The invisible clitoris: The historical erasure of an organ that defies patriarchy

New research and experiments reveal its past invisibility, a parable of patriarchal culture. The complete anatomy of the organ that gives women pleasure was not known until 1998

Mujer Feminismo
Members of the group 'Gang du clito' drag an inflatable clitoris in Paris on March 8, 2021.STEFANO RELLANDINI (AFP/ getty)
Mar Padilla

It’s the elephant — with its legs wide open — in the room. It is a real presence and, at the same time, an enigma of the first order. We think we belong to a knowledge-loving society, but it wasn’t until June 1, 1998 — 1998! — that we learned the complete anatomy of the clitoris, when Australian doctor Helen O’Connell published it in the Journal of Urology. (Hippocrates completed the anatomy of the penis in 35 B.C.) Why?

One answer is that the clitoris “is an orgasm that ceases to be married to the penis, to the law,” as Paula Bennett wrote in 1993. By its being and nature, the clitoris — an organ that exists solely for women’s pleasure, unconnected to coitus and reproduction — shatters the framework of social and cultural structures of subservience to men. As Shere Hite denounced on an ABC television program in 1977, traditionally “sex has focused on preparing the woman for the act of penetration.” Period.

Like Hite and Bennett, throughout the last century, researchers and essayists such as Anne Koedt and Carla Lonzi pondered the clitoris as a symbol of independence and autonomy. Now, transfeminism is once again reflecting on it and thousands of possible sexualities.

With this resurgence, perhaps the tale of the clitoris will have a well-deserved happy ending, but its story is one of desolation and terror because of the attacks on it — through direct removal in many African countries and some areas of the Middle East, even today, and in European countries, in the past. It is the shocking story of an organ rendered invisible because its presence challenges “the anatomical, political and social order and, at bottom, interrupts the logic of command and obedience. And that is disturbing,” says Catherine Malabou, the author of Pleasure Erased: The Clitoris Unthought.

“It's crazy!”

The old order may be faltering, but it has not gone away just yet. For example, mainstream pornography — where the female body is routinely represented as a mere artifact for the pleasure of another — shows that it is a long way from accepting the conditions of freedom, diversity, and equality. And knowledge of the clitoris — its parts, its functioning — is, indeed, scarce. In the documentary My Name is Clitoris (Daphné Leblond, 2019), when two young girls are told that the inner part of the clitoris is more than 10 centimeters long, they are dumbfounded. Then they reflect on their ignorance and everyone else’s. “It’s crazy!” one of them exclaims.

“In general, sexuality has never been studied scientifically but rather ideologically,” Malabou reflects over the phone. While this ideology may be in the process of collapsing, much remains to be done. In Mujeres que follan (Women Who Fuck), journalist Adaia Teruel lays out a tableau of current female sexuality and does not hesitate to note that the clitoris — once again — is now beginning to be rediscovered. “It’s tremendous. One of the women I interviewed said to me, ‘How can it be that we know there’s water on the moon and not where the liquid that many of us women release when we cum comes from?’” she says.

The construction of ignorance

“The tale of the clitoris is a parable of culture, of how the body is forged into a shape valuable to civilization, despite, not because of, itself,” wrote Thomas Laqueur in Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. For Laqueur, as for Malabou, every anatomy lesson depends on the cultural politics of representation and the perceptions of the time. And for almost two centuries, female pleasure and its organ par excellence have been a story of ghosts, or of the disappeared.

In her research Critical Clitoridectomy: Female Sexual Imagery and Feminist Psychoanalytic Theory, Paula Bennett demonstrated the general underrepresentation of female biology in scientific studies, and that of the clitoris in particular, which inspired her to coin the term “critical clitoridectomy” to refer to the scarcity of studies on the clitoris. And for good reason. As the historian of science Robert N. Proctor has demonstrated, ignorance is often not a lack of knowledge but rather a social construct.

But if you persevere, you find traces, old clues connected to myths that are still considered half-truths today. For example, in the 1960s, faced with the ordeal of reaching vaginal orgasm as opposed to the ease of clitoral orgasm reported by women in her practice, psychiatrist Mary Jane Sherfey wondered whether what was labeled “female sexual neurosis” was actually a non-existent disease. She decided to delve into the mystery and found out that, throughout history, there had been a great variety of genders, habits and forms of sexual connection between humans, and that female sexual relations were promiscuous and generous in many societies. She also discovered that these relationships were curtailed from the 19th and 20th century onward, when heterosexual intercourse with penetration became the mandated sexual relationship, and vaginal orgasms reigned supreme.

Freud and his student Marie Bonaparte

At that point, a strategy of erasure was deployed, and it was no joke: in Victorian times, scientists such as Dr. Isaac Baker Brown, the president of the London Medical Society, proposed removing the clitoris as a cure for women’s “mental” problems; that operation was practiced in Europe and the United States. Baker was later forced to resign, but his ideas endured and, according to data from the United Nations, “therapeutic” clitoridectomies were recorded well into the 20th century.

In the same vein, let us remember that Sigmund Freud — one of Western society’s great factotums — stated that women had a kind of “deteriorated penis,” and that if they did not achieve orgasm through penetration they were infantile, dysfunctional, frigid. Sick. Perhaps the father of psychoanalysis did not physically circumcise the clitoris, but his ideas had the symbolic effect of cutting off healthy sexuality. For instance, Freud’s student, psychoanalyst Marie Bonaparte, believed that she suffered from frigidity and underwent three operations to bring the clitoris closer to the vagina in an effort to achieve vaginal orgasm. As historian Nelli M. Thompson wrote in the American Imago magazine in 2003, Bonaparte did not succeed.

Freud’s assertions had other powerful results. For example, throughout the 20th century, information about the clitoris was reduced, and in 1948 the clitoris was eliminated from Gray’s Anatomy, one of the world’s most important anatomy books. For Malabou, Freud’s works reproduce a “scheme of domination and servitude” in sexual relations, and his grave error was to confuse a specific type of sexuality by command — the dominatrix — with human sexuality in general. Therefore, the important question is a question as old as time: how do we want to live (and relate to each other sexually)? In a domineering way or in a collaborative, free way that is pleasurable for all?

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