Vulva Facts: AMA

Vulva Facts: AMA

I’m going to talk about vulvas. If you don’t like to think about those, don’t read this post. But if you have a vulva, or regularly interact with one, you should probably work to become comfortable thinking about them. They’re a body part just like any other, and sometimes they need care or consideration.

 

The first section will be general information about the vulva, and the second section will be care and problem solving!
Section I:

So, to start out: anything between the mons pubis (the pubic mound, the small bony bump under the pubic hair) and the perineum (the skin between the vagina and the anus) is the vulva. It’s not the vagina. The vagina is the canal that leads to the cervix and uterus. When you’re referring to that entire genital area, calling it “the vagina” is wrong. I happen to like the word vulva, but if you don’t, there are a lot of nicknames for it.

 

The vulva has two sets of labia. The outer labia are fleshy and plump, and often have hair growing on them. That is normal. The inner labia are folds of skin, and generally don’t have much/any hair growing on them. They can be small, and remain hidden between the outer labia, or they can be larger, and hang out from between the outer labia. Any size of labia is normal and fine. Most porn depicts people with very small inner labia, but the majority of people with vulvas have larger labia. Labia are stretchy, to an extent, and can be any color from extremely pale to extremely dark.

 

In between the inner labia are the glans clitoris (just at the very top), the urethra (where you pee from), and the vagina (nearer to the bottom). If you google image search “diagram of the vulva,” the second image is a pretty good one for seeing where all of the parts are.

The glans clitoris is usually tucked away behind a tiny hood, to protect it from getting rubbed or touched unpleasantly. It generally gets a tiny erection during arousal and comes out from behind the hood – it’s made from very similar tissue to the glans of the penis! (fun fact, the labia are the same kind of tissue as the scrotum. We’re all made of the same stuff!) The clitoris is actually much, much larger than the visible glans – it has two sets of protrusions (bulbs and legs), and a shaft. All of that is inside the body, and explains a lot of the pleasure that’s experienced during things like penetrative sex and labial massage. Google image search “diagram of the clitoris” and check out the third or fourth image.

 

The vagina is stretchy. It’s made of flat folds of skin and muscle that are usually contracted and flat, but that can expand and unfold during sexual arousal to become larger and deeper, like blowing up an origami balloon. It’s why inserting a tampon can be unpleasant, but an erect penis or larger insertable sex toy can still fit inside. And, you know, a baby can come out.

The hymen is another piece of skin, a membrane which often covers the entrance to the vagina. It occasionally covers the entire vaginal opening, but is usually just a partial cover. The hymen does NOT always rip and bleed the first time someone has penetrative intercourse. First of all, the hymen doesn’t have to rip – it often stretches. It can stretch and reveal more of the vaginal opening with normal puberty, with early use of tampons or masturbation, or from physical activity like exercise or accidents. Sometimes, it does rip. This happens more commonly from an accident or from penetrative sex without arousal. The hymen ripping is not necessarily an indicator of someone who has had sex, firstly because it often stretches or rips without any sexual activity at all, and secondly because if it does rip, it can heal, and look similar to how it did before it ripped. Penetrative sex without any arousal or lubrication can make tearing skin more likely, so just be gentle with the vulva. Give it time

 

 

Section II:

Caring for your (or others’) vulva.

 

To start off: the vagina is not naturally dirty. Its baseline look, texture, and smell are ALL FINE. No, it doesn’t smell like lavender, but that’s because it’s a vagina, not a lavender blossom. Using scented soaps is Not Good for your vulva or vagina, so keep the Bath & Body Works away from your vulva.

You should NEVER EVER put soap INSIDE of your vagina. It has a very delicate balance of oils, secretions, and bacteria, and anything you do to mess with that can cause any number of problems. The vagina is self-cleaning, so you do NOT need to clean it. Even during the menstrual cycle – the vagina knows how to deal with blood, and is equipped to handle the ph changes that come with blood, too. Not soap. Don’t soap, don’t douche. Just let your vagina do it’s thing. If any sex toys or fingers are going to be inserted into the vagina, make sure they’ve been cleaned thoroughly first (with soap, then rinse off all of the soap).

