Clitoris - The forgotten female organ

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Gustave Courbet, L’Origine de monde (1866), Musée d´Orsay. © Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Female sexuality is still a taboo subject. This is probably the reason why accurate depictions of the clitoris are so hard to find. But for some decades now, medicine and science have developed a renewed interest in those genital structures, whose purpose is not reproductive but purely for pleasure. As part of my research, I have developed two 3D models that clearly depict the clitoris and its surrounding structures and have now gone into serial production.

I have been focusing on the biological basis of attraction and sexuality in humans and animals for almost two decades. It was only more recently, however, while searching for appropriate illustrative material, that I noticed that current textbooks had barely any informative images of the bulbo-clitoral organ, commonly known as the clitoris. Depictions of male genitalia are usually very detailed and comprehensive. Yet, when it comes to female genitalia, only the reproductive organs are typically shown. But this has not always been the case.

Early reception of the clitoris
Research in the Rare Books & Journals collection of the Institute of Anatomy at the University of Basel revealed that the external female genitals were given considerable more attention and interest in previous centuries. As early as the 17th century, Dutch gynecologist Regnier De Graaf published a surprisingly detailed diagram of the bulbo-clitoral organ (fig. 1). De Graaf was well ahead of his time; he not only discovered the ovarian follicles, but also described the female prostate and female ejaculation.

Fig. 1: One of the earliest proper illustrations of the clitoris can be found in Regnier De Graaf’s treatise “De Mulierum Organis Genarationi Inservientibus” of 1672.

The diagrams by German anatomist Georg Ludwig Kobelt — published in 1844 in his excellent work The male and female lust organs of humans and some mammals in anatomical-physiological relation — remain unrivaled to this day. By injecting blood vessels with various materials, Kobelt was able to make the vascular tissue visible and to record the specimens in precise drawings. These are of such excellent quality that they are still used in textbooks today (fig. 2).

Fig. 2: The extraordinary illustrations of the clitoris in Georg Ludwig Kobelt’s treatise of 1844 are still in use today because of their unsurpassed quality.

From the mid-19th century, social influences and new scientific discoveries led to a steady decline of interest in the investigation of female pleasure. A significant factor was the discovery of fertilization and the realization that women could become pregnant without an orgasm. This made the clitoris superfluous to reproduction. As a result, the bulbo-clitoral organ ceased to be depicted, or was only depicted in part. Sigmund Freud’s theories further reinforced this decline, advocating a distinction between an “immature” clitoral orgasm and a “mature” vaginal orgasm.

Social influences continued to affect the field of anatomy in the early 20th century. The British edition of the reference work Gray’s Anatomy, for example, depicted significantly fewer images of the structure of the bulbo-clitoral organ than the North American edition, which was published at the same time. This can probably be attributed to the lingering effects of Victorian prudishness. Another notable development was that the French reference work Traité D’Anatomie Humaine by Poirier & Charpy (fig. 3) no longer featured the excellent diagrams by the German anatomists Kobelt and Henle after World War I.

Fig. 3: In the 1907 edition of the French standard work “Traité D’Anatomie Humaine” by Poirier & Charpy, the clitoris was illustrated with 12 excellent illustrations. But starting with the 1925 edition, the amount of images was cut half, discarding some of the best illustrations by German anatomists Kobelt and Henle.

Female sexuality continues to be devalued to this day, and information on the subject is confined to a handful of high-quality textbooks and scientific publications to which the general public has limited access. The inadequate depictions in sex education books in schools is particularly worrying.

Counter-Censorship?
In 2014, the brilliant reference work Anatomic Study of the Clitoris and the Bulbo-Clitoral Organ by Vincent Di Marino and Hubert Lepidi was published. It presents the history, cultural context and current knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of the clitoris in detail. Anatomically accurate 3D models were still missing, however.

After my retirement, I therefore decided to set about creating such models. In 2019, the German company KESSEL medintim undertook the production and distribution of two models, which are now used in sexual health and gynecological consultations and teaching.

Fig. 4: Position of the clitoris in the pelvis with the model “Clitoris Plus” showing the clitoris above the urethra and vagina.

The “Clitoris Plus” model illustrates the bulbo-clitoral organ with the underlying urethra and vagina (image 4). The “Vulva” model shows the bulbo-clitoral organ and the surrounding structures (image 5). The vulva is a complex system made up of closely linked and interwoven structures, the integrity of which is a prerequisite for healthy sexuality and thus female health as a whole.

I very much hope that the general public will become better informed about this important system of organs; young people in particular lack knowledge of female genital anatomy. We should therefore work to reverse previous censorship and ensure that only textbooks with anatomically correct depictions of the bulbo-clitoral system are used in future.

Fig. 5: 3D-Modell Vulva.

If you are interested in purchasing the models Clitoris Plus and Vulva, follow this link. To learn more about the female body and sexuality, come and join the upcoming Basel Festival “My Pleasure,” October 23–25, 2020. Further information about the program can be found here.

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Daniel Haag-Wackernagel
sci five | University of Basel

Professor emeritus, biologist, research in basic principles of sexuality of animals and humans, Department of Biomedicine, University of Basel