The First Genital Post: The Vulva and the Clitoris

If there is one thing that is consistent about sexuality and sexual health education, it is that they tend to revolve around an individual’s genitalia and reproductive system. Regardless of what aspect of sexual health we’re talking about – pleasure, gender identity, contraception (yes, including abstinence) – the existence of genitals are usually implied, if not explicitly mentioned. So it makes sense that this blog would also begin its journey through that complicated, beautiful mess we call sexuality with the exploration of the complicated, beautiful mess of  human sexual anatomy.

I originally intended this blog to knock out human sexual anatomy with one extensive post on internal and external sexual organs, complete with diagrams and explanations. But as I began my research and started sketching the various structures I wanted to discuss, I realized – there’s too much. There’s way too much human sexual anatomy to discuss in one blog post – hell, people have filled entire books with information about humans, their genitals, how they work, and what they do with them. Consequently, this is the first of at least four posts discussing human sexual anatomy (and a little bit of physiology and embryology). This way, I’ll be able to wax poetic about anatomical structures I find interesting, and you, dear readers, will not be confronted with a never-ending blog post.

I have decided to begin with a post on the vulva, mostly because the vulva and the organs associated with it have not been as extensively researched as its counterpart, the penis, and I want to let the vulva go first for a change. In this post, I discuss the various structures associated with the vulva, along with their functions, assisted by some hand-drawn diagrams. I also take a closer look at the clitoris, an often ignored part of the vulva, and arguably one of the most mysterious and amazing sexual organs in the human body.

A few notes before we proceed: any writings on genitalia and internal sexual anatomy risk promoting a series of gender assumptions in the reader and the writer. We are raised in a world that tells us that a person’s genitals define their gender – that anyone who identifies as male must have a penis, that anyone who identifies as female must have a vulva (or at least a vagina). But here’s the thing: a person’s gender identity is not necessarily connected to their genitals. Of course, people can have strong feelings regarding the genitals that they possess and how that relates to their gender identity, but the anatomical structures and that person’s internal understanding of their gender are completely different. For that reason, this post uses gender neutral language throughout; when I write about penises and vulvas and testes and fallopian tubes, I am simply discussing the organs associated with human sexual anatomy, not the gender of the person possessing them.

Although I discuss penises and vulvas separately here (each genital will get its own post), I also want to acknowledge that they are not mutually exclusive. That is to say, if a person possesses one of these genitals, that does not mean that they cannot possess the other. Intersex individuals (sometimes referred to as “hermaphrodites”) may possess both genitals, or at least organs associated with both genitals. For example, a person can have a penis and a vagina, a vulva without a vagina and an enlarged clitoris, even a penis and a uterus. There are many ways that intersexuality can express itself in a person, and although I do not cover intersexuality in this post, I will later.

As you peruse these diagrams and my writings on them, please keep in mind: all bodies are different. The sketches in this post are meant to be representations of human genitalia, not at all a model of what people’s genitals should or should not look like. There is great variety in all aspects of the human body, and that includes the genitals.

And with that introduction behind us, I would like to introduce the subject of this post: the vulva.

The Vulva

The vulva is an anatomical structure made up of several organs that play a part in human sexual function. The diagram below shows a vulva and all of its components.

Vulva anterior view sized

Mons Pubis – the term mons pubis simply refers to the tissue that lies over the pubic bone and extends down toward the vulva.

Labia Majora – the labia majora, also called the outer lips (or outer labia), enclose the many of the sexual organs associated with the vulva and protect them from any hazards that exist in a person’s external environment, such as dust. They are also fairly fatty, and thus offer cushioning for the organs enclosed within them.

Pubic Hair – pubic hair covers the external surface of the vulva. It varies in thickness and length and can extend onto a person’s thighs, butt, or mons pubis. Pubic hair, like the labia majora, serves to protect and cushion the vulva.

Labia Minora – the labia majora open up to reveal the labia minora, also called the inner lips (or inner labia). The labia minora also protect the sex organs that make up the vulva, but they do not provide the cushioning function of the labia majora. They are filled with nerve endings that can provide pleasurable sensations during sexual activity. The inner surfaces of the labia minora also have glands that secrete lubricant.

The labia minora are the parts of the vulva that most obviously vary from individual to individual. They can be all kinds of shapes and sizes and colors. Their coloration runs the spectrum from light pink to dark brown (not necessarily matching the skin tone of the person possessing them). They can be long enough to extend past the boundary of the labia majora, or short enough to stay hidden away inside. In fact, a study on genital variation, headed by gynecologist Jillian Lloyd, found that one labium could be as long as two inches, or as short as a third of an inch.* Unfortunately, this variation can cause anxiety in some people who think their vulva is not “normal.” The ubiquity of pornography has especially impacted the view that vulvas should look a certain way – most vulvas portrayed in pornographic videos have smaller labia, but this is by no means an accurate representation of the labia of all vulvas. Although in reality there is no “normal” when it comes to a vulva’s appearance, vaginoplasty and labiaplasty continue to be lucrative procedures for plastic surgeons.

