The Clitoris: Why Earp Doesn’t Hit the Spot
What’s more fitting than to destroy an old word, a vicious and corrupt word that has done much harm in its day and is now obsolete? The word ‘feminist’ is the word indicated.
– Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas
Brian Earp has just put up a really nice clip on YouTube (‘What is (Your) Gender?), which is his attempt to offer solutions for how progress might be made in the #genderwars on the left.
I like Brian, and I like his video. I like Brian and his video despite disagreeing with, and even being a little bit offended by, Brian's defence of conversion therapy for same-sex attracted persons under some circumstances (I prefer Aas and Delmas on this issue). I also appreciate his attempt to try, through this clip, to take some the heat out of a debate which has become extremely toxic for multiple disadvantaged groups (and multiply disadvantaged persons) in academic #philosophy.
In general i like the approach to the problem that Brian sketches in this clip and what he's trying to do. I take him to be attempting to move away from the tendency for both sides in the debate to be all encompassing and rather context independent. There are a few things, however, that I don't think Brian has got quite right, or that I think he's a little too optimistic about. This is the first of a series of posts on each of those things.
Let’s start with the clitoris.
When Brian talks about genitals, he claims that we all have what he calls a ‘cliteropenis’. This is the first time I've heard this word used for all genitalia, rather than genitalia that is not determinatively a clitoris or a penis, as with some differences in sexual development/intersex variations that influence a person's genitalia.
Brian states that the length of this organ (the clitoropenis), differs and clusters into two main groups:
“If you have a long version of this organ we call it, by convention, a 'penis', and if you have a short version we call it, by convention, a 'clitoris'”
I think what Brian means to refer to here is how long or short the external or visible part of the organ is, because the clitoris and the penis are actually approximately the same size on average; it’s just that most of the clitoris is not visible, like an iceberg. So any measurement would have to be in relation to the external part of the organ only, if this variable was to be in any sense
a meaningful contribution to the upshot of Brian’s account, which is that we can all position ourselves in some sort of 'multi-dimensional gender space'.
But I see three important problems with Earp's proposal.
Encouraging us to think of this organ as essentially the same organ rather than >2 different organs threatens a return to our predominately-penised past.
Genitals have important differences and those differences are not random or arbitrary or inconsequential. Our knowledge or lack of knowledge about these differences can lead to inequalities in health outcomes and sexual satisfaction, among other things. Those with penises have fared better so far vis-a-vis those with clitorises, given the enormous ratio of research done on penises vis-a-vis clitorises; we should avoid similar problems in the future by making sure we do not inappropriately conflate and/or centre clitorises and penises at the expense of people who have genitals that are not determinatively either organ.
Using size as a variable and plotting this feature on a two-dimensional spectrum has problematic consequences. It has the upshot of marking those with longer penises to be more male and/or masculine (and male persons with shorter penises to be more feminine/woman-ish/female-like than males with longer penises), and those with shorter clitorises to be more female and/or feminine (and female persons with longer clitorises to be more masculine/men-ish/male-like than females with longer penises). This only serves to further entrench already present social anxieties.
I'll expand on these points roughly in turn below.
A clitoris is not a 'little penis'
It's true that our genitals, no matter which ones we end up with, all evolve from the same embryonic structure, the genital tubercle. Structures that share an evolutionary or developmental ancestry in this way are called 'homologues' by biologists. It's also true that there is broad agreement among scientists that there are no systematic differences between the genital tubercles of those embryos that will eventually come to have a penis, and those that will eventually come to have a clitoris or another sex organ, until about the 9-10 week mark. At this point, what was the genital tubercle undergoes differentiation in response to the presence or absence of androgens, and development of this organ generally diverges along one of two key and very different pathways (but in rare cases diverges down others).
What's not clear, is why after all of these chemical reactions and changes, we have good reasons to think that what we still have at the end of that process is essentially the same organ as we started with?
I don't think we do.
I think we have material and moral reasons to recognise >2 distinct sex organs, and to use distinct language for these organs. Words matter. They shape and mould our ideas and beliefs, and others' ideas and beliefs, about our bodies. And that itself matters, as the history of medicine with respect to the clitoris shows, and why feminists, for the longest time now, have admonished researchers that a clitoris is not a ‘little penis’.
Now Brian might reply at this point that he's not saying a clitoris is a little penis; he's saying that a clitoris is a little cliteropenis and that a penis is a big cliteropenis. But does this attempt at a sort of neutrality work, or does it have, or will it likely have, pernicious unintended consequences?
Notice that Brian chose to call it a 'cliteropenis' and not a 'clitoris-penis', 'penis-clitoris' or 'penoclitoris', etc. Cliteropenis still makes it sound, to my mind, like the clitoris is a type of penis – a clitero one. The structure of this word continues to centre the penis and view female and other bodies through the male lens; it will not, in most people's minds, lead them to thinking of the clitoris and penis as just 'the same', which seems to be Brian's hope.
