The Clitoris


The clitoris is a female sexual organ located at the top part of the vulva, or external female genitalia. The clitoris is an erogenous, highly sensitive zone that contains more nerve endings than any other body part. During sexual arousal, the clitoris becomes larger and firmer due to erection. Although stimulation of the clitoris is the most reliable way to bring a female to orgasm, many people are unaware of the location and function.1

Anatomy of the Clitoris

The clitoris is located at the top of the vulva, nearest to the navel of a female. The clitoris is made up of two parts: the glans (the external, visible part of the clitoris) and the shaft (the inch-long internal part of the organ that runs upward from the glans). The size of the clitoris may vary, but the visible part tends to be about the size of a pearl. The clitoris is partially or fully covered by the clitoral hood, which is a piece of skin found where the two sides of the inner labia meet at the top of the vulva. Natural secretions under the hood help to lubricate the skin over the clitoris.1

Descriptive diagram of the clitoris.

The clitoral shaft consists of erectile tissues called corpora cavernosa and corpus spongiosum. These tissues resemble the structure within the male penis, and therefore allow for blood flow and clitoral erection during sexual arousal. The shaft extends into two crura, which internally run for a few inches down the vulva and around the urethra. The combination of the glans, the shaft, and the crura give the internal clitoris a wishbone structure.1

A clitoris and a penis side-to-side. The penis and clitoris are shaded in with shades of gray, black and white to show similarities of glans, shaft, legs, and bulbs.

The sole function of the clitoris is sexual arousal. It contains thousands of nerve endings that function to provide pleasure. During arousal, the shaft swells and can be felt through the skin. The glans may retract further under the clitoral hood during an aroused state, but can still be stimulated through the skin of the hood.2

Stimulation of the Clitoris

The purpose of the clitoris is to provide sexual pleasure to females. During sexual activity, females can reach orgasm from vaginal stimulation, clitoral stimulation, or both. Some females prefer one to the other, but the clitoris is the most sensitive area of the female body.2 Due to the sensitivity, many females prefer indirect stimulation rather than direct stimulation of the clitoris. The clitoris can be stimulated through masturbation, or through sexual activity with partners. It is important that both partners communicate and discuss what feels good in order to provide safe and pleasurable stimulation. As with any sexual stimulation, using a lubricant on the clitoris can help to increase pleasure and decrease any friction.

The clitoris can be stimulated through manual, oral, or vaginal sexual activity:

  • During manual stimulation, fingers or other body parts can be used to rub the clitoris. It is best to start with one or two fingers and lightly rub in circles around the clitoris to see what feels good. Then, the speed and pressure of the touch can gradually be increased as arousal increases. Manual stimulation is common as it can be done alone during masturbation, or with a partner.
  • While performing oral sex, a partner can lick or suck on the clitoris to stimulate the nerve endings.
  • During vaginal intercourse, the missionary, or man-on-top, position is commonly used to provide clitoral stimulation from rubbing of the pubic bone. However, the clitoris can be stimulated in any sex position if the female or her partner reaches down to touch or rub the clitoris while simultaneously penetrating the vagina.3

Vibrators and other sex toys may further stimulate the clitoris and increase the chances of a female reaching orgasm. Any vibrator can be effective, but some vibrators, such as the popular “Rabbit,” are built to provide direct clitoral vibration.4

History of the Clitoris

In 1559, Renaldus Columbus of Padua first described the clitoris. Anatomists before him had noted the discovery of the structure, but had been reluctant to publish their findings due to the cultural taboo surrounding female sexuality. The existence of the clitoris was not a widely accepted topic, and there was much debate surrounding its function.

