The “Malleus Maleficarum,” a 1486 guide to identifying, persecuting and slaying suspected witches, referred to the clitoris as “the devil’s teat.” In the early 1900s, Sigmund Freud declared clitoral orgasms to be representative of sexual and psychological immaturity.
After centuries of men in science discovering and rediscovering the clitoris, the 1948 edition of “Gray’s Anatomy: the Anatomical Basis of Clinical Practice” removed anatomical illustrations of the sex organ entirely, reflecting a history of medical and public contempt for normal female sexual development.
“In 1969, we put a man on the moon. In 1982, we invented the internet. In 1998, we discovered the full anatomy of the clitoris,” reads Cliteracy, a 2015 project dispelling myths about sex and the female body.
We owe this long overdue discovery to urologist Helen O’Connell, who led the first comprehensive anatomical study of the clitoris. Today, we understand it to have more than 8,000 nerve endings — double the amount found on the phallus — and to function solely for sexual pleasure.
Despite these advancements, female desire is still engorged by unrealistic depictions of sex and dominated by sexual conduct favoring men. The clitoris lends itself the perfect metaphor to men’s advantageousness during sex — penetration is not necessary for female-bodied people to achieve orgasm.
Led by Dr. Debby Herbenick, a sex educator and associate director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion, a 2017 study said, “75% of women reported that clitoral stimulation was either necessary for their intercourse orgasms, or helped their orgasms feel better.”
In another 2017 study, 95% of straight men reported they usually or always orgasmed when intimate with a partner, with 89% of gay men and 88% of bisexual men falling closely behind. In contrast, only 65% of straight women and 66% of bisexual women reported such.
Lesbian women had almost identical rates to gay and bisexual men, perhaps because their sex is not permeated by the male orgasm. Without an emphasis on penetrative sex, there’s room to explore other methods of maximizing pleasure, like clitoral stimulation.
“People want kind of a magical thing, where he gets off through penetration of the vagina and exactly what causes his joy causes her joy,” O’Connell said in a 2020 interview. “Almost everyone is going to fall short on the goal because the organs just don’t seem to be designed in this magical way that would fit with the kind of thrusting behavior causing an orgasm.”
Yet, portrayals of sex in the porn industry tend to focus predominantly on male pleasure and penetration, with men appearing to orgasm the vast majority of the time and most women not. They push the narrative that male orgasms are a priority, and female orgasms are not.
Porn often confuses true intimacy with sex in a manner that is unsatisfactory at best and dangerous or harmful at worst. Instead of learning what they see in porn might not resemble real life experiences, people watch it and begin to believe that’s what their partner would want in the bedroom.
When we place the responsibility of female pleasure on men, we put undue pressure to perform well on men and subdue women’s personal autonomy. Ultimately, we all suffer when the needs of neither intimate partner are not met and are compromised by feelings of inadequacy and shame.
“These dynamics pervade women’s intimate relationships, contributing to well-documented struggles like orgasm disparities, chore-like sex, unenthusiastic consent and ubiquitous pretending,” said Katherine Rowland, author of “The Pleasure Gap: American Women and the Unfinished Sexual Revolution.”
Destigmatizing pleasure begins with centering sex around what makes each of us feel good mentally, emotionally and physically, with mutual respect from our partner or partners.
Once denounced as satanic and a “gateway to crime and perversion,” the clitoris is fundamental to understanding the sexual power that people with them are capable of reclaiming. It is not impossible for sex, even heterosexual sex, to exist outside of the rigid roles patriarchy and male supremacy have historically assigned to it.
You’ll find pleasure is a form of radical self-love essential to our sexual freedom — an act of defiance that acknowledges those whose bodies have been devalued because of their gender identity and expression, sexuality, race, color, ability and size. It is a personal and political tool used to heal wounds from gendered systems of power.
Peyton Jeffers (she/they) is a senior studying human development and family studies and human sexuality. She is a member of Camp Kesem at Indiana University.