monthly column from author/activist
Carol Queen

The Royal Treatment

I Say Clitoris, You Say Clitoris...

There's an interesting revision afoot in the definition of the clit. In ages past, the clit was considered too lowly to warrant much study by the heavily hetero, reproductively-focused doctors from whom people in the culture got information about the human body. That began to change in the '60s and '70s, when first Masters and Johnson declared that the clitoris is women's fundamental seat of erotic pleasure (the new implication: Freud was making up all that shit about clitoral versus vaginal orgasms) and then feminists began filling in the blanks in our knowledge about female sexual response. No longer was the clit a puny afterthought whose main function was to get in the way of women thinking about (maybe even with) their vaginas. The Clitoral Era had arrived.

I just received a review copy of a book by a new sexpert that details The Revisionist Clit. And by the way, don't you go calling me a dang sexpert. I think I'm pert enough as it is, don't you? That term should stay firmly affixed to Susie Bright.

Now, where was I? Oh, yes, the clit. The new definition of the clit is interesting. It incorporates most of the sensitive, engorgeable tissue of the female genitals, so that now a rose isn't simply a rose, a clit a clit. A clit is itself plus the g-spot (a.k.a. paraurethral sponge), and the urethra, and the inner labia, and I don't know what-all. If all the tissue that engorges due to arousal is truly going to be organized and recognized as part of the clit, then we'll have to include the nasal mucosa, too. Maybe a sneeze and an orgasm are more related than we thought.

This switch is largely courtesy of a book called A New View of a Woman's Body, put together several years ago by folks from the Federation of Feminist Health Centers. The New View point of view is gradually spreading and authors not affiliated with FFHC have taken up the revised definition of the all-important clit.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love clits -- yours, mine, that of every sexpert around, everybody's, no matter how they pronounce it. I am a Friend to the Clit, and don't let anyone tell you different. I understand exactly how radical and how important it was that our perception of women's sexual epicenter could shift from the vagina to the clit. It took female sexuality from the realm of intercourse, where it was firmly situated by Freud's notion that any kind of orgasm other than the vaginal was immature, to the realm of sentient, sensual exploration, and woman from a person who was not complete until she was filled to a person who could be fulfilled, maybe, just by wearing her jeans a size smaller, or leaning up again the dryer during spin. Clit liberation gave women a great deal more power in our sexuality, and helped a lot more women come -- because, nice as vaginal fullness is (and don't get me wrong, I'm a friend of the vagina too), not all women enjoy it, and a good many women never, ever orgasm that way.

Clit liberation had an interesting effect on women who were happily vaginal. Fucking experienced a bit of a backlash -- this reached its apogee with Andrea Dworkin's notorious equation of penetration with rape, and what were we to think of the women who actually said they enjoyed penetration? Women who had never come during intercourse went so far as to say it wasn't even possible, leaving women who did experience climax that way sputtering or silenced. If vaginal orgasm was basically a patriarchal Freudian fantasy, were vaginally orgasmic women traitors or just caught up in the fantasy themselves?

This got even more complicated when the g-spot was rediscovered. It was called "new" too, in its day, by a culture with a very short memory: The "G" stood for "Grafenberg," the guy who'd named it -- after himself, natch -- in the early '50s. Like pretty much every other part of our bodies, it had been flagged by a doctor like the moon had been claimed by the astronauts -- or the way you can still send away for a certificate to an obscure asteroid that's been named after you. Even Grafenberg wasn't the first to note this spot of particular vaginal sensitivity. It was most certainly, by the late '70s, not "new," but it hadn't been popularly discussed. As soon as it was, it put a bit of a crimp in the "clitoris ueber alles" argument. The g-spot was almost as controversial in feminist circles as it was in medical ones, where scores of doctors who had never seen a picture of one in a medical text refused to admit it might exist.

These days, g-spot stimulation is as feminist as apple pie. You can go to workshops to learn to do it with a toy, a finger, or a fist. If it makes you ejaculate, so much the better, because then you are a woman who takes up space. If we still have to sleep in the wet spot, at least we made it; this is a radically different experience (and I don't just mean that our wet spot is bigger). Pretty far cry from the not-so-distant days when women who liked penetration were derided as having false consciousness. Ejaculating women really, really rained on Andrea Dworkin's parade.

Hey, and if it's really urine? So much the better!

But to bring women back to the idea of penetration as a feminist, radically grrrrly act, the clitoris basically had to take the vagina under its wing -- or, more literally, under its leg. What, you didn't know the clit has legs? Also known as crura, they extend back and into the body, forming the iceberg that the clit is the tip of. Wow, that's the wrong metaphor, though, 'cause they're not icy at all -- they may be an important part of what women who like vaginal penetration really like. It's not just the vagina that's happy -- it's the rest of the clit! Before, there was a halfhearted attempt to explain vaginal orgasm this way: The penis (somehow, it was always a penis, though I always had a soft spot for organic zucchini), thrusting into the vagina, rhythmically tugs on the inner labia, and this induces orgasm because the labia are practically attached right to the clit.

