Clitoral Truth: The World at Your Fingertipsby Rebecca Chalker
The clitoris has been dismissed, undervalued, unexplored, and misunderstood for hundreds of years, but the truth is out there, and internationally celebrated sex educator Rebecca Chalker has found it. In The Clitoral Truth, Chalker offers the only mainstream, in-depth exploration devoted solely to women's genital anatomy and sexual response. Women readers… See more details below
The clitoris has been dismissed, undervalued, unexplored, and misunderstood for hundreds of years, but the truth is out there, and internationally celebrated sex educator Rebecca Chalker has found it. In The Clitoral Truth, Chalker offers the only mainstream, in-depth exploration devoted solely to women's genital anatomy and sexual response. Women readers everywherebe they straight, gay, or bisexualwill learn about the countless sexual sensations and discover how to enhance their sexual responses in a more concrete way than ever before. Enhanced with personal accounts, comprehensive illustrations, and a thorough appendix of female sexuality resources, this book helps women and their partners understand and expand their sexual potential and work toward becoming independent sexual beings.
- Seven Stories Press
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THE CLITORAL TRUTH
There's More to the Clitoris
Than We Ever Imagined!
* * *
A Full Frontal View
Despite three decades of activism since the 1960s, the perception of women's sexuality as less powerful, compelling, and profound than that of men is still almost universal. Since ancient Greece, men's bodieswith their sculpted muscles, visible genitals, and ready sexual responsehave been perceived as the perfection of beauty. Set against this ideal, women's bodieswith their hidden genitals, softer flesh, and slower sexual responsehave been viewed as imperfect. Today, men's sexual anatomy is still thought to be far more extensive and active than women's. Ejaculation and the single explosive orgasm are still seen as emblematic of men's superior sexual prowess, their sexual fantasies are thought to be more active and rewarding, and their need for sex more intense than women's.
From as far back as the Kinsey report in 1953, intercourse has not been found not to be the most effective means for women to experience the full range of their sexual response, and yet, penis-in-vagina sex remains ne plus ultra of sexual activity. Other methods of achieving orgasm and sexual pleasure for women are considered second-rate, not "real" sex. If we learned anything from President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, it's that most people still equate sex with intercourse. And men are seen as the sole possessors of the right to define and practice sex in ways that please them.
This male-centered concept of sexuality has been in existence for so long that we lack even the most basic vocabulary to describe our genital anatomy. Many women still think of their genitals as "down there" or make up pet names for them instead of directly referring to them with pride.
Most of today's sex advice books provide cartoon versions of women's genitals; The New Joy of Sex doesn't even have an entry for the clitoris. Even among anatomists and sexologists, there is an astonishing lack of agreement over what actually constitutes women's genital anatomy. Indeed, women's sexual expression has been profoundly suppressed by the male-centered intercourse ideal. Vaginal intercourse has been singled out as the only valid sexual activity, and heterosexuality has been promoted as the only genuinely approved norm. According to this line of reasoning, the sexual practices of lesbians and gay men are condemned as not "real" sex. Our concept of sex has become so male-defined that the single orgasm has become the gold standard for women's sexual response, and orgasm is often considered "optional" despite many women's ability to have multiple orgasms. In spite of countless historical references, studies, and anecdotal evidence, female ejaculationthe most dramatic of women's sexual secretionsis routinely dismissed by sexologists and physicians, and remains wildly controversial. It's no wonder that we often hear women's sexuality characterized as "mysterious," "perplexing," or "unknowable."
Clearly a revolution is in order. As I see it, this revolution must provide women with accurate and comprehensive information about their bodies and sexual response. Sexuality education and sex advice literature must offer a broader definition of what constitutes "sex," and promote a wider range of sexually pleasurable activities that enable women to have an equitable share of physically and emotionally rewarding sex. We must empower women to develop a stronger sense of self as social and sexual beings so that we may all be free to act assertively on our sexual desires. And finally, we must investigate the many social and psychological facets of sexuality to better understand their place and value in our lives.
