What’s “Down There”?
It seems as though there are an endless number of euphemisms for the vagina. When we’re feeling coy we use terms like flower, kitty, and underwater treasure. When we’re being cheeky we use references such as pink taco, bearded clam, and meat curtain. When we’re feeling a bit more bold we come so close to using the correct term but settle for vajayjay, vag, or bagina. So what is our cultural aversion to saying the word vagina? Why do we need all of these euphemisms when a word to describe this area of the body already exists? To me it boils down to two main points: shame and a lack of knowledge of our anatomy. I wish that in a blog post I could address, and fix, the centuries of a patriarchal society that makes vaginal shame so intense. I can’t. But what I can do is provide an anatomy lesson.
The terms vulva and vagina are not interchangeable and each refers to a distinct area of the body. A general rule is that the vulva refers to external genital anatomy and the vagina is an internal canal.1
So where does the vulva begin? If we move from the belly button downward the first part of the vulva is the mons pubis, the mound shaped area just above the pubic bone that is often covered in pubic hair. The mons pubis becomes rounder with increases in fatty tissue during puberty because of a spike in estrogen; the fatty tissue provides cushioning over the bony pelvis during intimacy.2
Moving downward from the mons pubis is the clitoris. The penis and the clitoris arise from the same embryonic tissue but one of these areas of the body remains much more of a mystery than the other. The clitoris, the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated pleasure center of the vulva, has >8,000 nerve endings and is much larger than depicted on most vulvar illustrations. The best known area of the clitoris is the glans clitoris: this it the most easily accessible part of the pleasure organ and it is located underneath the vulvar tissue comprising the clitoral hood. The clitoris is not just one small bump on the vulva, it is a much larger organ that is shaped like a wishbone. The bulbs of the clitoris extend down on both sides of the vulva, beside the urethra, and all the way to the vaginal opening.3 Each part of the clitoris has sexual sensation, not just the glans, although the glans is the most sensitive area. With arousal, blood flow to the clitoris increases allowing for the tissue, especially the crura and the bulbs of the clitoris, to become firmer and erect.1
The next anatomical landmark moving down the vulva is the urethra. The urethra is a hole separate from the vagina through which urine passes to exit the body.
The Vulvar Vestibule
Below the urethra is the vulvar vestibule. The vestibule is the transition area between the vulva and the vagina and it spans from the urethra down to the bottom of the vaginal opening.1, 5
The vagina is the part of the anatomy with which we are most familiar—it is a canal that opens at the vulva and extends internally to the cervix in those born with a uterus. The vaginal canal contains ridges known as rugae. These are normal folds that sit atop of smooth muscle.1 The rugae and smooth muscle enable the vagina to stretch with penetration and arousal as well as contract to keep air out of the vagina.1 Vaginal length varies person to person but averages from 5.1 to 14.4 cm.1
Along the sides of the vulva are the labia minora and labia majora. Labia means lips in Latin and thus they are often referred to as the lips of vulva. The labia majora are the outer lips. The majora are covered in pubic hair, comprised of fatty tissue, and contain glands. The outer labia are about 7-12 cm in length on average; there is a significant amount of normal variation in the size of the labia.1 The inner lips are the labia minora. There is no fat but there is erectile tissue so the labia minora will swell with stimulation and arousal.1 The top of the labia minora encompasses the clitoris and makes up the clitoral hood. Movement and traction of the labia minora can be pleasurable because of the connection to the clitoris and due to nerve endings along the edges of the labia minora.1 Some labia minora are longer than the labia majora and some are smaller: both are considered totally normal. It is also normal to have asymmetric labia minora and/or labia majora.
The area just below the vaginal opening is the perineum, this is the space between the vagina and rectum. The perineum has a role in pleasure as it contains nerve fibers that can enhance sexual arousal.4 The perineum is also a part of the pelvic floor muscles, the group of muscles with many functions that lives within the pelvis.
This is a brief lesson on vulvar and vaginal anatomy! Hopefully it left you feeling empowered and more knowledgeable about what terms to use when talking about the area. Better understanding this anatomy can improve both you and your partner’s pleasure. Take the time to explore the area and see what you like, don’t like, and remember to have fun with it! The books and articles referenced here are a great way to expand your reading as well.
- The Vagina Bible by Jen Gunter, MD. Publisher website
- Come As You Are: The Surprising Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagasaki, PhD Publisher Website
Vulvar image: https://helloclue.com/articles/cycle-a-z/vaginas-101
Clitoris Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Clitoris_Anatomy.svg