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Meet A Pioneer Of The Clitoris: Helen O’Connell

Australia’s first female urologist, Professor Helen O’Connell, championed vulva anatomy and sexual pleasure well before VUSH came onto the scene. In the late 90’s, Helen and her colleagues made waves in anatomical research by discovering that the clitoris was more than just a little button at the top of the vulva. The part of the clitoris that, for reasons unbeknownst to us, can sometimes be hard to find, is actually only the visible part of a much larger internal structure. So, here’s everything you need to know to become “cliterate”, thanks to the work of Helen O’Connell.

About Helen O’Connell

In 1994, Helen O’Connell became the first woman to graduate as a urological surgeon in Australia (right here in Melbourne, where the VUSH magic happens!). Since completing her master’s degree on female urinary incontinence in 1997 and getting a PhD in female pelvic anatomy in 2004, Helen now directs the Victorian Urology Department of Western Health.

Helen O'Connell pictured with black glasses, hot pink lipstick and dark blonde hair


While studying to become a surgeon, Helen was less than impressed by the way female genitalia was regarded in medical textbooks. Despite being integral to sexual pleasure, the clitoris was often ignored entirely (sounds familiar). In one particular textbook, female anatomy was reduced to a modified version of male genitalia. Words like “failure” and “lacking” were used to describe female genitalia as a “poorly developed” version of male genitalia. Helen knew she had to fix this.

Sex Research Before Helen O’Connell

Before Helen, sex research was largely done by male researchers, to the point where many body parts are named after the men who discovered them. The G-Spot? Named after Ernst Gräfenberg, who reported an area that, similarly to the male prostate, can be stimulated for pleasure internally. The Fallopian tubes? Named after Gabriele Falloppio, who first described the tubes leading from the uterus to the ovaries. On and on, the cycle continued as various body parts were named after the male researchers involved in their discovery. Since we’re so keen on giving credit where credit’s due, maybe it’s time for the clit to have a rebrand so we can honour Professor O’Connell?

Helen conducted her initial research on the clitoris in 1998, not only to investigate sexual functioning and pleasure, but also to provide anatomical support that would decrease damage to the clitoris during surgery. Helen noted that great care was taken to not impact the function of the penis during prostate related surgeries, so why was this same care not applied to the clitoris during surgeries on female genitalia and pelvic floor? Helen couldn’t justify why the penis was thoroughly researched and considered but the clitoris wasn’t, since they’re homologous structures made from the same erectile tissue.

The Clitoris: Helen O’Connell’s Findings

The entire clitoris is actually very structurally similar to a penis. It’s filled with nerves making it super sensitive, one of the most erogenous zones of all bodies. It even becomes erect! When aroused, the clitoris expands, swells and becomes firm. Helen and colleagues discovered that underneath that little external button sits a whole wishbone shaped structure, including legs (crura) and bulbs which wrap around the urethra and vaginal wall. This means that external clitoral orgasms aren’t so separate from internal vaginal orgasms; vaginal orgasms actually most likely occur through stimulation of the clitoris from inside the vagina. One scientific study, so much new information!

Diagram of the clitoris including glans, shaft, crura, bulbs, vaginal opening, urethral opening


Helen O’Connell taught us a lot of what we now know about the clitoris. While we still have a long way to go when it comes to sex research and normalising pleasure for vulvas, it is so important to highlight the work of women like Helen who fought to produce knowledge that benefits us today. As Helen says, knowing the science of the clitoris empowers people. “How great for the people who own them and the people who love them!” Helen’s findings not only help us build sexual relationships with ourselves and our partners today, but protected a lot of women from surgical harm throughout history.

If you want more where this came from, Helen’s TEDx Talk ‘Get Cliterate’ is a great resource (the end gave us goosebumps). If you’re looking for more info on the history and discovery of various aspects of female genitalia, check out the episode of Netflix’s ‘Explained’ series on female orgasm. For any science babes who want the real juicy deets of Helen’s work, her 1998 research is titled ‘Anatomical Relationship Between Urethra and Clitoris’. Now go get cliterate!
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