 

Some people feel a need to wash their labia with soap. It does get oily, and can have smegma in the folds (a mix of skin oils and dead skin cells and secretions), and sometimes warm water or a damp washcloth doesn’t quite feel clean enough. So 1), assess if your definition of “not clean enough” is informed by porn, media, and rude partners. If it has the scent of a vagina, or is slightly oily, those are totally natural, and attempting to totally get rid of the smell or natural protective oils is actually pretty bad for your vulva, and 2) use UNSCENTED soap only, and use your fingers (not a loofah) to carefully clean out your labial folds, and maybe around the clitoral hood. Don’t scrub with soap between your inner labia, and don’t get soap in the vaginal entrance. Then thoroughly rinse with water, and consider moisturizing your labia with another non-scented product, if the soap dries them out too much.

 

Back to the vagina: vaginas regularly produce discharge. It’s part of that “self cleaning” feature. It doesn’t mean it’s dirty, or that you’re aroused all of the time. It’s natural. A couple of years ago, I saw a horrible fad of young people (like, 11-14) taking photographs of the inside of their pulled-down underwear and posting them on social media to show that they were “clean.” That’s….awful on so, so many levels. Vaginas produce discharge. They just do. If they don’t, it’s probably fine and normal as well, but make sure to at least mention that fact to a gynecologist, because it could be a sign that the glands that produce lubrication in the vagina aren’t quite doing their thing.

Discharge will vary in appearance and consistency depending on hormone levels, but each person with a vagina should become fairly familiar with its appearance over time. It can be anywhere from clear to white to yellow, and that is NORMAL. If it’s your baseline, that is FINE. It’s when discharge rapidly changes color or consistency that there is cause for concern.

 

One of the most common things that can happen to a vagina is a vaginal yeast infection. That’s when a skewed ph balance in the vagina kills too much of the bacteria (remember – some is good!), and the yeast in the vagina (which is also naturally there) is able to grow out of control. That increase in yeast produces a chalky white, chunky discharge that’s often one of the first signs of a yeast infection. It also causes redness, itching, irritation, and makes the labia more likely to tear. If you feel those symptoms for the first time, go to a doctor before buying an over the counter antifungal, because it may be vaginosis or an STI (sexually transmitted infection), and waiting the 3-5 days for the yeast infection to clear up after using, say, Monistat will allow that STI or vaginitis to get worse.

Many, many things can cause a yeast infection, but anything that decreases bacteria or increases yeast are the top contenders. Things that increase yeast can theoretically be eating too much dairy or sugar, or getting sugar in the vagina. Things that decrease bacteria can be taking an antibiotic. There’s a very common, very unpleasant cycle that some people experience which is: getting a UTI, taking an antibiotic to clear that up, getting a yeast infection from taking the antibiotic, and then the discharge or moist environment causing another UTI. Changing your diet has not (as far as I know) been shown in studies to reduce the likelihood of getting a yeast infection, but there’s some serious anecdotal evidence out there. So, YMMV. Things like probiotics and wearing cotton underwear are also said to help keep the body all balanced. The gut and the vagina are two unconnected systems, but again, anecdotal evidence.

 

Another thing that happens to vaginas is the opposite problem: not enough yeast, too much bacteria. That can cause bacterial vaginosis, which causes a “fishy” odor and a difference in discharge consistency/color, plus itching and redness.

 

A urinary tract infection is an infection between the urethra and the bladder. They’re especially common in people with vulvas, because that tract is quite short. They happen when bacteria get up in the urethra, and grows into an infection, and can be HORRIBLY painful, and even develop into a life threatening kidney infection, if left untreated. They can be prevented in many people by hydrating, and peeing after sex, exercise, swimming, and other activities where sweat or dirt or bodily fluids come in contact with the vulva.

Vaginitis is inflammation and pain in the vagina, regardless of the cause.

Vulvodynia is chronic, unexplained pain in the vulva and vaginal opening.

Vaginusmus is involuntary muscular spasms that occur whenever anything touches or tries to enter or enters the vaginal entrance (severity and specifics depend on the person).

 

If it’s the first or second time you’re experiencing a specific set of symptoms, go talk to your gynecologist. Even if it’s textbook symptoms for something common, your body might be reacting in an unusual way, and you should get a medical diagnosis before you try to treat it.

 

Please note: avoid lube that has glycerin in it. You know what yeast loves to eat? Sugar. You know what glycerin is? Sugar. If you want a flavored lube, get one that’s marked “glycerin free,” that uses artificial sweetener that yeast won’t eat.

Something people say sometimes is “if it’s food safe, it’s body safe!” meaning, you can use it as lube. That’s not always true, because sugar is food. Just keep in mind that there is a very delicate balance of flora in your vagina, and that anything yeast or bacteria would like to eat can upset that balance. (So no chocolate sauce and then oral sex, please!)