A DEARTH OF WORDS
We've looked at sex through the phallocentric lens for so long that we don't even have a vocabulary to describe our genital anatomy and articulate sexual experiences. Psychologist Carol Tavris writes that "in spite of living in a culture that seems sexually obsessed, many women still do not even accurately name their genitals. At best, little girls are taught that they have a vagina, which becomes the word for everything `down there'; they rarely learn they also have a vulva and clitoris. (Men have many words for their genitals, and none of them are vague.)" Tavris quotes writer Lucy Bland, who observes that "we face a past and a present in which there has never been a language allowing us to think about and define women's sexuality."
A passage from The Diary of Anne Frank dated March 24, 1944initially censored by Anne's fatherpoignantly illustrates the struggle that many women of all ages endure while trying to understand their bodies and their sexuality.
I'd like to ask Peter [Peter Van Daan who, along with his family, joined the Franks in hiding in the Secret Annex] whether he knows what girls look like down there. I don't think boys are as complicated as girls. You can easily see what boys look like in photographs or pictures of male nudes, but with women it's different. In women, the genitals, or whatever they're called, are hidden between their legs. Peter has probably never seen a girl up close. To tell you the truth, neither have I. Boys are a lot easier. How on earth would I go about describing a girl's parts? I can tell from what he said that he doesn't know exactly how it all fits together. He was talking about the "Muttermund" (cervix), but that's on the inside, where you can't see it. Everything's pretty well arranged in us women. Until I was eleven or twelve, I didn't realize there was a second set of labia on the inside, since you couldn't see them. What's even funnier is that I thought urine came out of the clitoris. I asked Mother one time what that little bump was, and she said she didn't know. She can really play dumb when she wants to! ... But to get back to the subject. How on earth can you explain what it all looks like without any models? Shall I try anyway? Okay, here goes! ... When you're standing up, all you see from the front is hair. Between your legs there are two soft, cushiony things, also covered with hair, which press together when you're standing, so you can't see what's inside. They separate when you sit down, and they're very red and quite fleshy on the inside. In the upper part, between the outer labia, there's a fold of skin that, on second thought, looks like a kind of blister. That's the clitoris. Then come the inner labia, which are also pressed together in a kind of crease. When they open up, you can see a fleshy little mound, no bigger than the top of my thumb. The upper part has a couple of small holes in it, which is where the urine comes out. The lower part looks as if it were just skin, and yet that's where the vagina is. You can barely find it, because the folds of skin hide the opening. The hole's so small I can hardly imagine how a man could get in there, much less how a baby could come out. It's hard enough trying to get your index finger inside. That's all there is, and yet it plays such an important role!
Anne Frank, who died at Bergen-Belsen, a Nazi prison camp, just before her sixteenth birthday, is renowned for her precocity about culture, politics, and human nature. In this long-expurgated passage from her diary, we discover a young woman in total isolation who has no peer models or parental support, struggling to comprehend her sexual self. One gets the feeling that Anne would have been eager to learn about the interior, secret parts of the clitoris if only she had been afforded the chance. This passage reveals that she did know a tremendous amount about her genitals, which given the time, circumstance, and her age, is truly remarkable. Today most girls her age couldn't name half of these parts accurately.
As you will see, we will find this missing information so that we can have a vocabulary to describe our genital anatomy, make sense of our sexual experiences, discover how to enhance them, and understand where orgasms come from.
IN THE MID-1950S, GROWING UP in a small town in the South, my friends and I suffered from adult amnesia about sexuality and a dearth of words similar to Anne Frank's. When I was in the seventh grade, we had a one-hour "sex education" session. During this highly charged but rather unrevealing time, we watched an animated cartoon that depicted a sperm literally floating from the outline of a male body into the abdomen of the outline of a female body. As did most adolescents in the 1950s, we educated ourselves in haphazard, sometimes serendipitous ways. In the eighth grade, two of us babysat for our chorus teacher and quickly discovered a "marriage manual" on her bookshelf. The next time she and her husband went to a movie, a mixed group of five or six of us showed up as soon as the taillights of their car disappeared over the hill. Over the next few months, we read the "marriage manual" aloud from cover to cover, whenever two of us babysat. We found out how to engage in foreplay, how the sperm really gets into the vagina, and how a man and a woman achieved simultaneous orgasm (in theory). But the vocabulary remained somewhat opaque. I remember being particularly flummoxed by the term "labia." There were no pictures in the manual, and the dictionary was useless, since I had no idea what "genitals" were.
