Vagina. Penis. Vagina. Penis. While many of us know quite a bit about the latter organ (regardless of our sex or sexuality), it turns out that not even women seem to know enough about their vaginas. It follows then that we know even less about the clitoris. Why are we in the dark? Flash back to 1980’s gym class, the place where the awkward Phys-Ed teacher was tasked with teaching us Sex-Ed. Was a word ever spoken about sexual pleasure or was it all just about sexual function and how not to get pregnant? So, what does this universal ignorance of the vagina say about the state of medicine and the personal and broader cultural relationships of women to our bodies? As the recent October 17th, 2022 New York Times article, “Half the World has a Clitoris. Why don’t doctors Study it?,” points out, this gaping hole in our bodily knowledge is not just about popular culture, but medicine too. Indeed, the medical specialists known as urologists have been – surprise, surprise – fixated on the male genitalia since the beginning of western medicine, when the clitoris was defined as nothing more than an underdeveloped penis. As urologist and sexual health specialist Dr. Rachel Rubin explained, since the “clitoris is intimately bound up in female pleasure and orgasm” it has never been high on the list of priorities of the male-dominated, medical world. Are we disturbed? Hell, yes – in large part because sexual health is fundamental to our overall health and the clitoris is absolutely and undeniably central to our sexual pleasure as women.
Turns out thousands of women have suffered reduced sexual function or its total loss – meaning they can no longer orgasm – because of botched or careless medical procedures for things like vulval biopsies in which ignorant surgeons have damaged the sensitive nerves responsible for pleasure and orgasm. These careless, poorly trained, and insensitive doctors graduated from medical schools with little to no knowledge of this part of the female anatomy. Should that even be possible? Of course not! But as it turns out the field of urology has been laser focused on the male sex organ while the average doctor’s failure to examine the vulva and clitoris means that they routinely overlook female sexual health conditions.
What this looks like is medical students being forced to learn from textbooks that have cursory descriptions of the clitoris as “poorly developed” and a “failure” and pages of descriptions devoted to the complexity of the penis. This oversight detrimentally impacts women and trans men. So, what to do? First, get to know your vagina. Yes, take your mirror, look at it, appreciate all that it does for you, figure out where everything is, and learn how to know if anything looks unhealthy. Then, question your doctor and ask them if they know how to accurately assess your vaginal and sexual health and wellbeing. If they look like a deer in the head lights, it is probably time to find another health care provider. Your life, and your sexual pleasure, could depend on it.