Breaking taboos around female genitalia

I have a question for you, hand on heart, without peeking, would you be able to sketch out a moderately accurate image of a vulva off the top of your head? I will make it easier, can you draw a vulva if I gave you the name of the following parts?

Labia minora – Labia majora- Mons pubis- Vagina
Urethra- Clitoral glans- Fouchette- Perineum

It seems likely that only a few of us could draw such a detailed picture even with some of these hints. Despite the efforts of generations of women who have worked on breaking societal taboos and educating other women about their body parts around a quarter of women have never looked at their own vulva, and many are uncomfortable to name those parts by their name, or even unsure what to name them.

In response to the pornification of society, recent years have seen new body and sex positive resources emerge online and in public spaces which encourage women to ‘get to know’ their genitals. These resources, among other things, seek to promote greater emotional, physical and sexual health but also aim to break down taboos and promote greater awareness of the diversity in the ways women’s genitals are presented. An excellent recent example of such an effort, which was televised just last month, comes from the work of artist Laura Dodsworth who photographed 100 vulvas as part of her larger book project and documentary ‘Womanhood: The Bare Reality’. Laura’s work, some of which can be viewed here, has raised important and ongoing questions and issues relating to sexual abuse, female genital mutilation, sexual health and sexual pleasure, as well as misunderstandings about the presentation of female genitalia and the increasing demand for procedures such as labiaplasties in young women. Work such as that by Dodsworth is perhaps greatly needed given the persistent reluctance to discuss women’s bodies in an open and honest manner. However, the lack of such a positive discourse can perhaps be linked to the ways in which women’s genitals have been discussed and often effectively erased throughout history.

A History of Discovering, Ditching and Re-Discovering the Clitoris in Euro-American Biomedicine

As Carina Kolodny and Amber Genuske have documented in their introduction to Citeracy’ their project for the Huffington Post, ‘It was in 1969 that we put a man on the moon’ ‘In 1982 we invented the internet’ but it wasn’t until 1998 that we discovered the full anatomy of the clitoris! Kolodny and Genuske provide an accessible introduction to what they describe as The overdue, under told story of the clitoris’.

I believe knowledge is power, confidence is power and eloquence and the ability to speak about our bodies gets us places. The ‘Cliteracy’ project website is extensive and whilst I recommend all women visit this dynamic and educational site, I realise we don’t all have the time, so with that in mind I have summarised some key historical insights from the project which charts the loss and (re)discovering the clitoris in medical science.

130AD – 200AD Claudius Galen, a doctor in the Roman Empire, acknowledges the clitoris but saw it as a failed attempt of the female body to produce a penis, he wrote “all the parts, then, that men have, women have too, the difference between them lying in only one thing, namely, that in women the parts are within, whereas in men they are outside.”

1545 Charles Estienne, French anatomist and author, earns his fame with the mass dissection of corpse and publication of anatomical images. Regrettably, his depictions of the clitoris are anatomically incorrect. Furthermore, he refers to the clitoris as shameful.

1559 Realdo Colombo, Italian anatomist practicing at the same time as Charles Estienne, on the contrary calls the clitoris charmingly “the love or sweetness of Venus”. Describing it as “the seat of women’s delight” and hinting at the erectile tissue, he observes “if you touch it, you will find it rendered a little harder.”

1671 The English midwife Jane Sharp notes in her book ‘Midwifery Mastered’: “The clitoris will stand and fall as the yard doth and makes women lustful and take delight in copulation.”

1672 Regnier de Graaf, Dutch physician, makes a claim for his (re)discovery of the clitoris. He writes: “We are extremely surprised that some anatomists make no more mention of this part than if it did not exist at all in the universe of nature. In every cadaver we have so far dissected we have found it quite perceptible to sight and touch.”

1844 George Ludwig Kobelt, German anatomist, conducts a study on the clitoris. His etchings depict the full structure of the clitoris, including the glans and bulbi. He seeks to demonstrate that the clitoris is made of erectile structure alike the penis.

picture one

Source: Wikimedia Commons; Clitoris disséqué par Kobelt en 1844

1924 French Princess Marie Bonaparte is fed up with not reaching orgasm during intercourse. She theorises that her clitoris may be too far from her vagina. Supported by befriended doctors, she proceeds to measure the distance between clitoris and vagina amongst 243 women. She publishes her findings in the medical journal Bruxelles-Medical under the pen name A.E.Narjani, demonstrating that women’s who clitorises are closer to their vagina find it easier to orgasm.

Narjani A. (1924) Considerations sur les causes anatomiques de frigidite chez la femme. Bruxelles-Medical 27:768–778.

1947/1948 Dr Charles Mayo Goss, 25th editor of the seminal classic ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ erased the clitoris from the medical depiction of female genitals in an editorial solo effort. ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ is rated as an internationally esteemed authority and his act has significant implications. Why he made the decision to erase the clitoris is unknown but shows how science and knowledge can be so easily distorted following the actions of one individual.

1998 Helen O’Connell, an Australian urologist, publishes findings that revolutionizes clitoral anatomy: O’Connell maps out the entire internal and external clitoris, based on anatomic dissections, and demonstrates that the clitoral glans has 2-3 times more nerve endings than a penis. Her detailed description of the clitoral structure help women with pelvic operations retain their sexual function and pleasure as surgeons, now (anew) aware of the size of the erectile tissue, operate with better understanding and care.

image 2

Image source: O’Connell, Helen et al (2005). The Anatomy of the Clitoris. The Journal of Urology 4(1):1189-1195.

2009 Dr Pierre Foldes and Dr Odille Buisson produce the first 3D ultrasound of a clitoris in their quest to reverse some of the devastating effects of female genital cutting (FGC). Removing scar tissue to expose some of the internal erectile structure, Dr Foldes is able to return sexual sensation. More recently, MRI scans are used to determine the structure of the remaining clitoris after FGC (see here for more details).

3D Printing the Clitoris

Together with the information provided by Foldes and Buisson, and following developments in printing technology Tove Dalenius, a doctoral researcher at De Montfort University who works on Holographic Data Visualisation has been involved in producing models of the clitoris using 3D printing technology. We at the CRR first met Tove at a CRR interdisciplinary event on ‘Visualising Reproduction in Medical, Social and Historical Contexts’ in June 2018, where she presented her work on creating a hologram of a clitoris. Since then Tove has run a workshop for CRR members showing us how to print 3D clitorises of our own.

Tove explained to us how a hologram is a recording of a light field which is used to display a fully 3-D-image of the holographed subject which renders it visible without the aid of special glasses or other intermediate optics. Below you can see Tove’s hologram of a clitoris.

picture six

Should you want your own 3D clitoris you can access details for 3D printing from this French open source site which allows you to download the file which is print ready at no cost. Next you need access to a 3D printer and after a few hours of patient waiting you will be able to head out in to the world with your own 3D model. As you can see, ours have enjoyed some recent travels.

If you don’t have access to a printer but want your own 3D model of a clitoris, get in touch with Christina (Christina.Weis@dmu.ac.uk) at the Centre for Reproduction Research, to pick up your very own.

By Christina Weis, Research Fellow

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