So we see that the labia got annexed first.

Labia tugging is very nice, of course, no matter who or what does it -- even orgasmic, and if the way that orgasm is created, physiologically, is clitoral, great. But it's not as direct a connection to the clit as the clitoral legs have -- and labial stimulation isn't as likely for most women who orgasm with penetration to result in a climax as g-spot stimulation is. Of course, the g-spot is right there, tucked in below the clit. And most women stimulate them together -- either directly, as I do when I put a vibrator on my clit and a Kegelcisor (great g-spot toy) into my vagina, or indirectly. They might as well be one organ, practically.

Anatomically speaking, this is a slippery slope.

Let's Call the Whole Thing Off!
It's not so much of a problem in terms of sexual functioning. We're talking about a small but potent amount of acreage here. There's not much room between the clit and the g-spot, the g- spot and the vaginal wall. The clit's legs wrap around the vagina from within. The inner labia are nudged and stimulated each time vaginal penetration happens. For that matter, the anus isn't very far away, nor is the engorgeable tissue in the wall that separates vagina from rectum. It's pretty logical to consider all this part of a system.

But it's nothing but pure language to say it's all part of the clit.

Let's compare and contrast. I am not one of the sloppy thinkers who calls men and women "opposites." This culture teems with them, but I insist upon stemming the tide. Mars and Venus, Uranus -- women and men are built just about the same, with rather small variations on a continuum marking our most cherished sexual differences. That's right, and I don't care what your mother or your high school sex ed teacher taught you. Every bit of our genital tissue is homologous across the gender line. For the first several weeks of gestation it develops identically. There is no difference between male and female on a morphological level. Then the hormones kick in, and things start growing and changing. They're still the same tissue, though -- just altered, reshaped. Hence each female part has a corresponding male part. (The fetus starts out looking female, by the way, whether or not it'll end up male.) The parts of people who are intersexed change some, but not all the way.

Maybe you've heard that the clitoris and the penis are basically the same. It's practically true to say that the penis is the clit on steroids. (The penis has internal legs too, just as the clit does.) The g-spot and the prostate are closely related. The tissue of the outer labia becomes the scrotum in a fetus which develops as male. The inner labia become the inner urethra in a male. Even the vagina has a male equivalent, buried deep within the prostate.

Now, is anyone recommending that we label all the separate parts of a man's genitals "the penis"? In fact, that sort of is what's done today, but only because this culture is so penis- focused, it forgets to tell men they have other parts they could be playing with and getting to know individually.

Is it a size thing? Is it that it makes women feel better about their sexual capacities to include more of that genital acreage into the definition of their primary sexual organ? Does that mean we have to stop bragging about how powerful the little clit is, smaller than most penises yet packed with just as many nerve endings? And what about the ur-feminist brag, that the clitoris is the only organ in the body created solely for pleasure? If we add the urethra into our definition of the clit, the clit becomes an excretory organ. (We can't really uninvite the urethra, since it runs right through the g-spot, a.k.a. "the paraurethral sponge of the clitoris.") I think a lot of gals liked to brag about their clits that way, seizing female pleasure back from the culture that was too afraid or ignorant to emphasize it.

Each individual bit of our genitals -- women's, men's, and everybody else's -- works together, at least they do when we play optimally with these fabulous, sensitive toys that grace the small spot between our legs. We don't need to conflate all or most of the parts into a whole in order to get them to work in synchronicity -- and just saying "It's all the clit" won't actually make the clits of women who haven't yet discovered their erotic potential work all that much better. Why not emphasize that most genital tissue is engorgeable? That stimulation here is liable to carry over to there? That adding two sources of stimulation can more than double your pleasure? (Male prostate virgins, take note.) That the clitoris, even without all the add-ons, is larger than most of us have been taught?

When it comes to genital anatomy, if it doesn't have a reproductive function, our culture's science has been slow to study it. The fact is, we still don't know a lot. In a better world, scientists would be scrambling to understand every tiny element of human sexual response (and maybe they will, now that Viagra's success has made Mr. Science hear nothing but ka-ching!!). Calling women's engorgeable, sexually sensitive tissue all "clitoris" is a cute consciousness-raising act, but what we really need is more insight into differences in sexual response, the ways our biological makeup (development, endocrinology, the works) individuates us, the things that get in the way of full erotic response. We can take female sexual response seriously with or without the Revisionist Clit.

Hooray for Carol! Carol Queen was one of the 5 Grand Marshalls in San Francisco's Gay/Lesbian/Bi/Transexual Parade. Days before, the city proclaimed "Carol Queen Day" for our favorite author/editor/activist/sex-educator.