A guide to vulvas: including pubic hair, labia, clitoris, urethra, vagina, lubrication, prostate, ‘G-spot’ and also the anus
I say ‘for some people’ or ‘many people’ a lot in this guide because what is true for one person might not be true for another. This tells you about where your bits are and what they do, but how you feel about them and what feelings you get from them are all very subjective and personal.
People often confuse the vulva with the vagina. It includes the clitoris, the inner and outer labia, the urethra and the vagina (see figure 1).
This is a fleshy area where most pubic hair grows (for those people who keep their pubes). It acts a cushion for the pelvic bone underneath to prevent bruising during intercourse.
Many people choose to shave, trim or wax their pubic hair – to either remove some or all of it. There are lots of reasons why some people like to reduce or remove their pubic hair – many people report they feel sexier or that they feel more sensitive or easier to clean, or cooler. There are other cultural and societal influences at play which affect what people want to do with their pubes. Some people say that people try to copy porn actors by reducing their pubes and that this is a bad thing.
My own view is that people can do whatever they like with their own pubes. If they want to shave it off and replace it with a glittery merkin that’s fine I reckon.
However pubic hair has a function. It protects and lubricates the skin around the vulva so it prevents friction burns. Some people who remove their hair find that they get rashes which they wrongly diagnose as an STI – they are actually just rashes caused by friction or ingrowing hair.
Another function for pubes might be to attract someone. We all have a natural scent (pheremones) which is meant to be able to tell other people a lot about our biological make-up and potentially make us smell attractive to other people – some of this scent comes from our body and pubic hair. However we choose partners based on a helluva lot more than their smell – so don’t take this too seriously!
Labia come in two forms, outer and inner (majora and minora). They can be very sensitive so can have a role to play in sexual pleasure, but they are also thought to protect the urethra and vaginal opening. They come in lots of different shapes, colours and sizes. In fact there is a lot of variation in how they look from person to person but their appearance also changes a lot when they are aroused.
The outer lips are fleshier and more plump than the inner lips and they are smooth. The inner lips often feel a bit different to this – they have more of a flexible shape and can stick out a bit more. Sometimes the inner lips stick out beyond the outer lips and sometimes they don’t. Some people have labiaplasty which is a cosmetic procedure to ‘correct’ something that is totally natural.
During arousal the labia fill with blood (this could be the erectile tissue of the clitoris) causing them to swell and part, to reveal the glans of the clitoris, the urethra and the vaginal opening. Many people enjoy touching the labia when they are masturbating by themselves or with someone else. This could be because of it’s proximity to the internal clitoris but also because it is connected to the clitoral hood.
Many people don’t realise that people pee from a different opening to the vagina. It’s a small opening above the vagina – it’s so small that it can be hard to find.
It’s often advised to pee before and after intercourse in order to prevent urinary tract infections. Intercourse can have the effect of pushing bacteria into the urethra which can lead to a UTI.
Some people feel a need to pee when they are getting close to orgasm – this used to be thought of as a sign of incontinence but is more likely to be to do with the female prostate and ejaculatory fluid. For more see below.
The clitoris is vital in sexual arousal and pleasure. It has no other purpose other than providing sexual pleasure.
It is packed with nerve endings (it’s estimated to have twice as many as in the end of a penis). Most females (up to 70% according to the Hite Report) need to stimulate the clitoris directly in order to have enjoyable sex which might result in orgasm. So most people need some stimulation from a finger, tongue, lips, mouth, vibrating toy, a leg, a penis or someone’s genital area.
As you can see on the diagram the clitoris is locate at the top of the vulva, beneath the pubic mound and at the top of the labia. On the outside it usually doesn’t look very big (the visible part poking out under the clitoral hood can be about the size of a pea) and so can be difficult to find. As it’s so sensitive it is tucked under the clitoral hood which protects and lubricates the clitoris much like foreskin. It also nestles under the pubic mound which acts as a plump cushion for the vulva. However as the body gets more aroused blood rushes to the clitoris making it harder and easier to locate (although many people find that after a while it retracts again as the area surrounding it becomes more swollen with blood).
