The Pleasure Key

The Pleasure Key

Beginning, as I often do, with etymology, I can tell you that the word clitoris is from the Ancient Greek word key, or alternately Ancient Greek words for “little hill,” “to shut” latch, or hook, and possibly (and amusingly) a verb meaning, to “touch lightly or lasciviously.”

Of course, it’s also been called everything from the pinnacle of heaven to the seat of Satan. But, revealingly, the pudenda–often used to name the entire genital area– is from the Latin, pudenda, meaning “wrongful,” to feel “shame.” It came into usage toward the late 17th century, and all its variants reflect that basic definition: it shames. How did we get here? How did parts of the body most pleasurable come to be so identified with shame and disgust?

It would take forever, or at least too long, to list the gyrations inherent in the patriarchal definition of penetrative phallic sexuality, much more the history of the clitoris. But we can note in passing a few of the many male experts and medical geniuses from the ancients through Galen and Vesalius, Hippocrates and Albertus Magnus, Avincenna and Freud, right up to today, who in their time, were/are convinced that: they had discovered the clitoris (falling on a platitude with an air of enormous revelation), that they had invented the clitoris, that the clitoris was a stage en route to penis-having–a precursor bud or as yet undeveloped stunted penis–or else the very opposite, a late blooming, shrunken afterthought of a penis, or who named the clitoris after themselves, or proclaimed the clitoris really didn’t exist, or that yet it had only a urinary function, had only a reproductive function, had neither function, had no function whatsoever, or neglected it entirely or ignored it utterly. Or: decided that mutilating it might be an interesting ritual. You can get some idea of the general tone, however, from Vesalius, who stated in the 16 century, that “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.”

Deplorably, all of the above and more were considered historically valid responses to the clitoris over time. In humans, ostriches, and a limited number of other animals, the visible portion – the glans — is the front junction in the labia minora, or inner lips. (While few animals urinate thru the clitoris or use it reproductively, the spotted hyena, which has an especially large clitoris, urinate, mates, and gives birth via the organ.) Unlike the male penis, which is the male equivalent to the clitoris, it does not contain the opening of the urethra, and is not used for urination. In most species, the clitoris lacks any reproductive function and is there solely for pure pleasure. The clitoris is the human female’s most sensitive erogenous zone, developing from an outgrowth in the embryo called the genital tubercle. Initially undifferentiated , the tubercle develops into either a penis or a clitoris during the development of the reproductive system, depending on exposure to androgens, or male hormones. (It starts out female.) The clitoris is a complex structure with the glans, the head, roughly the size and shape of a pea, but it is estimated to have 8000 to 10,000 sensory nerve endings–twice as many as the nerve endings found in the human penis, and more than in any other part of the human body.

But ahhhhh. Then we get into culture and cultural perceptions of the organ.

Oh dear me. Some are hilarious, some vicious, some disgusted and disgusting. Most are profoundly ignorant. Here we find Freud doing his Freud thing; in 1905 he published his theory about the so called “immaturity of clitoral orgasms,” which negatively affected women’s sexuality for much of the 20th century (thanks a lot, Sigmund). We had Masters and Johnson in 1966, but they were hopelessly muddled. Shere Hite in The Hite Report, and especially the work of the national Network of Feminist Women’s Health Centers, propelled a feminist reformation of anatomical texts. But none of these have had the hoped-for general impact.
There were breakthrough moments, though: in 2013, a humanitarian group named Clitoraid launched the first Annual International Clitoris Awareness Week (in May), and young girls — bless ’em — protested for clitoris awareness at a women’s rights rally in Paris in 2019.

Still, wilful ignorance persists in the 21st century. In 2019, a questionnaire was administered to a sample of educational sciences post grad students concerning the organs of the female and male reproductive systems. The researchers reported that about 2/3 of the students failed to name any external female genitals, such as the clitoris and labia, even after detailed pictures were provided to them. A 2022 analysis reported that the clitoris is mentioned in only one out of 113 Greek secondary education textbooks used in biology classes from the 1870s to the present.

Shirley Ogletree and Harvey Ginsburg concluded that there is a general neglect of the word itself in common vernacular. They looked at the terms used to describe genitalia in a database from 1887 to 2000 and found that penis was used in 1482 sources, but vagina in 409, and clitoris only in 83. The same with terminology used by college students regarding beliefs about sexuality, the students having been overwhelmingly educated to believe that the vagina is the female counterpart of the penis. Furthermore, social stigmas still exist–that, for example, the clitoris and female genitalia in general are visually unappealing–when, au contraire, we all can recognize the accuracy of Sylvia Plath’s devastating description of male genitalia as looking like a strangled turkey neck.

Ignorance and aversion appear to be largely, although not exclusively, cross-cultural on this subject. Which is not even to get into the hideously creative various ways in which human beings–for cultural, traditional, or religious excuses–have engaged in piercing, cutting, scraping, burning away, slicing and sewing, sealing, completely excising, and otherwise mutilating of the female genitalia. Non-medical male circumcision, often performed even here, in what is called the “developed” world, strikes me as similar acts of savagery, leaving aside that this is carried out in more sterile and “civilized” circumstances.

Removal of the clitoris and the labia, however, often done in unsterile circumstances in villages in the Global South, costs girls’ their lives. Even if they survive bleeding to death, they face lifetimes of suffering, including fistulas, dangerous or fatal labor and pregnancy, lack of sexual sensation, multiple urinary tract and bladder infections, pain, sterility, etc. The excision of these parts, which are viewed by some as “the male parts of a woman’s body,” is believed to enhance a girl’s femininity, and is thought synonymous with docility and obedience.

Overall, the practice of FGM has been declining over the last three decades. In the 31 countries with nationally representative prevalence data, around 1 in 3 girls aged 15 to 19 today have undergone the practice versus 1 in 2 in the 1990s. However, not all countries have made progress and the pace of decline has been uneven. It has taken decades for feminists, led by feminist and health-advocate women inside countries most affected by the practice to lobby and pressure even UN agencies to simply term the practice accurately, “genital mutilation”–25 years of struggle to replace euphemisms like “female circumcision,” “rites of passage” “womanhood ceremonies.” Swift decline of FGM among girls aged 15 to 19 has occurred across countries with varying levels of FGM prevalence including Burkina Faso, Egypt, Kenya, Liberia, and Togo. But the pace of decline has been uneven. In Somalia, 98 percent of girls have been cut.

It is estimated that more than 2 million female genital mutilation procedures are performed each year, most before the girlchild turns age five. How did we get to this place??