6 Amazing Facts About the Clitoris

This tiny organ has 8,000 nerve endings dedicated solely to pleasure. And that’s not all.

Medically reviewed in November 2021

Updated on December 1, 2021

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When we talk about female anatomy, it seems like the vagina gets most of the attention. It can be easy to overlook the hub of most sexual pleasure: the clitoris.

The clitoris is a complex structure comprising erectile tissue, blood vessels, and nerves. It sits just above and on each side of the vaginal opening. Although up to 90 percent of the organ lies beneath the skin, the visible part of the clitoris is often described as a small button, likened in appearance to the eraser at the end of a pencil. Despite its modest external profile, the clitoris is a fascinating organ.

We spoke to Elizabeth Newell, MD, an OBGYN in Spokane, Washington, to learn about the anatomy of the clitoris and its role in sexuality.

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It has no purpose besides pleasure

Most of our organs have a function that serves our physical survival. The heart pumps blood to the body. The lungs deliver oxygen. Even the penis has a job, to expel urine and aid in reproduction. 

The only organ with no purpose—aside from pleasure—is the clitoris. Perhaps that’s why it largely disappeared from medical literature in the 1900s and again in the 1940s. In fact, illustrations of the female reproductive system in the 25th edition of Gray’s Anatomy, published in 1948, left out the clitoris entirely.

Luckily, the organ made a comeback. In 1953, Alfred Kinsey, an American biologist and the founder of the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University, called it "the center of female pleasure." It’s hard to estimate the role that Kinsey’s proclamation played in broad understanding of the clitoris, but not long after, the organ was written back into medical literature.

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It has more nerve endings than the penis

The penis contains a prodigious quantity of nerve endings, numbering in the thousands. But the clitoris boasts even more, somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000.

Nerve endings are sensors responsible for sending messages to the brain. They're found all over the body, and in greater concentrations in sensitive places like the feet, hands, and genitalia. Your nerve endings can help keep you out of danger, alerting your brain when you brush against something hot, cold, or sharp.

These tiny structures can also transmit pleasure signals, and the more nerve endings, the more powerful the message. That means the clitoris, with its many sensors, can send some serious pleasure cues.

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It’s responsible for most orgasms

If you struggle to climax from vaginal stimulation alone, you’re not alone. Regardless of a partner’s size, shape, or performance, only about 25 percent of women can successfully achieve an orgasm this way. A majority of women require clitoral stimulation to reach climax.

“To orgasm, some people have to specifically focus on the clitoris with manual stimulation,” says Dr. Newell. “Other people can orgasm through friction against the clitoris during vaginal intercourse.” If someone’s clitoris is located closer to the vaginal opening, they may be more likely to achieve orgasm during sex.

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It's much bigger than you think

“Although we see only a very small part of it, it's actually a decent-sized organ,” says Newell. How big is the clitoris exactly? The visible portion, called the glans, measures anywhere from 3/4 of an inch to 1 inch in length. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Symmetrical portions of the clitoris—called the crura and bulbs—extend more than 3 inches along both sides of the inner labia and the front wall of the lower part of the vagina. The shaft, which connects the glans to the bulbs, may stretch as long as 5 inches inside the body. Stimulating any part of the clitoral tissue—not only the glans, but also the parts that are under the skin—can contribute to arousal and orgasm.

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It can become erect

Much like the penis, the clitoris can become erect. During sexual arousal, the blood vessels dilate, sending more blood to the area, which causes it to swell. “When the size of the clitoris increases or expands, it’s what we call vasocongestion,” says Newell.

When aroused, a clitoris, particularly the bulbs, can double in size. Following orgasm, swelling typically subsides within about 10 minutes. If a clitoris becomes engorged but you don’t reach a climax, the erection can last for several hours. Some people find this uncomfortable; others may not.

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It’s Not One Size or Shape

Anatomy comes in all shapes and sizes, so even if your clitoris looks a little different from drawings you may remember from high school health class, yours is probably normal.

“Most people have a clitoral hood covering the glans of the clitoris. In some people it's more prominent, and for others, it's a bit more hidden,” says Newell. For those with a larger covering, it may take a little more work to find the clitoris. Occasionally, a person may opt for surgery to reduce the size of the hood and increase pleasure.

Regardless of the precise size or shape of your clitoris—or the response you get from stimulation—it is important to get comfortable with your body and figure out what works best for you.


Rachel E. Gross. The Clitoris, Uncovered: An Intimate History. Scientific American. March 4, 2020.
Wallen K, Lloyd EA. Female sexual arousal: genital anatomy and orgasm in intercourse. Horm Behav. 2011;59(5):780-792.
Verkauf BS, Von Thron J, O’Brien WF. Clitoral size in normal women. Obstet Gynecol. 1992;80(1):41-44.
O’Connell HE, Sanjeevan KV, Hutson JM. Anatomy of the clitoris. J Urol. 2005;174(4 Pt 1):1189-1195.

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