Oh yeah, you saw this coming. (Pun terribly intended — I’m not sorry)
Time to talk about some anatomy.
So, let me begin this by saying, I’m going to talk about vulvas, not vaginas.
You see, our culture has developed the unfortunate habit of cutting corners and referring to female junk as just the one bit: the vagina, the amazing tunnel where stuff goes in, and stuff comes out. But, saying, “I’m getting my vagina waxed today” isn’t really accurate, because (let’s hope), we aren’t, like, waxing the hole, right? (right?!) Or saying, “my vagina hurts today” might not about cover it. Or saying, “you have a great looking vagina” might not exactly capture all the awesomeness of the anatomy. What folks are really looking for in these instances is a much less-used term, the vulva. The vulva’s got all the bits we might be referring to — the lips, the mons, the clitoris, the urethra, some glands and all that, and yes, the vagina.
So yeah, the vulva. Say it with me. Vulva. It’s a weird word, right? Haven’t heard it all that much? Maybe a little uncomfortable. It’s OK. I grew up in this culture, too. We can get used to it together.
I also want to preface this article with, I understand all this stuff is referred to as “the female anatomy,” and I want to apologize if I slip up and do it as such — the gender inclusivity of terms is having a little trouble catching up with the more established medical and anatomical terms, which is a shame. But all sorts of folks can have vulvas. They’re all great and they all share some similarities and differences. I usually ask folks what words they like to use to refer to their bits, and go with that. I love the word “pussy,” oh my goodness, and some people really despise it. That’s cool. Some folks want to go with the word “hole” or “canal” and ditch the gendered nature of terms, that’s cool too. Whatever works for you, we can say it loud and proud. Or, like, whisper it because maybe it’s horrifying. Either way, we got this.
One more aside, I’ve heard the vagina referred to as a “blind tunnel” and I want to say that that phrasing freaks me out, but it’s important to remember: stuff ain’t getting lost in there. Yeah, a tampon, ben wa ball, or condom may get shoved really up in there, but unlike a butthole where stuff can float all the way to the end of the solar system, things in the vagina are a little more, um, retrievable. Which is great — if you lose stuff up there, you might be able to find it with a little extra finagling, rather than having to go on an ER trip as you would with the mysterious disappearing buttplugs (don’t ask). Anyways.
So, let’s start with a basic anatomical overview.
No two vulvas look the same — that’s OK. Variety is part of life. Here I will have a representation of a vulva, and if yours doesn’t look like that, it’s all good. But every vulva has all the same basic components:
Mons Pubis – There’s a fleshy area above the vulva also previously referred to as the “Mound of Venus,” ain’t she cool! Generally this area is fatty and fleshy, and has a covering of hair. It covers the pubic bone and is literally a cushion for the pushin. It’s innervated with a bunch of nerve endings and can feel a bunch of pleasure too.
Pubic Hair – Normal. Normal, normal, normal. Kinky, coily, straight, thick, dark, whatever. Growing up, “pubes” felt like a bad word. People’s opinions around body hair change with the times — it’s cultural. When my parents were younger, having a “bush,” as they call it, was in style. My generation was brought up to search and destroy literally all body hair, and to feel bad about being “hairy.” It feels like things are shifting now, and it’s in vogue to have some hair, to style, to “manscape;” being totally bare is going out of style. No matter what your personal preference is, it’s normal to have body hair down here — on the mons, on the outer lips, on the belly, thighs, you name it — hair can be all over. It’s totally normal, OK, and yours to maintain as you please.
Clitoral Hood – At the top of the vulva, under the mons pubis, begins a covering for the sex organ known as the clitoris. It protects the sensitive glans head of the clitoris, similar to foreskin. It can totally or partially cover the clitoris and change position during arousal. It can have a lot or a little skin, and can be various levels of thickness and take on different color shades.
Clitoris – Well, hello. Here exists the only organ whose sole purpose is: sexual pleasure. With 15,000 nerve endings, 8,000 of which are in the external glans head, it packs a punch. The clitoris can be little like a pea or more profound like a thumb. It’s made of spongy material that fills with blood and becomes erect during arousal, similar to a penis. It has several parts, external and internal that I’ll get into later.
Urethra – The urethra is the hole we pee out of — NOT the vagina. Vulvas are cool because each spot is specialized for its own specific function, whereas a penis has dual functionality for peeing and reproduction (and funtimes). The urethra is comprised of sensitive tissue and on either side of it are Skene’s glands which are compared to the prostate gland, and can release fluid for sexual lubrication and during female ejaculation.
Vagina – The vagina is a muscular tunnel that’s about 3 inches long, on average. When aroused, the uterus moves back and up and makes extra space to accommodate penetration in an action called “tenting” (sexy, right?) — this can stretch the vaginal canal to around 5 inches. The vagina’s strong muscles can generally stretch to accommodate what’s going on in it at the time, whether that’s a finger, a tampon, a penis, a toy, or a child. The vagina stretches, and then returns to its resting state. The vagina cleans and maintains its own internal environment (discharge, anyone?) and generally does not need any other maintenance outside of regular showering and stuff. Near the vaginal entrance, or vestibule, are the Bartholin’s glands, which provide sexual lubrication. The vagina leads from the outside of the body in to the cervix, which separates the vagina and uterus.
