“If you really want to impress a sex geek, knowing the difference between the vagina and the vulva is a great place to start.” – Allison Moon, Girl Sex 101
A vulva is the amazingly diverse external genital anatomy of folks who are usually AFAB (Assigned Female At Birth). Vulvas (or vulvae) are commonly confused with, conflated with, and/or referred to as vaginas. A person’s vagina is the internal canal connecting their uterus to their vulva; it’s where a baby would pass through during a vaginal birth, and where fingers/a penis/a sex toy might fit during sex. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about!
Before we go any further, say it with me: not all women have vulvas, not all vulva-owners are women. Many vulva-owners are cisgender women, but some are trans men, transmasculine, intersex, gender nonconforming, agender, genderfluid, or a whole host of other identities. In the words of Emily Nagoski, author of Come As You Are, “we’re all made up of the same parts, organized in different ways.” For the sake of clarity, this article will refer to people who have vulvas as vulva-owners, rather than “women.”
Vulva Word Play
Folks all over the world have come up with nicknames for vulvas and vaginas. A few of them are sweet (honey pot), some are silly (twat, va-jay-jay, snatch), some are gendered (lady bits), some we tend to hear in porn or during sex (cunt, pussy), some are edible (taco, clam, mussel, ham sandwich), some are animalistic (beaver, kitty, moose knuckle, camel toe, growler), and some are pretty darn picturesque (the promised land).
There are countless reasons behind why we use these euphemisms, but a big one is that most of us didn’t learn the term “vulva” in sex ed (if we had sex ed at all). Vulvas, in their structure and function, are more closely connected to pleasure than they are to baby-making, so sex education that only focuses on preventing STI transmission and unintended pregnancy often excludes this entire part of genital anatomy. Some people think that simply talking about sex or body parts leads kids to have sex sooner, with more people, or more frequently – in fact, it leads to just the opposite.
Whatever someone likes to call their bits, knowing the anatomically correct terms for different genital structures allows folks who have those genitals to take ownership of them. Having the language for our body parts opens the door to learning how they work, how to take care of them, how to explore the delightful things they can do, how to let a partner know where we want to be touched, and it’s certainly helpful when talking to healthcare providers. Using the word vagina isn’t entirely wrong, though – this language might be really comfy and clear for some folks, and no one should ever be shamed for using the words they’re comfortable with for the body they have.
Face to Face With a Vulva
Vulvar anatomy is fascinating – no two vulvae look exactly the same, but there are general characteristics that all vulvas sport, so let’s dive in! Just above the vulva, closer to the person’s belly button, there’s a fleshy area of skin called the mons, where pubic hair grows. If you look at the vulva ‘face-to-face,’ you’ll see the outer lips (labia majora, also usually grow hair) and inner lips (labia minora, less hair). The two sets of labia frame the clitoral head (or glans of the clitoris), the urethral opening (where you pee!), and the vaginal opening.
The glans of the clitoris lies underneath the clitoral hood where the labia meet at the top of the vulva. Sometimes it stays completely hidden, and other times (particularly if the person is aroused), it peeks out from underneath the hood. The clit extends into the body for about 4 inches in the shape of a wishbone – it has a shaft, legs (crura), and vestibular bulbs that trail back and up into the pelvis to hug the vaginal canal. Just below the glans of the clitoris, the inner labia meet at a smooth fold of skin called the frenulum, and they meet back together below the vaginal opening at the thin, sometimes sensitive piece of tissue called the fourchette.
The way the world talks about vulvas or typically “female” genitalia usually likens them to delicate flowers, but vulvas are quite sturdy, strong, and widely responsive to all kinds of stimulation. Many vulva-owners derive pleasure and orgasms from clitoral stimulation – in fact, research shows that most vulva-owners aren’t able to orgasm from internal stimulation alone, and many need consistent clitoral stimulation from a hand, toy, or mouth to come.
For some folks, the clitoris can be quite sensitive to direct stimulation or vibration, and they would much rather their partner suck or tug on their labia, or trace their tongue around the vaginal opening and up towards the frenulum. Because of the giant, amazing world of information on how to stimulate a vulva, vulva-owners and their partners might find it helpful to visit (or revisit) on the myriad of methods and tools to stimulate the labia, mons, vaginal opening, frenulum, and fourchette.
The Vulva Diaries: A Love Story
Because we tend not to talk about vulvas, there’s often lots of misinformation around what vulvas look like and how they function. Most mainstream porn depicts shaved, pink vulvas that have small inner labia tucked away beneath the outer labia, but many vulva-owners have larger, longer, or asymmetrical inner labia that might peek or hang out of the outer labia, and might be a grayish or purplish color instead of the bright pink we often see in porn. Some clitori are tiny and hidden under a big, protective clitoral hood, and others are much larger and don’t ever fully retreat under the clitoral hood. Some labia are puffy and thick, and others are much slimmer.
Apart from the hurtful and all-too-common idea that vulvas or other “female” anatomy is gross, dirty, or shameful, the incredible variation vulvas is often overlooked and not well-understood. This combination of messages socializes lots of vulva owners to believe that they’re broken, weird, deformed, or somehow not “normal.” Unless someone is experiencing pain around their genitals (and if you are, talk with your healthcare provider!), there’s nothing medically amiss about typical variation in the ways that vulvas look. In reality, there is no “normal” way for a vulva to look, and whatever your (or your partner’s) particular configuration is, know that it’s perfect, healthy, beautiful, and downright sexy.