History / Sex&Privilege

The Little Man In The Boat: How History Hates The Clitoris

TW: Sexuality, misogyny, diagrams of sexual organs.

What’s up, labia flaps. Today we’re talking about how everyone hates the clitoris and its surrounding sex organs. Or more specifically how all throughout history the sexuality of clit-owning people and their sex organs have been ignored because apparently those things scare people.

Hey ladies.

Forget what you read in this blog post. I’m the little man in the boat you really want to fool around with.

The clitoris (“clit,” “love button,” “bean,” “little man in the boat,” etc.) is that super fun little thing by the vaginal opening that has 8,000 sensory nerve endings. Wow wow wee wow, that’s a lot of feels.

If you have a vulva (the external genital organs—not to be confused with the vagina, which is the slippery inside tunnel-bit) then you should grab a mirror and check yourself out! Find your clit, poke around and find your urethral opening. You should know what your bits look like! And be proud of them!

If you don’t have a vulva, or if you want help locating your bits, here’s a neat diagram:

Empowering!Click here for a photo of a real, non-illustrated vulva. No shame if yours doesn’t look the same, everyone’s is different.

Here’s the best part. Do you ever wonder what a “G-spot” or vaginal orgasm is? It’s actually still clitoral stimulation! The clitoris isn’t just that tiny little thing in the hoodie up there. It actually looks like this:

Hello, beautiful

Hey, sweetie. When did you get so fine?

It’s been said that the true shape of the clitoris wasn’t revealed until 1998. Nope, that’s not a typo. You think your partner had a hard time finding it? Scientists couldn’t find it till the ’90s. Ouch. Seems misogyny in the science world looks pretty much the same as a straight dude having his first sexual encounter (awkward and confused).

But, even more awkward: The clit was discovered, forgotten, then rediscovered a bunch of times throughout history. Liiiiiiike….???? How???? “Wait, people without penises can enjoy sex? Ew, that’s nasty.”

It’s believed the clit was first officially written about in 1545 by a dude called Charles Estienne who associated the clit with urine. Aw. Then a bunch of people argued they discovered the clit first. (Spoiler alert: It was probably people who actually had clits who discovered the clit, if you know what I mean.)

In 1851, a man called Georg Ludwig Kobelt described in detail the function of the clitoris. He figured out a way to make it easier to examine the clitoris post-mortem. Ew, but cool. Kobelt decided the clitoris was a great source of pleasure for humans and other mammals. He also believed the development of the clitoris was not just a happy coincidence. He thought that the clitoris created pleasure so the person would want to bang despite how much pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood can totally suck.

For more than 2,500 years scholars believed the clit was more or less the equivalent of the penis. You can decide for yourself whether the two are similar or not, but here’s a diagram that shows the anatomy of a penis next to the anatomy of a clit. They both have roots and heads, and they’re both pretty spiffy!

Penis and clitoris

It’s important to note that pretty much all throughout history, the people officially discovering, ignoring and rediscovering the clit were cis-men. It probably would have been smart to bring a cis-woman into this discussion but hey, what do I know?

And cis-female genitalia is almost always talked about in how it relates to cis-male genitalia, while penises are talked about as autonomous structures. Because clits are only worthy in terms of how they relate to penises. Am I right or am I right?

For example, here are the articles for “penis” and “clitoris” that are currently in Encyclopaedia Brittanica:

Screen shot 2014-08-03 at 8.55.45 PM

Screen shot 2014-08-03 at 8.55.27 PM

It’s not a coincidence that when we talk about penises we talk about their cool functions and abilities while the clitoris is talked about in terms of how it’s similar to a penis. (Even the lighthearted euphemism “little man in the boat” talks about cis-female sexuality in terms of men.) Boooooo!

We enter the 17th century and we get more dudes fighting over who discovered the clit. Yay! Regnier de Graff, a Dutch physician and anatomist, said:

“We are extremely surprised that some anatomists make no more mention of this part than if it did not exist at all in the universe of nature. … In every cadaver we have so far dissected we have found it quite perceptible to sight and touch.”

Reinier de Graaf

“Yo, clits totally exist. I haven’t actually asked anyone who has a clit about it, and when I do the sex with them I conveniently forget it’s a thing, but liiiiiiike one time I saw this pea-shaped thing on a cadaver and I’m pretty sure that counts.”

And then Sigmund “Douche Nozzle” Freud in the early 1900s came along and decided masturbation with the clitoris was something immature in development that, once the cis-girl realized penises existed, was abandoned for a life of longing for a penis. He also said vaginal orgasms were important for “mature women” because cis-women’s sexuality only matters if penises are involved, etc, etc. Freud was rude.