But it shouldn't be our hope because the history of medicine shows us that humans have conflated the penis and the clitoris (and other sex organs) in the past and this conflation resulted in unjust and undesirable consequences for subordinately situated persons (in the examples I provide from history below, persons with clitorises). We should avoid moves that do the same. We should not think that penises, clitorises, and the sex organs persons with variations that influence the anatomy of their genitalia, are 'the same'.
The long history of penis-izing clitorises
Since its first historic mention, the clitoris has almost always been spoken about with reference to the penis, and often as if it doesn't exhibit any significant difference to it.
Claudius Galen, a doctor in the Roman Empire between 130-200 AD stated that:
“...all the parts, then, that men have, women have too, the difference between them lying in only one thing, namely, that in women the parts are within, whereas in men they are outside.”
Similarly, in 1844, German anatomist George Ludwig Kobelt conducted a study of the clitoris with the aim of demonstrating that “the female possesses a structure that in all its separate parts is entirely analogous to the male” (my emphasis).
Even today, the U.S. National Library of Medicine defines the clitoris as homologous with the penis, but it does not define the penis as homologous with the clitoris.
This perpetuates the powerful myth that the existence of female and body parts, and the body parts of persons of sexes other than male more broadly, depend on the validation provided by the existence, understanding, and recognition of male body parts.
Conceptualizing the clitoris as being essentially 'no different' to the penis discouraged society from obtaining a greater understanding of it. Studies of historical anatomical textbooks have shown that depictions of the clitoris were significantly limited and often omitted completely. In 1947 it was even erased from the 25th edition of Gray’s Anatomy by its editor at the time, Dr. Charles Mayo Goss. In 1981 the Federation of Feminist Women's Health Clinics created more anatomically accurate images of the clitoris and published them in A New View of a Woman’s Body. But it wasn't until 1998 that the external and internal anatomy of the clitoris was mapped by Australian urologist Helen O’Connell, demonstrating its immense size and innervation, and challenging nearly every belief about clitoral anatomy to date.
O’Connell was partly motivated to study the clitoris when she noticed that when male persons undergo procedures like prostate surgery, they're hooked up to a myriad of machines and devices designed to keep surgeons far away from the nerve endings of male sexual anatomy. She wondered why there was no equivalent to help protect the female sexual anatomy during surgery? Without these precautions, how could doctors know they weren’t cutting into clitoral nerves during routine procedures like hysterectomies?
The article about O'Connell linked to above underscores that ignorance about the clitoris persists today, including amongst medics, researchers and sex educators. As the University of Western Sydney clinician and physiotherapy researcher Jane Chalmers explains, the subject of the clitoris is still avoided or ignored. “Several major medical textbooks omit the clitoris, or label it on diagrams but have no description of it as an organ,” she says. “This is in great contrast to the penis that is always covered in-depth in these texts.” Considering the fact that clitoral pain (as well as infections, inflammation, and disease) are quite common, Chalmers contends that better understanding of the clitoris is essential. She adds that as the clitoris is closely tied to the sexual pleasure of those who possess them, the lack of knowledge about the clitoris amplifies sexual inequalities between those with penises and those with clitorises and other sex organs.
Progress may not even have stalled so much as worsened. In a 2014 article in PLoS One Biology titled Genital Evolution: Why Are Females Still Understudied?, gender studies scholar and evolutionary biologist Malin Ah-King and colleagues conducted an analysis of the literature which showed that research exploring genitalia exhibited a “strong male bias” which has “worsened since 2000, despite the fact that this bias has been explicitly pointed out in the past.” Whilst researchers often protest that this is simply because male genitalia is larger and therefore more ’accessible’, Ah-King et al. argue that the persisting male bias in these studies cannot be explained solely by anatomical sex differences that influence accessibility. Rather, they argue that the bias reflects “enduring assumptions about the dominant role of males in sex, and invariant female genitalia.” A 2005 article in the Journal of Urology by O'Connor and colleagues concurs: “The anatomy of the clitoris has not been stable with time as would be expected. To a major extent its study has been dominated by social factors.”
Some of the worst effects of the analogizing of clitorises with penises and not treating them as separate organs has been that the clitoris came not to be seen as simply 'the same' as the penis, but an inferior version of it. The male body and organs came to be viewed as the ultimate ideal, and female bodies and organs simply fell short of this perfection. This encouraged contempt of, rather than indifference to, the clitoris. When the first dissection of a clitoris was conducted in 1545, Charles Estienne called the clitoris women's “shameful member.”
Freud viewed the clitoris as a such a pitiful version the penis that he came up with the idea that the:
“Elimination of clitoral sexuality is a necessary precondition for the development of femininity...since it is immature and masculine in its nature.”
He urged women to undergo a transition in their sexuality from their clitoris, to their vagina:
“With the change to femininity the clitoris should wholly or in part hand over its sensitivity, and at the same time its importance, to the vagina”
Freud's false beliefs (of both descriptive and evaluative kinds) and his normative advice, was almost universally adopted for decades by health practitioners, researchers and sex educators. And female persons today are still robbed of orgasms by cultures of sex and sexuality that neglect the clitoris, and over-emphasize the vagina (thanks to philosophers like Elizabeth Lloyd, artists and progressive sex educators, there has been huge progress in much scholarly and popular culture, at least, in breaking that misconception down).