For visual demonstrations of the remarkable variation of the human vulva, I recommend the gallery page of the Labia Library.

Urethra – the urethra is the opening from which people pee. It is surrounded by periurethral glans, which is known to provide huge sensations of pleasure in the penis. Whether or not this also applies to the vulva is up to debate. According to the research of Roy Levin, who founded the sexual physiology lab at the University of Sheffield, the vulva’s periurethral glans is often pulled inside the vagina during penetrative intercourse and thus may contribute to orgasm.* However, due to a lack of funding in the world of physiological research (read: research that will not result in the creation of a drug), there is no study proving that the periurethral glad is an erogenous zone in the vulva. People possessing vulvas may also ejaculate from the urethra (expect more on this later).

Vaginal Opening (Vagina) – The vaginal opening is the only part of the vagina that is externally visible on the human body. Here’s a fun fact: the vagina is a hollow organ! While most organs have some sort of shape and solid form, the vagina is defined by its lack of these things – in short, it’s a tube (or, in scientific terms, a fibromuscular tubular sex organ). The vagina connects the vulva to the uterus; it is most often understood as the organ that sperm use to travel to the uterus and fallopian tubes in order to fertilize an egg. More information to come in a later post on internal anatomy.

The vagina is a fascinating organ because it has somehow become a term synonymous with the vulva, when in fact the two are very different. The vulva is a structure composed of many different anatomical structures, the vagina being one of those structures. Some people will argue that calling the vulva a vagina problematically encourages genital ignorance. Although I understand this argument, I don’t really care what people call the vulva as long as they’re aware of its different components and their functions. I’ll often refer to my vulva as my vagina because (1) it’s more colloquially acceptable and (2) I like the word “vagina,” and many of the slang terms associated with it.

Hymen – the hymen is a thin membrane that can entirely or partially cover the vaginal opening. The hymen is often associated with virginity (a subject so complicated that it warrants its own blog post). It is a common myth that a person’s hymen breaks when they have penetrative intercourse (read: penis goes into a vagina) for the first time. Although this is possible (and certainly does happen), hymens may also break during exercise or upon the insertion of something that is not a penis into the vagina. The hymen can also be stretched out to allow objects through without breaking. It is also a common myth that, when it breaks, the hymen releases some amount of blood. Once again, this is possible and certainly does happen, but it is not a universal truth.

Here’s something fun: synthetic hymens are now available for purchase online, for all of your “virginity” needs.

Vestibule – the vestibule refers to the area that contains the urethral opening and the vaginal opening. In other words, it’s the area that pubic hair, the labia majora, and the labia minora protect.

Perineum – the term perineum can refer to either the skin that connects the boundary of the vulva to the anus, or to the associated muscle clusters lying underneath the skin and surrounding the vulva. In this diagram, I refer to the area of skin, which is also an erogenous zone in both people with a vulva and people with a penis.

These are the components of the vulva. There are quite a few, each with their own unique anatomy. I hope that this summary has given at least some explanation as to what each part does (for more information, I highly recommend Wikipedia and other sites that I list in my references). There is one part of the vulva that I believe deserves a longer summary because the visible part of this organ does not begin to encompass its function or complexity. Dear readers, I introduce you to: the clitoris.

More on the Clitoris

When I label and talk about sex organs, I tend to refer to them using their technical names, but I’ve realized that in regular conversations, the average person will gravitate toward common slang terms (and by average person I also mean me – I love genitalia slang!). And if only for that reason (and my own entertainment), I want to start this section with a list of slang terms for the clitoris.

In her book Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, Mary Roach notes, “In a study of male and female genital slang carried out at five British Universities, respondents came up with 351 ways to say penis…and only three for clitoris: bean, button, and the little man in the boat.” I also have a vague memory of an acquaintance or two referring to the clitoris as a cherry, and in her footnote, Roach neglects to mention the ever-popular clit. With those additions, however, I’m at a loss. I would be appreciative of any additions that you might see fit to put in the comments section; if comments aren’t for you, I also love emails with nothing but slang terms for genitalia in the text.

The day that I decided the sex education I received in middle school and high school was lacking was the day that I learned how big the clitoris was. For someone who reached puberty in the era of No Child Left Behind and federal funding exclusively for abstinence-only sex education, I was given more information than a lot of my peers. I attended a private K-8, where I received various sex ed classes from fourth to eighth grade. I even got a cumulative four weeks of “Social Living” at my public high school, where I learned a little bit about gender and trans issues (way more information than a lot of people in the public school system receive). And I did know what the clitoris was: it was the tiny little nub near the top of my vulva that was exclusively meant to deliver sensations of sexual pleasure.

