Alison M. Moore
Victorian Medicine Was Not Responsible for Repressing
the Clitoris: Rethinking Homology in the Long History
of Women’s Genital Anatomy
Researchers in the ﬁelds of affective neuroscience, psychology, urology,
and physiology attempting to understand some of the conﬂicting pol-
itics around questions of women’s sexual pleasure as a context to their
own scientiﬁc work, much to their credit, are now frequently considering his-
torical accounts of these ideas (O’Connell, Sanjeevan, and Huston 2005;
Pfaus et al. 2016). But many of the most accessible humanistic works that dis-
cuss the history of ideas about women’s genitals and orgasms are plagued by a
common historical myth: the notion that repressive views on sex in the Victo-
rian era were primarily responsible for the denial of the clitoris and its central
role in women’s orgasmic response and for the reiﬁcation of the vagina as
the central organ of women’s pleasure. Yet any scholar who has studied many
nineteenth-century texts about sexuality across French, British, German, Ital-
ian, and US cultures cannot help but notice thatfemale sexual pleasure was in
fact heavily represented in medical thought throughout this time. The view
of the Victorians as sexually repressed was famously mocked by Michel Fou-
cault in the ﬁrst volume of The History of Sexuality as a myth that serves to
reassure us that we in the present are now liberated sexually (1976, 1–22).
But it seems that Foucault’s laughter has had little impact on popular ideas
about the origin of the overprivileging of vaginal pleasure and denigration
of the clitoris that is understood to be part of the modern Western medical
tradition. Hence, the ﬁrst section of this article proposes a corrective to the his-
torical schema that is widely circulated in popular writing about this question.
Nineteenth-century medicine was not unanimously dominated by attempts
to deny clitoral pleasure to women, and differing views about female sexual-
ity circulated throughout this time, just as they did in the early modern era.
Moreover, the notion of vaginal orgasm was strictly a twentieth-century inven-
tion, and no corollary of it can be found prior to this time.
There never was an era that was or is liberated in its views about female
pleasure, for the simple reason that there is never just one view shared by
everyone on the matter—our own time is a case in point, since we ﬁnd ex-
I wish to thank Western Sydney University for awarding me a Women’s Fellowship in 2016
with teaching relief, permitting the research and writing of this article.
[Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2018, vol. 44, no. 1]
© 2018 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0097-9740/2018/4401-0003$10.00
tant examples of clitoridectomy in multiple cultures, while in others we ﬁnd
feminist activism that instructs women about how to enjoy clitoral mastur-
bation maximally. Narratives about female sexual pleasure frequently make
recourse to teleological views of historical development that posit the pres-
ent as relatively more enlightened than past repressive attitudes. This tele-
ology usually takes the form of recognizing early modern accounts of the
clitoris but denying the vast array of nineteenth-century sources that had sig-
niﬁcantly more holistic views about female pleasure than those produced in
the early twentieth century. Affective neuroscientist James G. Pfaus and his
colleagues oddly attribute more liberated views about female pleasure to psy-
choanalysis, which they think of as a source of “resistance to the Victorian
era’s attempts to muzzle free sexual expression”(2016, 6). Rebecca Chalker’s
1997 book The Clitoral Truth claimed that in Victorian times, female orgasm
“was seen as unnecessary, unseemly,perhaps even unhealthy for women,”cit-
ing the English historian Lord Acton as if he was fully representative of Eu-
ropean sexual medicine in the nineteenth century (1997, loc. 822), further
remarking that “by the Victorian age, the clitoris had not only disappeared
from medical texts and illustrations but ...orgasm was banished from the
Victorian concept of women’ssexuality”(loc. 758). Nothing could be fur-
ther from the truth, and the nineteenth century provides countless examples
of medical sources that not only reiterated early modern views about the cli-
toris as the central organ of women’s pleasure but insisted in new ways that
sexual pleasure was essential for women’s health and well-being. Doctors,
from the 1880s until the Second World War, worried far more about the dan-
gers of female “frigidity”than any other form of designated sexual pathology
in women (Cryle and Moore 2011).
The second section suggests an alternative account of how the clitoris be-
came maligned, and the vagina reiﬁed, in twentieth-century (not nineteenth-
century) Western European ideas. Freudian psychoanalysis was in fact deeply
complicit in this development. Several factors were involved, though, some
of them occurring over a long historical period, others relating to the unique
discursive pressures of the period between the two World Wars—atimeof
great ﬂux in gender roles and attitudes toward sexuality. Early twentieth-
century Europe saw the production of new anxieties about the distinction
between men and women and new discourses aimed at yoking sex to gender
and policing the number of possible sexes. Ideas about women’s sexual plea-
sure were a product of these concerns.
Anatomical ideas about female genitalia were divided from the very be-
ginning of their history of description, in what might be characterized as the
Galenic penis-vagina versus the Hippocratic penis-clitoris mirror models. In
the Galenic view, the clitoris is ignored or denied, and only the vagina mat-
ters as a homologue and inverted form of the penis, with women’s pleasure
assumed to be necessarily much less than men’s. In the Hippocratic view,
the clitoris appears as an object of description and is seen as homologous
to the penis—a kind of female phallus, with a central role in women’s sexual
pleasure. Both accounts envisage the female genital structures as homolo-
gous to the male, but in the Galenic view women’s pleasure is minimized
and assumed to follow directly from coitus, while in the Hippocratic view
women’s pleasure is emphasized and located outside the zone of direct
coital reception. The Galenic view is generally accompanied by assertions
that compared with men, women have a lesser desire, while the Hippocratic
view generally also includes assertions that women have a capacity for in-
It is beyond the scope of this article to chart the ancient origins of these
trends, which derive respectively from the second-century Greco-Roman
physician Galen of Pergamon (129–200 CE) and from the body of medical
texts self-designated as Hippocratic following the ancient Greek physician
Hippocrates of Kos, who is believed to have lived between 460 BCE and
370 BCE. The Hippocratic Corpus (a selection of texts believed to be the
writings of Hippocrates and his students compiled in the third century CE)
does not discuss female sexual anatomy in any detail (Chaperon 2012, 44;
Marcum 2017). But in the debates among anatomists of the early modern
era, claims were made about female sexual anatomy by appeal to these two
towering ﬁgures of ancient medical knowledge. By the seventeenth century,
a clear divergence can be identiﬁed in medical and anatomical scholarship
on the question of women’s sexual anatomy, following these two strains of
thought and appealing variously to Galen, the Hippocratic tradition, or some-
times also to Aristotelian medicine.
Throughout the early modern era, both views about female sexual phys-
iology were expressed by different anatomists. In the nineteenth century,
variations on both ideas were also present in the medical discussion of fe-
male sexuality. From around 1600 to 1900, another train of thought im-
portantly fueled the notion that the clitoris existed but that its role was
problematic because it was the primary organ of masturbation, which came
be to be viewed as a nefarious behavior in both sexes. These were the long
historical preconditions for the refusal of clitoral pleasure that emerged as an
explicit idea in twentieth-century thought, both in the Freudian psychoan-
alytic tradition and in conventional medical practice. The third section of
this article discusses how the clitoral-vaginal dichotomy was generated in
the interwar period in Europe and the United States and how it was con-
tested in the period from 1950 to 1973. The ﬁnal section considers what
is now understood scientiﬁcally about female sexual anatomy and how these
SIGNS Autumn2018 y55
new understandings might inform feminist thinking about women’s plea-
sure in ways that do not rely on historical myths about Victorian repression.
