Unfinished and Random Thoughts on the Politics of Female Anatomy

by Cara on May 9, 2009

in misogyny, patriarchy, sex and sexuality, sexism, women’s health

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?

If you’re a young person seeking out accurate, non-judgmental and inclusive information about sexuality and/or your body, I highly recommend both Scarleteen and Teenwire.

Bookmark and Share

{ 27 comments }

1 Jadelyn May 9, 2009 at 1:53 pm

I’d heard the word, but never been told that it was the major pleasure point, just that it was…there. And then when I was 14, one of the first guys to go down on me licked it directly, and I about jumped off the bed it felt so good. He looked at me like, “What’s your problem?” I asked him, “What was that? What did you just do?” He stared at me for a moment and then said, “I…I, um, have no idea.” I knew that was the general area I liked to self-stimulate, but had never connected “clitoris” with “that awesome spot you play with to make yourself come.” Clearly my partner didn’t know, either.

Hell, I had a harder time figuring out precisely where the vaginal opening was when I was first trying to insert a tampon, since I’d never inserted anything before.

I’d like to see information about female sexual pleasure presented openly. In particular, the information needs to have some kind of context. I knew a lot about my anatomy, academically speaking, from a relatively young age, but pleasure was never part of it except in a sideways sort of way, in the oft-repeated phrase from my parents “Sex is a wonderful thing to share when you’re grown up and in love with someone [but not before then].” One of my major criteria for truly comprehensive sex ed is, Does it mention female ejaculation? It’s a normal part of pleasure for some women, yet it is *never* mentioned. It’s a side effect of pretending, when “educating” children, that sex is only about procreation and parts. I hate that we’re so ashamed of pleasure that while you learn the mechanics explicitly, you have to stumble around in the dark figuring out how to make it feel good/better/best. (Not that I’m advocating hands-on lessons at an early age or anything, but age-appropriate discussion of sexual pleasure and discussions that put sexual mechanics into some kind of context…I wish I’d had that.)

2 Cara May 9, 2009 at 2:14 pm

One of my major criteria for truly comprehensive sex ed is, Does it mention female ejaculation? It’s a normal part of pleasure for some women, yet it is *never* mentioned

Ooooh — I love it! And you’re right that it’s never mentioned. And so when a lot of women do ejaculate they think there’s something terribly wrong and/or gross about them — rather than “hey, that’s pretty damn cool!” :)

3 Judith May 9, 2009 at 3:51 pm

Thanks for these thoughts, Cara. I have to admit that as a 24 year old, I’m still not 100% sure where my clitoris is. I thought it was that thing that you rub to masturbate (excuse my bluntness), but now I’m wondering if that’s actually the “hood” and the clitoris is somewhere else and I really *can’t* find it. Most of what I’ve read about sexuality just confuses me even more – I wish there was a really straightforward way to explain this stuff.

4 Cara May 9, 2009 at 4:00 pm

Judith,

Yes, it is the thing most women rub when they masturbate. The hood is the soft skin over top of the clitoris. The clitoris is underneath the hood (you can pull it back gently with your fingers), is somewhat hard, and very sensitive. But because the clitoris itself is so sensitive, many women rub on the hood instead of on the clitoris directly. Here’s a diagram, though many clitorises and clitoral hoods can be bigger/smaller.

5 Sara B. May 9, 2009 at 5:02 pm

Honestly, I was 27 before I knew where the hell my own clit was! The only way I discovered it was in my first sexual encounter with my most recent ex when he was stimulating it for me. I had this big “HELLO!” moment and the next day I found a diagram online. Not only did I realize I’d been denied a huge amount of pleasure in my sexual life, I felt really sad that I had been so disconnected from my own body for so long. “Politics of female anatomy” is exactly right. Like many women I had been led to believe my body was just a passive penis receptacle.

(For a laugh, look up “G-spot” on Wikipedia. Whoever wrote the article may as well have been talking about the Loch Ness Monster!)

6 K May 9, 2009 at 8:41 pm

The first time I heard the word clitoris was in my seventh grade health class, where my teacher told us that it was a “piece of skin meant for protecting the urethra” and nothing else. Yeah, that sums up the quality of my sex education in a nutshell. And I didn’t even know about the clitoral hood until right now! To be fair, I’m young-ish (still in HS) and have done pretty much nothing sexual, but still, I don’t like not knowing things about my own body.

