Anatomy of the Clitoris
We present a comprehensive account of clitoral anatomy, including its component structures, neurovascular supply, relationship to adjacent structures (the urethra, vagina and vestibular glands, and connective tissue supports), histology and immunohistochemistry. We related recent anatomical findings to the historical literature to determine when data on accurate anatomy became available. An extensive review of the current and historical literature was done. The studies reviewed included dissection and microdissection, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), 3-dimensional sectional anatomy reconstruction, histology and immunohistochemical studies. The clitoris is a multiplanar structure with a broad attachment to the pubic arch and via extensive supporting tissue to the mons pubis and labia. Centrally it is attached to the urethra and vagina. Its components include the erectile bodies (paired bulbs and paired corpora, which are continuous with the crura) and the glans clitoris. The glans is a midline, densely neural, non-erectile structure that is the only external manifestation of the clitoris. All other components are composed of erectile tissue with the composition of the bulbar erectile tissue differing from that of the corpora. The clitoral and perineal neurovascular bundles are large, paired terminations of the pudendal neurovascular bundles. The clitoral neurovascular bundles ascend along the ischiopubic rami to meet each other and pass along the superior surface of the clitoral body supplying the clitoris. The neural trunks pass largely intact into the glans. These nerves are at least 2 mm in diameter even in infancy. The cavernous or autonomic neural anatomy is microscopic and difficult to define consistently. MRI complements dissection studies and clarifies the anatomy. Clitoral pharmacology and histology appears to parallel those of penile tissue, although the clinical impact is vastly different. Typical textbook descriptions of the clitoris lack detail and include inaccuracies. It is impossible to convey clitoral anatomy in a single diagram showing only 1 plane, as is typically provided in textbooks, which reveal it as a flat structure. MRI provides a multiplanar representation of clitoral anatomy in the live state, which is a major advantage, and complements dissection materials. The work of Kobelt in the early 19th century provides a most comprehensive and accurate description of clitoral anatomy, and modern study provides objective images and few novel findings. The bulbs appear to be part of the clitoris. They are spongy in character and in continuity with the other parts of the clitoris. The distal urethra and vagina are intimately related structures, although they are not erectile in character. They form a tissue cluster with the clitoris. This cluster appears to be the locus of female sexual function and orgasm.
ANATOMY OF THE CLITORIS
HELEN E. O’CONNELL,*
† KALAVAMPARA V. SANJEEVAN AND JOHN M. HUTSON
From the Department of Urology, Royal Melbourne Hospital, Victoria, Australia
Purpose: We present a comprehensive account of clitoral anatomy, including its component
structures, neurovascular supply, relationship to adjacent structures (the urethra, vagina and
vestibular glands, and connective tissue supports), histology and immunohistochemistry. We
related recent anatomical findings to the historical literature to determine when data on accurate
anatomy became available.
Materials and Methods: An extensive review of the current and historical literature was done.
The studies reviewed included dissection and microdissection, magnetic resonance imaging
(MRI), 3-dimensional sectional anatomy reconstruction, histology and immunohistochemical
Results: The clitoris is a multiplanar structure with a broad attachment to the pubic arch and
via extensive supporting tissue to the mons pubis and labia. Centrally it is attached to the
urethra and vagina. Its components include the erectile bodies (paired bulbs and paired corpora,
which are continuous with the crura) and the glans clitoris. The glans is a midline, densely
neural, nonerectile structure that is the only external manifestation of the clitoris. All other
components are composed of erectile tissue with the composition of the bulbar erectile tissue
differing from that of the corpora. The clitoral and perineal neurovascular bundles are large,
paired terminations of the pudendal neurovascular bundles. The clitoral neurovascular bundles
ascend along the ischiopubic rami to meet each other and pass along the superior surface of the
clitoral body supplying the clitoris. The neural trunks pass largely intact into the glans. These
nerves are at least 2 mm in diameter even in infancy. The cavernous or autonomic neural
anatomy is microscopic and difficult to define consistently. MRI complements dissection studies
and clarifies the anatomy. Clitoral pharmacology and histology appears to parallel those of penile
tissue, although the clinical impact is vastly different.
