What The ‘V’ Stands For
If you were to lay on your back, spread your legs and pull out a mirror (which I highly recommend), what you would see is the vulva, not the vagina. The vulva includes all the parts that are visible on the outside- the outer and inner lips, the tip of the clitoris, the clitoral hood, the urethral opening (the hole you pee from) and the vaginal opening (the hole you put a tampon into).
It Matters What You Call It
You might be thinking: “Vulva, Vagina- who cares?”
The truth is, it’s important to use the right terminology. The Vulva needs to be named and spoken outloud, because what isn’t named remains hidden. The vagina stays in the spotlight due to its part in giving birth and because of its value to men. The vulva, and especially the clitoris (whose sole purpose is pleasure!) should get more attention as they are central to women’s pleasure.
Shedding Light On the Vulva
Despite the fact that the vast majority of women require clitoral stimulation for reliable orgasms, many women struggle trying to derive pleasure and orgasm from vaginal penetration alone or with insufficient clitoral stimulation. Naming the vulva, and differentiating it from the vagina, can help empower women to understand their body, explore it, claim it, and value multiple avenues to pleasure.
In our culture, the truth about women’s pleasure and vulvas is obscured.
What’s invisible remains shameful and scary.
This is why so many women find it empowering to look at their vulva and metaphorically shed light on it.
Today, when everyone has access to unlimited knowledge through the internet, still only a minority of women know about their own amazing anatomy!
This is what I aim to do here today- to fill the gap in knowledge by shedding light on the vulva and the rest of women’s genitalia and physiology of pleasure. By doing so I want to empower you to recognize the infinite beauty of your body and its immense capacity for pleasure; and inspire you to learn for yourself how empowering it can be to get intimately familiar with your own body. Knowledge is power. Knowing the full anatomy of our genitals can empower us to make informed decisions regarding our hygiene and health, and maximize our pleasure potential.
The Vulva, Explained
Outer Lips/ Labia Majora
The vulva includes the outer lips, or the labia majora, which are like a parenthesis to the more delicate parts inside. They are made of fatty tissue and are usually covered in hair, unless you remove it. They are similar to the tissue of the male scrotum.
Inner Lips/ Labia Minora
Within the outer lips are the inner lips, or the labia minora- which, despite their name, are not necessarily smaller. In fact in about half to two-thirds of women the inner lips protrude beyond the outer lips. These lips can vary in size, color, shape, and sensitivity. Many are asymmetrical, with one being longer than the other. In porn, we mostly see small and symmetrical labia minora, but it is not reflective of real life, as just about everything with porn and entertainment media.
If you want to see what real vulvas and inner lips look like, check out Gynodiversity– an amazing crowd-sourced project that aims to help women feel confident in their own vulvas by showing them photographs of real women’s genitals, unlike the photoshopped, cosmetically and/or surgically-altered we see in porn.
The inner lips are highly sensitive, especially along their edges. They are connected to the clitoral glans and the clitoral hood, so caressing/ tugging on them indirectly stimulates the clitoris as well. They’re made of erectile tissue, which-similar to an erection- swells when you’re aroused, so they can double or triple in size when aroused and deepen in color.
Inside the inner lips there’s an almond shape called vestibule where you *may* find the urethral opening (also called “meatus”), which is the hole from which you pee.
*I say “may” because it is very hard to find as it’s very small and hidden between folds of tissue. If you find a circle of firm tissue above the entrance to the vagina that’s a little sensitive or pleasurable- that’s the spot.
Underneath this is the vaginal opening, or the entrance to the vagina. Along the entrance there’s lots of nerve endings, which is why it can feel good when something goes through there. When you’re excited, it becomes a bit narrower, so whatever fits through feels snug.
The Clitoris- Magic Button?
Clit, nub, jelly bean, cleo, magic button?
With so much attention to the clitoris in recent years, it’s shocking that its true grandiose nature remains obscured. The clitoris is much much more than a little nub or a button- it is an underground giant!
I’ll dive deeper into this in just a bit. First, let’s cover the part of of the clitoris that’s visible on the outside- the clitoral glans, or tip/head of the clitoris.
Just like all other body parts, clitoral heads vary in sensitivity, size and even color. Some clitoral heads are smaller, like a pea, and can barely be seen, and some are bigger like a kid’s finger, and extend down over the lips. The head of the clitoris is very similar to the head of the penis. It is packed with nerve endings, which makes it very sensitive to touch. Experts estimate it has as much nerve ending as the head of the penis, or double the amount- yet packed into an ⅛ of the size. Most are so sensitive they don’t even like to be touched directly, as it can cause discomfort and pain. In fact, many women like to touch it indirectly by massaging the bit of skin that covers it- the clitoral hood.
The Clitoral Hood
The clitoral hood (also called prepuce or foreskin) is to the head of the clitoris what the foreskin is to a penis. It is a bit of skin that varies in size and color and covers all or part of the clitoral head. In most women it glides over it, but in some cases it is attached (bonded) to it. Many women like to press on the hood with their fingertips and rub in small circles to stimulate the clitoral head that’s underneath.
