If you ask a random person on the street what the clitoris looks like, they might describe a small bump at the top of the vulva. That’s not wrong, but what they may not know is that the clitoris is actually a much larger structure, and the part you can see is only what some experts call the tip of the iceberg — which wasn’t widely known until 2005. Unfortunately, knowledge about the clitoris is all too rare, including among scientists and doctors.
In a recent article, the New York Times spoke to various experts about the lack of study and medical focus on the clitoris, pointing out how relatively little is understood about the clitoris among the medical community — particularly when compared to the penis. The reason? Some experts said they suspect hesitancy to focus on female pleasure is the culprit.
“[Women’s sexual health] is seen as hysteria, Pandora’s box, all psychosocial, not real medicine,” Rachel Rubin, MD, a urologist and sexual health specialist who serves as the education chair of the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health, told the Times. “Sexual health and quality of life is not something we focus on for women.”
Female pleasure has long been viewed as taboo. According to The Atlantic, some in the 15th and 16th centuries thought that “healthy” women didn’t have a clitoris, or the presence of one could be used to identify witches. The taboo has continued until today, when heterosexual women are still less likely to have an orgasm during partnered sex than heterosexual men.
Rubin told the Times that she learned little to nothing about the clitoris in medical school, something that can pose issues for people with vaginas. If surgeons don’t know the full structure of the clitoris and its nerve endings — which are often left out of anatomical diagrams — they can damage nerves during surgery in the area and, as a result, cause pain and reduce sexual pleasure for their patients. Patients who have lost the ability to orgasm because of damage done to their clitoris told the Times they’ve been largely ignored.
“We don’t do a great job about talking about sex from a pleasure-based perspective,” Frances Grimstad, MD, a gynecologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, told the Times. “We talk about it from a prevention standpoint. We’re trying to prevent S.T.I.s. We’re trying to prevent pregnancy, unless you’re trying to get pregnant. We don’t talk about sexual pleasure.”
It’s not exactly a secret that doctors and scientists haven’t given the clitoris its due attention. Because the clitoris solely functions for sexual pleasure as far as we know, Janet Barter, MB, a consultant in sexual and reproductive health and vice president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare, previously told Refinery29 that she thinks its been overlooked. “I really do think it’s because, even now, female sexual enjoyment is not seen as important, medically speaking,” she said.