New light on the essential reproductive role of the clitoris

A new study focuses on the role of the clitoris in females, showing that when it is stimulated, it triggers a wave of changes within the rest of the reproductive tract. The outcome of these changes confers on the clitoris not only recreative but also reproductive importance, according to the studies. As a result, removal of this organ is a profoundly disabling act, in terms of reproduction as well as sexual pleasure. Study author Roy Levin states, “The often repeated mantra, that the sole function of the clitoris is to induce sexual pleasure, is now obsolete. The physiological evidence is now obvious.”

The female anatomy has long been a matter to be protected and hidden, though in the modern age, the opposite trend has set in, taking it to an undesirably public level. For long, the clitoris has been thought to be a merely pleasure-related organ, leading to the mutilation of millions of girls in various cultures in an attempt to keep them chaste by removing the source of sexual pleasure.

3d printed model of female sex organ clitoris. Image Credit:  josefkubes / Shutterstock
3d printed model of female sex organ clitoris. Image Credit: josefkubes / Shutterstock

Abundant confusion, little accuracy

Levin first reported his conclusions on the reproductive importance of the clitoris in 2018. While the organ has been identified and studied in anatomical detail many centuries ago, its function has raised much controversy. It has, at various times, been claimed to help in urination, female orgasm, to be present only in hermaphrodites, to be of no use, or responsible for various female sexual behaviors, even by such great anatomists as Vesalius. Those who accepted its presence seem to have thought of it as a purely pleasure-linked organ. Among these, some believed it helped women to choose their mates – whoever provided the most pleasure won. Others say it is a vestigial organ.

To be fair to the latter category, most women do not attain orgasm during intercourse by penile stimulation of the clitoris. Moreover, orgasm in women is not linked to reproductive success. As a result, the role of the clitoris in reproduction seems to have been largely unknown.

Reproductive importance

The new study shows that while the clitoris, when appropriately stimulated, does cause the woman to experience orgasm, accompanied by a surge in various hormones, it also activates several physiological processes by the sensations that are processed in multiple areas of the brain. When many brain regions engage in one task, it normally indicates its importance. When viewed in this light, it is obvious that clitoral stimulation is an important event in the female physiology.

Vaginal changes

As a result, the woman’s heart rate and blood pressure rise, promoting blood flow through the vagina and thus providing more oxygen to the expected sperms. Vaginal discharge increases, providing abundant lubrication from the blood vessels by exudation, aided by neural stimulation of transudation. The outcome is that penetration by the penis becomes easy and painless.

Along with this, the vaginal acidic environment is partially neutralized, favoring sperm capacitation and motility. The vagina also assumes a tent-like shape and balloons out to move the cervix (the lower opening of the uterus) away from the sperm pool. This helps retain the sperms within it, until they have come into contact with various natural chemicals, called capacitation factors, which are necessary for their further activity. The increased vaginal warmth felt by the penis also increases male arousal.

Sperm processing

Until this time, the sperms are immobile and in a non-capacitated state where they cannot fertilize the ovum. Thus clitoral stimulation also produces simultaneous biochemical changes within the ejaculated seminal discharge within the female vagina. This includes the release of sperm precapacitation and capacitation factors, which convert the sperms into highly motile forms that can swim up through the vagina, the cervix, the uterus and the uterine tubes to reach the ovum, penetrate it and achieve fertilization. These coordinate with the changes occurring in the female vagina.

Preparation for fertilization

The result is that before orgasm the female reproductive tract is prepared to receive sperm and to capacitate them so that they can fertilize the released ovum. This conclusion is buttressed by the fact that this organ becomes significantly larger from just before ovulation until day 20 of a typical monthly cycle. In other words, it is most prominent and easy to stimulate when the woman has the highest chance of conception. This seems to support its importance in reproduction, especially when we remember that these changes occur at all times of the cycle and independent of ovulation timing, making sure the female reproductive tract is always ready to receive and handle the sperm during sexual intercourse.

Many earlier studies concluded that clitoral stimulation is meant to occur independent of intercourse. Indeed, some scientists have thought that stimulation during intercourse has noxious effects on women, though there is no proof to back this assertion. The current study provides a sound theoretical framework for the importance of clitoris stimulation during intercourse or foreplay, as a fundamental physiological process by which the female body prepares, via activation of multiple brain areas, to receive and capacitate the sperm to maximize fertility.

Clitoris removal – reproductive disability

Clitoral removal has been practiced for several reasons, either as a part of female genital mutilation to ensure female chastity, or for non-therapeutic reasons to “cure” some mental conditions in females. However, the researchers point out that by so doing, not only does the woman lose sexual pleasure from arousal by clitoral stimulation before actual penetration, but the female body cannot pre-activate the reproductive tract to prepare to receive the ejaculate. This has a detrimental effect on reproductive success, according to the authors.

Women with certain clitoris anomalies report low libido, pain, and problems in arousal by clitoral stimulation. Corrective surgery in a very small number of cases has been reported to have physical and psychological benefit, but requires larger studies to confirm its advantages.

Conclusion

While clitoral stimulation has been claimed by no less than Freud to be a primitive, pre-feminine method of achieving orgasm in contrast to that achieved by penile intercourse, other more modern researchers have dismissed it as an undesirable mechanism which fails to promote gene transfer by reproductive success. This biased view completely overlooks current knowledge of the important priming activity that clitoral stimulation triggers in the female reproductive tract, with the consequent increase in the rate of fertilization and pregnancy.

The current study throws fresh light on this subject, arguing that the clitoris is stimulated to activate the brain before and during penile penetration, so that the female body is induced to accept, along with sexual pleasure, the ejaculated sperm to ensure the best possible chances of reproductive success. In other words, the view that reproductive as well as recreative roles are equally important with respect to the clitoris is, in the authors’ words, “now unavoidable.”

Journal reference:

The clitoris—an appraisal of its reproductive function during the fertile years: why was it, and still is, overlooked in accounts of female sexual arousal. Roy J. Levin. Clinical Anatomy (2019). DOI: 10.1002/ca.23498. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1002/ca.23498

Dr. Liji Thomas

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Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.

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