The clitoris may look small but that’s only the part you can see. The clitoris is a large internal organ and it’s pretty similar in size to a penis. It works in a similar way to a penis – sexually at least. As you can see in figure 2 the clitoris extends either side of the vulva behind the labia.
It’s a complex and diffuse structure of nerve endings and tissue which surrounds the vagina and extends down towards the perineum and anus. The outside part of the clitoris is the ‘glans’ and the inside parts are called bulbs and legs – these are made up of spongy erectile tissue similar to the corpus cavernosa in the penis. This tissue fills with blood during arousal which makes the whole vulva feel more sensitive – many people say that they feel that their vulva is throbbing and pulsating when they are turned on, this is because of the internal clitoris.
So what does this mean? It explains why some people enjoy stimulation in other parts of the vulva such as the labia or around the urethra. When masturbating many people enjoy placing the palm of their hand over the whole vulva. Many people believe that the clitoris is the reason that people enjoy stimulation around the vaginal opening and that this is responsible for enjoyable vaginal sex (for more on this see the vagina).
It’s important so that people don’t see the clitoris as a small, out of the way and inconvenient part of the anatomy and to see it for being large, powerful and important which has a central role in enjoyable entry sex in the vagina.
The opening to the vagina is located between the urethra and the anus. The opening expands and relaxes and becomes slippy when feeling aroused.
At the opening is the vaginal corona which used to be referred to as the hymen. The corona is folds of mucous tissue at the opening to the vagina which stretch and loosen gradually with fingers, tampons and entry sex. Just inside the vagina are more folds of tissue and nerve ending which can feel very pleasurable to touch.
Like the clitoris the vagina isn’t well understood by many people. It’s not simply a passive tube or receptacle but a very flexible and changeable organ which expands, contracts and lengthens during arousal. It stretches and contracts a lot (obviously this is important in child birth).
It is surrounded by muscle which enables the vagina to provide a snug, comfortable fit for fingers, a toy or a penis when having sex. These kegel muscles can be strengthened with specific exercises (which are also used to treat incontinence) and many people find that this can increase the muscular contractions during orgasm which can increase pleasure.
The length and width of the vagina changes a lot when they become aroused. In ‘resting’ state (not aroused) they are around 2.5 inches long (though this varies from 1.5 to 3.5 inches). When aroused it quickly stretches in length to around double the resting length.
During arousal the vagina stays around the same width at the opening but, at the other end, it expands in the space either side of the cervix (the front (anterior) and back (posterior) fornix) which creates more space for a penis or toy or fingers (see figure 3). During entry sex the vagina straightens and the cervix is pushed up which also creates more space for deeper penetration. Some people enjoy stimulation around the cervix, particularly in the front fornix.
These are variations in vagina size but, like the penis, they aren’t associated with race. There are small variations for age and height but no statistically significant associations for weight. (So larger women don’t have larger vaginas or vice versa). I haven’t seen any data about whether previous sexual partners can have an effect on vagina size, but child birth has a very little effect on vagina size so I imagine that previous partners wouldn’t have much of an effect if any.
A ‘looser’ feeling during entry sex as someone gets older is less likely to do with a change in the size of the vaginal opening but more to do with lubrication and moisture.
Lubrication and Moisture
The walls of the vagina secrete the moisture during arousal which lubricates the vaginal canal and the vaginal opening. This moisture comes from deep inside the vagina rather than from the outside. Some people produce more wetness than others. Some people produce more moisture at different times in their menstrual cycle.
Having a dry vagina might indicate that someone isn’t quite aroused enough but some people find that no matter how turned on they are they just don’t produce as much of their own lubricant as they would like. This is why lots of people have a bottle of lube by the bed. Some people find that they produce a bit too much wetness, meaning that sex is too slippery and therefore not providing them with the sensation they need – a hand towel nearby can dampen things down a little bit from time to time.
