All About the Amazing Clitoris!

All About the Amazing Clitoris!

by Dr. Kristine Chadwick

Do you know what a penis looks like well enough to draw one? There’s a high likelihood you could doodle a fine phallus. But what about a clitoris? A significant minority (17-20%) of adults cannot even identify the clitoral glans on a genital drawing[1] so it’s pretty safe to say our imagined drawing contest could end up with some interesting – if incorrect – entries. 

Even most of us who know our way around a vulva don’t receive much formal education on the clitoris, so our knowledge may be based on exploration and guesswork. So, we wanted to spend a little quality time with this amazing and unique organ.

The clitoris has been known by a lot of names over the centuries: Love button, devil’s doorbell, (butter) bean, love of Venus, seat of lust, shameful member, just to name a few. As we can see, the ways in which people have talked about the clitoris include some pretty negatively loaded terms. The word “clitoris” derives from the Greek kleitoris, which can be translated as “little hill” and “to rub” (Those Greeks sure had a sense of humor).

A Short Anatomy Lesson

If you were awake in biology class, you may be familiar with the term, “homologous structures.” Until human sexual organs start to differentiate in the womb, the organs look the same and resemble a vulva. Because of chromosomes and hormones, at 7 weeks gestation, those embryos destined to have a penis and testicles start releasing testosterone and, at 9 weeks gestation, the genitalia begin to show differentiation into a vulva, penis, both, or neither depending on the chromosomal makeup of the fetus. By 20 weeks, parents can see their little tyke’s genitals on ultrasound and so begins socialization as “boy” or “girl” (the binary division of sex and the conflation of sex with gender is a whole different blog post, so we’ll stop there).

My goal here is to show you how alike the structures are in vulva- and penis-owning bodies, and what that means for pleasure. Let’s take a quick look at the diagram of the clitoris, penis, and dicklit (bodies with an enlarged clitoris or a micropenis): 

  • They have a prepuce, or hood/foreskin. 
  • They have a sensitive glans, or head. 
  • They have a body, or shaft, that connects the glans to the rest of the organ and contains some of the erectile tissues.
  • They have bulb(s) of spongy erectile tissues that fill up with blood during arousal (“bulb” in a penis, vestibular bulbs in the clitoris). 
  • They have legs, or crura (singular: crus), that anchor them in place. 

If you look at the diagram, it’s pretty easy to see that they aren’t really that different.

The main difference lies in the proportion of the genitalia that is external versus internal. For vulva owners, regardless of the size of the glans clitoris, the vast majority of the genital structures are internal. Could this be why they have never received as much research attention as the far-more-easily observable penis? Yes... and because of misogyny born of patriarchal cultures. But, again, that’s a whole different blog post. 

We humans are more alike than different, even if our 23rd set of chromosomes resulted in about half of us having a penis and about half having a clitoris (with approximately 1.7% of humans having intersex traits). But there are a few key differences that make the clitoris a veritable powerhouse for pleasure. Actually, it’s not just the clitoris but the entire clitoral complex (tissues involving the vagina, clitoris, and urethral sponge) that is a powerhouse. For about 40 years, we’ve been championing the clitoris as having twice as many nerve endings as the penis (8,000 versus 4,000). And the science has been fairly accurate for the human penis — many studies confirm there are about 4,000 nerve endings in the head (or glans) of the penis. But, until this year, our knowledge of the clitoris was based on studies of cow clitorises in the 1970s. Yes, you read that correctly: Cow clitorises. Thankfully, Dr. Blair Peters, who conducts gender-affirming surgeries at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), and his colleagues decided to look at actual human clitorises of trans-men who had their clitoral organs removed[2]. It turns out that there are more than 10,000 nerve endings in the glans clitoris–that little nub that can be seen (and stroked!) on a vulva owner. Compare this to about 17,000 nerve endings in an entire touch-sensitive hand[3], and you get the idea that our “little hill” of a clitoris has a lot going for it, without even taking into account the nerves and erectile tissues in other parts of the clitoral complex. 

