Women’s genitals have historically been shrouded in taboo and, in some instances, even shame. Added to that is that women’s genitals, more so than men’s, are more hidden and not easily seen except with a bit of effort. However, when women do take the time to look at their genitals, they often find that becoming comfortable looking at and touching their genitals can have many positive outcomes. Learning about your genitals not only helps you to become more familiar with your body and what’s normal (or not), it can also enhance your experience of masturbation or sex with a partner.
The word vulva is used to refer to a woman’s external genital parts such as the clitoris, labia majora (outer vaginal lips), labia minora (inner vaginal lips) and the opening to the vagina (which is the inside part of a woman’s genitals, also sometimes called the birth canal).
At the top of the vulva is the pubic mound (sometimes called the mons pubis or the mound of Venus). Women’s pubic hair grows predominantly on the pubic mound but also often grows in smaller amounts on the outside of the labia majora. Some women choose to remove some or all of their pubic hair or to groom (trim) it. Beneath the pubic mound is a small amount of fat and the pubic bone, both of which offer protection to women’s internal reproductive parts.
The Clitoris – make a note!
The glans clitoris (what most people just call “the clitoris) is above the vaginal entrance at about the 12 o’clock position. The part that can be seen externally is about ¼ to ½ inches long and covered, when unaroused, by the clitoral hood. The clitoris is much larger than meets the eye, however. It actually extends backward into the body in two branches of erectile tissue called “crura” that are each about 3 ½ inches long.
Labia Majora and Labia Minora
The labia majora (outer vaginal lips) typically have some pubic hair growth on the outside closest to the thighs, whereas the inner parts of the labia are hairless. They are usually larger than the labia minora (inner vaginal lips) but women’s bodies vary, and in some cases the labia minora are longer than the labia majora. This is usually not a problem for women but in some cases the length of the labia minora may make it painful to engage in daily activities (such as walking) or sexual intercourse. Women who experience such difficulty may speak with a healthcare provider (such as their gynecologist) for more information.
Inside the Vagina itself (and the cervix)
The vagina is composed of a tubular set of muscles that lead from the cervix to the outside of the body. The vagina averages about 3 inches in length (when un-aroused) and can expand to about 5 or 6 inches in length during sexual stimulation.
The first 2 or 3 inches of the vagina are made up of a sensitive ring of pubococcygeal (PC) muscle that can be voluntarily contracted. You can practice contracting and relaxing these muscles by stopping the flow of urine. Once you’ve located the muscles, you can squeeze them anytime you like (don’t worry – no one will be able to see what you are doing; it’s a subtle contraction). Strengthening your PC muscles with these exercises (called Kegel exercises, named for Dr. Arnold Kegel, who invented them) can improve sexual functioning and sexual awareness and can help with bladder control.
The vagina ends at the cervix. The cervix is the entrance to the uterus. The uterus in turn stretches into a pair of fallopian tubes, accept released ova (eggs) from the ovaries. The ovaries are also involved in hormonal reproduction such as estrogens.
Other Female Body Issues Related to Sexuality
The female breasts, or mammary glands, are not only designed to produce milk to feed a baby, but for many women, are also an erogenous zone. The breasts are made up of mostly fatty tissue as well as milk-producing glands and ducts, with sensitive nerves concentrated in and around the nipple. The glands are capped by the nipple which is surrounding by a darker area called the areola.
The exposure to estrogen from regular menstruation, heredity factors, and exposures and lifestyle make the breasts the most vulnerable of female anatomy to cancer. For more information on breast health see the CDC website on breast cancer prevention.
Menstruation (period, rag, cycle) is the name for the monthly bleeding experienced by women of reproductive age. The full menstrual cycle typically lasts 24 to 35 days with menstruation lasting 3 to 7 days on average. Pregnancy can occur during any time of the menstrual cycle, even while bleeding! For more information on menstruation, see the CDC’s Women’s Health website.