The Woman's Erotic Zone

The clitoris is the female penis, just arranged a little differently.

Posted May 01, 2016

Quick: What’s the clitoris? And where is it? The standard view is that the clitoris is the little protuberance of erotically sensitive, orgasm-triggering tissue an inch or two above the vaginal opening nestled beneath the upper junction of the vaginal lips.

Actually, the clitoris is much more than that. But unfortunately, for some 500 years, the clitoris has been minimized, misrepresented, and misunderstood. It’s time to rehabilitate this marvelous corner of womanhood and see the clitoris for what it really is—an organ as large and multifaceted as the penis, just arranged a little differently.

Meet the Clitoral System

Our term “clitoris” comes from the Greek “kleitoris,” meaning the female genitals—all of them, more than just the little nub. Those ancient Greeks knew more about women's genitals than many people do today. Prominent Greek physician Claudius Galen said, “All parts that men have, women also have. But in men, they are outside, in women, inside.” Modern anatomists have proved him correct; so correct, in fact, that we need a new term to describe the little bump, one that relates to the rest of women’s genitals. Let’s call this collection of female erotic body bits the “Clitoral System.”

Just as all parts of the penis and surrounding tissue can become sexually aroused, the same goes for all parts of the Clitoral System. Many men would feel short-changed if lovers focused only on the head (glans) of the penis and ignored the shaft, scrotum, and anal area. Many women feel the same when lovers focus only on the little nub and not on the entire Clitoral System.

Embryologically, the penis and Clitoral System develop from the same germ cells. At eight weeks of fetal development, they appear virtually identical. The bump of the clitoris is the equivalent of the glans of the penis. But just as the penis is more than its head, the Clitorial System is more than what we know as the clitoris.

The tip of the clitoris holds 7,000 nerve endings, as many as the head of the penis, but packed into a much smaller space. Their concentration makes the clitoris comparatively more sensitive to touch than the penis. It’s the reason many women feel discomfort, even pain, when theirs gets fondled in any way other than very gently. Even when caressed ever so gently, some women find any direct pressure on the little bump hard to take. There is nothing wrong with women who feel this way. Men whose lovers have super-sensitive clitorises should not fondle it directly but caress around it.

Beneath the clitoris lie two other parts of the Clitoral System, the clitoral shaft and inner vaginal lips, both analogous to shaft of the penis. Like the penile shaft only much smaller, the clitoral shaft is filled with spongy erectile tissue. When women become sexually aroused, the clitoral shaft fills with blood and the little nub usually (but not always) appears more prominent.

Also like the penile shaft, the inner vaginal lips contain a great many nerve endings sensitive to erotic touch. Some women say their inner lips are actually more sensitive than their clitoris. The inner lips also contain some erectile tissue. As women become sexually aroused, the erection of the inner lips extends them outward beyond the outer lips, and they separate a bit, providing easier access to the sensitive area between them, and to the vagina.

Inner vaginal lips vary enormously in color (from pale pink to burgundy to gray), and in shape (from thin and narrow, to fluted, to thick and fleshy). Some women feel self-conscious about theirs, thinking they don’t look like they “should.” Some surgeons even offer cosmetic rearrangement. Ladies, please don't go under the knife. Inner lips come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. They’re like snowflakes—all unique, all beautiful.

As the penis becomes erect, a ligament in the lower abdomen makes it stick out or up. Women have the same ligament. During sexual arousal, it retracts the flap of tissue that covers the clitoris, the clitoral hood, exposing the clitoris as it becomes erect. The clitoral hood is analogous to the penile foreskin. Just as the foreskin retracts when the uncircumcised penis becomes erect, the clitoral hood also retracts, allowing the aroused clitoris to become more prominent.

While men’s erectile tissue is concentrated in the shaft of the penis, women’s is distributed throughout the Clitoral System. Much of female erectile tissue is located between the inner lips around the small pee hole (urethral opening), about halfway between the clitoris and the vaginal entrance.

Known as the urethral sponge, this area bulges somewhat when its erectile tissue becomes engorged with blood. But the bulging is hardly visible. Instead, much of the erecting urethral sponge bulges inward around the pubic bone, causing some firmness in the front vaginal wall. This mound can be felt on the inside of the vagina, about two inches in from the vaginal opening. It’s the G-spot, another facet of the Clitoral System. But the G-spot isn’t a “spot.” It’s the entire internal manifestation of the erotically aroused urethral sponge. It may be as large as a thumbnail.