Naturally, we wanted to know more, so we hatched a bold plan. After school, five or six of us took the city bus to the Florida State Library. I had been a regular library-goer since the fifth grade, and knew my way around the stacks. Having no sense that we were about to perform a radical act, but well aware that we were doing something "forbidden," we looked up "Sex" in the card catalog and went immediately to the sexuality section. Naturally, the selection was limited, but we did find the Kinsey report, with its many accounts of real people having sex. A whole new world opened up for us. For me, the grand revelation was that this covert activity that provoked giggles, snickers, and knowing glances among adults, was indeed a ubiquitous, normal, and somehow intensely rewarding human activity. It was years, however, before I learned that "labia" meant "lips," which were not on the face but between a woman's legs on the face of the genitals. In retrospect, I now wonder if our teacher purposely left that book in plain view in her home to supplement the cartoon version of sexuality education we were given. For that era, it would have been a very subversive move.
In 1997, a bill providing the first-ever government funding for sexuality education from kindergarten through the twelfth grade was passed by Congress, and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. This would be something to celebrate if the bill had not been designed with input from conservative think tanks such as Focus on the Family and the National Association of Christian Education, which espouse abstinence until marriage as the only healthy sexual strategy. The bill provides $250 million over five years for programs that use medical misinformation and unproven psychological theories to promote fear and shame:
* Contraception: Young people may get sick or even die if they use it"
* STDs: Virtually no information is provided on how to prevent them
* Abortion: Exceedingly rare problems such as infection, hemorrhage, future miscarriages, premature births, infertility, and post-abortion depression are presented as "very likely" outcomes
* Gender orientation: Homosexuality is depicted as "unhealthy"
* Nontraditional family structures are depicted as being "deeply troubled"
All of this simplistic, sex-negative information is designed to discourage teens from engaging in sex. The bill expressly denies grants to any state or community whose programs contain any information or skill-training that helps teens develop positive attitudes toward sex and healthy sexual decision making and behavior. Certainly abstaining from intercourse until one is better equipped to handle the emotional and physical consequences is a valuable sexual strategy, but advocating abstinence as the only viable strategy leaves teens (more than 50 percent of whom are sexually active) vulnerable to the very real consequences of sexual involvement.
These government-funded programs, including Teen Aid and Respect, Inc., may actually be worse than what passed for sexuality education in the 1950s. In order to get useful sex-positive information, young people are being forced, as they were in the past, to look outside of "sexuality education" for answers and solutions to their questions and sexual dilemmas. The lucky ones will find help. The unlucky ones will not, and there is a high likelihood that as they mature, they will view their sexuality through the sex-negative lens of the conservative eye. Fortunately those who do seek outside information have a plethora of options, a representative sample of which is listed in Resources beginning on page 213.
THE ANATOMY OF SEX
One of the reasons sex is thought to be more dynamic and rewarding for men than for women is that the penis is seen as much larger and more complex, and consequently more powerful, than women's genitals. After all, the penis is readily visible, usually snaps to attention at the drop of the trousers, and shoots off like a water pistol during orgasm. However, there is more to our genitals than meets the eye ... or better yet, the hand.
The idea that the clitoris is as big and powerful as the penis may seem preposterous, especially if you look in almost any medical dictionary, anatomy text, or sexuality advice book and see a tiny glans labeled as "THE CLITORIS." So many books concur with the depiction of the clitoris as a miniscule pea, that one would be forced to conclude that this is true, and that those who think otherwise have a full-blown case of penis envy. But quite the opposite is true.
WHICH IS THE BOY AND WHICH IS THE GIRL?