The Internal Clitoris- Not Just a Little Nub After All
The head of the clitoris, the one we usually refer to simply as “clitoris”, is actually just the tip of the iceberg! The full clitoris is actually surprisingly big. The clitoral head is the only part that’s visible on the outside, but the clitoris actually extends deep into the body. In order to avoid confusion we will refer to its invisible parts as the “internal clitoris”.
The internal clitoris is about 4 inches long and 3 inches wide- and that is before it swells in arousal!
When you become aroused, it gets bigger! Anywhere between 50% to 300% larger! That’s because it is made of erectile tissue (from the word erect) which is the same as the outer layer of a penis. Erectile tissue has capillaries that become engorged with blood, and thus swell- like what happens in an erection, just less hard.
The Internal Clitoris, Explained
From the clitoral head, the clitoris extends up under the mons* and then splits down into two legs, kind of like a wishbone. The part that extends up is called the clitoral shaft and it is about 0.5” long. It can be felt by rubbing on the mons, about a finger-width or two above the head, especially when you’re aroused. This is one reason why massaging the mons feels good, because it indirectly stimulates the clitoris.
* Mons pubis: the mound of fatty tissue that sits on your pubic bone and forms a ‘V’ shape. This is what you see when you stand naked in front of a mirror.
The legs of the clitoris, also called crura, extend left and right and attach to your pelvic bone deep inside the body. They are placed right underneath your vulva lips, and can sometimes be felt when you’re aroused by pressing on the lips.
Right below the legs of the clitoris you have the clitoral bulbs that are shaped like teardrops. They are made of spongy erectile tissue so they also swell, perhaps even more than the clitoral legs. The bulbs attach to the clitoral shaft on the top and split to straddle the urethra and the vagina. As with the legs, they sit just under your lips, and when they swell you might be able to feel them by pressing with your fingers right under your lips, to the sides of the vaginal opening.
The Clitoral Complex
Sitting right under the clitoral bulbs is the urethra– the tube through which you pee, which is separate from the vagina (the vagina connects to the uterus and the urethra connects to the bladder). The urethra is surrounded by spongy tissue called the urethral sponge (or the female prostate gland) which also swells in arousal.
Underneath it is the vagina, or the vaginal canal– the tube through which you give birth or into which penises/toys/fingers/tampons go in.
The clitoris, urethral sponge and vagina are interconnected when it comes to pleasure, which is why some scientists are calling them the clito-urethro-vaginal (CUV) complex, or clitoral complex.
Image by AnatomyOfPleasure.Org
check out Anatomy of Pleasure to see more amazing illustrations of the female anatomy of pleasure.
The vagina is a canal whose internal walls are made of mucosal tissue, similar to that of the mouth. It isn’t all that touch-sensitive (especially compared to the clitoris), which is why vaginal penetration alone isn’t enough for orgasm for the vast majority of women.
Only the vaginal opening and the first third of it have significant nerve endings that respond to touch. The inner two-thirds of it have nerve endings that respond to pressure and almost no touch receptors.
The Vagina Changes Shape When You’re Aroused
When you aren’t turned on, the walls of the vagina lie flat against each other, “resting”. When you’re aroused, the opening constricts- making a snug fit for whatever enters, but the inside becomes wider and longer (From about 3-4 inches to 5-6 inches!)- a process called “tenting”. Get it? Like building a tent for a penis.
Another thing happens when you’re aroused- you get wet*. Tenting and lubrication make intercourse or penetration of the vagina more pleasurable. If you engage in vaginal penetration before these happen or without accommodation (like using lubricants), it can be painful.
* The body doesn’t always do what we want or expect it to. Sometimes we are turned on but don’t get wet, and vice versa. This is called arousal non-concordance.
On the roof of the vagina (the side closer to the belly), about two knuckles in on average, you might find the G-spot- which isn’t a spot at all but rather an area- that can feel pleasurable to some women. Many find it pleasurable to press on this area with a “come here” motion using one or two fingers or a toy, especially at a level of high arousal. You can also angle the body to apply pressure to it with a penis during intercourse.
The reason why pressing on the G-spot can feel pleasurable is because it is connected to the urethral sponge, and indirectly to the clitoris. See “The Clitoral Complex” above.
No Woman’s Body Is the Same
Women vary greatly in how the nerve endings are distributed in their genitals. Each woman’s nerve distribution is so unique as to be almost as unique as a fingerprint, whereas men’s nerve distribution is more homogenous. What this means is that no generalizations apply to no one woman, and not to any one man either. While for the majority of women the most sensitive area is the clitoral glans, for some it is the inner lips, the anus or even the breasts. The full wonder of women’s bodies and the infinite possibilities for pleasure and joy cannot be contained in one blog post. If you want to learn more about the female anatomy and women’s pleasure, check out our calendar for an upcoming Pleasure Techniques workshop.
The Key To a Fulfilling Sexual Encounter is Communication
The only way to truly know what a woman likes sexually is to ask her. Similarly, the only way for a sexual partner to know what you like and don’t like, is to communicate it to them.