Below the vaginal opening is the perineum, the little bridge of skin that separates the vagina from the anus. The perineum and anus mark the lowest extent of the Clitoral System. Both can become very sensitive to erotic caresses, thanks to several muscles that surround the entire Clitoral System, the pelvic floor muscles.

The most widely known is the pubococcygeus, or PC, the one that contracts when women (or men) squeeze out the last few drops of urine. The PC also contracts during orgasm. It’s the muscle strengthened by Kegel exercises, which increase the pleasure of orgasm.

But in addition to the PC, there are also other pelvic muscles that form a figure-eight around the vaginal opening and anus. That’s why many women (and men) enjoy anal massage and tender fingering, and why a tiny proportion of women, 1 to 2 percent, enjoy gentle anal intercourse.

Between the inner vaginal lips, around the urethral opening are the tiny para-urethral glands. During orgasm, they may—or may not—produce fluid similar to prostatic fluid. If they do, the liquid is female ejaculate. Among women who ejaculate, the amount varies from a few drops to a couple tablespoons, and occasionally more. Female ejaculate is similar to male semen, but no sperm.

Turning to the outer vaginal lips, they develop from the same embryonic tissue as the male scrotum. They are not part of the Clitoral System, just as the scrotum is not part of the penis. However, the outer lips are just as erotically excitable as the scrotum.

The Clitoral System vs. the Vagina

Oddly, one area between women’s legs is not part of the Clitoral System: The vagina. Most people consider the vagina a key female sex organ, often the only one. Vaginal intercourse certainly provides many women with erotic pleasure. It allows lovers to share special intimacy, and many women enjoy the sensations of being entered and holding lovers’ erections inside them and dancing with them.

Intercourse also indirectly stimulates the various parts of the Clitoral System, allowing 25% of women to enjoy orgasms reliably during intercourse, with another 25% coming while doing it. But a great deal of research shows that around 50% women—half—never have orgasms during intercourse. So the vagina can't really be considered a sex organ for women.

Actually, the vagina is a sex organ for men. They slide in their erections and ejaculate there. Men love the vagina. It provides such pleasure.

But for women, the vagina is not much of a sex organ. It's a reproductive organ. At term, babies surf through it into the world. Most women derive most of their erotic pleasure not from vaginal fingering or intercourse, but from gentle caressing of the Clitoral System: the little nub, the inner lips, the outer urethral sponge, and the inner sponge/G-spot.

The Clitoral System Disenfranchised

From the ancient Greeks to the 18th century, the penis and Clitoral System were considered to be equivalent in all aspects other than their arrangement. But starting around 1700, the concept of male-female genital equivalence evaporated. Physicians and anatomists came to consider women “less sexual” than men—and deny the very existence of the Clitoral System. By the 19th century, Western doctors considered women not sexual at all, but merely passive receptacles for men’s lust.

As a result, the Clitoral System was reduced to just the little nub. Sigmund Freud went so far as to tout the ridiculous notion that only immature, neurotic women have “clitoral orgasms,” while mature, mentally healthy women have “vaginal orgasms.” In fact, all orgasms involve rhythmic contractions of the pelvic muscles. Depending on the erotic circumstances, orgasms can feel very different, from local jolts to whole-body convulsions. Some women call their most intense climaxes "vaginal orgasms." But physiologically, all orgasms are the same. They all involve serial rhythmic contractions of the same muscles.

The Clitoral System Resurgent

No one can really explain why history so thoroughly de-sexualized women. Feminists say it had to do with the rise of obstetrics and gynecology, which snatched women's healthcare from midwives. Some historians contend that the change reflected the rise of the modern industrial state, the transition from men and women working side-by-side as approximate equals in agriculture to an industrial division of labor with men as breadwinners and women as homemakers. Whatever the case, traditional appreciation of the Clitoral System faded.

It was not until the mid-20th century that William Masters, M.D., and Virginia Johnson refuted the vaginal orgasm, and began to restore the clitoris to its rightful place in women’s sexuality. But they did not fully connect it to the Clitoral System. It wasn’t until the 1980s that sex researchers Beverley Whipple, Ph.D. and John Perry, Ph.D., documented female ejaculation and the G-Spot.

As a result, most people still view the clitoris as the little bump tucked under the apex of women’s vaginal lips. The full extent of the Clitoral System has yet to become fully re-popularized, despite the fact that both genders' genitals develop from the same germ cells and, despite their different arrangements, have very similar structures.

So where is the clitoris? It encompasses the entire vulva, from the clitoral hood to the anus—everything except the vagina.

Much of the information in this post comes from The Clitoral Truth by Rebecca Chalker, a fascinating exploration of the anatomy and social history of women’s genitals.