Moisture around the vulva comes from a number of different areas. The clitoral hood, the labia, the opening to the vagina and the cervix all have or secrete different kinds of wetness. Many people are concerned about the smell or the taste of their vulva from this wetness. All vulvas have a unique scent, some smell and taste stronger than others and at different times of the month. It’s important not to try too hard to get rid of this smell through excessive washing, as this can cause a painful infection in the vagina (a symptom of which is a very smelly vagina). The vagina has it’s own unique pH level which enables it to clean itself.
The G-Spot is a very controversial and much disputed area. Scientists have been trying to pin down whether it is a distinct anatomical feature for years. Currently we don’t know for sure whether Dr Grafenburg (for it is he) was right in identifying an actual ‘G Spot’.
Rather than asking scientists to try and locate anatomy I think it’s far more useful to ask people with vaginas what they think, what areas they like to have stimulated, how they experience pleasure and orgasms. Many many many people enjoy stimulation of an area on the front wall of the vagina (the upper wall closest to the belly button) in the first few inches of the vagina. There are folds of skin tissue and nerve endings which feel very pleasurable for many people. The G Spot area has become a shorthand for this area.
What causes this area to be particularly sensitive for many people? We don’t know for sure. There are more nerve endings at the opening to the vagina than deeper inside. It’s also around the area where the internal clitoris meets the vaginal wall, so some people could be stimulating their clitoris from the inside when they are exploring this area. Pressing up on this area might be like pressing up on the underside of the clitoris. Or it could be something to do with the female prostate.
Prostate and Ejaculation
Formally known as the Skene’s gland the female prostate is thought to surround the urethra in the vulva just above the opening to the vagina. Like much of the female sexual anatomy this is an area where we are still finding out new information. The prostate is about the size of a walnut and it sits mainly underneath and around the urethra. It is thought to be bigger at one end than the other and the position of it can vary from person to person. Some say that this prostatic tissue extends all the way along the urethra to the bladder. It’s not clear yet whether all females have a prostate (one study suggests that 90% of females do).
The prostate produces a fluid which can be transmitted into the urethra, which explains why many people report a feeling of needing to pee when they are close to orgasm. It also explains why many people squirt a fluid when they do. Despite this fluid coming from the urethra it is thought not to be urine. It is a fluid which has a similar make-up to semen. Some people squirt a lot of fluid over a large distance, others a less noticeable amount – this is what we know as female ejaculation.
Many people find this a strange and uncomfortable feeling, possibly because they have been taught that the only fluid which leaves the urethra is pee. We often given the impression that sex is clean and tidy – often we only find out that sex can be messy, sweaty, unsanitary and smelly when we actually do it. In Hollywood or TV sex there are no fluids, no-one even seems to break into a sweat. The idea that a woman could ejaculate a fluid which could create a lot of mess goes against this idea in a big way.
Female ejaculation is something that some people want to avoid, which is fine, but it’s also something that some people want to explore, which is also fine. Not everyone can ejaculate when they have sex but those that do often report that clitoral and G Spot area stimulation causes this. Ejaculation isn’t a sign of a ‘better’ or ‘stronger’ orgasm, but it is something that just happens with a lot of people or something that other people just wish to explore.
If you’d like to read more about this check this interesting history of the female prostate and ejaculation (pdf)
Perineum and Anus
Many people find that their perineum and anus are very very sensitive and enjoy this area to be played with during masturbation or when having entry sex. There are lots and lots of nerve endings which can feel very sensitive. This area is very close to the vagina and to the internal clitoris, which may have a role in making it a pleasant area for many to stimulate.
Unlike the vagina, the anus does not produce its own lubrication during arousal. So additional lubricant is needed for entry sex in the anus. For entry sex using toys it’s also really important to use a toy which is smooth with a flared base.
For further reading
How Sex Works by Dr Sharon Moalem
Guide to Getting It On by Paul Joannides