The present survey of the origin of modern ideas about female genitalia
takes the form of an intellectual history with attention to cultural context.
This approach considers the transmission of ideas as indicated both by the
direct reference made to texts in other texts and by their indirect reference
in the reiteration of content. It also considers the broader cultural and tem-
poral moment in which texts were produced. The texts discussed are not ex-
haustive of all those discussing female reproductive anatomy but have been
selected as examples of the differing accounts provided in medical, anatom-
ical, feminist, and sexological thought. All surviving texts describing female
sexual anatomy from Ancient Greece until the sixteenth century were au-
thored by male anatomists and physicians and are discussed here, selectively
following the distinct lines of thought. After the sixteenth century, signiﬁ-
cant texts discussing the clitoris authored by women appeared, such as mid-
wifery manuals (from which I have selected two representative examples for
discussion). In the twentieth century, works by women in the psychoanalytic
movement also discussed the clitoris; here I have selected two such works
that were the most inﬂuential. But in the nineteenth century and for much
of the twentieth, the majority of writings on women’s sexuality were au-
thored by male clinicians, and the section of this article treating the emer-
gence of modern medical views in the nineteenth century discusses a selection
of these texts, accounting for the divergent lines of debate that appeared at
this time. We might expect that an appreciation of the importance of the cli-
toris for women’s pleasure followed only once women entered the medical
profession in the Western world of the twentieth century. However, male
physicians and anatomists who insisted on the clitoris as the central organ
of female pleasure have represented a consistent voice among others in the
global history of ideas about women’s sexuality ever since ancient times.
Galenic versus Hippocratic homology
Many writers and scholars have remarked that the clitoris, throughout West-
ern history, has repeatedly been discovered, lost, and discovered again.
it may be more appropriate to say that ideas about the clitoris have never
been the subject of medical or anatomical consensus. In the work of Galen,
there is scant mention of anything resembling a clitoris. His account viewed
the vagina as an inside-out and inferior mirror version of the penis, designed
See Park (1997, 171), Tuana (2004, 216), O’Connell, Sanjeevan, and Huston (2005,
1189), Chaperon (2012, 42), Wolf (2012, 199), and Di Marino and Lepidi (2014, 4).
to receive it passively for conception. The Galenic account persisted well into
the nineteenth century and was repeatedly cited by anatomists who ignored
the clitoris. But early modern European scholars who saw themselves as part
of the Hippocratic tradition also discussed something resembling the clitoris
in a range of anatomical texts from the sixteenth century, insisting on its cen-
trality to women’s pleasure, which they viewed as crucial for conception.
This is important to note because the same lack of consensus that appeared
in the sixteenth century remained into the nineteenth century, and indeed
current understandings across cultures and across different scholarly disci-
plines continue to provide accounts of women’s genitalia that alternately
deny, normalize, or celebrate the clitoris.
The mid- to late sixteenth century was a watershed moment in the devel-
opment of ideas about women’s sexual anatomy, and at this moment two
divergent trends can clearly be identiﬁed. One trend looked to ﬁnd wom-
en’s anatomy structurally and derivatively homologous to men’s—what the
historianThomas Laqueur (1990) famously refers to as the “one-sex”model,
wherein female reproductive organs were viewed as merely an inverted (and
lesser) form of the more perfect masculine structures. Thus the vagina was
an inside-out penis and the ovaries were internal testicles (Laqueur 1990,
25–26). Galen’s homologous description along these lines remained an im-
portant authority for the interpretation of women’s reproductive anatomy
throughout the early modern period of European medicine and indeed well
into the nineteenth century (Chaperon 2012, 42). But incongruously, as
Laqueur notes, many early modern scholars also saw the clitoris as like a
penis both in form and in its erotic sensory function (1990, 65). How could
women have two such pseudopenises?
It might seem that what was at stake here were two different accounts of
structures deemed formally homologous to the male forms. But on close
reading, while the vagina as an inside-out penis clearly proposed an inverted
structural homology, those texts that described the clitoris did so with ref-
erence to its erotic function—here the clitoris was the central organ of plea-
sure comparable to the male penis but not obviously compatible with it as
the organ designed to receive it, as in the Galenic model. It is not clear if
such a divide between the Galenic and Hippocratic views of sexual anatomy
existed in the ancient sources themselves. The Hippocratic Corpus used as
the main authority in European medicine of the Middle Ages was a selection
made and edited by Galen. But numerous other Hippocratic writings were
translated into Arabic from Greek under the ‘Abbāsid rulers in Baghdad
during the eighth century CE and informed medical thought throughout
the Arabic- and Persian-speaking world, only indirectly inﬂuencing Euro-
pean scholars over the eight centuries that followed (Lagerlund 2011, 65).
SIGNS Autumn2018 y57
Sixteenth-century anatomists debating the parts of female reproductive anat-
omy did so by appeal to the ancients, withthose detailing the clitoris citing the
Hippocratic tradition (often referring to Hippocratic sources notrepresented
in Galen’sHippocratic Corpus), while those reiterating the penis-vagina ho-
mology did so with reference to Galen himself.
The sixteenth-century Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius, following
Galen, omitted the clitoris from his drawings and objected to the view that
it should be included, arguing that only hermaphrodites had one (1564,
143). But most medical and erotic texts throughout this time referred to
some variation of the clitoris as the primary organ of women’s sexual plea-
sure and as a sort of equivalent to the male member. This important shift may
have been a result of the introduction of human cadaver dissections and the
emergent enthusiasm of anatomists in this time for empirical observation,
as they no longer merely appealed to ancient texts (Laqueur 1990, 65). The
Milanese anatomist Realdo Colombo claimed to have “discovered”the
Sedes libidinis (seat of the libido) or Amoris dulcedo (love’s sweetness) over-
looked by all other anatomists (1559, 448); however, his Paduan successor
Gabriele Falloppio noted that many in the Hippocratic tradition had long
alluded to it before Colombo (Hall 2001; Stringer and Becker 2010). In-
deed, it was mentioned in Arabic medical texts of the tenth and eleventh
centuries, such as the al-Kunnâs al-malikî of Alî ibn al-Abbâs al Majûsi and
in the writings of the great Persian polymaths AbūʿAlīal-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd
Allāh ibn Sīnā, known as Avicenna, and AbūBakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyyā
al-Rāzī, known as Rhazes (Chaperon 2012, 43; Di Marino and Lepidi 2014,
3). Others, such as the sixteenth-century French anatomist Charles Estienne,
in part of what was to become a long historical tradition of worrying about
the purportedly nefarious effects of masturbation, viewed the clitoris as a
“shameful member”that should not be represented (Estienne 1545, 285),
and in 1575, the French surgeon Ambroise Paré described enlarged clitorises
as the sign of tribadism (Park 1997, 172; Traub 2002).