Outer Labia – Labia are also referred to as lips. The outer labia can be fatty and fleshy and covered with hair. Both sets of labia have a bunch of nerve endings in them and are sensitive.
Inner Labia – Inner lips begin at the clitoris and clitoral hood and often extend down a bit past the vaginal opening. Inner lips take on a variety of shapes, sizes, thicknesses, and colors. Depending on the individual, one lip may be bigger than the other, or one set of lips can be more prominent than the other. Lips may change in appearance over one’s lifetime. Lips also change in appearance during arousal when they fill with blood and may flush or swell.
Anus – OK, so not technically a part of the vulva, but they’re neighbors — the anus is separated from the vulva by a sensitive perineum. The ol’ butthole, door to the rectum. Lots of nerve endings here, too — but play carefully, use lots of lube, and toys with flared bases so they don’t schlurp up there or get stuck.
LOOK AT YA BITS
But for real.
I was raised in this culture, too. It’s tough.
I was brought up under the yoke of traditional female gender roles and that included learning about my original sin, my inherent dirtiness, and damaging suppositions that my body was gross, misshapen and weird, too big and too small, smelly, too hairy, too dark, whatever. And that’s just the ones pertaining to pussy. Let alone everything else in life. (Oh sorry, I forgot, are women not supposed to be reduced just to this magical hole?)
All of this manifests for many folks as a vague terror of, and negative judgement toward, our own between-the-legs zone.
Some kids grow up having to learn euphemistic language to refer to their anatomy — “privates” — because the anatomical terms are deemed uncomfortable, bad or improper (our parents, our teachers, our healthcare practitioners are in this culture, too). Some kids are punished for touching or exploring their bodies, especially that part, and may not understand why. Some kids don’t get the chance to explore this part of themselves, and grow up without ever really learning their own bodies. Some kids are lucky if they get even a Mean Girls -esque sex education a la Coach Carr, rather than zilch, nada.
All this to say: a major homework that often accompanies learning about oneself is to check that anatomy out in ye olde mirror.
Have you ever looked at your vulva? Like, really checked that girl out?
I suggest this to folks and often get a look that clearly tells me, “Sara, that’s gross.”
I’m here to suggest the revolutionary idea that your body is not gross.
Your body is great, your body is doing its best, your body is functional, your body is beautiful. Your body is an essential part of you, and your reproductive, and frankly, pleasure system is an essential part of your body.
Perhaps you’ve had some disagreements here and there. Perhaps you feel some type of way about how she works or does not, her job performance so to speak. Perhaps you’re concerned about aspects of her appearance, presentation, or overall demeanor. Perhaps you’ve become estranged; perhaps you even forget what she looks like, it’s been so long (if ever!).
That’s OK, and that’s normal.
And, an essential part of your sexual health is making peace with your vulva, and getting to know her.
Vulva-havers, let’s talk about how to check out ya zone.
I totally recommend getting a hand mirror. You can grab them at, like, the dollar store. I recommend this because using the bathroom above-the-sink mirror might be a little difficult 🙂 Sometimes, a full-length mirror on the floor can be helpful or useful, too.
We have a bunch of cool senses. Your vulva can be felt, seen, heard (y’all know what I mean), smelled, and tasted.
So, let’s try some low-impact sensing. We will be looking, and feeling to begin.
Sit someplace cozy, lie down, just get that body in a comfortable position to relax some. Use your fingers to explore the area. I’m using the word explore because it’s OK if we are in uncharted territory. This can be a curious touch, and learning touch, and does not have to be a goal-oriented touch, or a pleasure touch. No pressure.
Notice the various anatomy we discussed earlier — we have folds and fat down there, squiggles and stretchy stuff, slickness and fuzz. In a meditative way, it’s OK to just feel the area and take it in, understanding the textures and sensations.
Using your mirror, check out the area. If possible, notice any judgements you might have, and let them pass on by as you continue your exploration. Look at the different structures and see if you can name them: mons, outer lips, inner lips, clitoris, urethra, vagina, anus.
If negative or self-deprecating judgements are present, see if you can reframe any judgements to neutral statements: rather than, “My lips look weird,” perhaps we can just notice, “I have some lips down there.”
It’s OK — this can be a long, slow process. No rush. We got this.
There’s an incredible amount of misinformation surrounding, and much focus on, vaginal lips that I’m dedicating a section of this article on this specific subject.
The lips are generally the most noticeable or prominent part of the vulva, and their shape lends to the overall presentation of what this area looks like. As such, they fall under more scrutiny than other parts of the vulva might.
Many folks are made to feel self conscious about the appearance of their vulva. I’m here to emphasize, it’s absolutely normal to feel this way.
It’s useful to deconstruct this thought, “Is this mine, or was this given to me?” Usually we are not born disliking our bodies. That comes with existence in our culture, learning cultural norms of the way things “should” be, and unfortunately, sometimes a bad experience with a partner.
Vulvas come in all shapes and sizes.
