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‘Fear of the Clit’: A Brief History of Medical Books Erasing Women’s Genitalia by Suzannah Weiss

We’ve come a long way since scientists asserted that the clitoris was a deformity, but the view of women as underdeveloped men and child receptacles still haunts our textbooks.

University of Cambridge researchers recently discovered a 16th-century anatomy book with one peculiar feature: a triangular cut out where the vagina would’ve appeared. It was almost too perfect—a metaphor for Western culture’s denial of female sexuality. It was more than a metaphor, in fact. The vulva has literally been erased and censored from textbooks and anatomy diagrams for centuries, and parts of it still are today.

During the first millennium AD, most of our medical knowledge came from prominent Greek physician Galen, who based his knowledge of human anatomy on dogs, pigs, and monkeys. Even once anatomists began to dissect human corpses, they were almost entirely male, according to Brandy Schillace, PhD, Research Associate at Dittrick Medical History Center. Andreas Vesalius, considered the father of anatomy for his 1543 book Fabric of the Human Body, thought the clitoris only existed in hermaphrodites. He also drew vessels between the vagina and breasts because he believed menstrual blood became milk.

While Schillace hasn’t heard of other illustrations with body parts cut out, many Renaissance era anatomy books contained “fugitive sheets” covering them. Some left out reproductive anatomy altogether, and others began with apologies in case they got into the wrong hands, says Scottie Hale Buehler, C.P.M., M.A., a PhD Candidate in UCLA’s Department of History. The decision to write these books in vernacular, not Latin, was controversial, since that meant anyone could read them.

But for a time when so much effort was made to hide women’s sex organs, their bodies were remarkably sexualized in other works. “They were made to look alive, with faces and hair-dos, jewelry, and the fresh blush of youth on color renderings,” says Schillace. Jacob Rueff’s “De conceptu et generatione hominis,” for example, features a woman with long, flowing hair and a torso peeled open, giving the viewer a peek into her reproductive system.

During the 18th century, these beautified drawings gave way to inert diagrams. Male midwives ousted women from the profession, and two prominent ones commissioned drawings of pregnant women from Dutch artist Jan Van Rymsdyk. “Both of these tables did away with the faces and living bodies,” Schillace explains. “The woman is now rendered piecemeal, just a uterus, frequently.”

Such depictions reflected a cultural perception of women as passive receptacles designed for motherhood above all else. William Smellie, one of the most influential 18th-century midwives, was the first to publish the fact that the female pelvic muscles moved during childbirth. “Because [previous anatomists] considered the woman a vessel only, they didn’t consider that the womb did work,” says Schillace. “They thought birth was the fetus moving and trying to get free while the womb was static.”

Even as depictions of female anatomy became more accurate, they often suffered from a glaring omission of one critical part: the clitoris. “Throughout history, there have been different moments in which the clitoris is ‘rediscovered,'” explains Buehler. One of the most well-documented “discoveries” occurred during the late 16th century, when doctors began recognizing the clitoris as a normal part of female anatomy rather than a pathologized one associated with hermaphrodites or lesbians.

By 1901, Gray’s Anatomy included the clitoris, yet it was absent from the 1948 edition. Such deletions occur largely due to “concerns about social hygiene and morality,” says Alicia D. Bonaparte, PhD, Professor of Sociology at Pitzer College. “There’s a fear of the clitoris because it’s truly a pleasure center.”

Buehler agrees: “The clitoris embodies many misogynistic fears about sexual pleasure: that penetration and penises may not even be necessary for orgasm.”

Nowadays, you’ll notice the clit in anatomical diagrams, but not very much of it. We rarely see, for example, that the clitoris has a hood or legs that extend inside the vagina. Aside from limiting our understanding of sexual pleasure, this lack of information can be dangerous, says Buehler. Many doctors aren’t aware, for example, that episiotomies—incisions in the perineum and lower vaginal wall sometimes made during childbirth—can damage clitoral tissue.

Ignorance about innervation in the female genital area is also a problem for surgeries like hysterectomies and C-sections, says Debby Herbenick, PhD, MPH, Associate Professor of Applied Health Science at Indiana University and Research Fellow at the Kinsey Institute. “We know so little about the clitoris that it is hard to judge all the possible effects and complications,” Buehler agrees.

The current standard depicts other parts of the vulva inaccurately, too, says Herbenick. The labia are drawn as if they’re symmetrical, when they’re typically not, and the vagina looks like a gaping hole waiting for something to be inserted, while in reality, the vaginal walls are usually touching.

Books will also sometimes describe the clitoris as a small penis, while male parts are never described in terms of female ones, Herbenick points out. Some biologists have even theorized that the clitoris evolved from the penis. Robert James King, Ph.D., a researcher at the School of Applied Psychology at University College Cork, thinks this theory is misguided, since fetuses start off with female characteristics. Plus, the clitoris is bigger than a flaccid penis, more complex, and connected to different brain regions, and the urethra doesn’t run through it.

The view of women as modified men “continues the overused trope that female bodies are unnatural or abnormal, thereby ascribing normality only on male bodies,” says Bonaparte. “It once again highlights how and why the female form continues to be perceived as profane and in some instances pathological in origin.”

We may have come a long way since scientists asserted that the clitoris was a deformity and female pelvic muscles couldn’t move, yet the view of women as underdeveloped men at best and child receptacles at worst still haunts our textbooks.