Ancient, medieval, and early modern erotic texts generally depicted the
external parts of women’s genitals as important for pleasure, and this ap-
pears to have been the pattern across all cultures that produced sophisticated
texts pertaining to sexual matters as an object of knowledge. Here we might
consider the ancient Hindu Kama Sutra of Vātsyāna, collected into a single
text in the second century CE, or the ilm al-bāhsexual medicine texts of
Islamicate cultures in the early modern era (Semeridjan 2006). Whenever fe-
male pleasure (not merely reproductive capacity) was discussed, it was the ex-
ternal genitalia that was widely agreed to be signiﬁcant. Wherever the clitoris
was mentioned, it was also commonly stated that since conception could not
occur without the “spilling of the female seed,”and since the clitoris was the
major organ of women’s pleasure, conception therefore required the stimu-
lation of the woman’s clitoris (Laqueur 1990, 66). Considering the focus on
erotic function that appeared in some descriptions of the clitoris,it seems clear
that the Galenic model of penis-vagina homology was not the only model pres-
ent but that erotic homology betweenclitoris and penis was also an important
approach, permitting the recognition of comparable pleasure between men
and women while discerning their differing reproductive structures.
Several scholars of medieval, early modern European, and Islamicate sexu-
ality and medicine have proposed that Laqueur’s characterization of ideas
about male and female anatomy in this time as based entirely on a “one-sex”
homologous model is overly simplistic. Indeed, Elizabeth Harvey questioned,
in this very journal over ﬁfteen years ago, whether Laqueur’s model of ho-
mology could adequately account for the richness of seventeenth-century
ideas about women’s pleasure that appeared to discuss both the similarities
and the differences between male and female genital structures (2002). Joan
Cadden referred to a much wider diversity of medical views about sex differ-
ence in medieval sources than Laqueur’s model could account for (1995).
Fay Bound Alberti suggests that a reading of literary sources that refer to
women’s sexuality shows that ideas of both homology and radical difference
were present (2016, 69–70). Helen King remarks that early modern medical
stories about sex transformation, such as the Hippocratic story of the sex-
changing woman Phaethousa, show that male and female were often seen
as distinctly differing rather than homologous but were nonetheless poten-
tially mutable (1998). And Ahmed Ragab has shown that “multiple, dis-
similar, and changing contemporary ‘sex-scapes’” characterized Islamicate
medical cultures of the medieval period (2015, 431). These views accord
with the perspective proposed here: that accounts of female genital struc-
tures throughout history were not informed solely by a one-sex model. These
accounts, in fact, were characterized by two divergent trends in thought that
crystallized in early modern anatomy and that have remained in later con-
ceptions, including the continuing debates in our own time about vaginal
versus clitoral orgasm. In one account, the vagina is homologous (and infe-
rior) to the penis, while in the other, the clitoris is the primary organ of plea-
sure in women, just as the penis is for men.
The seventeenth century saw a further growth in texts describing female
pleasure and anatomy, but rather than settling the matter of what was the
proper locus of women’s pleasure, the textual proliferation merely intensi-
ﬁed the divergence in thought that had emerged in the previous century. Ter-
minology at least became more consistent. Prior to this time, various terms
existed to refer to the external genital structures in women. Virga (meaning
“rod”) was the term used in many Latin sources, but the term nympha was
SIGNS Autumn2018 y59
sometimes used to indicate the labia minora, though possibly also the clito-
ris. Arabic sources referred to the bazr, transliterated into Latin as badedera
or batharum, or translated into Latin as tentigo (Chaperon 2012, 44). The
word “clitoris”only became standard in Western European languages in
the seventeenth century (Cohen 1973), following the precedent of the An-
cient Greek anatomist Rufus of Ephesus (Abou-Aly 1992, 151). In 1614 the
Parisian anatomist Jean Riolan, echoing Ambroise Paré, asserted that most
supposed hermaphrodites were in fact simply women with large clitorises
(Park 1997, 172). The 1615 anatomical text Microcosmographia by Helkiah
Crooke, court physician to King James I, described the clitoris both in form
and in erotic function, following Colombo’s assertion of its essential role in
women’s pleasure and hence in conception (Traub 2002, 89–90). In 1672
the Dutch anatomist Regnier de Graaf ardently contradicted the views
about discernible clitorises as signs of aberrant sexual behavior or hermaph-
rodism and insisted that they were indeed present in every female cadaver
he had ever dissected (Bound Alberti 2016, 83).
Insistence on the clitoris as a normal organ of women’s pleasure was re-
iterated by numerous anatomists, such as the French scholar Jean Riolan
and the Danish anatomists Caspar and Thomas Bartholin (Traub 2002, 90;
Chaperon 2012, 48). A 1687 French work by physician Nicolas Venette ad-
dressed couples in the form of a marital advice manual and declared the cli-
toris to be the “throne of pleasures”(Chaperon 2012, 49). Popular texts
written by women also appeared in this time in the form of midwifery man-
uals. Typically, these referred to the clitoris as the primary organ of women’s
sexual pleasure, citing ancient sources for support. Such was the 1671 Mid-
wives Book produced by the English midwife Jane Sharp, who viewed the
clitoris as the source of woman’s delight in copulation ( 1999, 40).
Another text by an anonymous American author, published in 1684 as
Aristotle’sMasterpiece, patently pretended to be a work of Aristotelean med-
icine, contradicting Aristotle’s own claim that women conceive without plea-
sure (Chaperon 2012, 48). It claimed that the clitoris resembled a “yard”
(penis) in that it “suffers erection”and “both stirs up lust and gives delight
in copulation”; hence without it, no conception would occur (Anon. 
It is beyond the scope of this article to account adequately for the fate of
the clitoris in eighteenth-century medical ideas, but sufﬁce it to say that de-
scriptions of the clitoris continued as either central for women’s pleasure or
irrelevant to sexual relations. However, one novel feature of this time worth
noting is the emergence of a prevalent antimasturbation discourse from the
beginning of the eighteenth century following the publication of the anon-
ymous best seller Onania (Anon. 1756). This work proposed, among other
scurrilous promises, to uncover the hitherto unknown fact of women’s mas-
turbation causing enlargement of the clitoris, though as Laqueur notes,
such was a common trope of erotica texts published around this same time
(2004, 28). Antimasturbation texts continued to proclaim the practice to
have negative health effects in both men and women throughout both the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in each case where women’smas-
turbation was mentioned, it was the clitoris that was deemed to show these
negative effects by becoming enlarged. While the insistence on the clitoris
as the site (and sign) of women’s masturbation undoubtedly contributed to
its normalization as the expected locus of female orgasm, it also seems likely
that it helped to produce later forms of suspicion of it as something thatmust
be rescinded within a rigidly coital vision of marital sexual relations. The no-
tion of vaginal orgasm was entirely foreign throughout the early modern an-
atomical descriptions and up to the nineteenth-century elaborations of fe-
male sexuality. It appeared only in the early twentieth century, around the
same time that the antimasturbation current was waning.
