Interview With 'The Clitoral Truth' Author Rebecca Chalker

What you should know about the clitoris

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I had an opportunity to discuss one of the most misunderstood parts of the female anatomy--the clitoris--with women's health writer and activist Rebecca Chalker, author of the book "The Clitoral Truth: The Secret World at Your Fingertips."

Chalker and I discussed issues surrounding female sexuality such as female ejaculation, how the clitoris compares with the male penis, the historical view of women and sexuality, the ancient Asian spiritual traditions of Tao and Tantra, and masturbation and sex toys, as well as why it's important for women and their partners to fully understand the extent of the clitoris.

Q. Why did you write "The Clitoral Truth?"

A. In talking to women about sexuality, it became clear to me that the reason that so many women are disappointed in sex is that their sexuality is defined according to male standards. By this, I mean that sex is intercourse-focused, which works very well for men, but not reliably for women.

In addition, most women, men, doctors, and many sex therapists, still think that the clitoris is this teeny pea-sized bump and that women's sexual response is not as powerful as men's. What people call the clitoris is just the tip (or glans), and is only one of many parts--that all have corresponding parts in the penis--and work in a similar way to produce an orgasm.

I thought that if women could understand how all of the parts of the clitoris work together to produce orgasms that they would be better able to explore and enhance their sexual response.

Q. What is the extent of the clitoris? How does the female clitoris compare to a man's penis?

A.

The clitoris has 18 parts some of which you can see--like the glans or tip, inner lips (called labia minora in medicalese) and the hood, which is equivalent to the foreskin in men. Then there are parts that you can feel, such as the shaft, a cord about an inch long that is attached to the glans, and the urethral sponge, which you can feel through the roof of the vagina.

Then there are muscles, blood vessels and nerves, which you cannot feel but which are essential in causing orgasm.

Before eight weeks of pregnancy, the genitals all appear to be female. At about eight weeks, the male fetuses begin to produce testosterone which causes the genitals to be rearranged to form the penis. None of this tissue disappears in the female fetuses, and consequently, the parts of the clitoris and penis are similar, just arranged differently. And both the clitoris and the penis work in a similar fashion to produce an orgasm. "The Clitoral Truth" describes the clitoris in detail and explains how the parts all work together to produce orgasm.

Q. Is there really such a thing as female ejaculation? How can a woman experience this and how will she know when she does?

A. It is now clear that female ejaculation does occur, but that amount of ejaculate that is produced varies from a few drops, which may be too small to be noticed, to gushes which may leave a wet spot on the bed, or impressive squirts which may reach several feet, similar to male ejaculation.

Some women ejaculate consistently, while others only ejaculate occasionally. Many women say that their ejaculation is not associated with orgasm, but may occur a number of times before orgasm and many more times if they have multiple orgasms. Unfortunately, some women believe that they are wetting the bed and may suppress their sexual response to avoid ejaculating. Ejaculation for women is, as it is for men, a sign of intense sexual pleasure.

Female ejaculation comes from up to 30 or more tiny glands embedded in the urethral sponge, the tube of spongy erectile tissue that surrounds the urethra. Most of the fluid comes out of two ducts on either side of the urethra, although some of the glands may open directly into the urethra. The urethral sponge is the site of the "G-spot."

All women have a urethral sponge and there may or may not be an area on it that is more sensitive that can be felt through the vagina. But in general, all clitoral tissues are exquisitely sensitive when a woman is fully aroused, and this includes the urethral sponge and all women have one.

There are many reasons that some women do not ejaculate noticeable spurts of ejaculate. Under the intercourse model, many women do not become sexually aroused enough to ejaculate. The penis may block female ejaculation during intercourse, or it may be blocked by a hand or the head of a vibrator.

The tiny glands on either side of the urethra (the paraurethral glands) may have been scarred over by infection. Lack of regular sexual activity may also be a factor. Perhaps the principle of muscle exercise applies: use it or lose it.

Q. How important is clitoral stimulation in female orgasm?

A. Orgasm can occur with or without direct clitoral stimulation, but for many women direct stimulation with hands or a vibrator is necessary. This is because only one part of the clitoris, the urethral sponge, is in contact with the penis, fingers or a dildo in the vagina. The tip of the clitoris and the inner lips, which are also very sensitive, are not receiving direct stimulation during intercourse.

The clitoris surrounds the vagina somewhat like a horseshoe. The urethral sponge, discussed previously, does run along the "roof" of the vagina, and it can be stimulated through the vagina, but the vagina itself has no mechanism to stimulate pleasure or orgasm for women. Through penile thrusting, however, the vagina provides exactly the right type of pressure and stimulation to result in male orgasm.

