Understanding the Vulva: Part 1 – Anatomy

The news over several months has been abuzz with the absolutely horrible disgusting and harmful bills being passed and proposed with regards to reproductive rights including access to abortions. The bills which will harm all uterus havers as well as women, has sparked discussions surrounding reproduction which have revealed a distressing lack of knowledge on the subject.

This should be less surprising than it is, given that the organs and parts that make up a uterine reproductive system are not even fully understood by many in the medical field, so it’s not unrealistic that those who grow up as part of the restrictive culture surrounding the whole area of reproduction would be pretty ignorant on the subject, but it is telling that even the basic anatomy and biology of what happens is so poorly understood. Additionally, with the tradition of separating children according to gender during sex ed classes, means that men in particular seem to ignorant of what goes on in Uterus haver’s bodies.

As someone who has studied this area from both a medical and sexology perspective, as well as a personal one, I thought it might be helpful to clear up some misconceptions. Since this post ended up being a lot longer than I expected at first, it’s divided into two parts.

Let’s start with just a basic anatomy.

What IS a Vulva?

A vulva is one of the variety of possible presentations of external genitalia that can occur in the human species. It is the name given to the area that includes but may not be limited to:

  • the clitoris,
  • labia minora,
  • labia majora,
  • urethral opening,
  • vaginal opening,
  • and the anus.

Wait, so what is a Vagina?

The vagina is specifically the passageway or hallway that connects the vulva to the cervix and the uterus. It’s essentially a tunnel that facilitates passage of sperm into and through the cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes where they can potentially fertilize an ovum and start the process of procreation. It is an access point for a penetrative object, whether penis, finger, or otherwise. It is also the tunnel through which babies exit the uterus during a vaginal birth. It’s the passageway through which menstrual by-product exits the body.

In between periods of arousal, the vagina will change its position so as to take up less space.  During arousal, it will straighten and lengthen. The walls of the vagina, will become more rigid. The whole process is similar to when a penis becomes erect only the process happens internally rather than externally.

Although penetration is possible during periods of non-arousal, it is more likely to be painful as the cervix is a lot closer to the opening and more likely to be jostled and bruised. Much like how trying to insert a soft penis into an opening is more difficult because of the lack of rigidity, so too is insertion more difficult when the walls of the vagina are relaxed and curving in on each other. The penetrative object is more likely to press into the sides of the walls and so risk damaging or traumatizing them.

A response similar to arousal can be triggered as a self-preservation sequence when the vagina is penetrated during a period of non-arousal to prevent injury. This is an automatic response and not something that can be controlled by the individual in question.

Since the vagina is the primary source of pleasure for a penis during PiV sex, this one part of the reproductive system connected to the uterus was given priority by cis men and is why it is used incorrectly by some when they mean to discuss a vulva.

NOTE: Neither urine nor feces should exit the body through the vagina. If it does, this is an indication of something seriously wrong like a fistula, or severe tear, and so on.

Where do those things come out?

Urine exits the body through the urethra. The opening of the urethra is usually a small hole, sometimes not really visible, located a bit below the clitoral hood. It is not part of the clitoris but its own separate thing.

Feces exits through the Anus which is a third hole often located below the vaginal opening.

What are the Clit, and the Labia for?

The labia, both majora and minora, exist to protect the vulva and vaginal opening. The external labia, or labia majora are filled with fatty tissue and act as a sort of insulation. The labia minora on the other hand, contain very little fatty tissue.

They come in a variety of shapes, colours, and sizes. During arousal, the labia may swell in size as they fill with blood. In fact the only conclusive way to tell if a person with a vulva has had an orgasm is to observe the darkening colour of the labia minora immediately before. It can darken from a dark pink to a dark purple, affected among other things by the skin tone. The sebaceous glad which lubricates the skin is located around the labia.

The clitoris or clit is an organ whose entire purpose is pleasure. It contains more nerve endings than a penis. It’s so sensitive, that the majority of this organ is actually located internally, with only the tip protruding beneath the clitoral hood. How much protrudes is individual, with some only protruding a little bit, and other protruding a lot more. Internally, the clit extends into two wing-like appendages.

The clit is THE PRIMARY SOURCE of pleasure during intercourse. 70% of people with vulva cannot orgasm without some direct stimulation of the clit. In the 30% who can, it’s often because either the shape of that persons body allows for some clitoral stimulation during PiV, usually because they are able to stimulate it against their partner’s pubic bone, or because they have another pleasure zone which may be stimulated to orgasm such as cases of people who can orgasm from having their eyebrow rubbed or even one case of a woman who orgasmed when brushing her teeth.

Not stimulating the clit during intercourse and expecting orgasm would be similar to someone expecting someone with a penis to orgasm while only having their balls stimulated. It might happen occasionally with some people, but it on the whole, pretty unlikely.

Because the clit doesn’t interact directly with the penis during sexual intercourse, there was a bias against it in a predominantly male medical field, however, more and more evidence continuously and conclusively suggests that if you want your partner with a vulva to orgasm you MUST stimulate the clit. It’s not that hard to find either, just look for the clitoral hood right above it.

What about the rest of the reproductive system?

Moving up from the vagina, the first bit you encounter is the cervix. The cervix is a grouping of strong muscles that protects the uterus by blocking things from entering into it. It dilates slightly to allow for the exit of menstrual fluid from the body, and much more intensely to allow for the exit of a baby during birth. Before birth, the cervix stays shut to prevent the baby from entering the vaginal canal. This is what the doctor is referring to when they say that a woman is x cm dilated during labour. The Cervix must fully dilate before a baby can exit the uterus.

During intercourse, it is NOT actually possible for a penis to pass through the cervix into a uterus. The process of having your cervix forcefully stretched or opened is actually fairly painful, especially for anyone who hasn’t had kids. This may be done during certain procedures when access to the uterus is necessary, including but not limited to the insertion of an IUD.

The cervix leads to the Uterus, whose primary function is as a sort of incubator for a fertilized egg or ovum. It provides nutrition as well as protection for the ovum, as it develops into an embryo, fetus, and until finally it reaches maturity and is able to be born.

The sides of the uterus are lined with an epithelial layer known as the endometrium. The endometrium provides nutrition and a place to implant for any potentially fertilized ovum, as well as providing a lining that allows the uterus to remain a cavity. Over the course of the cycle, the lining will thicken with nutrients and blood vessels, then after a period of time, if no progesterone is detected, the endometrium shed the lining. The blood vessels in the lining die off and the whole thing passes through the vagina over the course of a 3-7 day period called… a period or menstruation. The stuff coming out is not actually blood but rather a collection of blood vessels along a membrane, which contains the remains of blood. This is partially why the idea that periods cause iron deficiency doesn’t actually make sense since this group of blood was gathered over most of the month and not all at once.

On both sides of the Uterus is a tube reaching up towards the ovaries. These tubes, known as the Fallopian Tubes act as both a passageway for an ovulated ovum, whether fertilized or not, to pass from the ovary to the uterus, but have also recently discovered to contain small spaces that can store sperm for a few days.

The Ovary is not actually attached to the Fallopian Tube, but this is where the cells that become the eggs are stored in sacs called Follicles. All the follicles are at different stages of growth.

Understanding the Vulva: Part 1 – Anatomy
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