Everything you need to know about the clitoris
…including what clitor-is and what clitor-isn’t true that you might have read elsewhere online. Let’s get cliterate!
I was unsure about whether to open this article with a joke about the clitoris; after all, for many people, it’s a sensitive spot. ;)
In truth though, it’s no joke how much misinformation, myth and misogyny-induced mystery surrounds this exquisitely sensual part of the body, despite over half the world’s population owning one.
Having access to more accurate, up-to-date and in-depth info about the clitoris – how it’s built, how it can behave, and how to maximise its potential to bring pleasure – is essential for everyone from specialist medics seeking to improve the safety of pelvic surgery techniques, to everyday women who want to boost how brilliant their own bodies can make them feel.
So: hop on board the Elvie Express and become a whistle-stop CliTourist, while we take you on a fast-track 6-part trip to help you get clitorally clued up.
1/ Location, location, location: where is the clitoris? And what does it look like?
It’s a common wisecrack that straight guys can’t find the clit without a compass, but a study recently published in the International Urogynecology Journal [ ] found that 37% of people surveyed could not correctly label the clitoris on a diagram…and the majority of those quizzed were female.
“People who literally have clitorises themselves frequently have no idea where they are, or the full extent of their structure,” says Sophia Smith Galer, author of Losing It: Sex Education for the 21st Century. “Regardless of gender, education systems have rarely taught us much about them.”
The visible portion of the clitoris (we’ll address the bits of your bits that can’t be seen with the naked eye in just a sec) is called the glans, and is situated at the front junction of the labia minora – so, at the top of your inner lips. It’s just above the tiny urethral opening (AKA your pee hole), which is itself just above the larger opening to the vagina. You can see a drawing on sex education site BISH.
1 - clitoral hood
2 - clitoris
3 - labia minora
4 - labia majora
5 - vagina
6 - urethra
The clitoral glans is covered by a protective cloak of skin named the clitoral hood, which is where I like to imagine the phrase “It’s all good in the hood” originated. You might need to gently pull the hood back to see your glans, or you might have a glans that peeks out all by itself, especially when you’re turned on (see Section 3).
The glans is often described as being pea-sized, but different studies suggest its size varies greatly for different people. “Mine looks like a miniature jelly bean”, says Aniyah, 32. “I’d say mine is medium to large, and quite beautiful actually. It looks like a peanut in a boat,” says Katie, 29. “Honestly, mine looks like a big doll’s thumb!” says Taylor, 25.
Although the exact etymology of the word ‘clitoris’ is contested, it seemingly has roots in the Greek term kleitoris, which many linguists translate as ‘little hill’ – something it can also look like. And teaching people more about it is my own personal hill to die upon.
2/ Buried treasure: what are the hidden, internal parts of the clitoris? And how big are they?
The clitoris is like an iceberg: that glans you can spy on the outside is actually just the tip of a much bigger, wishbone-shaped structure, with a body (‘corpora’) that branches off into pair of ‘legs’ (officially called ‘crura’) and two spongy masses of erectile tissue (‘vestibular bulbs’) that extend deep inside the body, wrapping round the vagina and urethra (pee pipe) and flaring out up to 9cm into the pelvis, all richly connected with nerves and blood vessels.
This hidden part accounts for about 90% of the clitoris’ total size. Impressive, huh? Although admittedly, it does kinda look like a seagull with exceedingly pendulous breasts. Check out artist Sophia Wallace’s models to see for yourself.
1 - glans clitoris
2 - corpus cavernosum
3 - bulb of vestibule
4 - vaginal opening
5 - crus clitoris
6 - urethra
Appropriately enough, we have a scientist from Down Under to thank for this knowledge of what’s down under our vulvas (that’s the proper name for all the external genitals that women have, as well as non-binary folks and other gender non-conforming humans who were assigned female at birth, and have every right to learn about their clitorises, too). In 2005, Australian urologist Helen O’Connell used a combination of magnetic resonance imaging of living female volunteers and microdissection of cadavers to reveal the full extent of the clitoris’ construction, building upon her pioneering work from 1998.
