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The Clitoris: A Reveal Two Millennia in the Making

Do you recognize the shape above me?

Kind of an alien, penguin spaceship, maybe?

Well, not exactly.

It's something called the clitoris. You may have heard of it?

It's had a lot of names throughout the ages.

Little hill. Little pillar. Electric bell.

Or my personal favorite: the devil's teat.

But all these names seem to refer to something small and delicate.

That little nub we all know and love.

What they really fail to recognize is that the clitoris is an iceberg.

About 90 percent of this organ is beneath the surface.

So that nub is actually the "glans clitoris"

And you can think of it the same as the head of the penis.

But beneath it, if you think of the entire organ, you've got these two, tear-drop-shaped bulbs. And then you've got these two tapered arms that curve out to the side and reach almost 9 centimeters into the pelvis.

The shape of the clitoris explains many things including how female orgasm works and what the g-spot actually is.

But you'll have to watch to the end of the video to figure that one out.

The clitoris has 8,000 nerve endings, which is at least two to three times as many as the penis. Not that anyone's counting.

So if all of this seems familiar to you so far, good for you, I salute you. But for the rest of us, you might be wondering why this isn't more common knowledge.

Part of the reason is that Western culture, and that includes science has long valued the penis and its every tremor more than the clitoris and its remarkable anatomy.

After all, most of the scientists doing the investigating were men.

But in a more practical sense, the penis is a lot easier to study and measure. It just kind of hangs out there. Whereas the clitoris grows much more internally. It's more entwined with its surroundings. It doesn't always announce its presence.

Now it's time to dive into the history of the clitoris.

Before we do that let's talk a little bit about the place where we're standing. We're standing in the Ether dome at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

And the structure is built in the style of the great anatomical theaters of Europe in the 16th century. And it's really when you have the birth of modern anatomy.

So you had doctors and learned men all crowded seats like these trying to get look at the body being cut open in real-time.

The easiest way to get a body was to get one of a hanged criminal. But a few of these bodies came from women criminals or often women who died in child birth. And it was those dissections that changed the way we thought about the female body.

So that we sixteenth century Europe. Now let's rewind 2,000 years back to Ancient Greece. And you have a lot of theories about the female body floating around. Not many of them grounded in reality because you didn't have much human dissection yet.

So, for instance, you had Hippocrates, the father of medicine. But Hippocrates never actually dissected a human woman, but he did notice something in the pubic area of women, which he called a "collumella" or little column. And we would today call it the glans clitoris.

A little later you had Galen. Now Galen said that your lady parts are like the eyes of a mole. They're stunted, underdeveloped and kind of useless. He described the uterus as an inside out hairy penis, where the uterus was the phallus and the ovaries were internal testicles. Galen was so into the vagina and this inside out hairy penis theory that he dismissed the clitoris all together.

And unfortunately, he was a huge influence on Western Medicine. So for millennia, the clitoris languished in obscurity.

And that brings us back to 16th century Italy. The body had become new territory to be charted. The place where great men of anatomy could make their discoveries. One of the greatest anatomists, Andreas Vesalius still argued that the clitoris was not a thing. He said he couldn't find it in any healthy woman.

But where the master failed, the student succeeded. Vesalius's assistant, Realado Colombo, announced that he had discovered a new organ.

He would call it, "Amor Veneris," or the love of Venus. And to his credit he also identified the actual function of the clitoris.

He called it "the sublime organ of female pleasure" and he recommended rubbing it with your penis until droplets of seed burst forth.

These discoveries ushered in a whole new era of clitoral knowledge. That included exquisite illustrations like these ones by a German anatomist named Georg Kobelt. These were some of the first definitive images of the internal clitoris.

That was in the 1840s. Fast forward to the 1910s... Enter, Sigmund Freud.

Sigmund Freud is known as the father of psychoanalysis but he actually started as a medical doctor. He knew what the clitoris was. He knew what it was for. And yet he mounted a targeted attack on this organ.

Freud called the clitoris an "infantile organ." And he said to become a mature woman you had to transfer your orgasm from your clitoris to your vagina. And thus he invented the vaginal orgasm.

Freud's theories marked a dark day for clitoral studies. Despite the fact that his theories were blatantly unscientific they helped turn the clitoris back into something feared and reviled.

Thanks, Freud.

So by the 20th century, we had a picture of the clitoris, but it was all in bits and pieces. Part of the problem was we literally didn't have images of the clitoris. We only had MRI images of the clitorises of dead older women.

So an Australian urologist named Helen O'Connell set out to change that. In the 1990s, she performed the first MRI images of the clitorises of living aroused women.

And basically what she found when she published her paper in 2005 was that the clitoris is 10 times bigger than most people thought.

But it wasn't just size. This organ was intimately connected to urethra where your urine comes out and to the vagina, the stretchy tube.

So O'Connell suggested a new term. She called it the "clitoral complex."

It doesn't quite roll off the tongue, the way the clitoris does... pun intended, but it was a more accurate way of thinking about it. The clitoris is not just an isolated island in your anatomy. It's intimately connected to all the rest of your reproductive parts.

This has some really important implications. Surveys find that only 18 percent of women have orgasms through vaginal intercourse alone. And studies like these suggest that actually that's not a vaginal orgasm. That's just the stimulation of the clitoris through the walls of the vagina.

And in the same way, what we call the "G-Spot" is really just the back of the clitoris. It's not some new organ.

O'Connell wasn't doing her work in a vacuum. She was building off an army of clitoral explorers who came after Freud, who all argued that the clitoris was the anatomical center of female pleasure and began to restore the dignity of this underappreciated organ.

But what all these people were saying, in different ways is that all orgasms are clitoral. No matter where you feel the sensation it all comes from this one organ.

And so let's take one final look at this remarkable structure above me.

Appreciate its edges, its contours, its curves. Appreciate the centuries of research of probing and perseverance that went into getting such a good look at it.

This shape is crucial in the bedroom, on the operating table, and in anatomy class.

And I hope the next time you see it, you won't think of some alien, unfamiliar shape.

You'll say, 'ah, hello old friend, I know you.'

Thanks for everything, Freud.

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