Of course, if you are excited enough, orgasm can occur without any physical stimulation of any kind, or it can occur through kissing, touching other parts of the body, watching sexy videos, or even during sleep when no physical stimulation of any kind occurs.

Many heterosexual women find that both partners can have more rewarding pleasure and orgasms by avoiding intercourse and using manual stimulation, vibrators, watching erotica, sharing erotic fantasies and so forth. Some men are willing to do anything to ensure that their partners are pleased and are surprised to find how rewarding non-intercourse, called outercourse, sex can be.

Q. What is the historical view of the clitoris? Why, and when did that change?

A. Physicians and philosophers in ancient Greece understood that the clitoris and the penis were similar and this view prevailed; in fact, [this] was the only view, until the 18th century when women were judged to be "disabled" by menstruation and pregnancy, and their sexuality was defined as less powerful and passionate than men's.

In the 19th century, the orgasm was seen as unnecessary and perhaps even unhealthy for women. At the beginning of the 20th century, Freud declared that the clitoris was a child's plaything and that vaginal orgasm was the only healthy, appropriate type of orgasm for women. Even today, many women and men believe that women who do not experience orgasm through intercourse are "sexually dysfunctional." This is not true. Orgasms are orgasms regardless of how they are stimulated.

Q. How can masturbation and sex toys improve a woman's sexual response?

A. Masturbation can help women discover what feels good and what types of stimulation work best to produce an orgasm. Masturbation also allows a woman to be sexually active when no partner is available. Sex toys--vibrators, dildoes, ben-wa balls, ticklers or restraints--can be used as alternatives to hand stimulation and to achieve variety in types of stimulation.

Many people also use vegetables and foods such as chocolate or whipped cream, and common household items such as brush handles or clothespins and battery-operated devices such as electric toothbrushes. There are many kinds of vibrators with many different speeds--electrical or battery-operated--some have all kinds of attachments and some of which can be used under water.

Q. What are Tao and Tantra?

A. Chinese Taoism and Hindu Tantra are ancient spiritual traditions in which sexuality is seen at a central sacrament of society and a pathway to "enlightenment" or a bridge between the human and the "divine." There are many rituals surrounding sex that mark it as a special and intensely pleasurable human activity.

In these traditions, women are honored for their ability to conceive and give birth and for their sexual power and are seen as sexual teachers. Women's pleasure is considered central to sexual activity. Men learn to control and postpone ejaculation until women have had as many orgasms as they wish and sexual sessions usually last much longer than in the "intercourse model," maybe several hours as compared to three to seven minutes.

Q. Why is there so much misunderstanding about the clitoris?

A. If you look at most anatomy books you will see that there is no agreement among anatomists as to how many parts the clitoris has. (The same goes for the penis as well). This isn't true for any other organ in the human body--the heart, the eye, the knee, for example.

Since the 18th century when women's sexuality was defined as less passionate and powerful than men's, and Freud dictated that clitoral orgasms were inappropriate for mature women, the clitoris became less important--to anatomists, doctors, therapists and probably men as well.

Beginning in the 18th century, medical illustrations became less detailed, and parts of the clitoris began to "disappear" or to be assigned to the reproductive or urinary systems. By the 1980s, the "clitoris" was often illustrated by an unlabeled wavy line. This incomplete understanding of women's genital anatomy is a reflection of the second-rate status of women's sexuality.

Q. Can lack of knowledge about the clitoris contribute to female sexual dysfunction?

A. This is a tricky question because there is no reliable definition of what female sexual function is. I think that lack of knowledge about the extent of the clitoris and its function contributes to the widespread belief that women's sexual response is not as powerful and rewarding as men's.

Knowing that the clitoris is as extensive as the penis can help women acquire a more positive sexual self-image and feel more confident about their sexuality. It can also help women learn how to achieve orgasms regularly (if they want to) and discover how to have more varied and rewarding sexual experiences.

Q. What else is important for women to understand about the clitoris?

A. The clitoris is a powerful organ of sexual pleasure. The tip or glans alone has more than 8,000 sensory nerve endings--more than any other part of the human body. In addition, because of the requirements of pregnancy, women have a greater blood supply to the pelvic area and longer and stronger pelvic muscles. And unlike the penis, which produces a single, explosive orgasm, the clitoris provides the means of having multiple orgasms: several, a dozen, or in some cases, over 100!

For these reasons, the clitoris could be considered even more powerful than the penis! But because women's sexual response has been defined by male standards, and intercourse is the focus of heterosexual sex, women's ability to discover their explosive sexual power has been denied. It's time that our understanding of sexuality includes women's needs and preferences, and that's the clitoral truth!

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