The ‘Devil’s Teat’: A Brief History of the Clitoris

Physicians once believed its removal helps avert hysteria, and the inventor of corn flakes suggested smearing it with acid. With 8,000 nerve ends – twice as many as the phallus – the clitoris is apparently the only human organ whose purpose is to cause pleasure

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An anatomical sketch of the clitoris.
An anatomical sketch of the clitoris.Credit: ilbusca / Getty Images IL
Noa Manheim
Noa Manheim

On a cold, damp November morning in the village of Warboys in Cambridgeshire, England, 10-year-old Jane Throckmorton, the daughter of the local squire, became ill and accused an elderly woman, Alice Samuel, of placing a curse on her. The year was 1589 and the European hunt for witches was at its height. When five of her sisters and a dozen of the family’s maidservants began to show the same symptoms and repeated the same accusations – and after a female friend of the family came for a visit and died – Samuel, who was 76, was incarcerated together with her husband and daughter. At the end of what literary scholar George Kittredge called “the most momentous witch-trial that had ever occurred in England,” Samuel and her family were all executed by hanging.

A postmortem, carried out by the jailer and his wife, furnished incontestable proof. They found on Samuel’s body “a little lump of flesh, in manner sticking out as if it had been a teat, to the length of half an inch.” The two hesitated about whether to disclose this, “because it was adjoining so secret a place which was not decent to be seen.” Finally, “not willing to conceal so strange a matter, and decently covering that privy place a little above which it grew, they made open show thereof unto diverse that stood by.” Indeed, the Catholic inquisitor Heinrich Kramer, had already ordered that the witch’s body be searched for the “devil’s teat” from which Lucifer himself suckles.

Let’s hope that old Mother Samuel at least derived some pleasure from her “devil’s teat” during her life – the description doesn’t leave much room for doubt about the identity of that “little lump of flesh.” The few who were capable of identifying it correctly at the time were far from that tranquil English village, in the ivory towers of Italy’s universities.

Matteo Realdo Colombo. A painting by an anonymous artist.
Gabriele Falloppio. Portrait by unknown artist.

In 1559, Matteo Realdo Colombo, an anatomy professor in Padua, termed the clitoris the “seat of pleasure of the woman,” similar to the penis in men, and added, with some bravado, “Since no one has discerned these projections and their workings, if it is permissible to give names to things discovered by me, it should be called the love or sweetness of Venus.” His successor at Padua, Gabriele Falloppio (discoverer of the fallopian tubes), was not impressed by Colombo’s poetics and claimed that he himself was responsible for the monumental discovery of the tiny organ: “If others have spoken of it, know that they have taken it from me or my students.”

The question of which man would be the first to plant a flag in the clitoris caused a furor in the medical world of the Renaissance, so much so that the leading anatomist of the time, a Belgian named Andreas Vesalius, felt obliged to address the subject. He declared mockingly, “It is unreasonable to blame others for incompetence on the basis of some sport of nature you have observed in some women and you can hardly ascribe this new and useless part, as if it were an organ, to healthy women.” He concluded, “I have never once seen in any woman a penis... or even the rudiments of a tiny phallus.”

Though Vesalius was highly regarded in his field, and had even taken issue with the sacred texts of Galen and of his teacher and mentor Aristotle on a variety of points – he too possessed the phallocentric approach of the Greeks and the Romans, who viewed the vagina as the opposite and parallel of the penis in the feminine reproductive system. This concept leaves no place for the clitoris, as it has no equivalent in the male body – the perfect human model from which all things derive.

For his part, Aristotle was familiar with the female ejaculation response and was also the first to profess that blondes have more fun, asserting, “There is a discharge from the uterus which occurs… in those who are fair-skinned and of a feminine type generally, but not in those who are dark and of masculine appearance.”

Nevertheless, he apparently didn’t have a clue about what causes women to emit the fluid, or about much else in that realm. As to why his first wife, Pythias, who, according to the pioneering feminist and obstetrician Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead, was a nature researcher in her own right, didn’t give him the word on this critical point, history doesn’t say.

The clitoris had to wait for a different woman to shed light on it. In 1671, Jane Sharp, a British midwife, published a popular manual in which she described how the spongy texture of the clitoris stretches “when the spirits come into it,” as though it were a small penis, and how it “makes women lustful and take delight in copulation, and would it not for this they would have no desire nor delight.”

Although Sharp was captive to the prejudice that had existed since the Greeks, holding that orgasm, male and female alike, was essential for conception, and warned that without “delight” women would never conceive – she was ahead of her time in other areas. She realized the crucial role the clitoris plays in the sex act, objected to the assumption that women could reach orgasm from penetration alone, and mentioning “the stirring of the clitoris [in which] lies the chief pleasure of love’s delight in copulation; and indeed were not the pleasure transcendently ravishing us, a man or women would hardly ever die for love.”

As an authority on Eros and Thanatos, Sigmund Freud disputed the views of Jane Sharp and of scientists who followed her, such as Georg Ludwig Kobelt, who had maintained in 1844 that the vagina is only a smooth canal that embraces the penis in copulation, and “we can grant the vagina no part in the creation of the specific pleasurable sex feelings in the female body.”

