Let’s talk about sex . . . education. Much of what we are taught in sex education (“sex ed”) is incomplete and/or incorrect, starting with the assumption that there are two sexes and genders. Gender is different from sex and sexuality, and neither gender nor sexuality is determined by any biological characteristic of sex (chromosomes, hormone levels, external genitals, internal reproductive systems, gonadal tissue type, pubertal changes, etc.) It is important to learn (and in some cases, unlearn what we’ve been taught) about sex, sexuality, and gender.
Let’s start with sex and characteristics . And to begin, it’s often helpful to ground any audience with images that are more familiar, like binary ones from Sex Ed, medical textbooks, art, etc. These medical illustrations of male-typical and female-typical anatomy is more accurate than what is typically seen or taught (see Sex Anatomy Normativity). Please note that whatever a person uses to identify their anatomy is their own decision and terms used here are medical/scientific but with particular reference to overlapping anatomical terms.
Due to how we form in utero, all bodies are more alike than they are different, and this includes sex anatomy . Around 6 weeks of gestation, sex anatomy is essentially the same on both the inside and outside, regardless of chromosomes. The differentiation of sex anatomy does not occur until certain genes are activated in the gonads to release hormones. Common building blocks from early in embryonic development is why adult bodies have analogous anatomy with similar functions that respond predictably to hormones – and why all bodies have nipples! There are other similarities too.
Genetics, genitals, and gonads, in addition to environmental factors, all play a role in the development of sex and reproductive anatomy. For these reasons, most people have external genitals that look different from the hyper-masculinized and and hyper-feminized binary versions almost-exclusively depicted in medical illustrations. Below are depictions of flaccid post-pubertal genitals; note the similarities across the spectrum. While these images are of adults, pubic hair has been omitted for clarity.
Did you know that as a result of embryonic development, all genitals can get lubricated (“wet”) and erect (“hard”) during arousal? Glands release lubricating substances (i.e.: vaginal and para-vaginal secretions, pre-ejaculate fluid, etc.) to prepare for insertion and/or reduce friction; therefore, it is accurate to say that all bodies get “wet.” Unique tissues that fill with blood, such as corpus cavernosum muscles and spongy tissues found in the glans/head (of the penis and clitoris), are responsible for erections to increase sensation, aid in rigidity and/or penetration, etc; therefore, all bodies get “hard.” While the mechanism of pre-ejaculate, ejaculate, and vaginal secretions are well-know, how female ejaculation (“squirting”) occurs is still debated among scientists.
In regards to the study of sex anatomy in general, non-male bodies are routinely less studied. It should not be surprising that scientists only discovered the full structure of the clitoris in 2009. Much of the clitoris is internal, and therefore many medical illustrations of external genitals do not accurately show the its size and shape, which is one of many reasons why it has historically been referred to as a “pea-sized organ.” Like a penis, the clitoris has long legs (crura) that attach to the underside of the pelvis and a shaft that acts like an anchors that allow it to straighten and become larger when aroused, and like a penis, the clitoris curves downward and reduces in size when unaroused. But unlike a penis, the clitoris is the only organ in any body that is exclusively for pleasure.