Nineteenth-century medical ideas about women’s sexual pleasure
The notion of the abrupt nineteenth-century repression of the clitoris makes
little sense to those of us who have worked with nineteenth-century medical
sources on sexuality. Instead, there was a divergence of views like that which
occurred among sixteenth-century anatomists and persisted throughout the
nineteenth. Those who emphasized the clitoris as playing a crucial role in
female pleasure generally also considered women capable of sexual pleasure
as strong as men’s, while those who minimized its importance also tended
to consider women naturally less sexual than men. There was no argument
made about an alternative locus of pleasure, such as in the twentieth-century
concept of the vaginal orgasm. The English doctor William Acton denied
that pleasuring women had any point to it and considered women to be
“untroubled”by sexual feelings in general. He also viewed masturbation
as “eminently productive of disease”(Acton 1865, 112, 38). Clitoral surger-
ies were practiced by some European and American doctors as a cure for
masturbation throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Rodri-
guez 2014). But the importance of the clitoris was also reiterated in many
other nineteenth-century texts of anatomy and sexual medicine, such as the
1844 work by the German anatomist Georg Kobelt, who argued that it
was a direct analogue of the penis. Kobelt chastised those who had over-
looked the clitoris and argued that women’s genitals were muscular and
equally prone to turgescence as men’s (1851, 73–87; see also ﬁg. 1).
SIGNS Autumn2018 y61
Figure 1 Dissection of the pubic region with clitoris. Preparation of Georg Ludwig Kobelt,
from De l’appareil du sens génital des deux sexes dans l’espèce humaine et dans quelques
mammifères, au point de vue anatomique et physiologique [The genital sensory apparatus in
both sexes of the human species and in some mammals, from anatomical and physiological
points of view], 1851. http://www2.biusante.parisdescartes.fr/livanc/?p5138&cote555545
Another defender of the clitoris was H. D. Maheux, a doctor in the faculty
of medicine at the University of Paris who ran a practice in Montmartre
throughout the 1860s and 1870s and authored several works on women’s
health and on sterility. He described the clitoris as “a small tubercle which ...
resembles the corpus cavernosum of the male,”with the “intimate structure
oferectiletissue,”makingit the“principalseatof pleasure(volupté)inwomen”
(Maheux 1873, 3). He remarked that the woman’s pleasure was not necessary
for conception, as was once believed, as evidenced by the many women he had
encountered who were frigid or who had been raped but who nonetheless
had children. The ancient to early modern concept of women’s pleasure be-
ing necessary for conception had clearly been abandoned, but women’s
pleasure remained recognizable and signiﬁcant nonetheless.
In the 1870s and 1880s, the role of the clitoris was the subject of some
debate among French physicians such as Félix Roubaud and Pierre Garnier
in their differing accounts of the causes of female sexual “anaphrodisia”or
frigidity (Cryle and Moore 2011, 48–52). Roubaud argued that malfunc-
tions of the clitoris were the likely cause of this mysterious condition of ab-
sent sexual pleasure in women and cited Kobelt’s account of the clitoris as
the female equivalent of the penis, with a much greater nerve concentration
than any other part of the female genital system (Roubaud 1855, 542). A
view of female sexual anatomy that took full account of the importance
of the external pudenda for female pleasure thus persisted throughout the
nineteenth century, and those who did not mention it typically viewed fe-
male pleasure as unimportant in general. Garnier had argued against Rou-
baud’s insistence on the importance of the clitoris by countering that a re-
spectable woman was only ever willing to have sex for “moral”reasons of
love for her husband and desire for children (1893, 511).
There was no particular European culture that generated more of one
type of view relative to the other. In England, France, Germany, and Italy,
both those who recognized the clitoris as important and those who mini-
mized its role or attributed it to aberrant sexuality can be found. A French
guide to women’s sexual health published in 1875 by the doctor Émile Clé-
ment showed that the early modern confusion about the clitoris as a mark of
hermaphrodism or aberrant sexual behavior remained a live question for
some even in the late nineteenth century. Clément denied that “hypertro-
phy of the clitoris”indicated hermaphrodism but suggested that discernible
clitorises were always a sign of “women who allowed themselves to be lead
astray by their passions, leading to neuroses such as hysteria, nymphomania
that sometimes lead to death.”The only solution, he remarked, was a “rad-
ical remedy,”being “partial or total ablation of the organ”(1875, 26).
Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, clitoridecto-
SIGNS Autumn2018 y63
mies were prescribed to cure women of masturbation, of hermaphrodism,
and of lesbianism, and larger than normal clitorises were deemed to be a
mark of female criminality (Lombroso and Ferrero 1903, 418; Rodriguez
On the other hand, the English surgeon Henry Savage in 1880 detailed
the musculature and ligamentory attachments of the normal female genita-
lia, with great attention to the clitoris, illustrated as a cadaver dissection with
color plates (1880). The nerves of the female genitalia had been charted by
early modern anatomists, and a widely read 1881 physiology handbook noted
the dorsal innervation of both the penis and the clitoris but not the vagina
(Hermann 1881). Several scholars have noted that alongside medical prac-
tices of clitoridectomy that occurred in British and American medicine of
the nineteenth century, there was also a burgeoning protocol that entailed
doctors stimulating women to orgasms as cure for “hysteria”or gynecolog-
ical disorders. Electrical stimulation was sometimes used for this purpose, al-
though self-pleasuring was heavily discouraged (Maines 1999; Warren 2015).
At the very end of the nineteenth century, widely divergent views about
female genitalia and sexual impulses persisted. The renowned Italian crimi-
nologists Cesare Lombroso and Guillermo Ferrero proclaimed women “nat-
urally frigid”and described large clitorises as the mark of prostitutes and the
sexually perverted (Lombroso and Ferrero 1903, 54–58). The German doc-
tor Otto Adler thought women very hard to pleasure and considered that
only a man of great skill could achieve this (1904, 47.) On the other hand,
the Austrian gynecologist Enoch Heinrich Kisch, writing at the same time as
Adler, considered a woman’s sexual impulses to be at times “so powerful ...
its primitive force dominates her whole nature”(1904, 205–6). The French
doctors Charles Barbaud and Charles Lefevre, in a book about women’s
health published in 1897, discussed the clitoris as an important organ of
pleasure, again likening it to the penis: “The clitoris represents the erectile
organ of woman par excellence”(1897, 14). Discussions of the clitoris os-
cillated between these two sets of views up until the interwar period, from
when an enfolding suspicion of it emerged in entirely novel terms.
