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» Scarleteen Boards: 2000 - 2014 (Archive) » SCARLETEEN CENTRAL » Sexual Ethics and Politics » Is the clitoris a vestigial structure?

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Author Topic: Is the clitoris a vestigial structure?
luanne
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When I was in middle school, I read that as a fetus develops, it has a small bundle of nerves that grows into either the end of the penis or the clitoris. At that point I already knew why guys had nipples- nipples form before the sex of the baby is 'activated'- and I just assumed that the clitoris was a similar deal.

Little did I know, there's a huge controversial debate centered around this question, so I'm not so sure I know the answer anymore. Scarleteen staff are the most well-versed sexperts I have access to, so I'd like to ask you what scientific evidence there is regarding both concepts of the clitoris?

Also (and this is why I'm posting in Sexual Ethics), why does this question get people so fired up?

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Heather
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Well, to suggest that it is suggests it used to have a function that it no longer has. The clitoris provides a very clear function: it is the only organ on the human body, of any gender, which clearly exists solely to provide sexual pleasure, and so far as we know, that was always been it's function.

There are also more sensory nerve endings in the whole of the clitoris (which is more than the external portions) than there are in the penis as a whole or the whole vulva.

In terms of this other concept you're talking about, that it no longer serves any purpose (which is what we mean in biology when we say "vestigial"), that's not something I've actually ever heard, though since I work in sexuality and sexual/reproductive health, that isn't surprising. So, no, I don't know of any scientific evidence it serves no purpose anymore. Want to shoot me to somewhere you saw that suggestion, and maybe I can look through it with you?

I also can't tell you why this question gets people fired up because again, I'm unfamiliar with this being a debate in the first place.

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Heather Corinna, Executive Director & Founder, Scarleteen
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Saffron Raymie
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Somebody (I can't remember who, so this may not be credible) suggested that the clitoris has more nerve endings than the penis so that it can be felt through the vagina, and that could invalidate the idea.

I think people would get fired up about this because it perpetuates the idea that XX bodied peoples' sexuality is not as important as XY bodied. Same thing with the debate about the orgasm in XX peoples' nervous systems.

As animals, we would need a pleasure motive to mate as well as those with a penis, otherwise intercourse would hurt and XX animals would run from XY an the species would end.

Many animals have a clitoris, which they also stimulate often; either to prepare for mating - stimulation of the clitoris can result in a lot of lubrication to protect the vagina. This would also stop any harm coming to the delicate cervix because the nerve endings are all close to the vaginal opening. I have wondered if this is why the glans is on the outside - for stimulation without the need to enter the delicate vaginal tissue before its ready, so protection may be a side effect of the pleasure function of the organ?

A zoologist once told me that some animals clitori also secrete pheromones, and not just mammals have them, but some reptiles like crocodiles, similarly, some birds don't have penises.

[ 01-02-2011, 12:10 PM: Message edited by: RaeRay2112 ]

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'Obtain the virgin's consent before you marry her' - Prophet Mohammad (pbuh)

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Heather
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Well, there are a lot of things to invalidate that idea.

Again, vestigial means something serves no function and is not needed; has no purpose. In other words, that it just doesn't do anything anymore (like some portions of our GI system), or doesn't benefit the person whose body it is a part of in any way, something I think we can agree most people with clitorises would strongly disagree with. [Smile]

But yes: the whole of the clitoris, internal and external is understood to have either more sensory nerve endings than the whole of the penis, or around the same amount when the penis has not been circumcised (still on the fence with that one, science-wise). As well, the clitoral glans -- the biggest external portion -- has more sensory nerve endings in a smaller space than anywhere else on the human body.

It seems to me like what's being suggested -- again, I'd really want to see what y'all are reading to know, since the only places I've ever read things like this are in very old historical materials on sex, like, over 100 years old -- is one of maybe three things, all of which make no sense:

1. That unless something genital has a reproductive function, and only that, it's useless. That's a problematic framing for a few reasons, because a) we know sex is about more than reproduction (including from an evolutionary standpoint), b) orgasm in people with uteri is understood to matter per reproduction, and c) with the advent of fertility technologies, we could safely say the penis isn't needed anymore, either. The testes, yes, and some of the penis, but not the penis as a whole.