7 Becka May 9, 2009 at 8:47 pm

I was homeschooled from around 13-16yrs old (I went back to school for my last year of high school) and didn’t receive any sex ed at all. At that time it was covered in the science curriculum, and I remember when the booklet came it was taken away. All I remember was briefly seeing something about wet dreams. Its always been something I’ve struggled to sort out, because I didn’t feel like we fell into the ‘crazy, cult-ish, indoctrinating’ homeschool stereotype and at the time I didn’t know any better than to accept that this kind of stuff was ‘inappropriate’ to talk about. But, while wet dreams weren’t discussed…neither was any thing else. I had no idea where my clitoris was, or the difference between my vagina and vulva until my mid 20s, and that was done through researching for myself. I didn’t even fully understand menstruation, but just pretended I did because most of my friends who had gone to school, did understand it. And in regards to sex, I still find there are times when I feel guilt or shame surrounding sexual thoughts, masturbation, etc.

Now, I’ve come to the place where I am angry that so much was hidden from me. It is my body, and I have every right to be informed about it. Fine, I may never have a wet dream but aside from the fact that I may have sons one day and want to talk to them about it, by not talking about anything other than the basic mechanics of heterosexual penis in vagina sex – all you do is make everything else something wrong, taboo and/or dirty.

Now, as a teacher, sex positive, well rounded, holistic and inclusive sex ed is something I am really passionate about. Everybody has a right to know their own body.

8 Carol May 9, 2009 at 11:39 pm

Man, I’m old, (46) and my mother, who wasn’t a feminist and didn’t tell me the mechanics of sex, told me what a vagina and what a vulva are. She always used the proper names. I learned about my clitoris was from the book Deenie by Judy Bloom.

My impression is that most women don’t stimulate their clitoris’ directly but instead use the hood. Thats based on conversation and sex with women though, so it may not be accurate.

9 lauredhel May 10, 2009 at 1:22 am

Here’s a diagram, though many clitorises and clitoral hoods can be bigger/smaller.

The vulva gallery at the-clitoris.com is also worth a look (though a lot of them are shaved or waxed); as is this section. (The site is obviously NSFW, and some people might disprefer some of the language used.)

10 Cara May 10, 2009 at 8:17 am

Thanks Lauredhel! I especially like that they have a section on locating your clitoris, and especially especially like that they have a section on the female prostate/g-spot!

11 Jha May 10, 2009 at 8:29 am

My dad bought my brother and me Sex for Dummies when I was 13.

Also, when I was about 9, a friend of mine and I had this exchange:

“What’s the opposite of near queen?”
“Far king?”
“Ooooohhhhhhh YOU JUST SAID A BAD WORD.”

I had to ask my dad what it meant. He explained, using baby terms for the genitals involved, and I was pretty satisfied with that for the time being.

I’ve never actually seen my clitoris either. This has nothing to do with non-exploration, but that my clitoral hood pretty much covers everything and I can’t pull it back or whatever. I can feel it through the flesh, but I’ve never seen it. It’s definitely one of those YMMV things.

12 SwimmingHorses May 10, 2009 at 9:25 am

In my anatomy class we haven’t learned about female ejaculation or the skene’s gland. We have learned what happens when a man is aroused, , but the clitoris barely got a mention of being swollen when aroused. The diagram we got of the female anatomy only has a side view of a vulva (thought vulva gets no mention)and makes it look like the labia minora is outside the labia majora and the clitoris looks like it’s completely internal. My anatomy teacher has incorrectly called the vulva the “opening of the vagina”.

My mom didn’t know what the vulva was until I told her recently but still believes the urethra and the vagina aren’t separate.

13 joytulip May 10, 2009 at 2:27 pm

The extent of my sex-ed went as follows: In 4th grade, in response to some song lyrics, my dad told me that sex is “a very special thing between a man and his wife.” When my mom found an empty condom wrapper in my dorm room, she gave me a nasty look and said “nothing’s 100% you know.” But I was a self-educator and learned the appropriate names for parts and functions around puberty and started happily, guiltlessly masturbating every day at 15. My siblings though were not so lucky. Last year after re-watching the South Park Movie, my 19 yr old brother’s 18 yr old girlfriend asked “so, what is a clitoris?” My brother shrugged and looked at my 22 yr old sister, who knew but felt uncomfortable explaining. But then again, my mom uses euphemisms for tampon applicators, so I’m not surprised, just dismayed.

14 Alyce May 10, 2009 at 4:33 pm

Brilliant exploration of the politics of the female body. I truly had no idea what it was supposed to look like down there until my first sex ed class, because all I had to look at were Barbie dolls!