The Clitoris as a Pleasure Powerhouse

Despite the clitoral complex having a huge number of densely packed nerve endings and all the same erectile structures as the penis, most of us are aware that when it comes to sexual pleasure, there are real differences in arousal and orgasm based on a combination of our anatomies and socialization. Did you know that most vulva-owners cannot orgasm from intercourse alone and generally report lower sexual satisfaction than do penis-owners? In fact, studies of heterosexual folks have demonstrated that 70-75% of vulva-owners don’t orgasm during intercourse, only about 10–18% are able to orgasm from intercourse alone, and only about a third reliably orgasm during sexual encounters with a penis-owner. Yes, there is a well-researched orgasm gap in heterosexual populations (which is not present in vulva-owners’ same-sex encounters).[4]

So, how do we close the orgasm gap and increase pleasure for all the folks who own a clitoris? Oh, let us count the ways! Luckily, some creative scientists at Yale University and the Kinsey Institute have done that for us.[5] Based on surveys with more than 20,000 vulva owners and in-depth interviews with 1,000 of those respondents, they categorized different ways of pleasuring vulva owners into (so far) 37 sets of techniques and created OMGYes, an inexpensive website with explanations, diagrams, and videos. If you want to learn about all the techniques, I encourage you to check it out. I’m going to give you a few highlights below.

Let me start by stating the obvious: The brain is our sexiest organ. It’s where desire lives. Making sure one is mentally present, engaged, and enthusiastically consenting to what is about to happen precedes all other stimulation techniques. Mindfulness and embodiment exercises are great to calm the sympathetic nervous system so that desire can percolate. It will be challenging to get the clitoral complex fully revved up if the connected brain is focusing on work, worrying about the kids, or desperate for sleep. For more Captain Obvious facts, let’s remember that every clitoris owner likes different touches, and those likes can change from one lover to another, or from one day to another.   

Indirect pleasure. As we’ve learned, the clitoris is a sensitive organ, so warming it up gently and indirectly is generally a good idea (according to about 67% of vulva owners). Indirect touch, such as through a light layer of fabric, or material like Lorals latex underwear, can activate the nerves of the glans clitoris. Just make sure to check with the clitoris owner about the firmness of the touch and what feels good, knowing the optimal level may very well change as the clitoris starts to engorge. If there’s no fabric available (where did those clothes go??), starting with gentle stimulation over and around the clitoral hood can also work to arouse the region. While you’re at it, get that vulva owner’s mind engaged with some teasing, or hinting, actions, wherein you stroke or kiss areas near the clitoris without touching it. Ok, maybe a little bit of light touch on the clitoral hood, a gentle squeeze of the labia around the clitoris, and/or rimming around the vaginal opening (which is a big hit among about 73% of vulva owners). This is all about building anticipation and getting the “nether region” tingly.

Building pleasure. Once the tingly sensations begin, the vulva owner moves to the buildup stage during which the dance between consistency and variation takes the stage. Experiment with technique. If you own the tingly clitoris, make sure to let your partner know what’s working and what isn’t. If you’re the one working to stimulate the clitoris, listen and feel for telltale signs of arousal. 

About half of vulva owners like varying stimulation around the clitoris and its hood and about a quarter of them like brushing over the clitoris without pressure. For those who like pressure, about half like very light pressure on the clit and an additional third like medium pressure. About 1 in 9 vulva owners prefer a firm, massaging pressure on the clitoris. As for the types of strokes that are preferred, there is a wide variety, but you’re pretty safe that most vulva owners will like up-and-down, side-to-side, and/or circular motions around the clitoral hood and the inner labia, under which rest the spongy vestibular bulbs that fill with blood during arousal and make everything feel so very good. 

Approach and orgasm. Remember I mentioned consistency dances with variation? As a vulva owner’s clitoris becomes engorged and the owner nears orgasm, consistency of stimulation becomes crucial. Most vulva owners can approach orgasm and then lose it entirely if conditions change (which, if the vulva owner wants to engage in edging, is a good thing, but not if orgasm is expected). The motions that tend to be most successful for moving from approach to a full-fledged orgasmic landing include ones with more direct pressure passing over the clitoris in a very consistent rhythm. Keep that pressure and rhythm steady during the orgasm, which lasts about 20–35 seconds.