But to be fair, and also to illustrate how patriarchy works, it hasn't just been men who focus on the penis and who continue to make these analogies: in 1671 English midwife Jane Sharpe called the clitoris “the female penis.” Even as recently as 2014 a father-daughter pair of academics published a paper on the existence of the “female penis” in a special edition of the journal Clinical Anatomy. The paper argued that today’s sexologists are using the wrong terminology; the paper suggested, instead, new terminology that re-centered the terms of the discussion around existing male nomenclature. The researchers argue that most of the female sexual arousal area, instead of being referred to as the internal or external clitoris and attendant glands, should be called the female penis because the clitoris and the penis develop from the same undifferentiated cells in a blastocyst. Similarly, a female doctor on Twitter once corrected Earp that the 'ambiguous' genitalia of some persons with intersex variations was not actually rightly called a cliteropenis; rather, the correct medically terminology to use is 'phallus', she said.
In conclusion to this section, just because some structures are homologues does not mean that they are indistinguishable or that we should call them the same thing. The bones of humans, bats and birds in these species forearms and wings are also homologous because they share a common ancestry. But we recognise all sorts of differences and we don't say that wings are 'really arms' or that bats have 'wing-arms'. We also recognise that the bones of humans and birds, although homologues, are very different materially in all sorts of ways, e.g. that birds have less dense bones which aids flying. So too with the penis and clitoris, the most obvious being that the urethra does not run through the clitoris, and so it has not role in urination or the through-pass of gametes.
We need to de-penis-ize our language. Doing so will be better for female persons, as well as intersex and trans persons.
A big clitoris is not a 'less female' clitoris
Another unintended consequence of Earp's proposal to measure the size of our sex organs and then to plot this measurement on a scale that would then be used to position people in multidimensional gendered-space, is that the prospect that the size of our genitals vis-a-vis others' genitals should have anything to do with our 'sex' or our 'genders' should make us all pretty uncomfortable.
Say we take the following measurements of the external parts of people's sex organs:
1/ Marsha: 0.5cm
2/ Jan: 1.5cm
3/ Bobby: 8cm
4/ Greg: 12cm
This implies that (for this feature):
1. Marsha's is the most female.
2. Marsha's is more 'female' and 'feminine' than Jan's.
3. Jan's is also more 'masculine' than Marsha's.
4. Greg's is the most male.
5. His is more 'male' and more 'masculine' than Bobby's.
6. Bobby's is more 'feminine' than Greg's.
But if two people are in fact female, it's problematic and pernicious to say that one is more female than the other female person, ceteris parabis, because her genitals are smaller.
For similar reasons, it's problematic to even say that Marsha's genitals are more 'feminine' than Jan's. Labiaplasty, which aims to reduce the size of the labia minora (the 'inner lips' of the vulva), is the fastest growing cosmetic surgery in the world. Women are often motivated to go under the knife by their anxieties that their vulvas are 'too big'. Earp's proposal seems to play into that for both women (and for men – that their penises are too small).
Conceiving of genitals as being more or less male or female, and/or masculine or feminine, and the idea that this variable can and should be placed on a sex and/or gender spectrum, likely affects trans, non-binary and intersex persons too. Say a trans woman finds herself in a place in Earp's multi-dimensional gendered space that is still socially perceived as too masculine for her liking: her voice is deep, she likes to still shop in the men's department for clothes, she detests make up, and likes her hair short. Earp's account suggests that she could become more 'female' and/or 'feminine' in gendered space if she reduces the length of her genitals...and severely reduced their length at that.
These implications, I hope you agree, are undesirable. And I can't see any way for Earp to escape these consequences. It seems to me that the size of genitals (at the very least), if not genitals altogether, need to be given up as contributing to his multi-dimensional 'gendered space'.
When Virgina Woolf wrote “What’s more fitting than to destroy an old word, a vicious and corrupt word that has done much harm in its day and is now obsolete? The word ‘feminist’ is the word indicated”, she was writing in the context of a letter sent to an imaginary male recipient. Her comments were intended as an ironic quip on patriarchy's simplification of the term. She concludes with a faux naif suggestion that destroying the words 'tyrant' and 'dictator' would be a good idea too.
The suggestion that we can and we should make progress in this debate by simplifying, conflating and replacing words that have been important to the liberation of a social group, and that continue to be important to that group's liberation, is a naive and dangerous one. What we should do instead is learn from the history of the clitoris, and ensure we don't merely visit the same injustice upon persons with genitals that are neither penises or clitorises.
 The existence of Brian's defence of a position that many same-sex attracted persons find unacceptable, but the absence (to my knowledge) of any bad blood between Brian and same-sex attracted persons, is itself interesting to think about.
Tags: #clitoris #genitals #penis #cliteropenis #gender #sex #intersex #transgender #history #genderwars #philosophygenderwars #feminism