‘Virile character’

In 1905, Freud set about to systematize information on the subject. A man, he wrote, has “only one… sexual organ, whereas a woman has two: the vagina – the female organ proper – and the clitoris, which is analogous to the male organ… [A woman’s] sexual life is regularly divided into two phases, of which the first has a masculine character, while only the second is specifically feminine. Thus in female development, there is a process of transition from the one phase to the other, to which there is nothing analogous in males.

“A further complication arises from the fact that the clitoris, with its virile character, continues to function in later female sexual life in a manner which is very variable and which is certainly not yet satisfactorily understood. We do not, of course, know the biological basis of these peculiarities in women; and still less are we able to assign them any teleological purpose.”

According to Freud, the clitoral orgasm belongs to the immature, masculine stage and should be abandoned in order to reach the Holy Grail, or the Golden Fleece of women’s mature, true sexual climax: the vaginal orgasm. In other words, get your hands off your own penis and pay some attention to ours.

Princess Marie Bonaparte.Credit: The lost gallery

Feminine sexuality continued to disturb Freud, and in his frustration he made a confession to the woman who was his patron and student and who got him out of Austria on the eve of the Nazis’ rise to power: Princess Marie Bonaparte. “The great question that has never been answered and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my 30 years of research into the feminine soul, is, ‘What does a woman want?’” Freud wondered. In Marie’s case, at least, the answer was simple. She wanted to come. Her husband had homosexual tendencies, and on their first night together, she wrote in her diary, he took her “in a short, brutal gesture, as if forcing [himself] ... and apologized, ‘I hate it as much as you do.’”

Nothing helped. Because the problem of the princess – whose great grand-uncle was Napoleon – was that she adored sex. She had numerous lovers, from her husband’s chief assistant to the prime minister of France, but was unable to achieve the golden vaginal climax with any of them. Taking a scientific approach, she interviewed 243 women about their sex lives and made diverse measurements on them and on herself before reaching the conclusion, which she published pseudonymously in a medical journal, that only women whose clitoris was 2.5 centimeters or less from the vagina could reach orgasm from penetration. Hers was 3 centimeters from the coveted orifice, and therefore she decided to have it moved.

In her book “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex,” Mary Roach describes how a surgeon named Josef Halban, who had done the procedure only once before, and that on a cadaver, was placed in charge of that operation and focused on the section of the clitoris that is visible on the surface, without considering the organ’s deep structure. The procedure was a failure. “Some years later, Halban offered to redo the procedure,” Roach writes. It didn’t work that time, either.

The first encounter between the princess and the father of psychoanalysis opened her eyes to the possibility that maybe it was all in her head and that she should just forget about her clitoris. When her family fled to Egypt in the wake of the Nazi invasion of France, she got the opportunity to interview women whom society did everything to persuade to forget about their clitoris. Female genital mutilation is an ancient rite, whose roots are usually traced to the Koran. But the mentions of it in the Koran suggest that the procedure predates Islam.

The purpose of clitoral castration is to suppress the sexual drive in women, and it’s usually executed by the women of the family. The rite, which is still in practice, was documented by Herodotus and in the 16th century was cited by the French physician Jacques Dalechamps, who believed that the clitoris was “an unusual feature that occurred in almost all Egyptian women… it erects like a male penis and indeed they use it to play with other women, as their husbands would do... Thus the parts are cut.”

Marie Bonaparte discovered that not even this horrific mutilation prevented Egyptian women from achieving pleasure in their sexual relations, and some of them achieved climax from penetration despite what they had undergone. But Egyptian society and other societies in Africa and in the Arab world were not unique in this respect. In the 19th century, John Harvey Kellogg, of breakfast cereal fame, recommended smearing the clitoris with acid in order to permanently prevent women from becoming over-excited. The English physician Isaac Baker Brown asserted in 1858 that masturbation by women causes “insanity, epilepsy, catalepsy and hysteria,” and he performed clitoridectomy on his female patients without bothering to tell them what exactly it was he was doing.

Knowledge is power and knowledge of the flesh is dangerous power, and far more dangerous is knowledge of your own flesh, if you are a woman. In February 1918, some months before the end of World War I, a new front was opened against the clitoris. It was led by Noel Pemberton Billing, a pilot, inventor, publisher, British MP and extreme right-winger, who was haunted by conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism and fears of German spies. According to the fake news disseminated by his journal, Vigilante, Germany maintained and managed, through its Jewish agents, a profitable army of prostitutes, and a certain German prince had in his possession a “Black Book” containing the names of 47,000 men and women in Britain who were vulnerable to blackmail for a bizarre range of sins, from homosexuality to pedophilia. The book was said to provide details of the “unnatural defloration of children,” on top of which, “in lesbian ecstasy the most sacred secrets of the [British] state were threatened.”

