The professor who revolutionized the science of female sexuality and helped me let go of shame
For Women's History Month, we are publishing Celebrate Her—an essay series honoring women who deserve more public praise for how they have inspired us individually and empowered their communities: Scientists, activists, and artists. TV directors, comedians, and actors. Burlesque dancers and wrestlers. Those who have passed on and those who are still with us. Here, HG contributor Molly McLaughlin celebrates Professor Helen O'Connell for her groundbreaking, destigmatizing research on clitoral orgasms. Read the rest of these essays here throughout March, and read about even more incredible humans in our Women Who Made Herstory series.
I first came across the work of Professor Helen O'Connell when it was referenced in a February advice column titled, "Is it normal for girls to masturbate?" A teenager had written in to The Conversation asking whether masturbating had any health consequences and if the act would affect her future sexual experiences.
I was disappointed—but not surprised—to learn that girls in 2019 are still so in the dark about their own bodies. But when I clicked through to O'Connell's 2005 paper, "Anatomy of the Clitoris," I realized that I was completely misinformed about my body, too.
Despite having a sex-positive mom and a college education, I didn't know until I read Professor O'Connell's research that my clitoris actually extends close to four inches inside my body. Maybe that's because in sex ed, I was taught how to avoid pregnancy and STIs, but not about female orgasms. Or maybe it's because female sexuality is policed—like when girls' nudes were leaked during high school, and young women were hauled into the principal's office for being naked while the boys who shared the photos without consent received mere slaps on the wrist.
When I was 17, the guidance counselor called a meeting of all the girls in our grade and revealed that a group of boys had circulated a list of female students' names with corresponding points meant to denote sexual activity. I don't think they ever found out who started it. Incidents like these—where sexuality was used to shame girls—meant the idea of wanting, let alone enjoying, sex was practically non-existent in my education. Masturbation and an interest in sex was, and still is, seen as a rite of passage for boys. For girls, it's a red flag.
As a medical researcher and Australia's first female urologist, Professor O'Connell is fighting to change that.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, O'Connell's interest in sexual function was sparked when she noticed surgeons could avoid nerves and blood vessels in penises so as not to damage their sexual capacity—but there was no research into avoiding nerves or blood vessels in the clitoris during surgery.
The double standard seemed not only sexist but stupid, so she took things into her own hands.
In 1998, Professor O'Connell published a groundbreaking study in the Journal of Urology that mapped the full extent of the clitoris for the first time in science history. Titled "Anatomical Relationship Between Urethra And Clitoris," this paper found that the "current anatomical descriptions of female human urethral and genital anatomy are inaccurate," and that the clitoris was much larger and contained more erectile tissue than previously thought.
O'Connell took her research one step further in 2017, disproving the existence of the so-called 'G-spot.' "There is no macroscopic structure other than the urethra and vaginal wall lining in the location of the putative G-spot," O'Connell stated in The Journal of Sexual Medicine. "Specifically, there is no apparent erectile or 'spongy' tissue in the anterior vaginal wall, except where the urethra abuts the clitoris distally."
That last part, about the clitoris abutting the urethra, is a revolutionary insight into how female orgasms actually work. Thanks to Professor O'Connell, we now know that all orgasms are actually clitoral. Her research implies that a woman's ability to come from vaginal penetration will depend on the proximity of her clitoris to her vaginal wall, and the way in which pressure is applied to that area.
The real question is, why did it take me so long to figure the clit out?
When I started college, I was suddenly surrounded by powerful, sexual women and I figured out how to pretend I was one, too. I left my high school sex hangups behind as we drank, had one night stands, and talked openly about our desires. But I still didn't know how to articulate my interests to my sexual partners because I didn't know anything about how my clitoris worked.
I was convinced that my apparent "lack" of a G-spot and subsequent inability to orgasm from penetration meant that I was failing at sex.
Still, by the time I graduated, I was a committed feminist who thought she had a healthy relationship with sexuality. I didn't realize how deeply I had internalized my perceived sexual failure until I was confronted with O'Connell's map of the clitoris, revealing that the mythical vaginal orgasm doesn't actually exist in the way we'd been told.
I have now accepted that, like most women, I am not able to orgasm from penetrative sex alone. In the past, the myth of the G-spot always made me feel vaguely inadequate, as if clitoral orgasms were somehow less sexy. In fact, I probably picked that idea up from Sigmund Freud, who argued that clitoral orgasms were a sign of sexual and psychological immaturity, and could even indicate mental illness.
Freud's ideas, while largely disproved by the medical establishment, remain pervasive in pop culture, porn, and social norms that deprioritize women's sexual pleasure. Clitoral orgasms, which are usually generated by oral or digital stimulation, are considered somehow less than because they do not require a penis. Without cis men penetrating a woman, women's sexuality is separated from reproduction. And any woman who wants to have sex without getting pregnant must be crazy, right?
That's what makes the clitoris as explained by Professor O'Connell so perfect. It has no reproductive purpose. It exists purely for pleasure—a middle finger to the medical establishment that has denied women our pleasure and our pain for so long.
O'Connell's research has given so many people the words to understand their own bodies and explain their sexual needs to others. Personally, her research forced me to examine my internalized misogyny and challenge my shame around sexual desire. Of course, we still have a long way to go as a society when it comes to validating all kinds of sexual pleasure. But with the knowledge that female pleasure is normal, complex, and valid, we have a chance of getting there.