The clitoris becomes suspect
Laqueur’s central argument in Making Sex—that medical ideas shifted from
a notion of the sexes as homologous to a view of them as incommensurable—
makes little sense when we consider that Galenic penis-vagina homology
never did account for the full spectrum of views about female genitalia ex-
pressed by anatomists and doctors throughout the period from 1500 to
1900. But it is also clear that the notion of female genitalia as simply a cavity
for reception of the penis never went away either. Its revival in the twentieth
century took the form of prescriptive advice that doctors and hygienists gave
women, suggesting they should try to be as feminine as possible and ﬁnd
their pleasure in vaginal coitus and not anything else. The idea was not merely
that women’s genitals mirrored men’s—that was a claim that could be found
throughout the history of homologous views of female sexual anatomy. What
was new in this period was the notion that women should be as sexual as men
but that they should have orgasms through coitus alone. Prior to this time,
scholars who denied the importance of the clitoris generally denied that
women were very sexual at all. The twentieth century produced a unique dis-
course of necessary vaginal orgasmic response.
Certainly it was neither the increasing understanding of science as a sec-
ular endeavor nor scientiﬁc research per se that produced this shift in think-
ing. As Laqueur has remarked, these developments were “as much the prod-
ucts of culture”as were the earlier views about the role of female pleasure in
conception (1990, 153). Medical, psychiatric, psychoanalytic, and sexolog-
ical literatures in Europe and the United States between 1914 and 1945 em-
phasized ideal compatible difference between men and women, worrying
that men were not masculine enough and women not feminine enough.
But they insisted on this ideal differentiation not by stating it as a biological
genital fact but by suggesting it as a prescriptive behavioral ideal. There was a
prevalent anxiety about the parts of female anatomy that appeared “mascu-
line”—in particular, the clitoris—precisely because it was still widely recog-
nized as homologous to the penis (Moore 2009). These concerns joined
with older antimasturbation discourses that had continually emphasized
the dangers of self-pleasuring both for marriage and for general well-being
(Laqueur 2004), and typically it was the same doctors worried about mastur-
bation who also viewed clitoral pleasure in partnered sex as problematic.
In the interwar period, many medical and vulgarized pseudomedical texts
about female sexuality emphasized the dangers of masculinization, nympho-
mania, and androgyny, as expressed in the well-known French novel of
1922, Victor Margueritte’sLa garçonne (The bacheloress). This view re-
quired straining logical consistency and making recourse to moralistic, nor-
mative arguments. The German doctor Wilhelm Stekel considered frigid
women to be in fact hypersexual women who were resistant to being pene-
trated. Their “frigidity”was a form of feminist refusal of women’s natural
role of receptive passivity. This view is reﬂected in the chapter titled “The
War of the Sexes”in his 1921 book. A doctor could tell if a woman was
frigid precisely because she would exude sexual conﬁdence and agency! (Ste-
kel 1921). European and American doctors treated women for frigidity by
counseling them against clitoral stimulation or by surgically altering their
SIGNS Autumn2018 y65
genitalia in the hope of making them more interested in penetration. The
sexes must be compatible for marriage and childbearing to work harmoni-
ously, but their pleasure must strictly derive from coitus; otherwise, doctors
feared, women might expect to enjoy phallic pleasure over procreative inter-
course (Cryle and Moore 2011). Ironically here the penis and the clitoris
were indeed still viewed as biologically homologous. Without proper moral
guidance, female phallic pleasure or “clitoridism”was thus an inherent risk.
As scholars such as Anne Fausto-Sterling (1985), Marlene Zuk (2002),
Cordelia Fine (2010), and Sarah Richardson (2013) have all noted, appeals
to biology in discussion of gender and sexuality in our own time frequently
propose prescriptive normalizing views based on what is deemed biologically
programmed. But perhaps what is most remarkable in the interwar period is
that normality was constructed precisely against that which was assumed as
biologically determined (Laqueur 1990, 236; Walton 2001, 142).
The period in which the clitoris was speciﬁcally out of favor and the va-
gina in was admittedly short and far more recent than is often believed. It is
only since the beginning of the twentieth century that we ﬁnd, as a prevalent
discourse, the explicit ideal that female orgasm should result from coitus, as
many historians of sexuality and queer studies scholars have noted (Laqueur
1990; Moore 2009; Jagose 2012). Ideas about female coldness, anaphro-
disia, vaginismus, and frigidity all appeared in medical writing of the late
nineteenth century either as descriptions of lacking desire, resistance to inter-
course (whether psychological or physiological), or perverse distraction (clito-
ral or otherwise) from the business of coitus. But in all these discussions, no
one appears to have mentioned any kind of explicit expectation of anything
resembling “vaginal orgasm”until sometime after the beginning of the twen-
tieth century, though in earlier texts, women were clearly expected to be re-
ceptive to male advances and interested in marriage and motherhood.
A signiﬁcant development in ideas about this apparent contradiction was
developed by Sigmund Freud. His 1905 Three Essays on the Theory of Sexu-
ality proposed the now-familiar idea, perhaps our most widely agreed-upon
object of feminist scorn, that clitoral pleasure constituted a merely infantile
form of masturbatory experience, with maturation of the genitals of both
sexes in puberty directing them toward coital penetration (Freud 
1995, 282, 287). But the notion of vaginal versus clitoral pleasure was ad-
vanced most notably not by Freud himself but by his most enthusiastic fe-
male acolyte. Toward the end of the 1920s the French Freudian theorist of
female sexuality, Marie Bonaparte, studied African practices of female cir-
cumcision and sought surgical correction to overcome her own persistent
“clitoridism,”or “phallicism”as she called it, which she imagined to be dis-
tracting her from the functional hystericization of pleasure: vaginal receptivity
(1932). Her inspiration was the Swedish anthropologist Felix Bryk, whose
studies of the Nandi tribal practices of female circumcision seemed to con-
ﬁrm what Freudians were thinking about the need for women to rescind cli-
toral pleasure in adulthood (1934).
The surgery that Bonaparte herself underwent with German gynecolo-
gist JosephHalban involved severing the clitoral suspensory ligaments, which
permitted reattachment of the clitoris closer to the vaginal opening (Narjani
[Bonaparte] 1924). The surgical decision was premised on her analysis of
women who had a shorter distance between the external clitoris and vaginal
opening and who experienced orgasm in coitus—something Bonaparte hoped
to achieve surgically (Moore 2009, 153). By her own account, this surgery did
not have the intended effect of making Bonaparte more orgasmic in coitus,
probably due to the considerable scarring and loss of sensitivity that it pro-
duced (Bertin 1992, 251–59). There is little doubt that the peculiarly con-
ﬂicted early twentieth-century notion of clitoral pleasure as biologically given
yet psychosocially maladapted created attempts at self-perfecting that caused
Bonaparte and many other women untold suffering.