This discovery changes so much about how we understand and approach female bodies; or at least, how we ought to. Medically, for example, this affects the ability of surgeons to improve how they might help repair the damage done to women who’ve undergone female genital mutilation (FGM), or what techniques they’ll use during pelvic operations to preserve important clitoral nerves. In terms of individual sexual pleasure, we now know that women reporting that it feels good when their ‘G-spot’ is massaged – an area a few inches up the front wall of the vagina – could, in fact, be enjoying stimulation of the secret, internal parts of the clit.
Recognising that the clitoris is not only much bigger than it seems, but that it connects and interacts with other systems and organs nearby (like the bladder and pelvic floor), helps explain how pelvic exercisers like the Elvie Trainer not only improve urinary control, but can also enhance erotic sensation.
And on the flip side, a lack of schooling about how all these parts are interlinked makes women vulnerable to exploitation. “If we were better educated about the clitoris, we’d be more sceptical about industries trying to sell us invasive vaginal tightening surgeries, labiaplasty, clitoral hood reductions and so on,” argues Sophia Smith Galer, because we’d be more wary about how these procedures might negatively affect the extensive network of the clitoris and its neighbours.
3/ Peen vs bean: is the clitoris like ‘a penis for women’?
The clitoris and penis are homologous, which means they are different versions of the same structure. When an embryo is developing in the womb, it starts out with a kind of all-purpose, general-genital-globule called the ‘genital tubercle’; then, around 8 or 9 weeks after conception, this usually begins to morph into either a clitoris or a penis according to what sex-determining genes are present.
Their shared roots mean clits and dicks have more in common than you might realise. Just like an erection, the inner and outer parts of the clit become engorged with blood during arousal, with the vestibular bulbs expanding from about 3cm to 7cm in length, and the glans commonly becoming larger and stiffer. “My partner’s clitoral glans is the size of a large pea ‘at rest’, but when she’s really turned on it swells up almost to the size of a Coke bottle lid,” shares Harvey, 39. ‘Lady boners’ are a real thing.
You may have read that the clitoris “contains 8,000 nerve endings – double the amount of a penis.” It’s an oft-quoted stat and appealing to believe, but I’d be – ahem – hypoclitical if I didn’t point out that it’s hard to find a reliable source for this figure. Several specialists think it probably originally came from a study of bovine clitorises discussed in a 1976 book by physician Thomas Lowry that was misinterpreted over time.
However, we know this clitoris is certainly more well connected than a high society socialite in terms of nerve endings, because unlike the penis…
4/ Pleasure centre: what is the clitoris for?
…the sole job of the clitoris is to provide pleasurable, pleasure-rub-able erotic sensation. It’s only there to make you feel great.
And many people find they can only reach orgasm if their clit is getting lit. A study published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy found that 36.6% of women surveyed said that clitoral stimulation was essential for them to climax during intercourse, while a further 36% said that while it wasn’t a must-have, their orgasms felt better if their clitoris was stimulated during sex.
5/ Let’s get physical: how do you stimulate the clitoris?
Clitty-cats don’t all like to be petted in the same manner, and different strokes will work for different folks.
Sexuality coach Layla Martin – famous for advising Gwyneth Paltrow – has tips for those just beginning to explore what works for them, as well as those seeking to discover new methods of rubbing themselves up the right way.
“First up, slippery movements feel infinitely better than dry, dragging ones, so use a vulva-friendly lube or oil,” she teaches. She suggests warming your lubricant between your hands, or even gently heating it on the stove if it’s oil-based – although please take care…no-one wants to scorch their ‘front porch’! “The warmth gives your body a sense of comfort, and the more comfortable and relaxed you are, the more likely you are to have an orgasm,” she explains.
“Start by delicately massaging the inner thighs, over the mons [the bouncy pad at the top of your vulva where your pubic hair grows], and the outer lips, before beginning to touch your clitoris almost as though you were giving yourself a back massage,” Layla continues. “This comparison is useful for women new to masturbation, because people intuitively understand that ‘a massage’ involves rhythmic moves and comfortable pressure.”
