The Clitoris Is Still a No-Man’s Land in the Medical World

Ignorance surrounding the clitoris isn't just embarrassing; it's medically dangerous.

HealthIn Depth
The Clitoris Is Still a No-Man’s Land in the Medical World
Photo:James Jiao (Shutterstock)

The year is 2004, radio-rock threesome Green Day just released their album American Idiot, NASA’s Spirit Rover finally reached Mars, and we are still a year out from the first comprehensive anatomical study of the human clitoris being published.

Just to reiterate: Billie Joe Armstrong begged to be woken up before September ends before doctors had a full understanding of the human organ with the most nerve endings. While such research was monumental—and egregiously overdue—almost 20 years later, the clitoris is still pretty much a no man’s land in the medical world (and a lot of heterosexual marriage beds). You’d think charting that territory would be appealing to a field long-dominated by white men, but you’d be wrong!

This week, the New York Times published a piece exploring why the clitoris is still such a mystery in the medical field. The answer is as simple as it is disappointing: Female pleasure isn’t prioritized by doctors, or really anyone. Dr. Rachel Rubin, a urologist and self-proclaimed “clitorologist,” explained that women’s pleasure and sexual health is still associated with “hysteria, Pandora’s box, all psychosocial, not real medicine.” Instead, the focus of women and clitoris-havers’ sexual health is STI prevention and pregnancy. There’s also shame bound up with female pleasure, and not just for the person with the clitoris, but for doctors examining it as well. “Doctors love to focus on what we know, and we don’t like to show weakness, that we don’t know something,” Rubin said. The clitoris, therefore, remains as much a mystery to the medical field as it is to that guy you met on Tinder.

Ignoring female pleasure isn’t just aggravating in the bedroom, it has hazardous consequences in the operating room, as well. The Times piece interviewed a number of people who lost their ability to orgasm or feel pleasure after unrelated surgeries, and medical procedures unintentionally injured their clitoris. One woman, Julie, likened the loss of this ability to losing one’s smell: “a pleasure taken for granted but when lost changes everything,” the Times explained.

I was particularly struck by the tragic irony that haphazardly performed labiaplasties can result in inadvertent nerve damage to the clitoris. A cosmetic procedure aimed at “improving” the look of a person’s vulva, conceivably to look more desirable by some standards, actually handicaps one’s ability to feel pleasure and physical desire. If that isn’t a whole metaphor for our obsession with fulfilling male desires at the expense of female pleasure then I don’t know what is.

What’s more outrageous is that the grassroots movement petitioning urologists and medical textbooks to include more comprehensive information about literally just the shape and size of the clitoris is made up of people who’ve been harmed by ill-cliterate medical professionals. Facebook groups and other social media campaigns have been integral at joining together folks who simply just want answers about the pain and harm inflicted upon them. While it’s incredible that people are able to find community in this way, it would be a lot more fucking incredible if the medical community embraced learning about a sexual organ possessed by half the world’s population.

There are a lot of cute nicknames for this mysterious sex organ. The article jokes that if the vulva is, as its referred to by some urologists, “a small town in the Midwest,” then the clitoris is “a local roadside bar: little known, seldom considered, probably best avoided.” To that, I just have to say, well-traveled folks know that time spent in those little hole-in-the-wall spots, rather than the overpriced downtown tourist destination, are often the most rewarding moments of a trip. Anyways, wake me up when medical negligence harming folks with clitorises end! Thank you!

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