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A lack of knowledge about the clitoris is harming half the world, experts say. (Credit: Renan Rezende, Pexels)

It’s the sexual health question that remains relatively unanswered, to the point that our shared ignorance is widely joked about: What is the clitoris?

“It’s completely ignored by pretty much everyone,” Dr. Rachel Rubin, a urologist and sexual health specialist practicing in the D.C. area, recently told The New York Times. “There is no medical community that has taken ownership in the research, in the management, in the diagnosis of vulva-related conditions.”

We do know *some* things. It’s a body part with both internal and external components containing over 8,000 nerve endings – and as such, it plays a pivotal role in the enjoyment of sex for those who possess one.

But perhaps because its function revolves largely around women’s sexual pleasure – or because we, on a societal level, feel discomfort around discussing such topics – it’s not studied or taught about in any intentional way. In fact Rubin, upon trying to recall what she learned about it during her years of medical school and training, says “if it got any mention, it would be a side note at best.”

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The results of this system-wide oversight are no laughing matter. 

For starters, lack of knowledge of the clitoral region has resulted in injury – sometimes permanent, almost always preventable – during routine procedures ranging from pelvic meshes and episiotomies to even hip surgeries, the Times reported. A 2018 study (which Rubin co-authored) also found that sexual health problems often went undiagnosed due to a widespread failure on the part of practitioners to properly examine the area.

The resulting discomfort, pain or, in some cases, loss of sexual sensation, can be devastating for patients. Take Gillian – identified only by her first name in the Times – who told the paper about a botched vulvar biopsy that subsequently robbed her of her ability to achieve an orgasm. Her arousal during intimate moments “ended into nothing … and that’s still how it is” 4 years on.

Worse still, when seeking out assistance, guidance or simply answers from specialists, Gillian says doctors wrote the problem off as everything from temporary loss of sensation due to scarring from the procedure, to a symptom of perimenopause. “This changed my whole life,” she told the Times. “The devastation from this is something you can never repair. Ever.”

And perhaps it didn’t have to be that way – but because of the knowledge gap around the clitoris, it’s hard to know. That’s why Rubin and other experts are now calling, with renewed vigor, for a concerted group effort toward better understanding the organ. More studies, more mapping – and more consensus around the idea that pleasure for all people is worthy of medical priority.

“I truly believe we are just several decades behind on the female side,” she added to the Times. “But we have to do the work. And we have to have people interested in doing the work.”

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