Welcome to Fantasy Land


Are a woman’s sexual feelings really all in her head?

Just over a week ago, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) denied (for the second time) approval for a new drug, flibanserin, created to help treat hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD) in women. This so-called “female viagra” was developed specifically to improve pre-menopausal women’s libidos by enhancing sexual desire, as well as reducing stress related to lack of sexual activity.

In a CBS News article about the FDA denial, Sheryl Kingsberg, chief of the division of behavioral medicine at Case Medical Center in Cleveland had this to say,

“Women’s sexual health has been really underground, …[one] reason that women’s sexual desire has lagged, is desire is in the brain.”

What if desire needn’t be so much about women’s brains? What if women’s sexual pleasure could actually be just as physical as men’s? What if we’ve been looking for love in all the wrong places after all, ignoring the hidden locus of female desire and pleasure? What if what’s “underground” is actually an organ—unique to women—whose only function is sexual pleasure? I have some news, ladies…

In the last century, the clitoris has become a near-perfect stand-in for female sexuality, in that they are both vastly under-explored (in meaningful ways), badly misunderstood and largely ignored when it comes to understanding the who, what, where, when and how of getting women off.

How much do we know about the clitoris? Its size? Its sensitivity? If it’s responsible for none, some, or all female orgasms? Sadly, our official knowledge of this area of human anatomy could fit, well—you get the idea.

Beyond having a name, not much else has been revealed in the ensuing millennia since the ancient Greeks first tagged it, and even in an age of multi billion-dollar medical research focused on sexual health, the clitoris remains a woman’s hidden jewel of excitement—out of the collective scientific mind as well as being (mostly) out of sight.

It’s been right here
all along.

Unfortunately, even though they named it, the Greeks had no idea what a clitoris was for (or so they said). In the 1500s, Andreas Vesalius, a Belgian anatomist decided that the lovebud didn’t even exist, which, to him, meant any woman who possessed said outward appendage was an hermaphrodite. Freud declared clitoral orgasms to be “immature,” and “inferior.” Alfred Kinsey disagreed with Freud’s non-scientific pronouncements, then Masters and Johnson explored and expanded on Kinsey’s studies by declaring clitoral orgasms to actually be superior in terms of female sexual response.

“No woman gets an orgasm from
shining the kitchen floor. ” ―Betty Friedan

Sadly, for women of the next few generations, neither Kinsey, or Masters and Johnson really put their fingers on the issue. To them, the clitoris was just a very tiny, incredibly sensitive nubbin that helped some ladies have more fun during sexy times, but it still didn’t rise to the level of a serious research topic. Probably because only women have a clitoris and it purportedly doesn’t benefit male sexual experience in any way. Over the centuries, very few have taken a closer look at that dainty little pleasure button, or, for that matter, even bothered to take a hands-on approach to it’s full anatomical details and delightfulness.

What you saw in that book in middle school is wrong.

Though the internal clitoris was illustrated by G.O. Kobelt all the way back in 1844 and additionally detailed by Dr. R.L. Dickinson in 1949, it was not until 1998—yes, 1998—that Helen O’Connell, an Australian urologist, became the first modern-day doctor to really explore and describe the hidden, internal structure of the clitoris. Few really took note of their work, and even today most anatomy textbooks do not fully illustrate the clitoris in its entirety. As someone who learned about intercourse from the encyclopedia at age 10, this is horrible news to me.

The internal clitoris (in yellow) surrounds the vagina (in blue). Enhanced sonogram by Buisson
and Foldès

In 2009, French researchers Dr. Odile Buisson and Dr. Pierre Foldès published the first 3D sonograms of a stimulated clitoris as they attempted to locate the elusive G-spot. Their work did not raise many eyebrows and over time, their work shifted focus to developing methods for performing corrective surgery for victims of female genital mutilation (FGM). This is an awesome endeavor in itself, as FGM is believed to affect up to 140 million women and girls worldwide.

In 2011 the Museum of Sex blog published a post about the work Buisson and Foldès were doing, but I would guess their readership is fairly limited, in an “oh, porn!”, “oh, not really porn,” kind of way, so the news didn’t raise much interest. At the time, a few fringe feminist sites wrote some cheeky pieces, but it wasn’t until this year that io9 picked it up (complete with inappropriate stockphoto images). It created a bit of a stir, but it wasn’t really getting the news out to an audience that could do much with the information. Sorry nerds.