“Experiment with using 1-3 fingers to draw circles over the clit: see how it feels to apply more pressure using the pads of your fingers, versus gliding all your fingers together over your clitoral hood,” she encourages. “Play with up-and-down moves; side-to-side; pulsations; figure 8s; and stroking further down your vulva towards your anus.”
You might find that touching your glans directly is too intense. “That hurts me, like banging my elbow but in my crotch!” says Faye, 32. “I have the best orgasms if I press one finger just above my clit and stimulate it through the hood, and another higher up on my mons, all very gently.” Sex educator and workshop instructor Lola Jean agrees, saying: “Using the clitoral hood and mons pubis to indirectly engage with the clitoris is a popular stimulation method for those with sensitive clit buds. You can try using your inner and outer lips as a kind of ‘clit barrier’ and massaging through them, too, which can also be a way of exciting all those hidden, inside parts of the clitoris from the outside.”
Lilly Sparks, founder of Afterglow – an ethical, female-focused porn site that also offers educational videos – suggests playing a guided masturbation instruction recording. “Listening to a teacher tell you what to do allows you to truly focus on what you’re feeling, and takes the pressure off having to think too hard when you need to be ‘in your body’ rather than ‘in your head’. It’s like a mix of masturbation and meditation.”
Taking your satisfaction into your own hands isn’t just about what you do with your digits. How you breathe can play a part in how your parts feel, too. “Visualise breathing into your genitals as you touch yourself, inhaling all the way down your body as though the air could reach your clitoris,” Layla recommends. “This breathwork quiets the more controlling areas of your brain and connects you to your more sensation-based side.”
6/ Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes: does the clitoris change throughout your lifetime?
Even if you think you’ve got how your clitoris likes to be tickled, tapped and patted down pat, you may find you need to revisit and revise your stimulation techniques over time, as all sorts of factors from medications to menopause and pregnancy to the pill can change how your clit responds to stimulation…and sometimes its appearance too.
For example, during the menopause, hormonal changes can cause the clitoris and tissues around it to thin or shrink – a condition called urogenital atrophy – whilst other women find that their clitoris appears more prominent. “The outer, visible bit of mine seems a bit bigger and longer since menopause, and it also swells more when I’m aroused,” says Sarah, 50. “It’s also less sensitive, although that means I can enjoy direct stimulation which used to feel too overwhelming, plus I now find I can orgasm through oral sex, which I couldn’t before.” “My clitoris has become less sensitive post-meno,” agrees Renee, 48. “It requires a bit of a ‘jump start’ – suction toys have been a godsend – although it can also handle a bit more than it used to when it’s ‘awake’!”
The Business of Birth Control is a new documentary about hormonal contraception by talk show icon Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein, inspired by the book Sweetening the Pill by Holly Grigg-Spall. It features reproductive health practitioner Lisa Hendrickson-Jack, who also appears in the team’s accompanying series of body literacy classes discussing how certain types of contraceptive pill and vaginal rings may make the clitoris smaller. “In one study, participants on hormonal birth control were all shown to experience shrinkage in clitoral volume, by an average amount of 20%,” she says. It’s important to note that the study in question only involved 40 participants, but worth bearing in mind when considering contraception options for yourself; monitoring how your body behaves on meds; and speaking to your doctor if you have concerns. Frankly, even the idea of clitoral shrinkage as a side-effect makes my clit shrivel all on its own!
Now, your clitoral intelligence is polished to a shimmering shine (you could even say… a glitteris?!). Remember the golden rules: when it comes to pleasure, what feels right to you is the right thing to do; knowledge is power; and with all that hidden internal structure, a clittle truly does go a long, long way.
Author: Alix Fox
Alix is a multi award-winning writer and broadcaster whose work has focused on sex and relationship topics from the mild to the wild for over 15 years. She’s a Script Consultant on hit Netflix show Sex Education; host of Audible series KINK!; and resident ‘Fairy Podmother’, magicking up answers to listeners’ most intimate questions on The Modern Mann podcast. Fox is currently working on her first book, due out 2023.