What Is a Clitoris?

Part of the female genitalia responsible for pleasure

The clitoris is a part of the genitals found in people assigned female at birth. It plays a key role in sexual stimulation and pleasure. Most of the clitoris is inside the body and not visible to the eye, but it has a small nub that you can see. This is called the glans clitoris.

The clitoris develops from the same structures in the human embryo as the penis does. The two actually have many similar properties. The clitoris is highly sensitive during arousal and stimulation.

This article discusses the clitoris, its location, structure, and function. It also explains some health issues that can affect the clitoris.

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Where Is the Clitoris Located?

The vulva is the umbrella term for all external female genital organs. The vagina is an internal organ.

The parts of the vulva are located around the vagina. These organs include:

  • The labia majora, the larger/outer lips
  • The labia minora, the smaller/inner lips
  • The clitoris
  • The vestibule of the vagina, the area that surrounds the vagina
  • The bulb of the vestibule found on either side of the vagina
  • The glands of Bartholin, which secrete mucus to lubricate the vagina

The clitoris is located at the point where the labia majora meet near the pubic bone.

The clitoris is attached to the labia and structures called the pubic symphysis and the mons pubis (a pad of fatty tissue) by ligaments. They keep the clitoris in its bent position.

In gender-affirming surgery to construct a penis, these ligaments are released to allow the clitoris to straighten and increase in length.

Structure and Anatomy

The parts of the clitoris you can see include:

  • Glans clitoris: This small part of the clitoris is located at the top of the vulva. It's packed with nerves and highly sensitive to stimulation.
  • Clitoral hood (prepuce): This fold of skin covers the glans clitoris. It is technically a part of the labia minora, but is sometimes included in the clitoral anatomy.

The internal parts of the clitoris wrap around the urethra (the tube that allows urine to exit your body) and extend to the top of the vagina. These internal parts include:

  • Body (corpora): The body of the clitoris is relatively short. It is made up of two paired cylinders of erectile tissue called corpora.
  • Crura: The corpora each branch into long crura. The crura reach about 5 to 9 centimeters (cm) into the pelvis. They are made up of erectile tissue and surround the urethra and vaginal canal.
  • Bulbs: The bulbs of the clitoris also are made up of erectile tissue. They are found between the crura and next to the surface of the vaginal wall, along the line of the labia minora. The bulbs 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. The back portion of the clitoral root is near the opening of the urethra.

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

Clitoral function also relies on the following nerves:

These nerves supply the structures of the vagina. This may be part of why stimulating the clitoris leads to sexual arousal.

Anatomical Variations

There are differences in how the genitals develop in some people. These are called intersex conditions.

Some of these involve changes to the clitoris and how it looks at birth. Congenital adrenal hyperplasia, for example, may lead to a larger clitoris that looks more like a penis.

Surgeons have "corrected" these differences in the past. Many now recommend postponing surgery until a person is old enough to decide for themselves. The exception is when these anatomical differences make urination difficult or impossible. That is a problem that needs to be corrected surgically for medical reasons.

Role of the Clitoris in Sexual Pleasure

The primary function of the clitoris is sexual arousal and pleasure during sex.

There is still some debate about the role of clitoral anatomy in sexual function and orgasm. The specific pathways for how the clitoris affects arousal and orgasm are not entirely understood.

In some people, the clitoris becomes slightly enlarged during sexual activity. When this happens, it becomes even more sensitive.

Stimulation of the clitoris may also directly affect blood flow to the other genital organs, including the vaginal walls. This and other changes prepare the vagina for penetrative sex. It also makes the internal environment more conducive to the fertilization of an egg by sperm.

Many people need to have the clitoris stimulated to achieve or enhance an orgasm.

Conditions Affecting the Clitoris

Like most organs, there are health conditions that can affect the clitoris. Some are very mild and easy to treat. Others are more serious.

Some of the most common symptoms of these conditions include:

  • Soreness from sexual stimulation
  • Itching caused by soaps, cleansers, or lotions
  • Pain from injury or infection
  • Pain or itching from vulvar cancer
  • Pain from long-term engorgement

Most conditions affecting the clitoris, including yeast infections or sexually transmitted diseases, can be treated. Depending on the cause, a healthcare provider may suggest antibiotics or creams soothe irritation.

There are a few conditions that can directly affect the structure or health of the clitoris as well.

Clitoromegaly

This is the name for a larger-than-typical clitoris.

It may not need to be treated in infants. However, when it arises in childhood, it is often due to neurofibromatosis, a disorder in which tumors form on nerve tissues. This can be treated surgically if needed.