So what is it about lady parts that leads to such willful blindness in sexual research? Even though 2013 saw the establishment of International Clitoris Awareness Week, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of interest in exposing the general public to one of the most amazing discoveries ever in understanding and potentially improving female sexual pleasure. Well, there are actually many reasons.

“Electric flesh-arrows… traversing the body.
A rainbow of color strikes the eyelids.
A foam of music falls over the ears.
It is the gong of the orgasm.” —Anais Nin.

As long as humans have explored the workings of the human body, it has been broadly assumed there is a correlation between male and female anatomy—everything having a generally equal and opposite part, so to speak. The problem is, it seems fairly clear that the cherry bud—with it’s overwhelming eight thousand nerve endings—has much more in common with the penis (which has only five thousand, by the way) than the vagina.

So, what does that mean for the vagina? It’s been known for a while that the vaginal walls themselves have very few nerve endings and no erectile tissue, and this makes total sense, as it is after all, also the birth canal. Having had two children myself, I can guarantee you that fewer nerve endings are better when it comes to that particular function. So understanding that the clitoris’ sole purpose is to be the real pleasure center in women’s bodies actually clarifies a lot and opens up incredible future potential for improving women’s sexual gratification (even without pharmaceutical help). Internally, the clitoris surrounds the vagina and as it is stimulated, it becomes erect and extremely sensitive. So actually, all orgasms are clitoral. Wouldn’t Freud be pissed to find that out? While medical science and psychiatry have spent decades trying to make vaginal orgasms a real thing, they have been completely ignoring the one body part that can genuinely bring a woman to the apex of ecstasy.

“Some hundreds of the women in our own study and many thousands of the patients of certain clinicians have been much disturbed by their failure to accomplish this biologic impossibility.” —Author Unknown (speaking of the elusive vaginal orgasm)

Not a vaginal O-face. Detail of The Ecstasy of
St. Theresa by G.L. Bernini

Beyond the scientific documentation, it doesn’t seem that any other interested parties, (medical, research, product or otherwise) are taking up the torch and delivering new and ingenious ways of utilizing this knowledge. If research on female orgasm could be shifted away from the traditional vaginal versus clitoral debate, and focused exclusively toward understanding the complete mapping of the clitoral orgasm, this could potentially blow the doors off for women’s experiences of sex.

What innovations could this portend for the design of future sex toys for example? Great strides have been made in adapting the design of vibrators over the years. What began as simply a replica penis has become a pretty sophisticated device with myriad shapes, sizes and speeds to suit a remarkable variety of tastes. Could this new knowledge about the joy buzzer kick off a next generation of radically different improvements?

Even your brain can tell the difference. Brain imaging showing areas of neural activity during various types of sexual stimulation. Yes, that tiny dot is vaginal response.

Of course the unspoken reason why so few explorers will go there, is fear. Even into the 21st century women must still contend with a patriarchy that insists that empowering women to enjoy sex on their own terms will create female sexual predators or nymphomaniacs. The female sex drive is still considered to be something that must be managed and controlled with a great deal of precision, hence the common insistence that sex without love is “bad” for women. Science and the media also perpetuate the mistaken assumption that for women, it’s not just about the body and that women’s minds must be stimulated as well for sex to be good. This is what gives us Dr. Kingsberg’s unhelpful rationalization that if a drug isn’t damping down daily stress in a woman’s mind, her body will never be satisfied. If women understood their own bodies’ sexual needs and could better focus on what feels good, instead of “I need to move that load of laundry over to the dryer,” is it possible that mind-blowing sex will someday have nothing to do with the mind at all?

Further Reading

FYI: Do Animals Have Orgasms?

 — Well, probably, but how can you tell?

The NYT establishes my benchmark for efficacy as a sex eduator

 — This recent NYT article was a surprising reality check for me. The short version of the article is this: During one-night-stand sex (“hoo…

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Gin-soaked, mildly democratic-socialist popinjay and avid curator of esoteric ephemera. Occasional accidental Changeist.


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