The clitoris continued to be widely viewed as the genital organ that most
reliably produced tangible orgasm. The inﬂuential advice manual Married
Love by the British paleobotanist and feminist Mary Carmichael Stopes, ﬁrst
published in 1918, described the clitoris as a “vestigeal”penis, recommend-
ing its careful stimulation in marital sex (1919, 50). In 1932, the American
sexologist C. B. S. Evans attempted to provide directions to the clitoris by
asking his readers to envisage the female genitalia as a sailboat that extended
from the pubic bone to the anus, noting that “the clitoris lies where the ﬂag-
pole would be on the bow of the boat,”and declared it every married man’s
duty to provide his wife with orgasms (Evans 1932 49; McLaren 2008,
171). It was also continually viewed, either metaphorically (as in psychoan-
alytic thought) or explicitly (as in biological anatomical depiction), as a mini-
penis. That idea, as we have seen, is of quite ancient origin. Homology was a
constant, and it was not its abandonment per se that resulted in the refusal of
clitoral pleasure but rather a reﬁguring of the moral importance of this locus
of women’s bodies. The interwar fascination with appropriate sexual norms
for each gender made the notion of a female penis suddenly troubling for
some. As historian Angus McLaren notes, “Most interwar writers recognized
the importance of clitoral stimulation but ...regarded vaginal penetration as
superior”(2008, 172). This contradictory approach was a truly novel form of
discourse about the clitoris that had little precedent in past anatomical, med-
ical, or erotic texts in the European context. It was not, as has sometimes been
asserted, the norm across time immemorial for men to repress women’ssex-
uality by denying their need for clitoral and other pleasures (Koedt 1973;
SIGNS Autumn2018 y67
Chalker 1997); on the contrary, a vast genealogy dating at least from the ﬁf-
teenth century, but probably earlier, reiterated a holistic view of female sexual
anatomy that included the external genital structures as important organs of
Why, then, did things change in the early twentieth century, with an in-
creasing number of doctors advising women to relocate their pleasure to the
vagina? The Freudians had some of their own idiosyncratic reasons, but
many doctors clearly not followers of that movement were also prescribing
clitoridectomies to women well into the post–World War II era. The advice
to relocate pleasure from the clitoris to the vagina gained ground despite
clear scientiﬁc understanding of the importance of the clitoris as a center
of erotic sensation in women. In part, the trend followed longer patterns
of concern about masturbation in both sexes, which had also existed since
the early modern era but reached a zenith in the late nineteenth century
(Laqueur 2004). But this period also saw the emergence of increased con-
cern about female sexuality, with ideas of perversion, lesbianism, frigidity,
and nymphomania ﬁlling volumes of respectable texts of medicine and crim-
inology, as well as a vast output of vulgarized works that combined erotic
titillation with descriptions of sexual pathology (Chaperon 2007; Cryle and
Downing 2009; Cryle and Moore 2011).
It is unsurprising, perhaps, that vaginal receptivity became suddenly em-
phasized in the interwar period—a time of intense pronatalism, nation build-
ing, and the looming threat of war—and indeed again in the post–World
War II era of reconstruction and population renewal (otherwise known as
the baby boom). Gender historians such as Mary-Louise Roberts, Carolyn
J. Dean, and Laura Doan have shown that pronatalist periods in nineteenth-
and twentieth-century societies have typically coincided with cultural anxie-
ties about appropriate sexuality, homosexuality, androgyny, perversion, and
female pleasure (Roberts 1994; Dean 2000; Doan 2013). The idea was that
women should be as feminine as possible, and traits deemed masculine, in-
cluding short haircuts, boxy clothes, and clitoral orgasms, should be discour-
aged in the interest of the reproductive health of the nation (Roberts 1994).
The larger context of these discursive developments was undoubtedly
women’s sudden inclusion in the workforce of almost every kind, beginning
with the loss of men conscripted to ﬁght in World War I. With the return of
soldiers after the war, many women workers were discouraged from con-
tinuing in their newfound jobs and economic freedoms. The new economic
reality combined with new reproductive pressures as nation-states prepared
for further war, recognizing the need for population growth to support the
armies of the future (Roberts 1994, 194–95). Pronatalist arguments in-
sisted emphatically that it was a woman’s national duty to have as many ba-
bies as possible, and many states awarded prizes to mothers of large families,
such as the 1920 French Médaille d’honneur de la famille française (Clarke
2000, 211). Meanwhile, social hygienists criticized the “selﬁsh”career
woman who neglected her national duties (Clarke 2000, 140). These con-
textual pressures, in combination with the dubious reputation the clitoris
had earned through antimasturbation texts from the late nineteenth century,
helped to form a unique cultural nexus that orientated doctors toward the
view that women should be principally vaginal in their pleasure.
Though my own work on this topic has been on European texts, Amer-
ican medical practices and ideas of the time appear to have been very similar.
As medical historian Sarah Rodriguez notes of the attitudes to female mas-
turbation in the early twentieth-century United States, “there was only one
kind of female orgasm, and it was clitoral; there was also only one kind of
healthy sexual instinct in women, and it was for penetrative (hopefully pro-
creative) sex with their husbands”(2007, 324). As Rodriguez shows in her
2014 monograph Female Circumcision and Clitoridectomy in the United
States, surgeries were carried out on women’s genitals for a variety of rea-
sons until well into the 1960s. Genital surgeries were more prevalent in
the United States than in Europe, though some French doctors considered
it a matter of pride to compete with the Americans in their willingness to put
women’s genitalia under the knife (Cryle and Moore 2011, 187). In the
mid-twentieth-century United States and Europe, surgeries continued but
often entailed removing the clitoral hood with a view to enhancing clitoral
stimulation in coitus—in other words, female circumcision (Rodriguez 2014,
50). Clitoral hood surgeries, unlike clitoridectomies, remained committed
to the notion that women should climax from coitus, and, as in the case
of Marie Bonaparte, the procedure aimed to make this more likely through
surgical exposure of the clitoral glans. Various forms of female genital cutting
were also then, and are still now, being practiced in a minority of other cul-
tures throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, though as the
anthropologist Lori Leonard warns, we have no reason to assume these are
always “deep-seated,”“traditional,”or a “ﬁxed and static practice”(2000,
In the 1950s several important developments in the biomedical sciences
and in sexual science shifted the parameters of understandings of female or-
gasm. Alfred Kinsey and colleagues’1953 work Sexual Behavior in the Hu-
man Female noted the ubiquitous use of clitoral stimulation by women in
masturbation and the commonplace use of it in heterosexual sex, either be-
fore, after, or at the same time as coitus. Notably, Kinsey defended the ne-
cessity for women to be clitorally stimulated precisely by the same logic that
can be found in numerous early modern texts of anatomy, but with a mod-
SIGNS Autumn2018 y69
ern scientiﬁc nuance. The clitoris and the penis are “homologous structures,
in the technical sense of the term,”Kinsey wrote, referring to the embryonic
account that had become known in 1950, which detailed the divergence
of the bipotential gonad only in the second trimester of fetal development
(Kinsey et al. 1953, 571–72). Following from Kinsey’s work, William Mas-
ters and Virginia Johnson argued forcefully that the clitoris played a role in
female orgasmic responses of all kinds (1966). But the clitoris had few other
determined scientiﬁc defenders until the ﬁnal decades of the twentieth cen-
tury with the rise of feminist political activism and the work of women sex-
ologists and feminist philosophers of biology, who refuted the notion of a
normative “vaginal orgasm”(Koedt 1973; Hite 1976; Moore and Clarke
The myth busters
Because of the way modern medical and psychoanalytic ideas about female
sexuality had excised the clitoris (both ﬁguratively and literally), one of the
most important developments in postwar feminist reclamations of sex en-
tailed debunking the Freudian paradigm. In 1970, a short piece of feminist
polemic originally written by Anne Koedt in 1968 became popular for re-
claiming the centrality of the clitoris as the principle organ of female orgasm
(1973). That idea became widespread in Western feminism in the following
decade, and by the late 1980s had become a staple truism in Anglophone
psychology, sexology, and ﬁnally even in popular women’s magazines (Lieff
Benderly 1986; Manning 2013; Breslaw 2015). Koedt’s designation of vag-
inal orgasm as a “myth”was a powerful assault on the demonization of the
clitoris that was sometimes, even in her time and culture, expressed in sur-
gical removal or remodeling of women’s genitals. The term “myth”seems
appropriate in the sense that it was a normative and prescriptive ideal that
ignored much contradictory evidence: an idea that, though couched in med-
ical language, found little support in scientiﬁc research; an idea that helped
doctors of the early twentieth century to imagine themselves (not the women
whose genitals they examined) as authorities on matters of those women’s
sexual pleasure. The term “myth”was obviously false in another sense,
though, in that it implied that no woman had ever had a recognizably orgas-
mic experience from coitus alone.
