Who “Owns” Information about the Clitoris?

Apparently the Museum of Sex (an interesting place) has a blog. I learned about their blog because, on it, they have a post titled “How Cosmo Stole the Clitoris” in which it’s suggested that Cosmo writer Jessica Knoll “stole” aspects of her article from a MoSex blog post. Not only that, but the blogger who wrote the post – Julie Ruvolo – suggested that either I was misquoted in the Cosmo article (I was not) or I was “in on it” (I was not “in” on anything except that I agreed, as I do several times per week, to be interviewed on sexuality topics for a magazine).

Ms. Ruvolo never contacted me to ask about the Cosmo article or anything else pertaining to this article. She didn’t fact check with me. She simply put forth this odd conspiracy theory. I can’t speak to what Cosmo may or may not have done. But I find it offensive that Ms. Ruvolo has accused me of being “in on” whatever she thinks happened. And that – as a writer – she never bothered to reach out and ask me herself. I’m pretty easy to find on Google. I’m only an email away. [In fact, I tried to email her this morning but couldn't find a way to contact her, so I Tweeted her my email address. We'll see if she writes.]

But let’s get to it.

I say “conspiracy theory” because, to me, there is nothing particularly new or “steal-able” in either the MoSex blog post about the clitoris, which I just read this morning, or in the snippets of the Cosmo piece Ms. Ruvolo quoted, which I also just read this morning. They’re both full of lots of facts about the clitoris that those of us who study sex and write about sex have known for years. And none of these facts or statements, as far as I can tell, really “belong” to the MoSex blog or to Cosmo. The MoSex blog post and the Cosmo article each provide helpful information about the clitoris and women’s bodies and I applaud each of them for doing so. But neither one is particularly ground-breaking or full of novel statements. In fact, each post “borrows” quite a bit from what is commonly known about the clitoris.

Let me explain.

Ms. Ruvolo indicates that the MoSex blogger “Ms. M” wrote in her piece that “the scientific name for the external “little button” or “bulb” is glans.” And that Cosmo then wrote “The tiny  button that was mistakenly dubbed the clitoris is actually the glans of the clitoris.”

Neither statement is new or noteworthy. And I can tell you that similar statements have been written for years – well before either writer typed them out for MoSex or Cosmo. But that doesn’t mean either one has plagiarized.

In my 2009 book Because It Feels Good (published in 2009, years before either the MoSex or Cosmo writers put their pieces together), I wrote, “When women talk about enjoying stimulation of ‘the clitoris’ or ‘the clit’, they often mean the glans clitoris, though they don’t always know where it’s located.” A bunch of other sex educators and writers have said similar things. In fact, sex educators and researchers have been correcting this information for YEARS  - well before the November 2011 MoSex blog post or the 2012 Cosmo article.

Who “owns” that information? Ms. M sure doesn’t own it. MoSex doesn’t own it. Cosmo doesn’t own it. And I sure don’t own it either.

To me, it’s like saying “BMI is not a great indicator of health”. Or “The vagina is about 3 inches long in an unaroused state”. Or “The head of the penis is highly sensitive.”

There are only so many different ways one can say these very factual statements and I’m sure sometimes people have phrased them in similar ways. But that’s not “plagiarism” or “stealing”. It’s repeating a pretty banal fact over and over again.

Having taught human sexuality classes for a decade, I know that I have said many things along the lines of how the MoSex blogger and the Cosmo writer phrased their clitoris statement. Or do they say them like I say them? Or do I say them like my mentors said them? Or like the people I trained under said them? Yikes! See what a rabbit hole this becomes? Who really “owns” these factual and oft-repeated statements about the clitoris?

Then, in her MoSex blog, Ms. Ruvolo indicates that Ms. M wrote “This little structure contains approximately 8,000 sensory nerve fibers; more than anywhere else in the human body and nearly twice the amount found on the head of a penis!” Ms. Ruvolo then wrote that Cosmo said the following, “The glans has about 6,000 to 8,000 nerve endings, says Debby Herbenick, PhD, author of Sex Made Easy. It’s roughly the same amount men have in the head of their penis.

There are a few problems with this line of reasoning.

First, Ms. Ruvolo writes this as if Cosmo – through my quote – borrowed from Ms. M’s MoSex blog post about the clitoris. But we’re actually saying very different things. I am not saying that the glans clitoris has twice the number of nerve endings as the penis – though years ago I used to say similar things. I tend to say “about the same” because – as a scientist  - I haven’t seen clear data indicating that the number is “twice as many” as in the penis. I’m not sure I believe it’s really twice as many. Rather, because the embryonic tissue that develops into the glans clitoris is the same tissue that develops into the glans penis, scientists I know and respect have told me that the number of nerve endings should be about the same in the glans clitoris as in the glans penis. So I’m actually saying something very, very different than Ms. M does in her MoSex blog post. And thus, Cosmo is saying something different than Ms. M.

Second – and even more interesting to me – is that, although Ms. Ruvolo’s blog post is written to suggest that Cosmo plagiarized Ms. M, what it does is actually show that Ms. M has “borrowed” from writers who came before her, without attribution (but again, who owns some of these statements, anyway?).