Some people love using coconut oil as lube. There are pros and cons to doing that. It’s very moisturizing, so if the labia are dry and getting microtears, using coconut oil on them can help reduce that damage. It’s not petroleum based oil, but studies still suggest that coconut oil can still cause up to 90% weakening in a latex condom. It’s theoretically antifungal and antibacterial, but a) the studies that suggest that actually just say that one of the kinds of fatty-acid chains in coconut oil, when separated from the rest of its components, can be refined into something that is antifungal and antibacterial, and b) your vagina *needs* its bacteria and yeast. So, you know, use it cautiously. Some people swear by it. I love using it to reduce labial dryness during a yeast infection. But you should maybe be careful to keep it out of your vagina. You do you.

 

Trimming pubic hair can be extremely difficult. Anyone who does so likely has their own routine that may combine waxing, plucking, shaving, using an epilator (hand-held hair-pulling machine), using depilatory cream (cream used to dissolve body hair), using scissors, etc. Everyone’s body is different, so the hair removal tricks that work for one person may cause a rash or ingrown hairs in another. Ingrown hairs are the worst. They suck even more on the labia. Just, trust me. If your partner doesn’t remove their public hair, that is 100% their business. If you seriously hate interacting with pubic hair (there could be texture or taste issues, I guess), you can gently bring it up to your partner, but understand this: afab people have spent their whole lives being told that they have to fit one exact mold in order to be seen as attractive. Part of that mold is someone with trimmed or entirely bare genitals. People who don’t shave are making a conscious decision to put their health and comfort and time over the social ideal of a “perfect woman’s” genitals. So before you bring your personal preference up with your partner, meditate on that heavy baggage, and how you’ll be increasing it. And decide if you can get used to pulling hairs off your tongue.

Pubic hair can grow as far up as the naval (sometimes even higher, in some people!), and down the inner thighs. All of that is natural. If you don’t like that on your partner, I don’t care. Learn to like it, or keep your mouth shut.

 

Vulva facts:

– Some people can’t go commando, because longer labia chafe against their thighs.
– Most people with vulvas don’t penetrate their vaginas during solo masturbation. This is a statistic, and each person is different, but recognize that the vagina is not all people’s first stop for pleasure.
– People with vulvas also grow some hair around their anus. It’s also natural.
– Period blood can get matted in pubic hair. It’s yucky. Please provide extra chocolate.
– Menstrual cramps can be literally more painful than a heart attack. This is distressing for two reasons. 1) menstrual cramps can be horrifically painful, and they aren’t seen a legitimate reason to, say, call off work. 2) Heart attacks in women (I think just cis women were studied) have different symptoms than heart attacks in men. So many women feel pain in their body and think “eh, I’ve had worse periods,” and don’t go to a hospital for a serious illness.
– Reminder, again, that the external genitalia between the pubic mound and the perineum is all called the vulva. If you’re referring to what’s visible from the outside, it’s the vulva. The vagina is just the canal.
– Not all people with vulvas like having their clitoris touched, or having their g-spot stimulated. Even if you’re trying to go for giving your partner pleasure, the typical spots with lots of nerve endings might not feel good to them, or only feel good under specific circumstances. Use your words before your fingers/tongue/dick/toy/etc.
– There are many ways to simulate the clitoris that aren’t just directly interacting with the glans. If you gently pinch the flesh below the glans, you’ll be able to feel the clitoral shaft. On some people with vulvas, that can feel good.

 
There is SO MUCH more to say about the vulva, but this is all that currently comes to mind that folks might want to know. But below in the comments: Vulva AMA. Seriously. If you have any question about the vulva, vagina, or surrounding real estate, ask away, and I’ll do my best to answer.

People with vulvas, medical professions, and sexperts, feel free to weigh in or add information!

2 thoughts on “Vulva Facts: AMA

  1. Great info – thanks for putting it all in one place in such a helpful format!

    One editorial note (which I hope is constructive and not mansplainy): citing “the second image in a Google search” is unreliable, because Google search results change over time and are potentially different from person to person (because our Google overlords know everything about all of us and use that information to tailor what they show us; whether they are using this power for good or evil is of course a whole big complicated debate unto itself). Giving direct links to the images (with credit of course) or to the articles they come from is a better way to ensure your readers find the image you’re intending to direct them to.

    Like

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