15 hypatia May 11, 2009 at 10:10 am

I blame it on the fact that I grew up with an educator and a health professional for parents but I grew up pretty informed. Starting with the “what’s the difference between girls and boys” talk when I was about six. So a mirror was brought out and we took a look and named off the parts. Many people are, of course, horrified when I tell them this.

I do remember my school education being pretty decent though, at least in seventh grade, where we were learning more about the body. The clitoris was mentioned, well diagrammed, and described as a place of sexual stimulation. The g-spot was also discussed and not presented as “myth”. Interestingly the skene’s was mentioned but they never actually tied it to female ejaculation.

16 Elena Perez May 11, 2009 at 11:48 am

I’ve taught my 3-year-old daughter that she has a vulva, that encompasses other parts, and we’ve discussed those parts briefly, and I’m sure will do so more as she gets older.

Part of the problem in discussing female genital anatomy with a child is that it’s viewed as inappropriate by other people. If you tell your six-year-old that the part she’s playing with is called her clitoris (and yes, a ton of kids masturbate from an early age), as a parent you have to worry about what happens if she tells a friend, who tells a parent or teacher, and next thing you know you have to explain to someone from CPS that yes, you told your child she has a clitoris, and no, you aren’t a molester.

It may be ridiculous for people to look at teaching anatomical terms that way, but it’s unfortunately not unrealistic.

17 Nanella May 11, 2009 at 1:13 pm

Ahhhhh, but what most women term the “clitoris” is actually the clitoral glans (the small, extra-sensitive pearl-shaped bulb at the tip of the clitoris). The average clitoris is 4-5″ in length, the majority of it being internal and fused rather conveniently with the vagina (current studies indicating that the clitoris is responsible for “vaginal orgasms”). I don’t know how often I’ve had to correct women when they refer to the clitoral glans as the “clitoris” — it comprises a small fraction of the entire clitoral structure :-)

18 GallingGalla May 11, 2009 at 10:41 pm

Brilliant exploration of the politics of the cis female body

there, fixed.

iow, there’s lots of rah-rah about teaching cis women/girls about their bodies/sexuality, but god forbid we should even mention the *existence* of trans folk (of any gender) let alone acknowledge that we have just as much a right to know about our bodies and how to derive sexual pleasure from our bodies. trans women, trans men, and trans folk of other genders are all denied this while the cis beat goes on.

19 AileenWuornos May 11, 2009 at 11:16 pm

Wow, this is really shocking. I was fortunate enough to have parents who are totally awesome and informative. I’ve known from a young age what all my body parts are, including my clitoris and vulva. Why? Because I asked, and my parents told me straight out. Everything else I learned about anatomy was self-taught, at school, from parents (age appropriate) and from friends.

I’m really happy that I knew where my clit was early on. If I didn’t know that (or how to find my g-spot) I probably never would have orgasmed.

20 belledame222 May 12, 2009 at 1:51 am

ime the clit is not always that easy to discern from the hood & surrounding bits, depending on one’s anatomy, even when one is aware of where all the bits are supposed to go etc.

i will also note that i still get a depressing number of hits looking for “outie” and “innie vaginas,” based on a post wherein I queried what exactly that was supposed to mean (shape of labia it turns out); and now you probably will to, mind. (Jehovah! Jehovah!! Jehovah!!!)

21 belledame222 May 12, 2009 at 1:54 am

it’d be one thing if, as suggested by at least one commenter on one of those posts, “outie and innie” were in fact a way in which to start talking about bodies from a less cis-centric perspective; but, no, they just didn’t know the difference between “vulva” and “vagina.”

now idly wondering how many people with prostates know where those are, how to reach ‘em and why one would…

22 Sue May 12, 2009 at 12:16 pm

i teach human sexuality in a local college, and every semester it contines to surprise me just how ignorant the girls in the class are about their own bodies. not just their anatomy, but also about the menstrual cycle. neither sex has a clear understanding about fertilization, and many of the contraception methods we discuss the students have never heard of before (much beyond the condom, pill, and ring).

i teach in a liberal urban area too, i can’t imagine how bad it is in the religion-driven midwest areas.

it’s a shame how little people know about their own bodies. although it is encouraging that my human sexuality class is the first class filled each semester, and students seem to truly want to learn about these topics. it’s just rediculous that they have to wait until college to get this knowledge.

23 preying mantis May 12, 2009 at 3:30 pm

“This has nothing to do with non-exploration, but that my clitoral hood pretty much covers everything and I can’t pull it back or whatever.”

You may have clitoral phimosis. Apparently quite a number of women wind up having it but, between the lack of quality sex-ed and the clitoris being avoided during pelvic exams, never find out.

