The clitoris is a structure about the size of a pea located at the top of a woman’s vulva, above the urethral opening.
The Clitoris and Its Place within the Vulva
The vulva is a single term used to describe all of the external female genital organs. Grouped around the vagina (an internal organ), these organs include the labia majora, the labia minora, the clitoris, the vestibule of the vagina, the bulb of the vestibule, and the glands of Bartholin.
The two sets of labia (lips) form an oval shape around the vagina. The labia minora are smaller and surround the vagina. The labia majora are larger, and, after puberty, the outer portion of the labia majora are covered with pubic hair.
At the point where the labia majora meet (near the pubic bone) is the clitoris. In certain ways, the female clitoris can be compared to the male penis:
- The clitoris is extremely sensitive to being touched for sexual stimulation. It is responsible for feelings of sexual pleasure when stimulated, and, for many women, clitoral stimulation is how they are able to experience an orgasm.
- In some women, the clitoris becomes slightly enlarged (or engorged) during sexual activity, and this already sensitive tissue comes even more reactive.
Unlike the penis, however, the clitoris does not have a direct role in reproduction.
The Role of the Clitoris in Sexual Pleasure
Some women are unable to experience an orgasm from penetration alone. For those women, having the clitoris touched in a pleasurable manner may be the only way an orgasm is possible. For women who can orgasm through penetration, stimulating the clitoris may improve the strength of their orgasm.
Disorders of the Clitoris
Like most organs, the clitoris is susceptible to a variety of disorders. Some are very mild and treatable; others are more serious. The most common include:
- Soreness due to vigorous sex or masturbation
- Itch due to reactions to soaps, cleansers, lotions, etc.
- Pain due to injury to the clitoris itself or to the vulva such as yeast or thrush
- Pain or itching due to infections of the vulva or vagina
- Pain and/or itching related to vulvar cancer
- Pain or itching due to sexually transmitted diseases
- Pain related to persistent engorgement of the clitoris
Most clitoral conditions can be treated with creams or a course of antibiotics. Serious issues, such as melanomas or other cancers, may appear as a lump or bump. If you have concerns, consult your physician or Ob/Gyn. In rare cases, you may be referred to another specialist.
Female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation or FGM, removes the clitoris to prevent the woman from feeling sexual pleasure. This type of mutilation is often done as a girl reaches puberty, and is believed to reduce the chances of a woman cheating on her partner as sex is no longer as pleasurable as it would be with an intact clitoris. This practice has been outlawed in many places but still continues, typically (but not exclusively) in African countries.