‘A dreadful influence’

An article titled “The Cult of the Clitoris” in Billing’s journal referred to the actress and dancer Maud Allan, who was then appearing in a scandalous production of “Salome,” by the reviled Oscar Wilde, wearing mostly beads. The journal insinuated that she was a German spy and a lesbian who had been sent to seduce the wife of former prime minister H.H. Asquith. Half a year had passed since the execution of another dancer, Mata Hari, who was suspected of engaging in espionage for Germany, and the public, avid for victims, especially if they were beautiful women, pounced on the idea of the “power of the clitoris.”

Allan sued for libel. Billing, who represented himself in the trial, explained that the use of the word “clitoris” had been bait. It was a term “that would only be understood by those whom it should be understood by,” he told the court. Another witness termed the clitoris an organ which, “when unduly excited or overdeveloped, possessed the most dreadful influence on any woman, that she would do the most extraordinary things.”

Maud Allan as Salomé in "Vision of Salomé," c. 1906.Credit: Foulsham & Banfield

On the witness stand, Maud Allan was asked if she was a medical practitioner, because “nobody but a medical man or people interested in that kind of thing, would understand the term” – as she had admitted to. But she could not acknowledge the truth about the source of her knowledge. As a young woman living in Berlin, she had illustrated an encyclopedia aimed at providing German women with information about everything in the world, from sewing and breeding roses to the exact location of the clitoris and what it does. But connections with Germany were the last thing Allan could admit to, besides which she needed to protect her biggest secret, which was the grain of truth in Billing’s malicious charges: Maud Allan was in fact a lesbian. Her forbidden knowledge tipped the scales in Billing’s favor. He was acquitted.

In 1998, when Bill Clinton was tried in the U.S. Senate on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, in the wake of his attempt to redefine the meaning of sexual relations, an Australian urologist named Helen O’Connell revealed the truth and the whole truth: What we’d known until then as the clitoris, that “little lump of flesh,” was only the tip of the iceberg. The vast majority of the organ lies below the surface, it is characterized by a spongy, erect texture like its male counterpart, and it sends “arms” (as O’Connell described them in the Journals of Urology), to embrace the vaginal orifice. While the male sex organ is a kind of Swiss Army knife that fulfills several functions – reproduction, urination, pleasure – the sexual system of the female doesn’t put all its eggs in one basket.

The clitoris is the only organ in the human body whose purpose is to generate pleasure, and it allows certain women to experience up to 200 consecutive orgasms, as Dr. Ronny Shtarkshall revealed in this newspaper (“Every orgasmic woman can be taught to experience more than one orgasm in a single sexual event, even three or four”) The organ that allows us women to undergo this wondrous phenomenon has 8,000 nerve endings, more than twice what the phallus has.

So there you go, Dr. Freud – there’s no reason for penis envy.

The fact that the function, importance and sheer existence of the clitoris has been cast in doubt time and again might show that the envy Freud was talking about is moving in the opposite direction. Even through all those years when its true nature wasn’t fully grasped, the clitoris stirred fear in the hearts of men. It was denounced as being satanic; as the gateway to crime and perversion; as a button that, once pressed, eliminates a woman’s healthy logic; as an infantile penis that needs to be nullified; and even as an organ that should be removed physically or otherwise – as Dr. Charles Mayo Goss did in 1947, when he erased the clitoris from the 25th edition of “Gray’s Anatomy.”

In contrast to the phallus, which is depicted as either erect or flaccid in works of art across history, the clitoris was neglected and excluded from the artistic conversation. It wasn’t given a place of honor even by female artists who sought to penetrate the lips of the genitalia, like Niki de Saint Phalle’s huge 1966 plaster-and-paint sculpture “HON,” which the artist described variously as a whale, a cathedral, Mama, Noah’s Ark and the biggest prostitute in the world, and which visitors entered through a space between the sculpture’s legs; or Judy Chicago and her stylized vagina-like dishes in her feminist installation “The Dinner Party,” created in the 1970s.

Contemporary female artists, however, are starting to pay more attention. Among them are Sophia Wallace, who in 2012 created a huge gilded, climbable model of a clitoris, saying that she loves to see men standing in line to scramble up it. Or French sociologist Odile Fillod, who about a year ago created a 3-D life-size model of the organ, which anyone can download and reproduce with the nearest 3-D printer.

Still, the clitoris remains hidden in the shadows. Few scholars and artists deal with it, few books are devoted to it, and not even many names are given to it, in contrast to the thousands of slang and other words that have been spilled on its homologous organ, the penis.

Are we now witnessing the spring of womanhood’s flower? Has the time of the oyster in the shell to shine arrived? Websites such as OMGYes, which are devoted to creating a better understanding of the female orgasm and the organ responsible for it, are trying to change the picture. And moves are afoot to revise textbooks and sex-ed instructors to get them to stop referring to the clitoris, if at all, as a “little lump of flesh.” Such efforts may help the titanic phallus not only not to crash on the rocks, but above all to pass the control of pleasure – the way it’s defined, understood and represented – over to women. It’s in our hands, you know.

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