24 Cara May 13, 2009 at 1:40 pm

GallingGalla,

First of all, I want to apologize for not answering you sooner. I saw your comment (and Queen Emily’s post) yesterday morning, but had the day from hell and hardly got a moment to myself at all. And I didn’t want to answer in a rush.

You’re absolutely right that this is is a cis-centered discussion (and thread). I tried to make clear that I could only speak to my own experiences, and as said above, those experiences are cis. And that’s the truth. I can only speak to my experiences. And honestly, I did consider the implications of this discussion being cis-centered, but was unsure what else to do about that. Again, if I can only speak for myself, and therefore don’t have the ability to talk about trans bodies in the same way. Further, I’m sure that you’re certainly aware of the cis fascination with trans bodies/genitals, and the way in which that fascination is dehumanizing, transphobic and objectifying. I felt that the last thing the world needed was another ignorant cis woman trying to talk about trans bodies as if they’re open for her own discussion.

All of that said, you’re absolutely right that with the exception of that one little sentence using the word cis, this post and discussion did erase trans experiences and the fact that not all women and not all men have the same sets of genitals, and that trans children and adults also need information about their bodies and are regularly denied it. Perhaps I should have, as your comment suggests above, used the word “cis” as a modifier both in the title and throughout the post. I say “perhaps” only because I feel like that would be directly and explicitly exclusionary, but I guess that might be better than just erasing trans people entirely and failing to acknowledge the cis-specificity? Or maybe I should have just worked harder to find a way to note what I said above about trans people also being denied information, but without explicitly discussing genitals in the same way that I did with regards to cis women. Or, most likely, done both, as the latter is hardly better without being accompanied by the former. (Please note I’m not actually expecting anyone to give me answers to the question “how could I have done better?” — I’m mainly talking aloud here.)

Whatever it is that I should have done, I clearly didn’t do it. I don’t feel like it was a mistake to have this conversation, but clearly I did make mistakes in the execution of it. And I am sorry that in that poor execution, I caused hurt and/or anger, and that, as Queen Emily points out in her post, I reinforced notions of gender/sex that are behind the oppression of trans people. I hope everyone knows that it wasn’t my intent, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot when it’s what I did anyway.

25 voz May 13, 2009 at 4:57 pm

Oh dear,

I came by to see what all the hubbub was about, and to check on your progress in combating your own cissupremacist blog.

I am not amused. The speshul wite cis lady is up to her old tricks again.

Let’s look at the Cara blogging formula:
Be openly cissupremacist
Let a random trans woman come in and clean up your mess
Cry some speshul wite lady tears, and make yet more navel gazing promises not backed up by consistent longterm actions
Lather rinse repeat.

So, for all the time I spent taking your azz to school, for all the trans women who had to pause and put the brakes on your open cissexism, this is the best you have to offer?

You run away from being called out, you flip your shit and get defensive when you come over to my blog and dump your false piety on me and I reject it for the self serving horseshit that it is, and your bumper sticker faux inclusion of trans women is suppsed to make it hunky dory as long as you wet it down with wite lady tears and empty promises.

Say it ain’t so, mujer! Tel me that this lil cissupremacist verbal romp was an accident, alien possession, computer gremlins, your cat dancing ok the keyboard whatever.

But don’t tell me you deliberately sat down, decided that your nod was the template for the One True Female Bpdy and that all others were simply beyond the scope of what you could be bothered with.

Mujer, this post is so disrespectful of the trans women who took tiempo y energia to educate u it’s not even funny.

26 missdk May 13, 2009 at 5:28 pm

I’ve never thought about this before! I remember in sex ed talking about all the parts of a man’s genitals beyond the biology; the erection, the sensitive ridging, ejaculation, even prostate sensitivity. But where was the information about female anatomy? Where is the clitoris, female ejaculation, and sensitivity? Instead it’s “this is how it makes a baby.”

27 Annie May 20, 2009 at 5:59 am

voz, I think it’s pretty clear that Cara is talking in general about the majority of female bodies. She didn’t include women who have no vagina/vulva/clitoris/uterus etc. as a result of being disabled, or ‘circumcised’ women who have had theirs removed, or transwomen, but no what? She was generalising, and in general most women have a vulva with a vagina and a clitoris. Acknowledging that does not make Cara a bigot or transphobic, especially since she wrote a long post explaining herself. Of course trans issues should be discussed in sex ed classes, and I agree that they are not discussed enough when people talk about anatomy and sex.

{ 3 trackbacks }

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: