Drawings of penises are everywhere. Here in the Netherlands, it is likely the most frequently depicted organ throughout visual culture, ranging from the famous phallic “Amsterdammertjes” lining the streets of Amsterdam, to dick-doodles on the yellow trains flashing across the farmlands, to anatomically correct images in Dutch biology books. The clitoris, on the other hand, is not nearly as well-represented. In fact, the clitoris is known for supposedly being hard to find, which results in what is called “the orgasm gap”—people with clitorises don’t orgasm nearly as much as people with penises. How cliterate is our society? Twenty-five-year-old designer and HKU University of the Arts graduate Aïsha Kanters, who co-founded Utrecht-based sex-positive art collective Halfnaakt, decided to investigate.
“I first learned what a clitoris looks like three years ago through an infographic on Instagram,” Aïsha explains. “I thought: ‘What the hell?’ In my 22 years of being alive, I didn’t know about the shape of this organ in my own body.” Aïsha grew up in the Netherlands—a country known for its progressive sexual attitudes; she had been calling herself a feminist for some time, and didn’t consider herself to be a prude—how could she have missed this? Baffled by her own ignorance about her pleasurable organs, Kanters’ curiosity was piqued. “I asked my younger brother, who is 21, to draw a clitoris, to see if he was aware of its shape. It didn’t go very well—his drawing was nothing more than a tiny dot on the paper. That’s when it hit me: the cultural perception of the clitoris doesn’t go beyond its exterior little knob.”
To put this hypothesis to the test, Kanters asked 170 people to draw a clitoris from memory, and bundled the drawings in her final graduation project, a booklet titled What the cl*t?!. “I approached people on the street, my friends, and family members. Sometimes, I felt pretty awkward asking them this question. About 80% of the clitoris drawings were anatomically incorrect. I would ask the drawers to point and explain their drawings to me, but while some people were enthusiastic and eager to learn, others felt uncomfortable with the subject or embarrassed that they didn’t know their own body that well.” In her book Come As You Are, American sex educator Emily Nagoski reiterates how the clitoris is known as “the little nub at the top of the vulva,” but the biological understanding of the clitoris is an organ that ranges from 7 to 12 centimeters, contains erectile tissue that swells up to 50 to 300% its original size, and pokes its little head out at the top of the vulva. Contrary to popular belief, the clitoris actually reaches all the way to the vaginal opening.
But why is the clitoris so notoriously hard to find? The full shape of the clitoris has been discovered and subsequently erased from medical books—and, consequently, visual culture—time and time again throughout Western history. Italian anatomist Realdo Colombo claimed to have first discovered the clitoris in 1559, although the clit also appears in Persian, Arabic, and Greek medicinal writing that misinterpreted its workings, pre-dating Colombo’s findings. Its erratic appearances and disappearances in scientific tradition has led to many researchers claiming to be “clit-pioneers.” It is difficult to conclusively say why the study of the clitoris has been marginalized, but the organ has been met with hostility on many occasions. It was a concern for social hygiene. It was once pathologized and associated with lesbianism and sin. It has even been called “the devil’s teat”: a German guide for finding witches, written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, suggested that if this teat were to be found on a woman, it would prove her status as a witch. In 1800s Europe, women suffering from “hysteria,” believed to be a craze caused by a bloodrush coming from the womb, were treated by having their clitoris removed. “I think the collective ignorance about the clitoris is a symptom of gender inequality and the taboo surrounding ‘female’ sexuality,” Aïsha explains. “This is what drove me to commit to this project. It has been my mission to make the clitoris more visible and honor it as a source of pleasure.”
“I think the collective ignorance about the clitoris is a symptom of gender inequality and the taboo surrounding ‘female’ sexuality”—Aïsha Kanters
Research by Laurie Mintz, a psychologist and professor at The University of Florida in the U.S.A., revealed that only 18% of women are able to orgasm without stimulating the clitoris. Her book Becoming Cliterate, states that cliteracy is therefore the way to close the orgasm gap. In an interview with VLAM Magazine, Mintz argues that cliteracy should begin at a young age: 6-year-olds to 10-year olds should learn to label the different parts of their vulva, like they are taught to label other body parts, and for teenagers it is important to talk about sex in terms of pleasure. She emphasizes: “The language used needs to be scientifically accurate and without shame.”
