a deeper truth about the clitoris

Everyone in the world sent me this HuffPo article about the Cliteracy project.

It’s an odd little article, beginning with artist Sophia Wallace saying the clitoris was only discovered in 1998, followed by a quote from an academic as saying it was discovered in the mid-1800′s (which it was [PDF], though certain technical limitations prevented Victorian scientists from getting MRI images of it).

The article also describe the clitoris as “the only human body part that exists solely for pleasure,” which is what I was taught way back in the early years of my training as a sex educator. But I have since come to a subtler understanding of the clitoris, and I’ve been struggling to articulate that in my book.

Chapter 1 of the book is about anatomy, and I spent a lot of time on the clitoris. Because of the role of context in the perception of sensation, I described it not as the “only body part that exists solely for pleasure,” but as the only part that exists solely for SENSATION.

You see, “pleasure,” as we usually think of it, refers to explicitly enjoyable sensations. And whether or not a sensation is enjoyable has much less to do with which body part is being touched than with the context in which the touching is happening. The classic example is tickling: you can imagine some circumstance where a person you’re highly attracted to tickles you and it’s fun, playful, even sexy. But if that same person has just pissed you off and then tries to tickle you, you just want to punch them in the face. Same sensation, different context = different PERCEPTION. It’s pleasurable in one context, irritating in the other.

Hence “organ of sensation,” not “pleasure.”

But then Andrew and Sabrina read that draft of the chapter and pointed out that, for example, the RETINA also exists purely for sensation. And when you think about, so does the cochlea, right?

From this point of view, we might conceive of the genitals as a sensory organ like the eye or the ear or the mouth or the nose, a complex arrangement of organs whose job is (among other things) to take in information about the outside world so that our central nervous system can make some decisions about it.

Which is an interesting idea all by itself.

At the same time, the clitoris is different from the retina or the cochlea: the clitoris is built for “reward” or “pleasure” in the technical sense of opiod activity in the mesolimbic cortex. Clitoral stimulation is inherently “rewarding” in the brain in a way that elbow stimulation, retinal stimulation, or cochlear stimulation is not. It activates “approach” behaviors even in fetuses.

But that’s not at all the same thing as explicitly experienced “enjoyment.” And indeed, clitoral stimulation when you’re pissed off, exhausted, or just not yet aroused enough (or if you’ve just had an orgasm, for some people) can be experienced as totally irritating. Why? Because of the dual control mechanism, the sexual brakes and gas in your brain. Just because you put your foot on the gas pedal by stimulating the clit, doesn’t mean you’re going anywhere; you have to take your foot OFF the brake, too. And you do that by creating an appropriate context.

You have to pre-heat the oven, to create a context where clitoral stimulation will be experienced as pleasurable.

What I’m saying here, ultimately, is that the clitoris – in all its rangy, deep complexity – is connected to a PERSON. It only functions within the context of that whole person, with their moods and morals and body image and emotional needs.

Anyway, the transition of knowledge about women’s sexual pleasure from the scientific community to the larger world has been appallingly slow and ineffectual. Sorry about that – we’re working on it. I’m glad for any project that moves us toward greater space for accepting female sexual experiences. I just want to make sure we keep sight of the larger scope of the science of sexuality, the forest, and don’t get lost in the anatomical trees.