Conclusions: Typical textbook descriptions of the clitoris lack detail and include inaccuracies.
It is impossible to convey clitoral anatomy in a single diagram showing only 1 plane, as is
typically provided in textbooks, which reveal it as a flat structure. MRI provides a multiplanar
representation of clitoral anatomy in the live state, which is a major advantage, and complements
dissection materials. The work of Kobelt in the early 19th century provides a most comprehensive
and accurate description of clitoral anatomy, and modern study provides objective images and
few novel findings. The bulbs appear to be part of the clitoris. They are spongy in character and
in continuity with the other parts of the clitoris. The distal urethra and vagina are intimately
related structures, although they are not erectile in character. They form a tissue cluster with the
clitoris. This cluster appears to be the locus of female sexual function and orgasm.
KEY WORDS: genitalia, female; clitoris; anatomy and histology; magnetic resonance imaging; history of medicine
The anatomy of the clitoris has not been stable with time,
as would be expected. To a major extent its study has been
dominated by social factors. A number of anatomists from the
16th century and thereafter claimed the discovery of the
clitoris, including Colombo, Falloppia, Swammerdam and De
Graaf. Prominent anatomists, notably Galen and Vesalius,
regarded the vagina as the structure equivalent to the penis,
Vesalius having argued against the existence of the clitoris in
normal women. What constituted the clitoris, what it was
called, what characterized normal anatomy and whether
having a clitoris at all was normal were controversial issues.
Some recent anatomy textbooks omit a description of the
By comparison, pages are devoted to penile anat-
omy. Because surgery is guided by accurate anatomy, the
quality and validity of available anatomical description are
relevant to urologists, gynecologists and other pelvic sur-
geons. Accurate anatomical information about female pelvic
structures should be found in classics, such as Gray’s Anat-
the Hinman urological atlas,
sexuality texts such as
the classic Master and Johnson Human Sexual Response
any standard gynecologic text. These texts should provide the
surgeon with information about how to preserve the inner-
vation and vasculature to the clitoris and related structures
but detailed information is lacking in each of these sources.
The clitoris is a structure about which few diagrams and
minimal description are provided, potentially impacting its
preservation during surgery. Specific study of anatomical
textbooks across the 20th century revealed that details from
genital diagrams presented early in the century were subse-
quently omitted from later texts.
These examples, particu-
larly with the backdrop of the clitoris being discovered and
rediscovered, indicate that the evolution of female anatomy
Submitted for publication August 18, 2004.
Supported by the Bruce Pearson Fellowship of the Australasian
Urology Trust and a Victor Hurley Medical grant for dissecting
* Correspondence: NeuroUrology and Continence Unit, Royal Mel-
bourne Hospital, Victoria 3050, Australia (telephone: ⫹61–3-93479911;
FAX: ⫹61–3-93475960; e-mail: Helen.O’Connell@nh.org.au).
† Financial interest and/or other relationship with Continence
Control Systems International.
0022-5347/05/1744-1189/0 Vol. 174, 1189 –1195, October 2005
HE JOURNAL OF UROLOGY
Printed in U.S.A.
Copyright © 2005 by A
MERICAN UROLOGICAL ASSOCIATION DOI: 10.1097/01.ju.0000173639.38898.cd
across the 20th century occurred as a result of active deletion
rather than simple omission in the interests of brevity. In
their diagrams the feminists of the 1970s expanded clitoral
anatomy to include the bulbs and even the urethra as part of
Were there excellent and accurate accounts in
the historical literature?
The relationship between the clitoris and related struc-
tures has also been under scrutiny. In fact, a modern anat-
omy text states: “The clitoris is thus in many details a small
version of the penis, but it differs basically in being entirely
separate from the urethra.”
Few would argue that the ure
thra is central to our territory as urologists. Recent research
has demonstrated the integral relationship between the cli-
toris, and the distal urethra and vagina.
A search using the PubMed and Ovid databases was done
from 2004 back to 1966. Each relevant article was searched
to find the original research in English, French and German,
and when there was an English abstract. We related the
findings of modern anatomical research to the historical lit-
erature with the goal of perpetually clarifying female sexual
In this review of clitoral anatomy we clarify 1) the consis-
tent features of the clitoris that would logically define its
component parts, 2) the relationship between the clitoris,
urethra and vagina, 3) the anatomy of its neurovascular
supply, 4) its histological structure and relevance to new
drug options, 7) historical descriptions consistent with the
findings of modern anatomical study and 8) the historical
literature that helps us understand the controversy sur-
rounding something as stable and uncontroversial as human
MODERN STUDIES OF CLITORAL ANATOMY
Results of gross anatomical studies using dissection and
magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in adults. In a recent
series of dissections of fresh and fixed cadaver tissue
O’Connell et al observed that the clitoris is a multiplanar
structure positioned deep to the labia minora, labial fat and
vasculature, bulbospongiosus and ischiocavernosus muscles,
inferior to the pubic arch and symphysis with a broad attach-
ment to it, and via extensive supporting tissue to the mons
pubis and labia.
The clitoris consists of a nonerectile tip,
the glans and erectile bodies (the paired bulbs, crura and
corpora) (figs. 1 and 2). The latter bodies commence proximal
as the crura and join distal as a single body that projects into
the glans, which in turn projects into the fat of the mons
pubis. As here defined, the clitoris is a highly vascular entity
with a consistent relationship to the distal urethra and va-
gina. The latter 2 structures form a midline core in an oth-
erwise pyramidal shaped structure. The apex of the pyramid
is the most superior point of the clitoral body, where it at-
taches to the under surface of the pubic symphysis by the
deep suspensory ligament. This relationship is best seen on
MRI axial section (fig. 3).
The bulbs of the clitoris form
the lateral margins of the base of the pyramid. The base of
the pyramid extends from the ischiopubic rami on either side
ventral to the anus.
As the clitoral body projects from the bone into the mons
pubic fat, it descends and folds back on itself in a boomerang-
like shape. This is seen well on MRI sagittal section (fig. 4).
MRI differs from dissection views, in that it reveals the true
position of the clitoris relative to the supine position, whereas
dissections are balanced on their base, which is rotated
greater than 90 degrees from the supine position for balance
The suspensory ligament maintains this bent position, pre-
venting it from becoming straight, as distinct from the penis.
A detailed description of the deep and superficial suspensory
ligaments is provided by Rees et al.
The glans is a small,
button-like extension of the body of the clitoris. It is partly
external, as distinct from the remainder of the clitoris, which
is deep to the epithelium, labial fat and deep fascia of the
perineum. Because of the superficial nature of the clitoral
glans, it has previously been the subject of considerable
study, eg variations in its size and shape have been well
Clitoral innervation and perineal neurovascular bundles
are paired terminations of the pudendal neurovascular bun-
dles. They arise at the pelvic side wall. The clitoral neuro-
vascular bundle ascends along the periosteum of the ischio-
pubic ramus to meet the neurovascular bundle from the other
side close to the midline. Where the crura unite to become the
body (the body of the clitoris), the clitoral neurovascular
bundles pass to the superior surface of the clitoral body. After
some minimal branching the dorsal clitoral nerves pass
largely as intact, large neural trunks into the clitoral glans.
The perineal neurovascular bundle supplies the urethra and
FIG. 1. Frontal view of dissected clitoris and vulva, as seen from
perineum in fresh cadaver of 57-year-old postmenopausal woman.
n.v.b., neurovascular bundle.
FIG. 2. Lateral view of dissected clitoris in fresh cadaver of 57-
year-old postmenopausal woman.
bulbs, and on each side passes under the pubic arch to gain
access to this area. These neurovascular bundles are large
and visible to the naked eye (fig. 5). The nerves are 2 mm in
diameter even in infancy. The cavernous or autonomic neural
anatomy is microscopic and difficult to define consistently. In
dissection based studies it appears to be a network of nerves
rather than discrete nerves, although the anatomy appears
to vary with 1 of the 14 specimens having a discrete cavern-
ous neurovascular bundle.
In anatomical textbooks the dor
sal nerve of the clitoris is not described but is noted to be “the
corresponding nerve. . . very small and supplies the clitoris.”
Thus, the impressive size of the nerves, their course or ulti-
mate destination is not provided. The arteries and veins are
treated similarly. Dissection and MRI clearly revealed the
arteries and veins of the dorsal clitoral and perineal neuro-
vascular bundles, and the bifurcation of the termination of
the pudendal neurovascular bundle. The fat saturation se-
quence provided the greatest clarity of clitoral anatomy by
demonstrating excellent contrast between the white of erec-
tile tissue bodies and all remaining structures, including the
urethra and vagina, but particularly against the fat, which
Recently Yucel et al reported that the cav
ernous nerve supplies the female urethral sphincter complex
The branches of the cavernous nerve were
noted to join the clitoral “dorsal” nerve at the hilum of the
clitoral bodies. These branches stain positive for neuronal
nitric oxide synthase. The cavernous nerves originate from
the vaginal plexus component of the pelvic plexus. They
travel at the 2 and 10 o’clock positions along the anterior
vaginal wall, and then at the 5 and 7 o’clock positions along
the urethra. This study in fetuses clearly demonstrates the
cavernous nerves, highlighting the importance of further
study in adults to define the anatomy accurately to preserve
their integrity during reconstructive and ablative surgery.
Histology, immunohistochemistry and clitoral pharmacol-
ogy. The histology of each component of the clitoris was
The body is surrounded by a thick
tunica albuginea. On the outer surface of the body lie
branches of the dorsal nerves and vessels. In each erectile
core of the corpora lie the deep clitoral arteries.
clitoral body has a histology similar to that of the penis. It is
composed of conjoined corpora separated by an incomplete
septum (fig. 6). The septum continues in the midline halfway
into the glans.
The corpora are surrounded by branches of
the dorsal nerve of the clitoris, although the bulk of the nerve
continues intact into the glans. Baskin et al emphasized the
lack of nerves at the 12 o’clock position and the fact that the
lowest nerve density in the glans is on its ventral aspect
juxtaposed to the glans septum,
which are facts of signifi
cance in genital reconstruction. The glans is a densely neural
structure that is not erectile in nature but is in direct conti-
nuity with the erectile bodies to which it attaches. The cav-
ernous tissue and its surrounding tunica albuginea extend
from the clitoral body into the proximal aspect of the glans.
The glans contains dense vascular dermis and a large num-
ber of sensory receptors, especially Pacini’s corpuscles, which
provide deep sensation and sense vibration. Pacini’s corpus-
cles are also closely related to the neurovascular bundles and
their branches, which surround the body.
Previous studies have included fetal tissue, tissue derived
from the clitoris at the time of its excision for pathological
study or gender reassignment, or they have focused on the
sensory aspects of the glans rather than on erectile tis-
The histology of the crura resembles that of the
body in its type of erectile tissue but it lacks the surrounding
neurovascular structures and internal vasculature. The
bulbs are composed of spongy tissue.
The cavernous tis
sue of the bulbs has larger spaces and few nerves relative to
the corpora, while there is no tunica albuginea, giving it a
purple appearance macroscopically relative to the pink of the
corpora and crura. The greater vestibular glands lying deep
to the bulbs can be seen in histological sections between the
bulbs and the outer aspect of the distal vaginal wall. Further
comprehensive study of the histology of the vulval structures
Nitric oxide synthase has been demonstrated in many
studies to be the mediator of clitoral smooth muscle relax-
FIG. 5. Lateral view of dissected specimen of clitoris with its neu-
rovascular bundle (n.v.b.) in fresh cadaver of 57-year-old postmeno-
pausal woman. Int., internal.
FIG. 3. MRI of clitoris and its components in axial plane in pre-
menopausal nullipara. Bulbs, crura and corpora are well demon-
strated. These structures lie ventral and lateral to urethra and
vagina as cluster or complex. Reprinted with permission.
FIG. 4. MRI of clitoris and its components in mid sagittal plane in
premenopausal nullipara. This midline sagittal section highlights
almost boomerang-like appearance of clitoral body, crura and glans.
Reprinted with permission.
CLITORAL ANATOMY 1191
The immunoreactivity of clitoral tissue does not
appear to differ from that of penile tissue with the latter
having been studied extensively. The pharmacology and
physiology of the clitoris and vaginal wall were recently
reviewed by Munarriz et al.
Apomorphine induced changes
in cavernous and vaginal blood flow have been observed in a
Topical application of alprostadil resulted in
a significant increase in peak systolic and end diastolic ve-
locity, as observed using duplex ultrasound evaluation of the
clitoris and labia.
Estrogen has been shown convincingly in
recent years to be the primary hormone subserving the fe-
male sexual response, not testosterone, although the latter
also has an influence. In animal studies sildenafil promotes
clitoral smooth muscle relaxation, resulting in increases in
clitoral and vaginal blood flow as well as in vaginal lubrica-
tion. Despite considerable evidence that the mediators of
clitoral and vaginal smooth muscle are similar to those of
penile tissue, about which much has been written, the clini-
cal value of those responses appears to be substantially dif-
ferent. There is ongoing controversy about the role of type 5
phosphodiesterase inhibitors in female sexual dysfunction.
The reasons for this difference are beyond the scope of this
HISTORY OF ANATOMY OF THE CLITORIS
According to Vesalius the female form is the same as that
of the male, the difference being that each genital structure
In his model the penis corresponded with the
vagina and there was no role for a clitoris. At that time the
anatomists Falloppia and Colombo described the anatomy of
the clitoris. In his opposition to the idea of a clitoris Vesalius
stated, “It is unreasonable to blame others for incompetence
on the basis of some sport of nature you have observed in
some women and you can hardly ascribe this new and useless
part, as if it were an organ, to healthy women. I think that
such a structure appears in hermaphrodites who otherwise
have well formed genitals, as Paul of Aegina describes, but I
have never once seen in any woman a penis (which Avicenna
called albaratha and the Greeks called an enlarged nympha
and classed as an illness) or even the rudiments of a tiny
Presumably it was difficult for the average anatomist to
rebel from the stand of such powerful anatomists as Vesalius
and Galen. Confusion about clitoral anatomy was furthered
by the lack of consensus regarding its terminology.
Terminology and its controversies. Various terms have
been used historically to refer to the clitoris and the word was
not used in the English literature until the 17th century.
Hippocrates used the term columella or little pillar. Avicenna
named the clitoris the albatra or virga (rod). Albucasim,
another Arabic medical authority, named it tentigo (tension).
Amoris dulcedo (sweetness of love), sedes libidinis (seat of
lust) and gadfly of Venus were terms used by Colombo.
would appear that in each instance the structures included
were the body and glans of the clitoris. Magnus was one of the
most prolific writers of the Middle Ages, famous for his ob-
He stressed “homologies between
male and female structures and function” by adding “a psy-
chology of sexual arousal” not found in Aristotle. Magnus
devoted “equal space to his description of the male and fe-
male—whereas in Constantine’s treatise, references to the
female are quite incidental.”
Magnus used the word virga
as the term for the male and female genitals.
De Graaf emphasized the need to distinguish nympha from
clitoris and to avoid confusion he chose to “always give it the
Since his 17th century description of the
clitoris, there appears to have been constant use of this label.
Nympha later became a term specific to the labia minora but
early on it was inclusive of the clitoris, ie an anatomical
concept similar to vulva. Confusion resulted from the varied
use of the term nympha. Park discussed the implications of
the linguistic imprecision that resulted from the confusion.
The Greek word
(clitoris) is possibly derived from
the Greek word
, which means to rub.
the same Greek word
is connected to the word hill
and it is translated by some as the little hill.
It may be that
the ancients used the term clitoris as a play on words. The
linguist Cohen devoted a chapter to a discussion of the sig-
nificance and origins of the word clitoris.
Suffice it to say
that the derivation of the word appears to be unclear to this
Discovery and rediscovery of the clitoris. Park provided a
detailed discussion entitled “Rediscovery of the Clitoris.”
In the Renaissance (1545) Estienne was the first writer to
identify the clitoris in a work based on dissection.
report of Estienne the clitoris was given a urinary function.
Colombo claims to have rediscovered the clitoris but the
claim of Falloppia in his report of 1561 appears more justi-
He stated, “Modern anatomists have entirely ne
glected it. . . and do not say a word about it. . . and if others
have spoken of it, know that they have taken it from me or
Apparently the discovery of Falloppia caused
an upset in the European medical community. Colombo, the
successor to Vesalius in the chair at Padua, claimed to be the
first anatomist to accurately describe the clitoris.
In the 16th century justification for clitoridectomy seems to
have been tied up in the confusion related to hermaphrodit-
ism and the imprecision created by the word nymphae rather
than clitoris. The major French surgical text of Dalechamps,
which was intended to “make broadly accessible the surgical
knowledge of medieval and, especially the ancient authori-
ties,” contained some noteworthy discussion about surgery on
the clitoris and the social implications of clitoral anatomy.
Following the chapter on hermaphrodites Dalechamps wrote
about nymphotomia. Nymphotomia was an operation to ex-
cise unusually large nymphae. However, what constituted
unusually large nympha was the problem. He believed that
this was “an unusual feature that occurred in almost all
Egyptian women” as well as “some of ours, so that when they
find themselves in the company of other women or their
clothes rub them while they walk or their husbands wish to
approach them, it erects like a male penis and indeed they
use it to play with other women, as their husbands would
do....Thus the parts are cut off as is described in Aetius [an
early 6th century Greek writer] and others.”
The work of De Graaf indicates that clitoral anatomy was
FIG. 6. Low power photomicrograph through clitoral body of
2-year-old child reveals several large neural trunks, which are
branches of dorsal clitoral nerve. H & E, reduced from ⫻5.
rediscovered again in the 17th century. In 1672 he wrote,
“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.”
work by De Graaf in the 17th century seems to be the first
comprehensive account of clitoral anatomy.
Thus, for periods as long as 100 years anatomical knowl-
edge of the clitoris appears to have been lost or hidden,
presumably for cultural reasons. The work of Kobelt men-
tions yet other claimants for the discovery of the clitoris.
and De Graaf.
The 2 most influential and de
tailed descriptions of clitoral anatomy have been those of De
both of which have been translated
into English. De Graaf described the bulbs, calling them
plexus retiformis: “The constriction of the penis (by the fe-
male) previously mentioned is assisted in a wonderful way by
those bodies which, when the fleshy expansions arising from
the sphincter have been removed.”
Lowry attributed the
discovery of the bulbs to De Graaf.
The account of De Graaf
is the only one ascribing a physiological role to the clitoral
Kobelt provided a clear perspective of clitoral anatomy as it
was in the 1840s.