Toys are a Clitoris' BFF

Let’s face facts: For most vulva owners, vibrators and air pulse toys are going to get the clitoris engorged faster than fingers or tongues, though a combination of all of those are wonderfully enticing. Rumbly, low-frequency toys are going to stimulate more of the internal clitoral tissues than a buzzy (higher frequency) toy so keep that in mind as you shop. 

About two-thirds of vulva owners like to feel vibration through fabric. Because vibrators and wands can be strong, even at their lowest settings, placing different fabrics between the toy and the clitoris often provides just the right level of sensation. Get creative with the fabrics and try several of varying densities and textures. Glide the toy over silky fabrics. Try thicker fabrics with higher-intensity toys and thinner fabrics with lower-intensity toys.  

Once a toy touches flesh, adding lube is an excellent idea. Lube reduces friction between the toy and sensitive genital tissues, which can decrease the risk of micro tears and general discomfort. Lube also aids in creating the necessary seal if one is using an air-pulse toy. 

Vulva owners like to actively play with toys! In fact, instead of only passively receiving the toy’s stimulation, two-thirds of vulva owners enjoy grinding on and pressing their body down on toys, which gives them total control of pressure and vibration intensity on the clitoris. This can be easier if the toy is used backwards (which also provides a great role for the partner!) or if a position pillow is used.

If a clitoris is engorged and ready for some new action, try toys that stimulate the vaginal wall closest to the front of the body (called the anterior wall). The NJoy Pure Wand or the We/Vibe Nova 2, for instance, will provide delicious strokes to the anterior wall, which is a thin layer of tissue between the vagina and the luscious, engorged parts of the clitoral complex commonly called the “G-spot.”  This angled massaging motion is enjoyed by about three-fourths of vulva owners. 

Get creative with your toys and figure out what delights a clitoris you love.  If you are looking for more guidance or tips on how to stimulate the clitoris, join us in Ashland for The Art of Fingering workshop on May 24th 2024.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this ode to the amazing clitoris. Although small in size, it is packed with nerves and devoted entirely to pleasure. It certainly deserves more attention than it has received and it is my hope to honor its form and function by bringing awareness to as many people as possible.

Works Cited:

[1]  Marie-Feline Dienberg, Tanja Oschatz, Eden Kosman & Verena Klein (2023). Does Clitoral Knowledge Translate into Orgasm? The Interplay Between Clitoral Knowledge, Gendered Sexual Scripts, and Orgasm Experience, Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 49:5, 484-496, DOI: 10.1080/0092623X.2022.2147112

[2]  Uloko M, Isabey EP, Peters BR. How many nerve fibers innervate the human glans clitoris: a histomorphometric evaluation of the dorsal nerve of the clitoris. J Sex Med. 2023 Feb 27;20(3):247-252. doi: 10.1093/jsxmed/qdac027. PMID: 36763957.

[3] Corniani, G, Saal, HP. Tactile innervation densities across the whole body. J Neurophysiology. 2020 Oct 19;124:1229–1240. Doi: 10.1152/jn.00313.2020. Epub 2020 Sept 23. PMID: 32965159.


[5] Herbenick D, Fu TJ, Arter J, Sanders SA, Dodge B. Women's Experiences With Genital Touching, Sexual Pleasure, and Orgasm: Results From a U.S. Probability Sample of Women Ages 18 to 94. J Sex Marital Ther. 2018 Feb 17;44(2):201-212. doi: 10.1080/0092623X.2017.1346530. Epub 2017 Aug 9. PMID: 28678639.


About the Author:

Dr. Kristine Chadwick (@dr_clitorati) is an enthusiastic lifelong learner of the psychology of human sexuality and a fierce advocate for de-stigmatizing sexual wellness and pleasure. Kristine earned her PhD in psychology at the University of Rhode Island, and currently is part of a national research team studying the mental health benefits of Kink. She also teaches classes on healthy relationships and sexuality. She is a certified sexual health resource, and in training to become a certified sex coach and holistic sex educator. She serves as a staff writer for As You Like It and the Eugene Intimate Health Center.  
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