In resisting the view that women should only orgasm in coitus, feminist
accounts of women’s sexuality from the 1970s up through the 1990s tended
to eschew biological sexual science altogether in favor of either an ethics of
experience, a political call for equality in the mutual pleasure economy, or
a personal denial of heterosexuality and penetration, or even of sexuality alto-
gether (Gerhard 2000). We might be tempted to assimilate Koedt’sinterven-
tion with these trends, except that her text very clearly references scientiﬁc
understanding of female genital anatomy—in fact, her insistence that vaginal
orgasm was impossible was based precisely on the known biological under-
standing of nerve density in the different genital tissues. Koedt drew on Kin-
sey’s work that had detailed the vastly lower nerve concentration in the va-
gina relative to the clitoris, citing his claim that in his test subjects, 14 percent
of women could not even tell if the vaginal epithelium was being touched
or not (Kinsey et al. 1953, 580; Koedt 1973).
Kinsey is referring here to vaginal examinations conducted by gynecolo-
gists using a speculum and a narrow probing implement, a situation hardly
like penetration in erotic contexts. But this is precisely what was misguided
about the claim that vaginal penetration could not ever be a source of or-
gasm. Real-life penetration does not keep the vaginal wall held apart while
the penetrating agent enters without perturbing the surrounding muscula-
ture; on the contrary, all the tissues of the genital-pelvic network are moved,
compressed, squashed up against each other, and against the ﬂesh of the
other person. The medical examination disambiguates this entangled array
of sensations in a way that actual sexual interactions do not. Koedt, despite
her strident rejection of common medical advice to women to expect or-
gasm in coitus, nonetheless accepted the standard gynecological model of
sensory testing as authoritative in telling us where we should feel the most
pleasure. The refusal of vaginal orgasm, while helping to rescue the clitoris
from the scrap heap of twentieth-century heterosexuality, and from the sur-
gical scalpel, nonetheless played into the trap of accepting genital bifurca-
tion and taking sides with the part that had been maligned (Pfaus et al. 2016).
In 1966, an American psychiatrist named Mary Jane Sherfey, who had
trained in Freudian psychoanalysis but who had also studied both with Kin-
sey and with Masters and Johnson, published an article in the Journal of the
American Psychoanalytic Association that similarly challenged the Freudian
vaginal orgasm thesis, here with even deeper biological justiﬁcation. She be-
gins by citing Freud’s prediction that psychoanalytic theory must necessarily
be disproved by new advances in biological knowledge. Her article proposes
that just such a moment has arrived—that embryonic and endocrine re-
search has demonstrated that the clitoris is not a “masculine”organ, nor
is it possible for most women to ignore it, and it is time to ditch the dam-
aging and unreasonable expectation that women should rescind clitoral
pleasure or be labeled infantile and neurotic if they do not (Sherfey 1966).
Sherfey draws heavily on a biological argument derived from 1950s en-
docrinology to make her claim against the received Freudian dogma: It is
now understood, she remarks, that the “bipotential”gonad of early embry-
SIGNS Autumn2018 y71
onic development is not in fact “undifferentiated”sexually but rather fe-
male: “In the beginning, we were all created females, and if this were not so,
we would not be here at all”(1966, 43). Moreover, “embryologically speak-
ing, it is correct to say that the penis is an exaggerated clitoris”(50). Since
the clitoris was the original genital organ, it therefore could not be denied
in adult women’s sexuality, and attempting to do so was only causing count-
less women to feel inadequate. “Could much of the sexual neuroses which
seem to be almost endemic in women today be, in part, iatrogenic?”she asked
rhetorically (1966, 36). Understanding our biology in an up-to-date fashion,
then, was the key to living a life of sexual contentment.
The claim that “the bipotential gonad is actually female,”suggested by
1950s endocrinologists, proved enduringly appealing in the deconstruction
of ideas about female genitalia as derivative. Jaak Panksepp cites the idea in
his classic 1998 book on affective neuroscience, remarking that “the pri-
mordial plan for both female and male foetuses ...is initially feminine.
Some have called this the ‘default’plan since masculinization results from
the organizational effects of testosterone”(1998, loc. 8272). It is still com-
mon to see embryonic gonadal development described in these terms, with
the notion of a “‘default’effect of no steroid hormone action being the de-
velopment of the female phenotype”(Pfaus et al. 2016, 5). There is no
doubting the fun to be had in telling men that the penis is just a plumped-
up clitoris. However, recent genetic studies of sexed differentiation now
suggest that the notion of the female being “default”is not exactly accurate
either—the bipotential gonad is precisely that. As Fausto-Sterling notes, the
idea of female structures as default reﬂects the relative lack of study of ovar-
ian development, as well the persistence of prescientiﬁc assumptions about
normative female passivity: “Femaleness then becomes an absence, some-
thing that happens by default, something that does not merit the same level
of scientiﬁc investigation as the more active male process”(2012, 16). While
an absence of the testosterone surge associated with the SRY gene on the
Y chromosome results in female phenotype development, this embryo would
also require the estrogen surge (which in males is inhibited by genes on the
Y chromosome) to complete its own full ovarian development. The embryo
cannot complete its development as female without female-speciﬁc hor-
monal interventions, like those required by the male fetus for full testicular
development. The “default”then, if anything, is intersex.
Legacies of the past still haunt us
Much of the conceptual scaffolding that underlay the notion of exclusive
vaginal orgasm persists in other forms today. The model of male genitalia
as the norm, with female genitalia as the exception, continues to inﬂuence
scientiﬁc research, perhaps even more so than in the past. Biological views of
female sexuality have largely accepted the importance of the clitoris for fe-
male orgasm, and the impact of feminist critiques has been wide reaching.
