Here’s a new piece of trivia to toss out at a party sometime: The human clitoris seems to contain more than 10,000 nerve endings. Researchers this month are apparently the first to try counting the precise number of nerve fibres located in the pleasure-giving organ, using tissue samples taken from human volunteers. The findings surpass previous estimates, which were based on studying other animals.
The new research was led by scientists from Oregon Health & Science University. They obtained samples of the clitoris from seven transgender patients who were undergoing a gender-affirming surgery known as a phalloplasty (according to the authors, informed consent was obtained from the patients). The surgery uses tissue from a person’s clitoris and other parts of the body, such as the thigh or arm, along with an implant, to sculpt together a functional penis. As part of the procedure, a small amount of clitoral tissue is removed.
The team specifically studied tissue from the dorsal nerves of the clitoris. These nerves run along the sides of the vagina just under the skin in a wishbone-like pattern and lead up to the clitoral glans, the only visible part of the clitoris. They’re thought to provide the primary source of sensation for the organ. The researchers looked at one half of the dorsal nerve, magnifying it 1,000 times under a microscope, and used software to help them count the individual nerve endings, or fibres, located in it.
On average, they counted 5,140 dorsal clitoral nerve fibres among their samples. And since the clitoris, like most body parts, is symmetrical, that ought to mean that the average dorsal nerve of the clitoris contains 10,281 fibres. Because there are other relevant nerves in the clitoris, the authors note, even this count is an underestimate of how many nerve endings the organ truly has. The team’s findings were presented last week at a joint scientific conference hosted by the Sexual Medicine Society of North America and the International Society for Sexual Medicine.
The results have yet to be formally published, though the authors say that their research is undergoing the peer-review process. And the findings are ultimately based on a very small sample size, so this estimate shouldn’t be taken as a definitive number for now. But as far as the authors know, theirs is the first research to actually try answering this question by studying humans. They note that a commonly cited figure of the clitoris having 8,000 nerve endings seems to originate from a single study of cows — about 20% less than their clitoral count.
“Over half of the people in the world have a clitoris, yet it is only very recent that the clitoris is getting attention in media and medicine,” said lead author Blair Peters, an assistant professor of surgery and a plastic surgeon at OHSU’s Transgender Health Program, in an email to Gizmodo. “The history of the clitoris itself is filled with misinformation and erasure. The long touted ‘8,000 nerve fibres’ is a prime example of this. This number stood for many years based off of a line written in a book in the 1970s.”
My colleagues at Jezebel have noted that this attention gap is part of a larger societal trend to ignore the importance of female pleasure. And the authors of this research say that studying the clitoris more closely could yield many practical benefits in the future, from improving outcomes for transgender people who want to undergo gender-affirming surgery to helping cis women who have experienced problems reaching orgasm.
“To improve our understanding of clitoral sexual function and better treat clitoral and vulvar conditions, we need to take down misinformation and invest in the generation of new and accurate knowledge,” Peters said. “Specifically, this data will help inform techniques used for transmasculine people undergoing phalloplasty to best optimise sensation. It will also help improve our understanding of clitoral sexual responses. Notably, there are reports of individuals who have suffered injuries to these nerves in surgery, reflecting the lack of education about the clitoris in medical education.”
Peters points out that his team’s findings wouldn’t have been possible without the help of his transgender patients. And he argues that this research highlights the value of providing the essential medical care that they need — a timely reminder given recent efforts by the Republican Party to strip away people’s access to that care.
“It should importantly be seen that this work came from trans people and is also for trans people,” he said. “In many areas, access to gender affirming care is being threatened or taken away by politicians. Banning this care is going to affect every single one of us, transgender or cisgender. We must all do our part to advocate for and increase access to care for all marginalised people.”
Peters and his team next hope to conduct similar research on the glans, or head, of the penis, which may help scientists better compare the two organs as well as help plastic surgeons better perform procedures that construct a clitoris for transfeminine patients.
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