Only have a minute to read this newsletter? Here it is in brief:
- 🏅 The mascots of the Paris Olympic Games are supposed to be hats…
- 🩺 But they also resemble a much-neglected piece of human anatomy.
- 🧐 We asked feminist activists why the clitoris has been ignored for so long – and why that’s changing.
Read on for more. And if you want to stay up-to-date on feminism worldwide, follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
Your clitoris is political
By Megan Clement
On International Women’s Day in 2021, a small group of feminist activists assembled at the Place du Trocadéro in Paris and, against the looming backdrop of the Eiffel Tower, began to inflate a tangled mass of red fabric. Bit by bit, the giant inflatable began to take shape. It had two dangling bulbs at the base, flanked by what looked like a pair of spindly legs. Then, rearing up, a hooked protuberance emerged from the top. There, displayed with pride in front of one of the world’s more phallic monuments, was a giant clitoris.
A year later, not so far away from the Place du Trocadéro, the Paris 2024 Olympic Committee unveiled its mascots for the upcoming games. They were bright red, they were triangular. They sported a hooded peak. They had spindly legs and a bulbous base. They were, according to organisers, Phrygian caps – a classic French symbol of liberty worn by revolutionaries. But what many people saw when they looked at these jolly mascots dancing in front of the Eiffel Tower was a pair of anthropomorphised clitorises. Social media reacted as one would imagine.
For feminist artist Julia Pietri, who
founded Gang du Clito, the activist group responsible for the giant inflatable model of 2021, it was a breakthrough moment. Pietri has been campaigning for years for greater recognition of the organ, producing glossy posters featuring an anatomically correct clitoris and the slogan “It’s not a Bretzel” (the French spelling of pretzel).
“I remember how scary the
word ‘clitoris‘ was until recently,” she told the Impact newsletter. “In 2019 during my ‘It’s not a Bretzel’ campaign, nobody knew the anatomy of the clitoris.”
“It’s a joy to see that in 2022, the clitoris has entered pop culture.”
But the widespread mirth that erupted around the clitoral phryges belies a long history of erasure and of this much-misunderstood piece of human anatomy, a history that is steeped in misogyny and a basic lack of interest in women’s pleasure. The consequences of this “clitero-medical wastland,” as Pietri calls it, range from the heterosexual orgasm gap to botched surgery at the hands of doctors who lack the basic information required to operate safely on genitals, to the horrors of female genital mutilation, which affects at least 200 million women and girls worldwide.
The Impact newsletter spoke to a range of activists around the world who have campaigned for further study of the clitoris and greater recognition of the role it plays in human sexuality. They agreed on one thing: the clitoris is political.
For Pietri, the clitoris and the phryges have more
than shape in common – they’re also both about égalité. “It’s not about ‘sexuality’ or ‘pleasure’, but sexual health and equal treatment, access to care and information for all: a fundamental right in our constitution,” she said.
“Every part of the gynaecological anatomy is political,” said Zoe Williams of London’s Vagina Museum. “The clitoris is a battleground for recognition of sexual pleasure, as well as
being a site of violence.”
The proudly intersectional and trans-inclusive Vagina Museum was founded in 2017 to “raise awareness about gynaecological anatomy and health”. They responded to the Paris 2024 mascot announcement by labelling each part of the phryges with their physiological counterparts on the human clitoris. “They’re very anatomically correct,” Williams said.
The fact that we are even able to recognise the various parts of the clitoris is a relatively new phenomenon. It was only in 1998 that Australian urologist Helen O’Connell identified the full anatomy of the clitoris by dissecting cadavers. In 2005, she and her
colleagues published the definitive study of its composition. Still, many medical textbooks have not caught up.
In public parlance, it remains common for the clitoris to be considered only in terms of the external glans (the top of the Phrygian cap, if you will). In fact, the clitoris extends up to ten centimetres deep within the pelvis.
You may have heard the statistic that there are 8,000 nerve fibres in the clitoris. You may not have heard that this statistic came from an analysis of clitorises … that belonged to cows. Given that cows are not humans, it should come as no surprise that this number
is not correct. This year, in a conference paper that is yet to be peer-reviewed, US plastic surgeon Blair Peters studied clitoral nerve tissue from seven transmasculine patient volunteers and found there to be between 9,852 and 11,086 nerve fibres.
The lack of knowledge among medical professionals can lead to serious medical mistakes.
Pelvic surgery that does not take the clitoris into account can result in severe pain or loss of sexual pleasure. That’s why many activists are campaigning to update medical textbooks to include a full and detailed anatomy of the organ. As Pietri put it: “Is it normal for my gynaecologist not to have studied the clitoris?”
In an attempt to prevent these kinds of catastrophic errors, researchers at Kansas University recently identified a
“safe zone” of the pelvis where surgeons can operate without risking damage to the dorsal nerve of the clitoris.
Why has it taken so long to appreciate and begin to understand the clitoris? Sarah Chadwick, author of The Sweetness of Venus: A History of the Clitoris, puts it down to a distrust of women’s pleasure. “For centuries, the definition of a good woman did not include her enjoying sex – that was a sure signifier that she was a witch/a sex worker/a spy or a threat to the stability of society, depending on the century.”
Chadwick says any breakthroughs that had been made in
previous centuries have since been forgotten or ignored.
“Scientist Georg Kobelt produced detailed illustrations of the clitoris in 1844 yet it persistently gets represented as a dot on a diagram in sex ed and in anatomical books aimed at the public. It is hard not to see this persistent erasure of the clitoris as at best ignorance and at worst, intentional,” she said.
It was certainly unintentional on the part of the Paris 2024 Olympic Committee to rocket the clitoris
to international attention in this way. But that hasn’t stopped ‘cliteracy’ activists embracing the phryges.
“If this is how the clitoris gets visibility, I’m all for them,” Chadwick says. “It’s time.”
This issue of Impact was prepared by Megan Clement and Anna Pujol-Mazzini.
Impact is financed by the New Venture Fund.
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