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Promoting Intimacy and Other-Centered Sexuality
Clitoris captured alive and well
ABC Science Online 13 May 2005
The live clitoris takes up more space than we knew it did. The clearest picture yet of the human clitoris, taken with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), has unveiled its full glory. Urologist Dr Helen O'Connell of the Royal Melbourne Hospital in Australia and US gynaecologist Professor John DeLancey of the University of Michigan report their findings in the latest issue of the Journal of Urology. "One of the facts about female anatomy is that there is widespread ignorance," says O'Connell. She believes the new MRI images will help medical specialists and lay people alike to have a better understanding of the clitoris.
The new research builds on 1998 findings on the anatomy of the clitoris published in the Journal of Urology. In that study, O'Connell and colleagues dissected cadavers to reveal the clitoris was much larger than the visible tip or glans. They found the clitoris had a complex 3D mass of erectile tissue, wrapped around the vagina and urethra, which swells with blood when aroused. O'Connell's new paper reports MRI imaging of clitorises in 10 pre-menopausal women who had not had children. What she's found is that the live clitoris takes up much more room than in the dissected cadavers. "It looks like it takes up more space within the area of the position of the tissue," she says.
Dead tissue versus alive
She says the findings were expected because the 1998 study of the clitoris looked at cadavers that had been dead for some time. "The tissue in the cadaver is fixed [with formalin] so it's not expanded and healthy looking stuff." She also says that the cadavers were by and large older women and that the tissue may shrink over time. She says the one young cadaver, of a woman who had died of cancer, had a larger clitoris.
O'Connell says the MRI findings complement the earlier dissection research and show how vascular the clitoris is. "It's very vascular tissue so it's highly responsive to blood flow changes," she says. She says unlike the penis, the clitoris is freer to expand because the bulbs, which are a major component, are only covered by a fine membrane. "You could see that it would easily swell."
Re-writing the text books
She says one of the important implications of understanding the anatomy of the clitoris is that it helps surgeons to avoid cutting through clitoral tissue. "If you know what you're going through you're more likely to consider sparing the tissue than if you don't know and the images that we learnt from in the anatomy texts are not accurate." O'Connell says she has used this information herself in operations removing urethras, and in incontinence surgery. She hopes to carry out an MRI study of clitorises from women from a broader age range. Last year, O'Connell published a paper that reported the clitoris contained the same type of cells as the body of penis.
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