Lips can be thick or thin, flat or wrinkled, light or dark, long or short, wide or trim. Lips are almost always asymmetrical, in the same way that breasts, testicles, or eyebrows are. Lips might be close to the body, or they may hang down. Either set of lips might be more prominent than the other. Lips may change color and shape during arousal or sexual activity.
It is all OK, it is all normal.
Getting to know this part of your body intimately is a part of accepting your body, and building important sexual self esteem.
Representations of vulvas in pornography (and honestly, their representations of bodies in general) — are not supposed to be representative of normal folks’s bodies. For example, an erect penis of 6.3 inches is in the 95th percentile of size — meaning that those penises you see in porn are larger than almost everyone in existence’s penises. That said, the vulvas you or your partner may have seen are a select, minute sample of what the general population’s been endowed with. Capitalism puts certain bodies in front of us — please recall they are doing this to sell a product they desperately want you to believe you are in need of.
You are not in need. Your body is legitimate. Its existence if proof enough.
Dude, the clitoris is awesome.
The clitoris is the only structure in the human body that exists solely to produce sexual pleasure.
The head of the clitoris alone is known to have around 8,000 nerve endings in it. For reference, this one spot has more nerve endings than the entire penis shaft and head.
It’s a sensitive spot!
The clitoris body is comprised of these nerve endings, erectile tissue that fills with blood during arousal, and muscle. Many folks, if they learned about the clitoris at all, only learned about the head of the clitoris, the part visible outside of the body that rests under the clitoral hood. In fact, the clitoris has a substantial internal component, in addition to the visible glans head.
The internal parts of the clitoris are composed of that erectile tissue that fills with blood, as aforementioned. As you can see, they are on either side of the vaginal canal, and when they plump up with arousal, they cushion the vaginal canal, and increase lubrication and sexual stimulation and pleasure.
In addition to this, the clitoris is largely responsible for orgasm in folks who have it. Most folks with a clitoris need this part to be stimulated to reach orgasm. “About 75 percent of all women never reach orgasm from intercourse alone — that is without the extra help of sex toys, hands or tongue. And 10 to 15 percent never climax under any circumstances.“
What does this mean for sex and sexual pleasure? Well, the fact that the clitoris is so extensive bodes well for the creative folks who are looking to explore sexual pleasure; yes, stimulating the external clitoris can be important to reach orgasm — AND, applying pressure to different areas of the vulva can also induce clitoral stimulation and pleasure. The clitoris can be stimulated from pressure on the pubic bone, the lips, the clitoral hood, and from inside the vaginal canal.
Dispelling some common myths
What are some words you’ve heard used to refer to pussies?
I’ll tell you some I’ve heard.
People spit these words out like curse words.
People use these words to insult women, to control women.
Vaginas are muscular canals. Muscles flex, muscles move, muscles stretch. Exercise and stretching makes muscles more limber, stronger, more able to flex and contract.
Having sex with multiple partners does not make a vagina “looser.” Having sex with only one penis that you’re married to does not make a vagina “tighter.” The goodness and worth of a vagina is not related to its ability to pleasure a penis.
Vulvas are not supposed to be skin tone-colored. They are naturally darker, like body parts like kneecaps are, because they have extra skin to fold and maneuver, and are darker, like penises are, because they fill with blood during arousal. Their skin can’t be pulled tight like the skin over an ankle could be — imagine how much that would hurt during physical activity or sex if that area was tight like a trampoline.
Body hair is natural. Body hair is womanly. The only evidence of this that you need is that women grow body hair. Pubes are yours to style as you like. It is OK if you keep them, it is OK if you get rid of them, it is OK if you shave your name into them to remind yourself how great you are.
Periods are natural, periods are healthy, your body is doing what it needs to do to be healthy and well and potentially create a family if you so choose to, one day. They do not make you dirty or unclean.
Body parts that are comprised of natural folds and have pores and create secretions are not supposed to smell like roses and lemon-scented water. Vulvas are supposed to smell distinctly human. Vulvas are supposed to smell earthy, or spicy, or just, well, like a body part, really. Vulvas and vaginas don’t smell like fish, like the jokes go. If that’s the case, see a doctor, because it may be a common infection. Everything down there is in a delicate balance of pH and self-cleaning: there is no need to douche, perfume, scrub and sanitize — just some regular soap and water during a regular shower will do perfectly.
Having sex with multiple partners does not lessen a woman’s worth, and does not change or ruin her vulva or vagina. A woman’s lips do not change in size, color, or position with increased sex. As mentioned earlier, the vulva visibly changes during arousal, but it reverts to normal once sexual activity or arousing stimuli have ceased — the changes don’t stick around, and certainly do not compound over time. Vulvas may change in appearance as a woman grows older or has children, and that’s normal.
Pussy is strong. Next time someone says “grow a pair,” or says “they’re such a fucking pussy,” please remind them that the uterus is the strongest muscle in the human body, and can exert almost 400 pounds of downward force when birthing a child, AND that you can flick your bean all you want and not fall over clutching your pearls in pain.
For further reading on anatomy of the wonderful vulva, please check out this amazing research paper.