I don’t remember the first time I heard the word “clitoris,” but I do know that the first time I heard it and it registered with me was sometime when I was in my early teens. I didn’t know what it was. Once I figured out that it was a part on a woman that gave her sexual pleasure, I was pretty sure that I knew where it was.
But I quickly realized that I must be wrong. Because the only time I ever saw people talk about the clitoris was male comedians joking about how hard it was to find. And that thing I thought was the clitoris, well it was pretty damn obvious. I figured that my clitoris had to be something else, and sadly wondered when, if ever, I would manage to find it. (Or, more accurately, when a man would find it for me.)
In my mid-teens, I remember watching that episode of Seinfeld where Jerry has a girlfriend whose name he can’t remember, but he knows it rhymes with the name of a female body part. I didn’t get it when he finally realized that her name was “Dolores” because I didn’t realize that the word clitoris had more than one pronunciation. And I sure as hell didn’t get it when he more ludicrously guessed “Mulva,” because I had still never heard the word “vulva.” I gamely laughed along, but I felt ignorant about my own body, and you know, I was.
It wasn’t until I finally saw a diagram of female genitals in my late teens that I realized I was right about where the clitoris was after all, though for a while I still questioned if maybe it was around there somewhere only more difficult to find. It wasn’t until I was closer to 20, and only then because I became interested in reading about sexuality and actively sought out information, that I learned the word “vulva” and what it meant.
These are just a few of my experiences, and so there’s obviously no way they’re universal or complete, and they don’t even begin to address experiences outside of my white, straight, cis perspective.
But I’d be willing to bet that among the population as a whole, the general theme isn’t that unusual at all. I don’t think it’s particularly uncommon for parents to teach their kids that a penis is the “opposite” of a vagina, and leave it at that for the girls. I bet it’s even less uncommon for a girl who knows the word clitoris to not know what part of her anatomy it lines up to. And I can’t tell you the number of adult women I know, let alone the men, who still don’t get what a vulva is and are convinced that the word vagina covers the whole of female genitalia.
But, by contrast, as I’ve said numerous times before, few people try to hide a boy’s penis from him.
No one seems to try to hide his testicles from him either, and I knew what testicles were way, way, way before I knew what a clitoris was. I knew what (heterosexual) sex was and how it supposedly “worked” way before I ever knew what a clitoris was, too. Because female pleasure (and the way that a majority though hardly entirely of women receive it in its most intense form) just isn’t a part of the equation.
The clitoris isn’t even remotely hard to find. And I think that joke is really about several things, including reinforcing the idea of female bodies as mysterious and unknowable; lowering expectations for how much a man is supposed to care about a woman’s sexual pleasure in his encounter with her; and reinforcing a penis in a vagina as the most important part of sex, thereby invalidating sexual encounters that are not male-centric or heterosexual. Further, vulva isn’t a strange or academic word, it’s an acknowledgment that our genitals and sexuality are more than what society regularly tells us we’re only good for.
I’ve long said that I believe people have an absolutely fundamental right to information about their own bodies. Period. But it’s a right that is currently far from recognized, and denied in a markedly sexist and heterosexist way.
What are your experiences with being both given and denied information about your anatomy?