Specifically, it was Natalie Angier – in her 1999 book Woman: An Intimate Geography – that wroteThe clitoris is simply a bundle of nerves: 8,000 nerve fibers, to be precise. That’s a higher concentration of nerve fibers than is found anywhere else on the body… and it is twice the number in the penis.”

Let’s revisit Ms. M’s quote again:

Ms. M wrote “This little structure contains approximately 8,000 sensory nerve fibers; more than anywhere else in the human body and nearly twice the amount found on the head of a penis!

That’s pretty similar, is it not? But I don’t see Natalie Angier quoted here. So should Ms. Ruvolo be calling out the MoSex blogger Ms. M rather than the Cosmo article? It gets tricky, doesn’t it?

Ms. Angier’s quote was later made famous when it was included in Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. In fact, this 8000/twice as many line has been repeated over and over and over again, present in trade books and text books stretching back for years. I would bet that most people who use it don’t have any idea who to cite. It’s just become one of those things that people say about the clitoris.

Who “owns” that statement, anyway? Natalie Angier didn’t credit her source and didn’t personally, as far as I can tell, count nerve endings in the glans clitoris or penis. Many people take it as fact that the glans clitoris has twice the number of nerve endings as the glans penis, but that seems to be in dispute among scientists (see what I wrote earlier about tissue and development). In other words: if this is the line that Ms. Ruvolo is concerned about Cosmo using some form of, then she should be equally concerned that Ms. M used it in her piece without attribution. In fact it is a widely used quote (without attribution – probably in large part because the original source is never noted!). Years earlier, Ian Kerner used similar language in his excellent book She Comes First. Women’s Health magazine – in a very good 2010 article about women’s genitals – used similar language. The point is: Ms. M doesn’t own the “nerve ending” language about the clitoris. Neither does Cosmo or any of the many, many people on the Internet who talk about this point. I don’t own it either. Similar quotes can be found on Wiki, yahoo, and endless websites related to health and women’s bodies. It’s become one of those statements that rehashed in most articles about the clitoris, whether or not it’s even true.

Ms. Ruvolo also notes that Ms. M wrote “Even most of the women I coach, women who are generally worldly and well-informed about their own bodies, react with a combination of fascination and confusion when I explain that their clitoris extends deep within them.”

They then compared this to Cosmo quoting me as saying, “When I teach women about the internal clitoris, not only are they shocked that all this is going on inside them and they had no idea, but it’s also like a switch flips on in their minds.”

Although these quotes are very different from each other, Ms. Ruvolo writes, “Which raises the question, of course, as to why Ms. Knoll would attribute a botched version of Ms. M’s quote to Dr. Herbenick.  Could it have something to do with promoting Dr. Herbenick’s new book? Was Dr. Herbenick misquoted, or was she in on it too?

Let’s be clear:

This is not a “botched quote”. Cosmo accurately quoted me.

I have been teaching human sexuality classes to college students (as well as younger women and far older women) for more than a decade. The above quote reflects my experience. I have no doubt that Ms. M’s quote also reflects her experience. If you talk to any sex educator or therapist who talks with women (and men) about the clitoris, you’ll probably hear a similar story because it happens all the time. We’re woefully misinformed, as a society, about women’s bodies including the clitoris. No wonder it’s surprising and interesting to people when they learn about it.

Cosmo was also not involved in promoting my book, Sex Made Easy, though it is common practice for magazines – when attributing experts – to mention any recent books they may have out.

I could go on and on, but I’m committed to going out and enjoying my Sunday.

So, let me leave it at this:

This blog post from MoSex gets a lot wrong. It wrongfully accuses me of being “in on” something, though it doesn’t quite say what. I would like to see an apology from them, but I’m not holding my breath. [UPDATE: Ms. Ruvolo sent me an email and promptly apologized to me on the MoSex blog, which I appreciate. I still wish she had emailed me initially to fact-check with me, but I do appreciate and accept her apology. Not everyone would do that, and so quickly.]

That said, the original blog post - the Internal Clitoris - by Ms. M gets a lot right. Though, as I mentioned earlier, I’d urge caution about the “twice as many as the penis” part. And the line that’s super close to Ms. Angier’s quote should probably be modified or attributed. But Ms. M’s post is worth a read and has certainly helped people who read it. I hope more people read this and other articles about the clitoris.

The Cosmo piece by Ms. Knoll also gets a lot right. Though I’ve never met Ms. Knoll, I can say this about her: she’s interviewed me several times over several years and she takes care to understand topics she writes about – or, at least, she has when working with me. She and I spoke at length about the clitoris. She had many questions and I shared with her a number of my experiences teaching women of all ages, but especially college aged women, about the clitoris.

Ultimately, information about the clitoris belongs to us all – especially factual statements for which there are few new ways to say them. As someone who writes scientific papers as well as trade books, columns, and blog posts, I’m aware of and highly sensitive to issues regarding plagiarism. Plagiarism is wrong. But it’s also wrong to accuse people of plagiarism when that’s not what happened.


About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at www.sexualhealth.indiana.edu.