If you were to look at an illustration of a human embryo at two months, it is impossible to discern the sex of the developing organism. During the first eight weeks of gestation, all embryos appear to be female. Around the seventh week, if the embryo has two X (female) chromosomes, it will continue to develop as a female. If it has one X and one Y (male) chromosome, it will begin to produce testosterone, which stimulates the growth of rudimentary male sexual features. So much for the Eve-out-of-Adam myth. As you can see, it is Adam-out-of-Eve. Figure 1 shows the common origins of the major parts of the male and female genital anatomy.
FEMINISTS REDISCOVER THE CLITORIS
The modern, anatomically correct definition of the clitoris was developed by the FFWHCs. None of the women in the group had any formal medical training, but they learned about basic well-woman gynecology by working in their clinics and reading widely in the field. In 1975, they decided to write a book on women's reproductive health using the knowledge they had gained through the day-to-day operation of their clinics. In addition to issues such as abortion, contraception, and vaginal health, they decided to include a chapter on sexuality.
"Initially, we thought we would just review the popular and medical literature on sexuality, critique it, and write the chapter, but we were in for a big surprise," says Carol Downer, the FFWHCs founder and its longtime CEO. "Little of what we found in sex advice books or in medical texts seemed to correspond to our sexual experiences or to illuminate them in any useful way." They had run headlong into the male-centered, heterosexual model of sexuality.
In a quest to understand sexual response from a woman's perspective, nine women from the Los Angeles and Orange County, California, FFWHCsCarol Downer, Suzann Gage, Sherry Shifter, Lorraine Rothman, Francie Hornstein, Lynn Heidelberg, Kathleen Hodge, Lynn Walker, and Chris Clearyheld regular consciousness raising sessions and shared their intimate sexual experiences in considerable depth. They dissected their sexual responses in minute detail, taking off their pants, sitting in a circle, and comparing parts of their visible genital anatomy to textbook illustrations. To fred more detailed information, they examined classic anatomical illustrations, tracking down obscure references in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European anatomy texts. The only modern book that they found to be illuminating was psychiatrist Mary Jane Sherfey's The Nature and Evolution of Female Sexuality. Taking off from Masters and Johnson's definition of the penis, Sherfey argued that the clitoris is no more just its tip (the glans) than the penis is just its glans. She compared the clitoris to the penile anatomy point by point, demonstrating how they were equivalent to each another and finding the clitoris to be an extensive and powerful organ system.
Several women in the group made movies and took photographs of one another masturbating to closely observe the dynamic changes that occur in the visible structures of the clitoris during sexual response. In preparation for doing the anatomical illustrations, artist Suzann Gage, a member of the group, took an anatomy course at UCLA. Her illustrations vividly brought the group's concept of the clitoris to life.
Using historical and modern anatomical descriptions, the group enlarged and refined Sherfey's description of the clitoris, creating a new definition that encompassed all of the structures undergoing changes during orgasm, whether contributing to orgasm in a significant way or marking the boundaries. After doing their intensive study of women's genital anatomy, the FFWHCs identified eighteen structures; some of these are readily visible, while others cannot be seen but are easily felt, especially during sexual response. Still others cannot be felt, but when they are engorged with blood during sexual response, they cause the clitoris to greatly increase in size just as the penis does. The group's analyses and redefinition of the clitoris were originally published in a book I edited, entitled A New View of A Woman's Body: An Illustrated Guide.
THE VISIBLE PARTS OF THE CLITORIS
The hairy outer lips (labia majora) are not considered a part of the clitoris because, embryologically speaking, they arise from the same fetal tissue as the scrotal sac, the pouch containing the testicles, which are a major component to the male reproductive system. The visible parts where the clitoris begins are found at the pointthe junction or front commissurewhere the edges of the outer lips meet at the base of the pubic mound. (The points where the corners of the eyelids and of the lips meet are also called commissures.)
