiate around 9 weeks of pregnancy, when the genital tubercle begins to form into a clitoris or a penis.
The clitoris has a very special function
The clitoris is the only organ in the body that is 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 stimulating the vagina without stimulating the clitoris is impossible.
Whether or not 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 not surprising that many people with vulvas either require focused clitoral stimulation for orgasm or find that clitoral stimulation makes orgasm easier,” she says. “This can be done through using fingers or a vibrator to stimulate the clitoris during vaginal penetration or intercourse. It can also be done through cunnilingus, aka oral sex on the vulva. Paying special attention to the clitoris can help, though 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 focused on the clitoris as well, people would be having better sex.”
The clitoris relies on testosterone
Though we tend to associate male sex organs with testosterone, Uloko says that the clitoris, which contains erectile tissue, is actually “very testosterone dependent.”
“In order to have a healthy, robust clitoris, you need healthy levels of testosterone and actually, people with ovaries actually make 1,000 times more testosterone than they do estrogen,” she explains.
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