The role of the clitoris in orgasm has long been disputed. In the early 1900s, Sigmund Freud claimed that clitoral orgasms were inferior to vaginal orgasms. He believed that the clitoris was a masculine structure, and that females should strive to have orgasms through vaginal stimulation. Freud believed that females achieved sexual maturity by switching the focus of their pleasure from the clitoris to the vagina. Commonly known as “penis-envy,” Freud’s theories suggested that females could become jealous, and in some cases, neurotic, from their envy of the male anatomy. Critics of Freud believed that his theories and analysis of the clitoris were very male-centric.5

In the 1950s and 60s, both Alfred Kinsey and the pair of William Masters and Virginia Johnson recognized the importance of the clitoris in helping females achieve sexual pleasure. In 1953, Kinsey found the clitoris to be much more erotically sensitive than the vagina. The vagina has less nerve endings, which is why some females may find it harder to orgasm through vaginal stimulation alone. After Masters and Johnson’s revolutionary laboratory experiments, they declared that all female orgasms were clitoral, and that intercourse merely helped females achieve psychological satisfaction, but not physical release. They believed that the vaginal contractions during orgasm were only a manifestation of the clitoris.5

After these initial laboratory experiments, the second wave feminist movement gained momentum across the western world as people felt empowered by the idea that orgasms were not solely reliant on penile/vaginal penetration. The idea that orgasms could be reached by two women or through masturbation showed that a woman did not need a man to achieve sexual pleasure.5

Modern sexologists have rejected the idea that orgasms can only be clitoral. Some females claim experiencing two different types of orgasm, and that they can feel the difference between a vaginal orgasm and a clitoral orgasm. Females have different personal preferences of which feels most enjoyable.1

Cultural Views

Countries and cultures throughout the world have had contradicting views on the female clitoris. While some see it as an amazing part of sexuality, others may take radical and dangerous actions to reduce clitoral stimulation with a basis of religious or cultural traditions.

In the modern society of the United States, the clitoris generally receives significant attention. Piercing of the clitoris or clitoral hood has become increasingly popular. Whether as a form of self-expression, visual appeal, or amplified stimulation, genital piercing has actually been practiced for centuries in a variety of cultures.6 The earliest mention of genital piercings can be found in the traditional Sanskrit text The Kama Sutra. Other references can be traced back to the tribeswomen of Borneo who would adorn their clitoral hood with a vertical or horizontal ring. This practice slowly spread to the western world over time, and has been on the rise in the 20th and 21st centuries.6

However, this practice remains controversial and taboo, as some see it as a form of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

In other cultures, female circumcision is a common practice. Female circumcision is prevalent in 29 primarily African countries. Although there are different degrees and types of genital cutting, all of the procedures involve cutting or removing the clitoris or clitoral hood. Female circumcision is a tradition in some cultures that see the female genitals as unclean or dangerous. However, the modern interpretation is that any type of female circumcision is considered FGM, and is only done to reduce the pleasure that females feel during sexual activity or to reduce sexual activity altogether. Although the majority of global societies have banned FGM and circumcision in strong opposition, it is still being practiced today with or without the consent of some girls or women. The treatment is usually performed by someone with a lack of medical training or clean equipment, and therefore can lead to infection or other fatal complications.1 Today, there are many campaigns and women’s rights organizations around the world that rally against female circumcision.

Countries and cultures throughout the world have had contradicting views on the female clitoris. While some see it as an amazing part of sexuality, others may take radical and dangerous actions to reduce clitoral stimulation with a basis of religious or cultural traditions.

Concluding Remarks

The clitoris used to be a very unknown piece of female anatomy. These days, people are far more educated about the clitoris and more attention is being placed on clitoral stimulation to achieve female sexual pleasure. Understanding the location and function of the clitoris can be used to greatly improve one’s sex life and relationship.

Feel free to check out this great video about the clitoris!


  1. LeVay, Simon, Janice I. Baldwin, and John D. Baldwin. Discovering Human Sexuality. 3rd ed. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 2015. Print.
  2. “What Are the Parts of the Female Sexual Anatomy?” Planned Parenthood. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 May 2017.
  3. Hamilton, Jill. “5 Perfect Sex Positions for Enhanced Clit Stimulation.” Cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitan, 15 Sept. 2016. Web. 21 May 2017.
  4. Smothers, Hannah. “14 Sex Toys for Mind-Blowing Orgasms.” Cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitan, 1 May 2017. Web. 21 May 2017.
  5. Hall, Lesley A. “Clitoris.” The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. Web.
  6. Shahnavaz, Nazanin. “The History of the Clit Piercing.” Broadly. N.p., 28 Sept. 2015. Web. 21 May 2017.

Last Updated: 8 June 2017.