7 things your doctor probably never told you about your vulva
Did you know “vagina” is one of the most misused words in the English language?
See, the vagina actually refers to the internal canal that reaches up to the cervix. The other, more external parts—the parts you can see—which include the mons pubis, clitoris, and inner and outer labia are known as the vulva.
So why don’t we call a vulva a vulva, pray tell? Maybe because the vagina is where a penis goes during heterosexual intercourse, so naturally it's overly emphasized. It’s not surprising, given dominant gender norms, that there’s a ton about the female body and female pleasure that escapes society as a whole. From gendered biases in the healthcare system to orgasm gaps in the bedroom, this marked lack of such knowledge in the so-called modern world is sorry indeed.
Here are 7 things we should all know about our vulvas.
1. Your clit is bigger than meets the eye
The clitoris reaches far beyond the little button perched atop the vulva. There’s this whole other internal part of the clit that includes bulbous internal extensions and these sort of wings or branches on either side. The entire clitoris can reach up to five inches in some women (roughly the size of the average penis), and looks a lot like a feel-good wishbone. Debby Herbenick, Ph.D., and author of The Coregasm Workout, "these branches can potentially be stimulated from the outside.” Bottom line, it’s all connected, baby, and just ‘cause you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.
2. Your outer labia can be compared to a scrotum (or vice versa)
Men and women have far more anatomical similarities than some realize. The majority of the vulva has a sort of matching counterpart among the male genitals. While many of us have already heard that the head of the penis has similar properties and provides similar sensations to the external clitoris, the outer labia are analogous to a man’s scrotum. Just as the scrotum protects the balls, the outer lips protect the inner parts of your precious vulva.
3. Your clit has close to 8000 nerve endings
The clitoris is considered the ground zero of sexual pleasure by many women, and it's not surprising considering the tip of the clit alone has 8,000 nerve endings—more than double the number in the penis. Fun fact: when aroused, a woman’s clitoris can grow to 300% its usual size! The labia joins in the fun too, turning pink or red.
4. You probably need clitoral stimulation to orgasm
Studies show that only 25% of women can have an orgasm through intercourse alone. And many studies actually neglect to take into account external clitoral stimulation during intercourse. The pleasure gap mostly exists because women are not getting the clitoral stimulation they need to get off during penetrative sex. When a woman’s pleasure and pain are both taken with the same seriousness as a man’s (by doctors, lovers, and the like), the pleasure gap will cease to exist.
5. So many things can give you yeast infections
So. Many. Things. What your vulva gets exposed to can cause internal vaginal infections. Sitting in a wet bathing suit or sweaty underwear, for example, drinking lots of alcohol, eating lots of sugar, taking the pill, or being on antibiotics can all cause a yeast infection. The latter kill off all the good bacteria in your vagina and cause an imbalance that is welcoming to fungus. Best to stick to clothing that provides your vulva with a little airflow: cotton underwear/sleeping without any undies at all can help. As well, there are plenty of things that can cause an itch that aren’t yeast infections, such as irritation from shaving or waxing, or laundry detergent/soap that your sensitive vulva might be reacting to.
6. Your vulva—and vagina—are self-cleaning
When it comes to washing your vulva, less is more. Simply wash the outside parts with water and mild unscented soap (if any at all). Never put soaps or other cleaners/douches inside your vagina, as these can cause pH imbalances and irritation, plus, it already cleans itself!
7. Everyone’s vulva looks different
Vulvas vary wildly. Everything from the size of your clitoris to the thickness and length of your labia is unique to you. Also, it’s normal to have asymmetrical labia. Yet this hasn't stopped thousands of women from getting labiaplasties for that ultra symmetrical, unimposing, mainstream porn star look. Ugh. As for color, a healthy vulva comes in all shades, and what’s normal can even change over time with hormonal fluctuations.
Bottom line: vulva knowledge is vulva power, loves, so know thyself.