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Sex ed discovers the clitoris, finally: French public school lesson should be a model for all

The clitoris has long been the chupacabra of sex ed — a mythological beast, elusive and fearsome. No more


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Mary Elizabeth Williams
September 16, 2016 3:17pm (UTC)

In a tremendously exciting recent breakthrough, scientists have uncovered a new terrain they're calling . . . the clitoris. Let's explore it!

The Guardian first reported late last month on how France's public school system was using technology to help sex education get real — thanks to "the world’s first open-source, anatomically correct, printable 3D clitoris." Sociomedical researcher Odile Fillod developed the model after working with the creators of a sex education video series, when she realized that "the clitoris was never presented correctly in school textbooks." That invisibility lines up neatly with a June report from France's gender equality office, the Haut Conseil à l’Egalité, that found current sex education guidelines teach that boys are "focused on genital sexuality" but girls "attach more importance to love."

It's pretty easy to make assumptions about boys' genitals-driven urges when you're not even acknowledging female biology. Fillod told The Guardian, "It’s important that women have a mental image of what is actually happening in their body when they’re stimulated. In understanding the key role of the clitoris, a woman can stop feeling shame." And now that the school year is underway, students in France are gearing up to discover what plenty of healthy, sexually active adults around the world are grossly ignorant of.

Writing in The Guardian Thursday, journalist Minna Salami called France's acknowledgment of basic biology a "sexual revolution." And in the New Statesman, Stephanie Boland heralded the move, saying, "Aside from the loftier goal of treating women’s anatomy as equally worthy of discussion, the model clitoris stands to improve our understanding of sex, regardless of gender."

And by the way, if you think you go to the head of the class for thinking it's just that tiny little button, here's a spoiler: It's vaster and more elaborate than you believed.

The clitoris has long been the chupacabra of sex ed — a mythological beast, elusive and fearsome. Last year the Huffington Post did an incredible history of the body part, including how medical science has ignored and outright erased it from the literature and conversation over the years. In 1947, the clitoris was obliterated from "Gray’s Anatomy," the bible of anatomical study. It would be another 51 years before Australian urologist Helen O’Connell revealed what is believed to be the first — yeah, I said the first — thorough and correct anatomical model of the damn thing.

I know it's internal, but it's not like it's another galaxy, folks.

And as "Girls and Sex" author Peggy Orenstein told Salon earlier this year, here in our own country, "We don’t as parents name that whole area between belly button and knees. We don’t tell them what a clitoris is. We don’t even tell them what a vulva is. We just avoid the whole situation." And as she pointed out this summer, "American Girl's trusted resource on female puberty," a book called "The Care and Keeping of You 2: The Body Book for Older Girls" features a diagram of the female anatomy that labels the labia, urethra and vagina — but conspicuously ignores the clitoris. Why? The book has more than 800 reviews on Amazon, and apparently only one that even noticed the omission, from a mother who writes, "I can understand the fact that this book does not delve into sex and reproduction but the clitoris is a part of the body that the girls see and it should be, at the very least, labeled."

There are more than 30 countries all over the world right now where girls and women are mutilated for possessing that body part. And in even more places, the clitoris is still ignored and misunderstood. It's an integral part of the sexual satisfaction of half the world's population, and we repeatedly fail to educate boys and girls that it even exists. So maybe now that the French have helpfully identified and located it, American sex ed can discover it as well?


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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