Then Alfred Kinsey in the 1950s and ’60s published the Kinsey Reports where he was like, “Boo Freud!” Can I just note again that THESE ARE ALL DUDES WHO PROBABLY DON’T HAVE THESE SEX ORGANS THEMSELVES!!!???

So, Kinsey actually talked to cis-women. Thousands of them. He decided Freud’s idea that projecting this patriarchal construct onto cis-female sexuality was ill-informed and wrong (yep). Kinsey also decided the vagina was pretty much irrelevant in cis-female sexual pleasure. Ehhhh. But at least he believed the stigma of cis-female masturbation should be stuck down because masturbation is important for well-being. Four for you, Kinsey. You go, Kinsey.

But cis-women were still called “frigid” for not being able to orgasm, or for not being able to have a vaginal orgasm. Because all that matters is a cis-woman’s ability to orgasm while their partner is achieving his own orgasm. And if she can’t easily orgasm, SHE’S A FRIGID BITCH!

In 1970, feminist Anne Koedt wrote a thing about how bullshit it is that people are held to this standard.

Koedt said, “Men have orgasms essentially by friction with the vagina, not the clitoral area, which is external and not able to cause friction the way penetration does. Women have thus been defined sexually in terms of what pleases men; our own biology has not been properly analyzed. Instead, we are fed the myth of the liberated woman and her vaginal orgasm — an orgasm which in fact does not exist.”

(Vaginal orgasms do exist, though they’re from stimulation of the clitoris from the inside of the vagina. Cis-female orgasms are awesome and complex, yo.)

In 1991 (this was only 23 years ago), the Federation of Feminist Women’s Health Centers suggested 18 structures of the clitoris and identified different parts of the cis-female sexual anatomy, including the clit’s crura, or the crus. (See the diagram above that compares the penis with the clitoris). Then Helen O’Connell, Australia’s first woman urologist (A WOMAN ENTERS THE STORY!!!!) did real scientific research, using modern tools, on cadavers that hadn’t been dead for ages.

O’Connell, aka Badass Bitch, found that the clitoris was much more complex and internal than had been prevously found. The study, which was published in 1998, said: “A series of detailed dissections suggest that current anatomical descriptions of female human urethral and genital anatomy are inaccurate.”

MRI scans have led researchers to agree with this structure of the clitoris and its surrounding sexual organs, showing the dorsal nerves to the clitoris as being a real thing that exists. Basically more studies showed that the little wimpy clit we were being showed in anatomy textbooks were about 10 times smaller than they should be.

In case you’re still thinking studies on cis-female sexuality and cis-male sexuality have been equal (did you even read this?), researchers Shirley Ogletree and Harvey Ginsberg in 2000 looked at PsycINFO database from 1887 to 2000 and saw that the word “penis” was included in 1,482 sources and “clitoris” was only in 83. Clits shouldn’t be ignored and the “clitoris” shouldn’t be a bad word. Clitoris, clitoris, CLITORIS!

We’re almost to present-day! The first 3D sonography of the clitoris was created in 2009 by researchers Odile Buisson and Pierre Foldés.

“They did this work for three years without any proper funding,” said Ms. M from the Museum of Sex. “Thanks to them, we now understand how the erectile tissue of the clitoris engorges and surrounds the vagina – a complete breakthrough that explains how what we once considered to be a vaginal orgasm is actually an internal clitoral orgasm.

So why did it take so long for us to figure out even the basics of cis-female sexual anatomy? Why do we still have such a long road ahead of us before we fully understand cis-female sexuality? Because we relied for a long-ass time on scientists and researchers who didn’t have these sexual organs of their own. Because cis-female sexuality was, and is, seen as a shameful thing that should be discussed as little as possible. Because privilege.


*In this post, I’m talking about anyone who has these sex organs (the clit, the uterus, the vagina—all of the above or some of the above). Any gender can have these sex organs.

Other sources:

  • Sexuality Now: Embracing Diversity by Janell L. Carroll
  • Women’s Sexual Function and Dysfunction: Study, Diagnosis and Treatment by Irwin Goldstein, Cindy M. Meston, Susan Davis, Abdulmaged Traish
  • Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good by Jonathan Balcombe

One thought on “The Little Man In The Boat: How History Hates The Clitoris

  1. Really good stuff, but there’s another revelation here that deserves attention. Looking at the comparative pictures it seems that the clitoris quite closely resembles a penguin. This needs to become a thing.

    Therefore, people with clitorides: I salute your magnificent penguins! May they serve you well.

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