Lichen Sclerosis

Lichen sclerosus is a condition characterized by patches of white, thin skin.

It can, in rare cases, cause scarring of the genitals. In severe cases, the scar tissue may affect the function of the clitoris.

Clitoral Adhesions

These can occur when the clitoral hood sticks to the glans and can no longer fully retract. Why this happens seems to vary and is not fully understood.

Risk factors appear to include:

These adhesions can be mild to severe and may lead to clitoral pain. Minimally invasive surgery may be a treatment option.

Metastatic Cancer

Though rare, cancer that spreads from another site can cause lesions on the clitoris.

Scientists have reported such spread to the clitoris in cases of breast cancer, cervical cancer, and endometrial cancer. 

Medical Tests

It's unlikely that you'll need any medical tests for issues involving the clitoris.

If there are changes in its size or shape, a biopsy may help to determine the cause. For some people at risk of a spreading cancer, imaging may be used too.

The one exception is when infants are born with clitoromegaly. Healthcare providers will often try to determine the cause of the enlarged clitoris. This may involve blood tests to check hormone levels or genetic tests to look for different potential intersex conditions.

Understanding the cause may offer insight into a child's later expression of gender identity.

Summary

The clitoris plays a central role in sexual stimulation and pleasure in people assigned female at birth. Most of the clitoris resides inside the body, though you can see a small external nub.

Health issues related to the clitoris are relatively rare and, in most cases, easily treated.

One of the more serious concerns is an enlarged clitoris at birth that may point to an intersex condition. Or, if the clitoris becomes enlarged later in children, it may be a sign of a genetic nervous system disorder called neurofibromatosis. This condition causes tumors and requires treatment. Contact your healthcare provider if you have concerns about how the clitoris looks or feels.

A Word From Verywell

There is still much to learn about the erectile tissue of the clitoris and how its role connects with that of other structures of the pelvis.

Each person has their own level of sensitivity and preferences when it comes to stimulating the glans clitoris. It's best to try varying levels of pressure and techniques to find what works best for you.

Correction - September 13, 2022: The article was updated to clarify the role of the clitoris in reproduction.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is an internal clitoris?

    The internal clitoris describes the portions of the organ located inside the body. These 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). It is covered by a retractable 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 9 cm (4 inches). The external glans is about 2.5 cm (about 3/4 inch to 1 inch) and has a similar diameter.

  • What is female circumcision?

    Female circumcision is the removal of the clitoris to prevent a woman from feeling sexual pleasure. It is traditionally practiced in some African, Middle Eastern, and Asian countries and is often done when a girl reaches puberty. It is considered a type of female genital mutilation (FGM). Though illegal in many places today, it still continues in some countries.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Mazloomdoost D, Pauls RN. A comprehensive review of the clitoris and its role in female sexual function. Sex Med Rev. 2015;3(4):245-263. doi: 10.1002/smrj.61

  3. Pauls RN. Anatomy of the clitoris and the female sexual response. Clin Anat. 2015;28(3):376-84. doi:10.1002/ca.22524

  4. Parada M, D'Amours T, Amsel R, Pink L, Gordon A, Binik YM. Clitorodynia: a descriptive study of clitoral pain. J Sex Med. 2015;12(8):1772-80. doi:doi.org/10.1111/jsm.12934 

  5. Yesodharan D, Sudarsanan B, Jojo A, et al. Plexiform neurofibroma of clitorisJ Pediatr Genet. 2017;6(4):244-246. doi:10.1055/s-0037-1602789

  6. Aerts L, Rubin RS, Randazzo M, Goldstein SW, Goldstein I. Retrospective study of the prevalence and risk factors of clitoral adhesions: women’s health providers should routinely examine the glans clitorisSexual Medicine. 2018;6(2):115-122. doi:10.1016/j.esxm.2018.01.003

  7. Julien V, Labadie M, Gauthier G, Ronger-savle S. Clitoral metastasis from ductal breast cancer revealing metastases in multiple sites and review of the literatureJ Low Genit Tract Dis. 2012;16(1):66-9. doi:10.1097/LGT.0b013e3182293a2f

  8. Filho AC, Garbeloto E, Santiago KC de SD, da Motta LL. Endometrial carcinoma metastatic to the clitoris: A case reportGynecologic Oncology Case Reports. 2014;8:1-3. doi:10.1016/j.gynor.2013.12.002

  9. World Health Organization. Female genital mutilation.

Additional Reading

By Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FN
Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FNP-C, is a board-certified family nurse practitioner. She has experience in primary care and hospital medicine.