This information about the clitoris is more information than most of the youth living in the United States receive, but it is also horribly inaccurate. The clitoris is not a small little nub located at the top of the vulva, but rather a huge organ (relatively speaking) that extends from the tip of the vulva all the way to the perineum. The part that many people call the clitoris is in fact just the tip of a very large iceberg (or a very large sex organ) and is more accurately called the clitoral glans. The glans is the only part of the clitoris that is externally visible when we look at the vulva. But underneath the skin, it is a vast body consisting of several important structures.

Clitoris anterior view

Glans – the glans of the clitoris, as mentioned above, is the only part of this amazing organ that is externally visible. It lives at the top of the vulva, hiding underneath the clitoral hood. It is usually about the size of a pea, although size and shape, as with all other things related to the human body, may vary. There is evidence that, during arousal, it may become larger and poke itself out of the clitoral hood. Or it may retreat farther inside the hood. There doesn’t seem to be a universal truth, but it does seem that the clitoris exhibits change during arousal, at least some of the time. Depending on where you do your research, either the glans or the entire clitoris contains 8,000 sensory nerve endings. Either way, it’s an incredibly sensitive organ, the glans probably being the most sensitive part of the entire structure.

Corpus Cavernosum (Shaft) – the corpus cavernosum makes up the larger body of the clitoris. It is made of erectile tissue and, during arousal, is the part of the clitoris that becomes the most engorged with blood.

Crus Clitoris (Clitoral Leg) – the crus clitoris (plural: crura) are also referred to as the legs of the clitoris. They extend from the body and attach to the pubic bone near the perineum.

Vestibular/Clitoral Bulb – although it’s up to debate whether or not these bulbs are a part of the vulvar vestibule or part of the clitoris, the similarity of the erectile tissue in the bulbs and the clitoris seem to indicate that the latter option is more likely. The bulbs encircle the vaginal opening and may contribute to pleasurable sensations during penetrative sex. When the erectile tissue fills with blood during arousal, the bulbs actually push against the vaginal wall and thrust the entire structure of the vulva outwards.

Here’s the awesome thing about the clitoris: it’s almost entirely made of erectile tissue. Aside from being the most enervated part of the human body, it becomes filled with blood upon arousal. This engorgement, as noted above, can physically affect the vulva and the glans and, as a whole, it makes the clitoris bigger. In fact, the clitoris can double in size when its owner is aroused. The vastness of the clitoris might also help explain the various sensitive zones inside of the vagina, such as the G-spot and the A-spot, as the clitoris seems to surround and cradle the organ. Although there’s no real clear consensus as to how vaginal orgasms work (or if they exist – so much more on this to come in later posts), the clitoris and its full structure offers a useful clue as to where pleasure from activities inside and outside the vagina come from.

Clitoral cross section sized

The above sketch, reproduced from a diagram in Female Ejaculation and the G-Spot by Deborah Sundhal, shows a cross-section of the clitoris that demonstrates how it sits in relation to the vulva. Remember that this diagram is a cross-section, meaning that it cuts the clitoris in half length-wise. So it shows just one arm, one bulb, and half of the glans, urethral sponge, and perineal sponge. In other words, it shows how the clitoris interacts with one labium minora.  At the top of the vulva, the glans pokes out from the clitoral hood. At the bottom of the vulva, the dense erectile tissue of the bulbs turns into more spongy erectile tissue that lies underneath the perineum (this might also contribute to the perineum’s sensitivity as an erogenous zone). The urethra is also cushioned by erectile tissue, aptly named the urethral sponge. All of these components have been found to contribute in some way to pleasurable sensations during sexual activity. This is something to be super excited about – about half of humans have a ridiculously large organ whose sole function is to make them feel good (and the other half have a ridiculously large organ that has several functions, including making them feel good).

 And there you have it: an introduction to the vulva and one of its most astounding organs. My next post will focus on the penis and scrotum, and then I’ll dive into internal anatomy. As always, please feel free to use the comments section to add your own knowledge and/or questions, or email me at positivelysexed@gmail.com

* All fun, weird genitalia facts denoted with an asterisk come from Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach. One of my favorite books on sex, as well as one of the most well-written. If you buy one scientific sex book in your life, I would recommend that this one be it.

References

Roach, Mary. Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2008.

Sundahl, Deborah. Female Ejaculation and the G-Spot. Alameda: Hunter House Publishers, 2003.

The Labia Library

Wikipedia: Clitoris, Perineum, Labia Majora, Labia Minora, Vagina

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