Since the 1970s, The Netherlands has had preventive programs concerning sexual health, which has resulted in a significant drop in STDs and teen pregnancies. However, its sex education has been criticized for being overly focused on the risks of having sex and for taking a very clinical, biological approach. According to Dutch sociologist Daphne van de Bongardt, the mandatory curriculum for sex education in The Netherlands is very vague. This leaves a lot of room for individual schools to decide what they want to include in their policies. In effect, schools are not obliged to discuss orgasms or pleasure in the classroom. “A lot of schools shy away from topics such as pleasure or sexual diversity, because they are afraid the topics are sensitive for cultural or religious differences among students,” Aïsha notes. “But in my opinion, these differences are overestimated.”
“A lot of schools shy away from topics such as pleasure or sexual diversity, because they are afraid the topics are sensitive for cultural or religious differences among students”—Aïsha Kanters
Aïsha reflects on the variety of drawings she received during the course of her project. “The clitoris drawings that are somewhat lifelike were mostly drawn by my queer and feminist friends,” she notes. “Some drew clits that looked a little sad—unsurprising considering the way they are ignored and sometimes even mutilated—whereas some clits looked like they were dancing. A couple of clits even had a little smiley face. It was fun to see how some people personified the clits they were drawing.” Whenever she received a drawing that was an accurate representation, she asked the person about their reference point. “Many clit-connoisseurs were familiar with its full form because of TV shows like Sex Education, or had stumbled across an infographic on the internet, like myself,” she explains. Not everyone was equally successful, however. “Some people paused their drawing midway and would look at me like: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing.’ Their drawings were generally abstract and unrecognizable.”
There is, however, some hope on the horizon for cliteracy. Since 2021, the full clitoris is featured in biology books on the Dutch education curriculum. “This is a massive step for cliteracy,” Aïsha says. From this point forward, Dutch high schoolers in the second year—who have already learned about all parts of the penis—will now also have the possibility to study all assets of the vulva. In addition, the new books feature an explanation about its function and how the clitoris swells when aroused. She says: “It’s a vital part of sex education. Knowledge about my clitoris, where it’s located and where I can feel it, has influenced my relationship to my body and my sexual experiences tremendously.” To quote Laurie Mintz from Becoming Cliterate: “Quality sex is only possible with true sexual equality.” According to her, history has never seen a time in which clitoral orgasms are valued as much as the orgasm of the penis. “It’s time to change history.”
Tessel ten Zweege (she/her),is feminist-in-chief at PISSWIFE, a feminist collective making zines about intersectionality and art. In March 2020 she made her debut as a filmmaker with a documentary about her experience with intimate partner violence. She recently graduated from the University of Amsterdam and writes for OneWorld, VICE and Bedrock Magazine.
The project What The Cl*t?! started with Aïsha Kanter’s fascination with the clitoris’ shape. Wondering who actually knows about the shape of the clitoris today, Aïsha asked various individuals to draw what they think the clitoris looks like in its most basic form. This visual research evolved into a publication displaying 170 drawings by people between the ages of 18 and 72, including people of multiple genders and from urban and rural backgrounds. The collection reflects how well, or rather, how little we know about the clitoris. Additionally, the publication entails an essay about the organ’s historical and socio-cultural context.
Aïsha Kanters (she/they) is a graphic designer interested in social issues around visual culture, identity, and sexuality. By questioning discomforts and the unknown, Aïsha’s projects aim at bringing truths to the surface. As a designer, it is important to her to keep asking questions about the self-evidence of media and visual culture. For them, making photographic work, publications, and illustrations is a way to empower herself and contribute to new forms of representation.
The title of this vertical, Epistemic Activism, is an homage to the disabled, nonbinary Iranian/SWANA designer and researcher Aimi Hamraie. In their book Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability, epistemic activism is described as a form of political action that occurs within academic fields to shape social norms and practices.