And yet the occlusion often persists at the level of anatomical depiction of
the female genital system. A 2014 article published in PLOS Biology shows
that studies of animal genitalia conducted since 2000 have increased their
focus on male genitalia over female forms across this fourteen-year period
(Ah-King, Barton, and Herberstein 2014). A sociological survey of anatom-
ical drawings of female sexual organs in the 1990s noted that clitorises were
as frequently omitted as they were included in such images (Moore and
Has this yet changed? A Medscape web article directed at medical profes-
sionals, updated in 2013, shows a sagittal slice of a woman’s pelvis under the
heading of “Female Reproductive Organs”indicating the vagina, urethra, fal-
lopian tubes, ovary, and uterus—and the urinary bladder and rectal canal—but
not the clitoris! (Miranda, Miranda, and Gest 2017). The omission of the cli-
toris is surprisingly common, though not ubiquitous, in current medical
drawings of female anatomy. The Merriam-Webster Visual Dictionary Online
shows another model, also in sagittal slice, with the clitoris indicated as a tiny
ﬁngernail-like structure, highlighted in blue to show its exception from any
surrounding tissues (Merriam-Webster n.d.). Here, even with the clitoris
scribbled back in, we are left with a view of female genitalia as a set of dis-
creet parts unrelated to one another. But most often the female reproductive
system is represented visually in frontal view of the internal organs, showing
the uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, cervix, and vagina but none of the exter-
nal structures that are most crucial for arousal and orgasm, as pictured in ﬁg-
ure 2 (Human Anatomy Library 2016; see ﬁg. 2).
As Nancy Tuana has remarked, ignorance of the clitoris in anatomical
drawings of the late twentieth century may not be a matter of passive omission
reﬂecting epistemic gaps in the prevailing scientiﬁc models. Such omissions
must prompt questions about how ignorance is “sustained, cultivated, or al-
lowed”(2004, 196). Denials of the clitoris have, at every moment, coexisted
with assertions of its importance and detailed descriptions of its structures,
suggesting that denial or ignorance was not a product of the limits of the sci-
entiﬁc models but was generated as part of speciﬁc commitments to ideas
about appropriate feminine sexuality. From the historical survey provided in
this article, it should be clear that reductive ideas about female orgasm that
have sought to localize pleasure in just one place and/or to hystericize it to-
ward less innervated parts were in fact largely twentieth-century confections,
not ancient traditions, not the products of Victorian prudishness, nor the
SIGNS Autumn2018 y73
remnants of some brutal misogynist dark age. We are inheritors of a recent
and still current legacy that has taught us to divide our pleasure into discreet
hierarchized components. Recognizing that this is a phenomenon of our
own time, not someone else’s, is most certainly the ﬁrst necessary step toward
Having been told that our genitals are a set of parts and not a whole, how
indeed can pleasurable entanglement be reimagined? Obviously, we cannot
unknow what is already known, and there is no returning to the world in
which female orgasm was imagined as necessary for conception (nor would
it necessarily be desirable to do so). Arguably the only way is onward into
the science as it stands in our own time. Yet in much of the scholarship on
sexuality and gender produced in the humanities and social sciences, bio-
logical understanding is deemed necessarily deterministic and normative.
Consequently, as Elizabeth Wilson has complained, “we have come to be as-
tute about the body while being ignorant about anatomy,”and “it seems
Figure 2 Schematic drawing of female reproductive organs, frontal view, 2007. Wikimedia
Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid52885139. A color version
of this ﬁgure is available online.
that the very sophistication of feminist accounts of embodiment has been
brokered through repudiation of biological data”(2004, 69–70). Debates
about the place of female sexual pleasure in human and animal biology re-
main deeply divergent, even as a growing corpus of humanistic scholarship
is now integrating humanistic critical thought with scientiﬁc literacy. But
there is still a mass of both prescientiﬁc bias and gendered political invest-
ment in the biological research itself, and the task of picking through it is
both painstaking and contentious. However, from the turn of the twenty-
ﬁrst century there has been a growing tide of critical science scholars who
have devoted their careers to precisely such correctives. The works of Karen
Wallen, Elisabeth Lloyd, Erika Milam, Nikolas Rose, Sarah S. Richardson,
Marlene Zuk, Stephen J. Gould, Anne Fausto-Sterling, Nelly Oudshoorn,
and Cordelia Fine (all inspirations for this article) have contributed to a
mammoth and detailed unpacking of many layers of sexual and gendered de-
lusions in biological research of different kinds.
In twentieth-century sexological thought, understandings of sexual dif-
ferentiation in embryological development have formed a recurrent basis
for biological argumentation about appropriate sexual behavior and rela-
tions. Many questions remain to be answered about fetal sex differentiation,
particularly ovarian development, which is still relatively understudied. An
alternative line of thought might focus less on the question of “whose gen-
itals came ﬁrst”or “which sex derived from the other”and instead focus
more on how female genital sensory physiology works, what its potential
is for different kinds of pleasure, and how much variability there may be be-
tween different women, and indeed different formations of intersex. In this
vein, a current branch of biological inquiry that may be of greater interest
can be found in some recent physiology and affective neuroscience research
that looks at the sexual sensory system in women.
Curiously, some rather basic questions of genital anatomy have only re-
cently been properly studied—namely mapping, via technologies such as
MRI and ultrasound, the full and living tissue structure of the clitoris and
how it is mechanically pressured during coitus (Buisson et al. 2010; Pfaus
et al. 2016). Of interest to feminist scholars of sexuality, this research has
shown that sensations previously thought to be discretely either vaginal or
clitoral may be part of an interconnected sensory network that includes the
cervix as well other bodily loci. An important 2005 MRI study led by the
urology researcher Helen O’Connell shows that the clitoris is a multiplanar
structure that cannot adequately be illustrated in two dimensions. It is not
merely the hooded clitoral glans visible to the naked eye but includes the
paired bulbs and corpora in an interconnected neural network (O’Connell,
Sanjeevan, and Huston 2005). Other MRI studies have indicated that clito-
SIGNS Autumn2018 y75
ral size, as well as distance of the clitoris from the urethral meatus (referred to
as the CUMD), inﬂuence orgasmic potential (Wallen and Lloyd 2011;
Oakely et al. 2014), while sexual science studies have indicated that women
report higher rates of orgasm when oral and manual stimulation of the ex-
ternal genitalia are involved compared to vaginal intercourse alone (Freder-
ick et al. 2017). Other physiological studies have shown an integral sensory
relationship between the clitoris, the distal urethra, and the vaginal wall (Bag-
gish, Steele, and Karram 1999). The emerging picture of female genital anat-
omy enabled by new medical technologies appears sufﬁcient to put to rest all
previous selective claims about the locus of female orgasm. The clitoris is per-
haps much more of our genitalia than we have been told throughout much
of the twentieth century, though perhaps not more than was often intuited.
School of Humanities and Communication Arts
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Moral Relations. Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston.
Adler, Otto. 1904. Die Mangelhafte Geschlechtsempﬁndung des Weibes: Anaesthesia
sexualis feminarum. Dyspareunia. Anaphrodisia [Defects of sexual sensation in
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