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A Simple Scientific Breakdown of How the Clitoris Works

Being able to find it is one thing. Knowing how it works is another.

Women’s bodies are complicated. You may have a vague idea of how to find the clitoris is and what to do with it, but let’s face it—it’s still a bit of an enigma. Never fear: there is hope of learning to sexually please the woman in your life with the help of some technical support from scientists who study this sort of thing. Here’s the science of the clitoris:

It’s like a Penis, but Not like a Penis

Much like a penis, the clitoris forms in the womb about 8 to 13 weeks into gestation. There’s a clitoral glans, a hood, and a shaft that can become erect and secrete smegma, just like a penis. But for all the parallels between male and female sex organs, there are important distinctions as well. One notable difference between clitoris and the penis is the the clitoris plays no reproductive role at all, and really is just for fun. In fact, it’s the only organ solely dedicated to pleasure.

Most of the Clitoris Cannot Be Seen

Perhaps the clitoris gained its reputation for being hard to find because up to 80 percent of it is hidden. The clitoris has  internal roots, known as the crura, which are anywhere between 5 and 9 centimeters long and connect to the clitoral shaft, extending to the anterior vaginal wall. The crura extend so far back, in fact, that there’s preliminary evidence that these roots are responsible for the mysterious (and scientifically dubious) g-spot. These legs are composed of sponge-like erectile tissue that actually fills with blood and becomes firm during arousal, not unlike a male erection. 

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It Is Not Supposed to Look Any Certain Way

The external, visible part of the clitoris is about 1/4 inch to 1/2 inches long, on average. But they can be longer or shorter than that and, indeed, some women have recessed or hidden clitorises that cannot be seen from under the clitoral hood at all. This is not cause for concern, or indicative of that woman’s capacity for sexual pleasure. Size really doesn’t matter.

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Most Women Need It to Stimulate an Orgasm

As many as 75 percent of women report not being able to orgasm through intercourse alone, and experts suspect the clitoris has a lot to do with that—another study of more than 1,000 women found that most women need clitoral stimulation to have an orgasm. Women who report stimulating their clitoris to reach orgasm tend to have higher sex libidos and are more responsive to sexual stimuli as well. Given that the clitoris is composed of about 8,000 sensory nerve endings that send pleasure signals to the brain when stimulated, it’s surprising that anyone can orgasm without it.

There’s No Difference Between “Types” of Orgasms

Despite the distinction many people make between clitoral and vaginal orgasms, there’s really no scientific difference between orgasm types, psychophysiologist and neuroscientist Nicole Prause explains. Women who report clitoral orgasms are actually referring how their orgasm was stimulated rather than experienced. And because most of the clitoris is internal, it’s likely that women who report having vaginal orgasms are responding to clitoral stimulation, too.

“While many women report that the experience differs orgasm by orgasm, there is no physiology to support that the orgasm actually can occur in different areas like that,” Prause told Fatherly. “The entire pelvis contracts in basically the same way every time, but context certainly could make women think it is different, subjectively.”