The word "glans" comes from the ancient Greek word for "acorn," and was probably chosen because the tip of the uncircumcised penis with its foreskin pulled back looks somewhat like a ripe acorn peeking out of its cap. The clitoris has a glans as well: the exquisitely sensitive nub that is, without question, the crown jewel of the clitoral system. The female glans, however, has one surprising and exhilarating difference. It holds between 6,000 and 8,000 sensory nerve endings, more than any other structure in the human bodymale or femaleand by one estimate about four times as many as the glans of the penis. This hypersensitive little node has only one purpose: pleasure, and its ability to receive and transmit sensations of touch, pressure, and vibration is unsurpassed.
The glans may be the crown jewel of the clitoral system, but the hairless inner lips (or labia minora, Latin for "little lips") are typically the most prominent feature of the visible clitoris. The moist wings of tissue enfold the glans, the urethral opening, the vaginal opening, and the two ducts of the paraurethral glands on either side of the urethral opening. The appearance of the inner lips varies greatly from woman to woman. They may range in color from pale peach to mauve, burgundy, or dark chocolate and the color may deepen after childbirth. The lips may be very trim and narrow, curled inward, fluted, or so widely flared that they protrude past the pubic hair. Their texture may be smooth, glassy, almost translucent, or deeply crinkled. It is not uncommon for one lip to look quite dissimilar to its mate. Betty Dodson, who was an artist before she became a sex educator, likes to characterize the inner lips in artistic terms such as "classic," "gothic," "baroque," "art deco," and "modern." "They are like snowflakes," she says. "Every one is unique and beautiful."
One of the important corrections that the FFWHCs made to the traditional definition of the clitoris was to change the names of the labia majora (big lips) and labia minora (little lips) to outer lips and inner lips. "In looking at our own genitals, and at hundreds of photographs that we took, we observed that `big' and `little' could be misleading," explains Carol Downer. "Quite often the `little' lips (labia minora) might be very pronounced, while the `large' lips (labia majora) might be relatively slim ... This more accurately describes what you actually see." It's interesting that in her intuitive description of the external genitalia, Anne Frank (see pages 24-26) uses the terms "outer labia" and "inner labia" instead of "big" and "little."
The outer edge of each inner lip flares and continues toward the pubic mound (mons veneris in Latin, or Mound of Venus), forming a protective hood over the glans. The hood is analogous to the foreskin of the penis. The inner edges of the inner lips meet just underneath the glans, forming an upside-down "V." This point is called the bridle, or frenulum. The inner lips are richly endowed with nerve endings, making them quite sensitive to sexual stimulation. Some women say that their inner lips are actually more sensitive than the glans.
The bottom edges of the inner lips meet just beneath the vaginal opening, forming an opaque membranethe little fork, or fourchette, which represents the lower boundary of the visible portion of the clitoris. The fork may be torn or cut during childbirth, and its appearance may change or it may be obliterated altogether. Like the commissure that marks the upper extent of the visible clitoris, the fork marks the lower boundary.
If you separate the inner lips and stretch the vaginal opening slightly, you may be able to see the remnants of the hymen. At birth the hymen is stretched across the vaginal opening, but it is often frayed, torn, perforated, or it simply disintegrates by the time a woman reaches her mid-teens. For much of history, the intact hymen has been emblematic of a woman's virginity, indicating that she has not been penetrated by a man's penis. This concept was established in early patriarchal cultures when women and children were considered property, and girls were sold into marriage in their early teens. A girl had to be a virgin and remain faithful during marriage in order for her husband to be assured that her children were also his Children. Today, the essential fragility of the hymen would seem to make it an unreliable indicator of whether or not a woman has had intercourse. In rare cases, it is possible that a hymen may be elastic enough to admit a penis without tearing.
Figure 2 shows the visible parts of the clitoris as well as some nonclitoral structures: the outer lips, the urethral opening, where the urine comes out, the vaginal opening, and the perineum, the little bridge of skin between the vagina and the anus. If you have a mirror handy, you can easily locate these structures. While masturbating or having sex with a partner, you can observe how these parts change in size and/or color when you are excited.
