The Anatomy of the Clitoris

The clitoris is part of the female genitalia responsible for pleasure.

The clitoris is a genital structure of individuals assigned female at birth that plays a central role in stimulation and pleasure. Most of the clitoris is internal and not visible to the eye, but it has a tiny external nub called the glans clitoris that is packed with nerves and is highly sensitive during arousal and stimulation. The internal portions of the clitoris include masses of erectile tissue, making it an erectile organ.

The anatomy of the clitoris is often described inadequately, and inaccurately, by many textbooks. The deep structures of the organ have historically been overlooked. However, there has been more attention paid to the anatomy of the clitoris as researchers have engaged in a more detailed study of female sexual function.

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What Is the Clitoris?

The clitoris is an erectile structure, and it is homologous to the penis. That means it develops from the same structures in the embryo and has many similar properties. Like the penis, the clitoris is an erectile organ, although the erectile parts of the clitoris are located internally. The clitoris has no function other than to serve as a site of erotic sensation.

Where Is the Clitoris Located?

The exterior portion of clitoris is located between the legs, inside the labia, and above the openings of the urethra and the vagina. It is covered by the clitoral hood, an extension of the labia minora.

The internal portions of the clitoris wrap around the urethra and extend to the vaginal vault (top of the vagina).

The clitoris is attached to the pubic symphysis (fibrocartilaginous joint), the mons pubis (a pad of fatty tissue on the public symphysis), and the labia by the suspensory ligaments. These ligaments keep the clitoris in its bent shape. In masculinizing genital surgery, these ligaments are released to allow the clitoris to straighten and increase in length.

Clitoris Structure and Anatomy

The clitoris is a complex structure, of which only a small portion is visible on the exterior of the body.

The external clitoris and its associated structures include:

  • Glans clitoris: The only visible part of the clitoris, this tiny external glans is located at the top of the vulva. It's packed with nerves and highly sensitive to stimulation. Unlike the rest of the clitoris, it does not contain any erectile structures.
  • Clitoral hood (prepuce): Covering the glans clitoris is a fold of skin known as the clitoral hood. Technically, the clitoral hood is not part of the clitoris, but rather a portion of the labia minora. However, some scientists include it in clitoral anatomy.

The internal structures of the clitoris are:

  • Body (corpora): The body of the clitoris is relatively short and made up of two paired corpora, which are cylinders of vascular, erectile tissue.
  • Crura: The corpora each branch into long crura, sometimes referred to as legs of the clitoris, that extend about 5 to 9 centimeters (cm) into the pelvis. These structures are made up of erectile tissue, and the crura surround the urethra and vaginal canal.
  • Bulbs: The bulbs of the clitoris are located between the crura and beside the surface of the vaginal wall, along the line of the labia minora. They are also composed of erectile tissue and can double in size during sexual arousal, going from 3 to 4 cm flaccid to about 7 cm erect.
  • Root: The root is where all of the nerves from each of the erectile bodies of the clitoris come together. Close to the surface of the body at the juncture of the crura, this area is very sensitive to stimulation. The posterior portion of the root of the clitoris is near the opening of the urethra.

Most of the erectile tissues of the clitoris are found in the body, crura, and bulbs.

The erectile function of erectile tissue is managed through blood flow, and the clitoris is well supplied with blood vessels. The body of the clitoris is covered by the tunica albuginea, which is a sheath of connective tissue.

A number of different nerves supply the clitoris. These include the dorsal nerve of the clitoris, parts of the pudendal nerve, and the cavernous nerves. Stimulation of the clitoris may assist in the process of physical arousal due to the fact that these nerves also supply the structures of the vagina.

Anatomical Variations

Certain differences in sexual differentiation, or intersex conditions, are characterized in part by changes to the structure of the clitoris. Specifically, conditions such as congenital adrenal hyperplasia may lead to the enlargement of the clitoris, to such an extent that it appears to be a penis. This may include the relocation of the urethral opening to somewhere on the clitoris.

Historically, surgeons have "corrected" such ambiguous genitalia. However, in recent years, there has been pushback from some intersex individuals and their families as well as many doctors and researchers.

Surgical alteration of the clitoris in infancy has the potential to have a lifelong, negative impact on sexual function. Therefore, many advocates recommend postponing such surgeries until such a time when a person is old enough to decide for themselves what they wish to do. The exception is in circumstances where anatomical differences may make it difficult or impossible to urinate. That is a problem that needs to be corrected surgically.

Function

The function of the clitoris is primarily to mediate sexual arousal. It serves as a locus of pleasurable sensation during sexual contact. Stimulation of the clitoris may also directly affect blood flow to the other genital organs and, therefore, both the subjective and objective elements of arousal.

There is a substantial debate about the role of clitoral anatomy in sexual function and orgasm. Research suggests that many, but not all, individuals assigned female at birth use clitoral stimulation, at least in part, to achieve orgasm. However, the specific elements of how differences in clitoral anatomy affect arousal and orgasm are not well understood. Some researchers also attribute vaginal pleasure and orgasm to the stimulation of the internal clitoris via the vaginal walls.

Conditions Affecting the Clitoris

There are a few conditions that can directly affect the structure or health of the clitoris. These conditions include:

  • Clitoromegaly is an increase in size of the clitoris. Clitoromegaly in infancy is often the result of an intersex condition, and often does not require treatment. In children, new-onset clitoromegaly is often the result of neurofibromatosis. This can be treated surgically, if needed.
  • Metastatic cancer from another site can cause lesions of the clitoris. Clitoral metastases have been reported in the literature from breast cancer, cervical cancer, and endometrial cancer. However, they are very unusual.
  • Lichen sclerosus is an autoimmune skin condition that can, in rare cases, lead to significant scarring of the genitals. In severe cases, the clitoris can become covered with scar tissue that affects its function.
  • Clitoral adhesions can occur when the clitoral hood adheres to the glans and can no longer fully retract. The adhesions can be mild to severe and lead to clitoral pain.

The causes of clitoral adhesions can vary and are not fully understood, but risk factors appear to include injuries or trauma to the genitals, yeast infections, urinary tract infections, lichen sclerosus, and hormonal imbalances. Minimally invasive surgical procedures for the adhesions are sometimes offered.

Medical Tests

It is relatively rare to need medical tests performed on the clitoris. If there are changes in the size or shape of the clitoris, a biopsy may be needed to determine what is causing them. For individuals at risk of metastatic cancer, imaging may be used as well.

The one exception is when infants are born with clitoromegaly. When an infant is born with an enlarged clitoris, doctors will often try to determine the cause of this enlargement. This may involve blood tests to check hormone levels and/or genetic tests to look for different potential intersex conditions. Understanding the cause of clitoromegaly can provide insight into an infant's likely gender identity, and affect how parents choose to raise their child.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is an internal clitoris?

    The portions of the organ located inside the body that account for most of its size and contain all of its erectile tissue.

  • How do you find the clitoris?

    The glans clitoris (external clitoris) is located above the urethral opening at the junction of the labia minor (inner labia) and is covered by a retractible clitoral hood. The rest is internal and connects to the glans.

  • How big is the clitoris?

    The length from the tip of the glans to the end of each crura is approximately 10 cm (4 inches). The external glans is about 20 to 30 cm (about 3/4 inch to 1 inch) and has a similar diameter.

A Word From Verywell

The anatomical understanding of the clitoris was historically lacking and/or misrepresented, so there is still much to learn about its erectile tissue and interconnected role with other structures of the pelvis.

In addition, each person has unique sensitivity and preferences related to stimulation of the glans clitoris, so its best to experiment with varying levels of pressure and techniques to find what works best for you.

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