“In this essay, I have made it my princi
pal concern to show that the female possesses a structure
that in all its separate parts is entirely analogous to the
male; I scarcely dare to expect the same sort of success as in
my studies of the male, as all previous attempts of this
nature have always come to naught because our knowledge
in regard to these female structures is still full of gaps.”
account of female sexual anatomy is extremely comprehen-
sive. He performed dissection, comparative anatomy and in-
jection studies, the latter to simulate sexual arousal. He
subdivided the female sexual organs into active (clitoral shaft
and vagina) and passive (bulbus vestibuli, associated mus-
cles, pars intermedia and the glans clitoris) organs. He de-
scribed the internal macroscopic structure of the glans clito-
ris in an era without histology. The arterial supply to the
clitoris via the 2 dorsal arteries was observed. Minimal
branching of the dorsal nerves of the clitoris and the thick-
ness of the nerves as they enter the glans were noted. “Here
they are, even before their entrance so very thick that one
scarcely imagines how such an abundance of nerve mass can
still find room between the countless blood vessels of this
very tiny structure.”
The account of Kobelt is superb, as are
the accompanying drawings. The details of the suspensory
ligaments are not as well described as those in the Poirier
account in the subsequent literature.
A controversial structure that Kobelt emphasized, partic-
ularly after his comparative anatomical studies, is a struc-
ture he called the pars intermedia, which he described in
detail. It is a vascular entity ”which on both sides lies under
the corpus clitoridis and is in direct contact with the upper
end of the bulbus vestibuli. . . ”
Our dissections identified a
double row of veins surrounding the distal urethra adjacent
to the bulbs. Figure 7 shows the diagrams of Kobelt repre-
senting the pars intermedia, which did not correspond to any
structure seen at dissection or on MRI.
The bulbs have been applied various names, indicating
some confusion about the composition of the clitoris. In all
modern textbooks they are referred to as the bulbs of the
vestibule. Kobelt listed some names that have been given,
including bulbus vestibuli, plexus retiformis, reticularis of R.
de Graaf, crura clitoridis interna of Swammerdam, plexus
cavernosus of Tabarranus, corpus cavernosum of Santorini,
bulbe du vagin of the French, semibulb of Taylor and corpus
Kobelt provided a comprehensive account of the muscula-
ture surrounding the clitoris.
His account of the role of the
clitoris and vagina in the female sexual response is compel-
Few other comprehensive accounts of clitoral anatomy
were identified in the historical literature. An excellent de-
scription was provided more recently.
should have guided the authors of anatomical textbooks to
provide accurate information but that has not been the case.
The typical anatomical textbook description lacks detail, de-
scribes male anatomy fully and only gives the differences
between male and female anatomy rather than a full descrip-
tion of female anatomy.
CONTEXT OF ANATOMICAL CONTROVERSY
Clitoridectomy was an operation justified for millennia in
some parts of the world. Its practice has been reviewed in
However, it is not long ago that it was used in
Western countries, not as a religious ritual, but rather as an
operation to treat a range of medical disorders, including
insanity, epilepsy, catalepsy and hysteria.
In a prizewin
ning essay Sheehan reviewed the practice of clitoridectomy,
and the rise and fall of the prominent British obstetrician
who wrote the textbook advocating clitoridectomy for a myr-
iad of female maladies.
As Sheehan observed, “The 19th
Century medical profession wanted it both ways: the clitoris
was so unimportant to a normal woman as to not be missed
if removed, yet lurking in its tissue was the greatest threat to
female welfare ever known.”
At his trial Brown said, “I have come to the conclusion that
the operation of clitoridectomy was a justifiable operation—
not my operation, recollect, gentlemen but an operation . . .
that has been practiced from the time of Hippocrates and has
FIG. 7. Diagrams of Kobelt.