The FFWHCs emphasizes the tremendous variation in the size and appearance of women's genitals. "Working in our clinics we observed a much wider range of `normal' than was ever indicated in medical texts or even sex advice books," Downer said. "The implication was that if your genitals didn't look pretty much like those pictured, you were somehow abnormal. Our experience in the clinic suggested that this was wrong, and decided to set the record straight." A group from the clinics, together with photographer Sylvia Morales, traveled around the country, taking more than a thousand photographs of women's genitals. "The enormous variation we observed in the appearance of the visible parts of the clitoris as well as the vulva, vagina, and cervix, convinced us that we were correct," Downer says. Eventually, a selection of these photographs appeared in A New View of a Woman's Body. Other photographs revealing the variety in the appearance in women's genitals can be found in Femalia, edited by Joani Blank. Drawings can also be found in Tee Corrine's classic Cunt Coloring Book and in Betty Dodson's Sex for One (see Resources).
In the proverbial locker room, men are known to compare their penises, and this behavior allows them a window into the range of what "normal" actually is. This isn't something that many women feel comfortable indulging in, and consequently they suffer intense isolation, wondering if they are "normal," or in some cases, if they even have a clitoris.
Now that we've explored the visible parts of the clitorisyou've studied the illustrationsyou might want to take out a mirror and locate them for yourself. Keep in mind that these illustrations represent only a few of many possible variations in the size and appearance of the clitoris.
THE HIDDEN PARTS OF THE CLITORIS
If you were to remove the top layer of skin and visible structures of the clitoris, it would reveal numerous hidden structures, which Mary Jane Sherfey referred to as the "powerhouse of orgasm." These structures include erectile tissue, glands, muscles, blood vessels, and nerves. In both the clitoris and the penis, there are two types of erectile tissue: body of caverns (corpus cavernosum) and spongy body (corpus spongiosum), which fill with blood during sexual response, causing an erection.
The clitoral shaft is attached to the glans, just underneath the surface of the skin. The shaft is a round fibrous segment of spongy erectile tissue, and like the glans, it is very sensitive. If you roll your finger back and forth just above the glans during sexual response, you should be able to feel a hard ridge about one-half to one inch long, and about the diameter of a soda straw, and rises toward the pubic mound for a short distance, then bends sharply and divides, forming two slender legs or crura (Latin for "legs"), which are also composed of spongy tissue. The legs of the clitoris flare out somewhat like the wishbone of a chicken.
If you look at Figures 3 and 4, you will notice that underneath the inner lips are twin bulbs of cavernous erectile tissue. During sexual response these structures fill with blood, which then becomes trapped in their cryptic spaces, causing erection.
In both women and men, the urethra (the tube through which we urinate), is surrounded by a ring of spongy erectile tissue that is identical to the type of erectile tissue, corpus spongiosum, that surrounds the penis. In women, the urethra is about two inches long, and runs from the bladder to the urethral opening just above the opening to the vagina. "In nearly all of the modern anatomy books that we looked at, the erectile tissue surrounding the urethra was missing," Carol Downer says. "Although it is clearly analogous to the spongy tissue which surrounds the urethra in men, it hasn't been considered a part of the clitoris for several hundred years. Since it had no name in women, we decided to name it the urethral sponge."
The urethral sponge is a very significant part of the clitoral system. Embedded in its spongy erectile tissue are up to thirty or more tiny prostatic-like glands that produce an alkaline fluid similar in its constitution to the male prostatic fluid. Two of the largest, called Skene's glands, are near the urethral opening, where the urine comes out, but numerous others are buried in the spongy tissue surrounding the urethra. All of these glands together are referred to as paraurethral glands, meaning "around the urethra," and they are the source of female ejaculation. Normally, the sponge is collapsed and is difficult to feel, but during sexual response, if you or your partner puts a finger in your vagina and presses toward the pubic mound, you can feel a rough nugget about the length of the first one or two finger joints; that is the urethral sponge. When the sponge is filled with blood, i.e., erect, many women find that it is extremely sensitive to stroking, thrusting, or vibration inside of the vagina. The "G spot" is located on the part of the urethral sponge that can be felt through the vaginal wall. We'll look at this intriguing part of the clitoris in detail in chapter 3.
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