2. That in fetal development, you either get a penis or you don't, and only a penis is an important or essential organ. I think it's easy to see that's just sexism talking, and without being informed by science.

3. That pleasure is not necessary or vital for human life, only reproduction. And yet, we know full well that that really isn't true, particularly since people who are unhappy don't tend to take care of each other very well.

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Heather Corinna, Executive Director & Founder, Scarleteen
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Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. - Margaret Mead

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Saffron Raymie
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The only place I've ever seen this debate is that (sorry to bring it up again Heather!) Elaine Morgan 'Decent of Woman' book (and she thinks we all came from the sea!) and Yahoo answers.

I always thought that, throughout evolution, for some of us it has protected the vagina by being what entices arrousal and lubrication, and of course motivates us to have sex. In a lot of animals - such as orangutans, the clitoral glans is underneath the vaginal opening - suited to the kind of intercourse and sex that the animals engage in, so that all the parts of clitoris can work together to make that XX monkey happy [Smile]

Also: has anyone ever heard of Bonobo moneys?! They are like chimps and sex is essential to their society, and the clitoris to the matriarchal alpha females...

[ 01-02-2011, 12:27 PM: Message edited by: RaeRay2112 ]

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'Obtain the virgin's consent before you marry her' - Prophet Mohammad (pbuh)

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Heather
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I had a funny feeling Yahoo Answers might be at the root of some of this, home of great piles of misinformation and half-baked thought for which no one has to be accountable. [Smile]

Don't be sorry, by the way! I'm just mystified that two of you have come here talking about this in a week, because it's just not a debate I have seen at all anywhere lately, and it certainly isn't anything being argued about in reproductive/sexual health fields or in sexology that I'm aware of.

Descent of Woman was published in 1972, and while I'd say it was certainly interesting in some ways, especially for the time, it was also understood as very problematic pretty much right away, to my understanding.

[ 01-02-2011, 12:28 PM: Message edited by: Heather ]

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Heather Corinna, Executive Director & Founder, Scarleteen
About Me Get our book!
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. - Margaret Mead

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Saffron Raymie
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sorry double post

[ 01-02-2011, 12:38 PM: Message edited by: RaeRay2112 ]

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'Obtain the virgin's consent before you marry her' - Prophet Mohammad (pbuh)

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Saffron Raymie
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I think maybe it came back because of what Elizabeth Lloyd said about the female orgasm, if that was recent - it may not have been. She said that was vestigal so Yahoo Answers must have jumped on the sexism bandwagon. All this stuff made me want to go into evolutionary anthropology to find the truth...but Scarleteen to the rescue!

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'Obtain the virgin's consent before you marry her' - Prophet Mohammad (pbuh)

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Heather
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My understanding is that Lloyd (who is fairly recent), a) doesn't actually study sex for her living or as her field and b) was also only talking about orgasm with penis-in-vagina intercourse (and talking about orgasm as if it is primarily or only about genitals, which it is very much not). It seems like the sexuality studies she referenced also were pretty old, and some of them were really dodgy (like the one which was basically studying a sample size of, literally, one).

All of which is obviously very problematic.

At the same time, she doesn't seem to be even close to suggesting the clitoris is vestigial but actually quite the opposite, instead saying (In a New York Times interview), "there was no doubt in her mind that the clitoris was an evolutionary adaptation, selected to create excitement, leading to sexual intercourse and then reproduction."

[ 01-02-2011, 12:53 PM: Message edited by: Heather ]

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Heather Corinna, Executive Director & Founder, Scarleteen
About Me Get our book!
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. - Margaret Mead

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luanne
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Sorry, but I couldn't tell you where I first got the notion from. :/ It's been a reeeally long time. Not Yahoo, but I agree there's a lot of dodgy content on there.
So cool about the orangutans! Do all animals have them, or just primates?

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Heather
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Most female mammals have clitorises, not just humans or primates. Hyenas are particularly interesting: not only do they not really have a birth canal (vagina), but their external clitorises are around seven inches long.

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Heather Corinna, Executive Director & Founder, Scarleteen
About Me Get our book!
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. - Margaret Mead

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Saffron Raymie
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Some reptiles have them as well I think.

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'Obtain the virgin's consent before you marry her' - Prophet Mohammad (pbuh)

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