Why Doesn’t Anyone Talk About Clitoral Erections?
Women get boners too. Yes, I said it. Men don’t have a monopoly on erections.
Most men — and even some women — are unaware, but thanks to an often-neglected thing called the clitoris, women (and others with clitorises, such as trans men and some AFAB non-binary folks) get erections when they’re aroused.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been hearing about men’s boners nearly every day of my life. About erectile dysfunction. About treatments for erectile dysfunction, like Viagra. About morning wood. About unwanted or inappropriate erections. About pleasurable erections. About erections being revealed to unsuspecting women as a form of sexual harassment. It never ends.
I’m glad that people feel comfortable talking about all that openly, but where’s the balance? How often do we hear about clitoral erections?
Since our culture is oriented around the male gaze, male desire takes center stage. Meanwhile, female desire has become nothing more than an afterthought. And sadly, because of our socialization, tons of women (like myself until recently) are not attuned enough to our own arousal to be aware of this fundamental aspect of our sexuality.
Accordingly, men have claimed erections as their territory. A close male friend once told me, “men will never understand what it’s like to get a period. And women will never understand what it’s like to get an erection.”
But let’s set the record straight — women do understand what it’s like, because we literally do get erections.
So what is a clitoral erection?
The process behind clitoral erections is relatively similar to penile erections, the ones we constantly hear about.
Just like the penis, the clitoris is filled with erectile tissue that hardens during arousal and relaxes after an orgasm. It also hardens frequently during sleep, resulting in a female equivalent of “morning wood.”
Since most of the clitoris is internal (it’s about four inches long on average), most of the erection is not visible. But there are some obvious external signs:
- The outside tip of the clitoris swells, becoming visibly larger. The entire clitoris expands in size by about three times.
- The vaginal lips also swell and appear larger.
- Often, the clitoral hood will retract, making the tip of the clitoris (called the glans) more prominent.
- The vagina often becomes more lubricated.
These signs are very physically apparent if you’re actually looking for them. So why is it that the only one of these that people typically talk about is vaginal lubrication?
Well, it’s no coincidence — it’s because that’s the one that’s most relevant to the penis.
Lubrication services a man’s pleasure by easing the penis’s access to the vagina. If a man is strictly interested in inserting his penis regardless of the woman’s arousal, he doesn’t need to care whether her clitoris is erect. What he does need to know is that she’s wet, because that means he can enter without friction or resistance, ensuring optimal pleasure for him.
How the clitoris has been neglected by science and society
Since the clitoris is considered irrelevant to penis-centered penetrative sex or reproduction, our patriarchal society sees it as superfluous and not worth talking about.
Rather than being concerned with women’s pleasure as an end in itself, our common knowledge of women’s genitalia is oriented around the penis.
Women’s desire is such a non-issue in our culture that even scientists are highly biased in this respect. Even Sigmund Freud once asserted that stimulating the clitoris was a “sign of sexual immaturity and neurosis” in women. And to this day, substantially more research is devoted to studying male arousal compared to female arousal.
As sexologist and sex educator Better Dodson has aptly said,
We’ll talk about the penis until we’re blue in the face, but when it comes to the clitoris — which is our phallus, our penis — all of the sudden, it’s a blackout.
One large study that examined a database of psychological research spanning from 1887 to 2000 found a huge disparity in the abundance of research regarding the penis compared to the clitoris: While 1,482 sources concerned the penis, only 409 concerned the vagina, and a paltry 83 concerned the clitoris.
In their brilliant article “Kept Under the Hood: Neglect of the Clitoris in Common Vernacular,” authors Shirley Ogletree and Harvey Ginsburg provide evidence that penis primacy is ingrained in us from a very young age, by our parents and our early education.
They argue that because the sole purpose of the clitoris is sexual pleasure, parents believe there’s no legitimate reason to teach their kids that it even exists. And similarly, schools don’t teach about it.
A 1998 study of students in a human sexuality class found that while 57% of students had ever heard their mother mention the penis, only a pitiful 1% had ever heard their mother mention the clitoris.
Why the clitoris has been overshadowed by the vagina
Instead, children are wrongly taught that the vagina is the female counterpart to the penis. This doesn’t make any sense, given that the clitoris is homologous to the penis — before sex differentiation occurs in fetuses, the penis and clitoris are literally the same organ.
But the vagina is considered more important because it’s what the penis is inserted into, and therefore the most important female sex organ from men’s perspective.
This misguided focus on the vagina subtly teaches young girls that they are merely a vessel for reproduction and male pleasure.
And because of this misinformation, even most adult women wrongly believe that the vagina is the most sexually sensitive part of a woman’s body. But this is far from the truth — the head of the clitoris is far more sexually sensitive than the vagina. In fact, the clitoris is even twice as sensitive as the penis, with over 8,000 nerve endings concentrated in a very small area (about half an inch in diameter), compared to the penis’s ~4,000 nerve endings.
Some research has found that at least 75% of women can’t reach orgasm with vaginal stimulation alone — they need clitoral stimulation. So it’s not surprising that these myths set women up for sexual dissatisfaction and negative experiences with sex overall.
According to Ogletree and Ginsburg,
A focus on vaginal, rather than clitoral, sexuality may contribute to women’s perceived dependence on men for sexual pleasure. For both men and women, believing that the vagina is the most sexually sensitive part of a woman’s body was correlated with the acceptance of sex myths.
It also sets women up for an unhealthy relationship with masturbation:
For women in the second study a significant correlation was found between positive attitudes toward masturbation and rejection of the belief that the inner portion of the vagina was the most sensitive part of a woman’s body. Inaccurate knowledge about female sexual anatomy may be related to attitudes toward and lack of experience with masturbation.
A man’s erection is the default erection
When you search for the word “erection” on Google, literally all of the top results (and the vast majority of the total results) are about penile erections. Even some dictionaries define the word “erection” as specifically pertaining to the penis, even though this is inaccurate. This perpetuates the patriarchal idea that men are the default humans.
And the top results from a Google search specifically for “clitoral erection” are pretty telling. Here are some of them:
“Clitoral Erections Are REAL”
“Can Girls Get Boners?”
“Does the Clitoris Get Erect?”
These results all convey doubt, suggesting that even the existence of clitoral erections is still a matter of debate.
This is in stark contrast to the results from searching “penile erection.” Many of these results give advice about “how to achieve get harder erections.” Not surprisingly, there are no results declaring that “Boners are real,” or asking questions like “Do men get boners?” or “Does the penis get erect?”
Even on Google Scholar, there is a huge disparity in favor of penises. A search for “penile erection” brings up about 71,000 results, whereas “clitoral erection” yields just 17,000.
As Ogletree and Ginsburg eloquently write at the end of their article,
Our data strongly support the view that the clitoris is kept ‘under the hood,’ a part of the body frequently not named or mentioned. Because the clitoris has no reproductive function, it can be easily neglected in a society that teaches women to be sexy by not sexual.
If we truly wish to liberate women from these oppressive limits, we’ll have to bring the clitoris out from obscurity, and it will have to become as central to our discussions about sex as the penis is. This will require changes in everyday conversations just as much as sex education.
So let’s start talking about clitoral erections as much as we talk about penile ones. Hopefully then, women will finally be recognized as sexual subjects rather than sexual objects.