Hot Hyena

Since this article is about the clitoris, I’ll dive straight in.

The attribution of a clitoris or a penis is part of sexual dimorphism at embryogenesis. This occurs in all mammals, and the choice is triggered when the embryo starts to secrete sex hormones, depending on whether the chromosome structure has coded it to be female or male.

The number of chromosomes and their structure is called the karyotype, and it varies widely—humans sport twenty-three pairs, but the kangaroo only has eight. On the other hand, the dog family comes in at a count of thirty-nine pairs—wolves, dogs, and coyotes.

Across all mammals the Y chromosome is the sex-determinant, and in the womb the fetus responds accordingly—the male develops a penis, with complete plumbing facilities (hot and cold mixer tap, if you like), whereas the female develops a clitoris—highly vascularized and super-sensitive, as women find out to their delight, but devoid of plumbing.

If you’re looking for a historical context here, we could begin with the history of sex. Current statistics suggest about 70% of women don’t have orgasms during intercourse—Cosmopolitan provides some dismal tales of ladies who have never had an orgasm.

Intercourse is a bizarre euphemism, vaguely reminiscent of sorbet, but when discussing traditional practices,  cultural differences are very important. For instance, the U.S. often uses a baseball metaphor, but in Southern Europe oral sex is by no means third base—more like fifth! Likewise, in some Arab countries, anal sex can be an option to preserve virginity—which can lead to pretty warped extremes, embodied in the Afghan saying ‘women are for babies, men are for pleasure.’

Freud memorably distinguished between the clitoral orgasm, an infantile indulgence, and the ‘proper’ adult or vaginal orgasm—all a bit Teutonic, and blissfully ignorant of empirical evidence.

Clitoral stimulation plainly leads to orgasm—it’s not a discussion point. But if the subject is complex for humans, what about the other five thousand species of mammals?

The jury is definitely out on that one—apparently, chimps and cows have both been stimulated under laboratory conditions, and shown to experience vaginal and uterine contractions—but that’s no indication that female orgasms play any role in intercourse for those species, or for any other mammals, for that matter.

Maybe in humans the clitoris turned into something important, just as the appendix turned into something useless.

But if the clitoris is a pseudopenis, perhaps it has a role after all in some other mammals—but for that it would have to be big…

Enter a troupe of otherwise undistinguished ladies, mainly species of monkeys, but also the queen of dong, the African spotted hyena.

Squirrel monkeys from the tropical regions of the Americas, and some species of Madagascan lemur, have a large pseudopenis, as does the European mole—there’s a theory that these sizable appendages are used for dominance displays—the equivalent of a ‘big swinging dick’ on the trading floor of Goldman Sachs.

Nevertheless, the science case is weak when it comes to the mole, since it not only lives in underground tunnels but has very poor vision—the eye is only one millimeter in diameter. Furthermore, it seems highly unlikely that these small, furry creatures are given to intense clitoral posturing of the Donald Trump variety.

Maybe moles keep a dark secret, if you excuse the pun, and have a more fulfilled sex life than Cosmo readers.

Illustration of a pregnant African spotted hyena.

But if the role of the clitoris remains a mystery in most mammals, the African spotted hyena is definitely the odd one out.

The mustachioed European explorers of the XVIIIth and XIXth centuries must have been stunned when they witnessed their caged male hyenas giving birth—for a long time, hyenas were thought to be hermaphrodite, and since both males and females possess a penile appendage, no one knew where the females were.

The female vulva is fused, so the large, external clitoris is used for peeing—making the female look even more like a male, although the urinary canal is not a urethra. But the clitoris has two other obvious functions, the first of which is sex.

However, for the male to mate with the female, the clitoris must contract and widen to allow penetration, and the positioning of the male is critical. Males practice this for periods of a month or more, and finally get it right—and you thought we had it tough!

Details were published in the journal Nature some years ago, so we can safely assume this is not fake news.

The female hyena has extremely high levels of testosterone, and when the babies come out, parturition takes place through a birth canal that is only an inch in diameter. The pseudopenis is seven inches long, envy of many of a stud, but through it must exit a two-pound cub—now that’s got the guys squirming, and the women saying “see, I told you it was hard!”

And if the cubs get stuck, biting your way out is a definite possibility—after all, with that much testosterone humming around, the cub’s like a baby Rambo.

I think on balance we should count ourselves lucky.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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