Lateral view of erectile structures of external organs in female (left). Blood vessels were injected, and skin
and mucous membrane were removed. a, bulbus vestibule. c, plexus of veins named pars intermedia. e, glans clitoridis. f, clitoral body. h,
dorsal vein of clitoris. l, right crus clitoridis. m, vestibule. n, right gland of Bartholin. Front view of erectile structures of external organs in
female (right). b, sphincter vaginae muscles. e, venous plexus of pars intermedia. f, glans clitoridis. g, connecting veins. k, veins passing
beneath pubes. l, obturator vein.
been mentioned by all writers since that period again and
A recent review of female genital mutilation stated that as
many as 120 million girls and women worldwide have been
mutilated. The difficulties involved in abolishing this prac-
tice are complex and the introduction of laws to stop such
practices typically drive the activity underground.
practice of female genital mutilation reveals in the extreme
the interaction between female genital anatomy and the pre-
vailing sociocultural framework.
According to Kaplan, until the practical study of Masters
and Johnson in 1966, “most clinicians believed that stimula-
tion of the clitoris produced ‘clitoral’ orgasm only in infantile
women, ie those who were fixated at an early state of devel-
opment and had failed to achieve genital primacy. In short,
retention of clitoral sensation was considered prima facie
evidence of neurosis.”
Clinical research by sex therapists
and sex educators revealed that women experience orgasm
through indirect or direct clitoral stimulation. The report of
Hite comprehensively reviewed female sexual experience.
This is not to say that the vagina is not key to the female
sexual response. A word that considers the clitoris, distal
urethra and distal vagina would possibly be more useful for
the site of female sexual response. Douglass and Douglass
discussed the issue of appropriate terminology
for the organ responsible for the female sexual response. MRI
and dissection clearly demonstrate the extent to which the
clitoris, distal urethra and vagina are related.
The popular press frequently refers to a focus of female
sexual function, namely the G spot. Grafenberg first de-
scribed an erogenous zone located in the anterior vaginal
Ultrasonic studies have correlated the focus of female
sensitivity with the external urethral sphincter. It is possible
that this focus is the erectile tissue itself as it wraps around
the distal urethra and vagina. Findings in cadavers and on
MRI did not reveal any additional structure separate from
the bulbs, glans or corpora of the clitoris, urethra and vagina
that could be regarded as the G spot.
Kobelt used the term clitoris in a limited way and not in
the inclusive way that the word penis is used.
name or word was given for the entire cluster of erectile
parts. Instead he chose to use the rather cumbersome terms
“female passive and active sex organs,” and did not discuss
his use of terminology or its shortcomings.
There is appeal in using a simple term, the clitoris, to
describe the cluster of erectile tissues responsible for female
orgasm. With time agreement will be reached as to whether
the entire cluster of related tissues (distal vagina, distal
urethra and clitoris including the bulbs, crura, body and
glans) should be included in the term clitoris. For now it
seems appropriate to unite the vascular structures that form
a unified cluster, as on MRI, and refer to those structures as
the clitoris. The distal vagina and urethra are clearly related,
forming a midline core to the clitoris. Whether this cluster
(distal vagina, distal urethra and clitoris) should be regard-
ing as another entity and given a separate name is worthy of
discussion. Such an inclusive concept would probably lead to
the cessation of artificial discussions on the unnecessary
separation of the orgasmic focus, that is clitoral vs vaginal.
The neurovascular supply to the clitoris is derived from the
pudendal and cavernous nerves. The exact anatomy of the
cavernous nerves has been defined in fetal studies but con-
sistent demonstration in adults is lacking. The histology,
immunohistochemistry and pharmacology are increasingly
well defined. To date gains in the laboratory have not trans-
lated directly into clinical practice, the response to sildenafil
being the most obvious example.
Writers of major anatomy textbooks have had access to
comprehensive descriptions and diagrams of the clitoris since
the studies of Kobelt.
The lack of anatomical detail in pelvic
surgical texts has reinforced the blinkered approach to pelvic
anatomy typical of anatomical textbooks. The description of
Kobelt with a few modifications but aided by MRI and pho-
tographs of dissection provide a comprehensive account of
female sexual anatomy.
The tale of the clitoris is a parable of culture, of how the
body is forged into a shape valuable to civilization despite
and not because of itself.
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