Sexual Anatomy, Reproduction, and the Menstrual Cycle
Sexual Anatomy: The Self-Guided Tour
An abbrievated version of this tour, along with accompanying tables and illustrations, is published in Our Bodies, Ourselves: A New Edition for a New Era.
One way to learn about your body is to take a self-guided tour. This tour describes the sexual and reproductive organs you can see, both outside and inside your body. You may wish to have a hand mirror or lubricant nearby if you wish to see and feel many of the parts described on the tour.
As you may well know, women have three openings in our genital areas—a vaginal opening which leads to the vagina, an anus which leads to the rectum (the end of the large intestine, or colon), and a urinary opening which leads to the urethra, a short (about an inch and a half) thin tube leading to your bladder. (Men, in contrast, have only two openings—the urethra and anus). The urinary opening is where we urinate (or pee). The anus is where we defecate (or poop), and the vaginal opening leads to the vagina. It is through the vagina that we menstruate; it is the birth canal through which babies travel to the outside world (unless they’re delivered by surgery), and where we might insert a tampon, finger, dildo, penis, fist, vibrator, or speculum. We might also insert a finger, penis, dildo, or butt plug in our anus.
On the Outside
First, you will see your vulva, or outer genitals. The terms yoni, pussy, and cunt also describe the vulva. Sometimes these words are used in a derogatory way to dis-empower women, but some women have reclaimed their power by using them with pride. Often we confuse the words vagina and vulva. Remember that vulva describes the outside that you can see easily and includes many parts. The vagina is just one part on the inside of our bodies. The most obvious feature on an adult woman is the pubic hair. Like hair under our arms, pubic hair looks and feels different on different women—your own pubic hair also may change over time. After menopause, the hair thins out. Hair on your head grows out of your scalp, and pubic hair grows from the soft fatty tissue called the mons and over the outer lips. The mons area lies over the joint of the pubic bones called the pubis symphysis. Pubic bones are part of the pelvic bones or hip girdle. You cannot feel the actual joint, though you can feel the bones under the soft outer skin—try placing one hand on each hip and tracing your hip bones down in a V-shape toward your vulva.
To continue the tour, spread apart your legs. With a mirror, you can see that pubic hair continues between your legs and probably around your anus. You can feel that the hair-covered area between your legs is also fatty, like the mons. This fatty area forms flaps, called the outer lips (labia majora), which are more or less pronounced for different women. In some, the skin of the outer lips is darker. The outer lips surround two soft flaps of skin that are hairless. These are the inner lips (labia minora). They are sensitive to touch. With sexual stimulation they swell and may turn darker. If you gently spread apart the inner lips, you can see that they protect a delicate area between them. This is the vestibule. The area between the vaginal opening and the anus is the perineum, which may feel soft or slippery.
The Vagina and its neighbors:
Around the vaginal opening you may be able to see the remnants of the hymen. When you were born, it was a thin membrane surrounding the vaginal opening, partially blocking the opening but almost never covering it completely. Hymens come in widely varying sizes and shapes. For most women the hymen stretches easily—by a finger as well as by a dildo, penis, or tampon. Even after it has been stretched, little folds of hymen tissue remain.
You may or may not be able to see the remains of your hymen, because they disappear for different reasons and at different times. Exercising, using a tampon, the hormonal changes during puberty, and sexual activity can all cause the hymen to disintegrate. Whether or not you have a visible hymen says nothing about whether or not you have had sex—it is impossible to tell simply by looking at a woman’s hymen whether she has had sexual intercourse.
If you want, insert a finger or two into your vagina. (If you try and it hurts or you have trouble, take a deep breath, relax, and use lubricant such as Astroglide or KY Jelly—you may be pushing at the wrong angle or your vagina may be dry. Shifting positions, breathing deeply, and using lubricant should help this. And remember, it’s your tour—feel free to try again or not whenever you like.) Notice how the vaginal walls, which were touching each other, spread around your fingers and hug them. Feel the soft folds of skin. These folds allow the vagina to mold itself around what might be inside it: fingers, a tampon, a penis, a dildo, a vibrator, or a baby during childbirth.
If you move your fingers (in small circles inside the vagina or gently in and out of it), you may notice that your fingers slide around inside the vagina. The walls of the vagina may be almost dry to very wet. How wet your vagina is depends on you (some women naturally have wetter or drier vaginas), and your own wetness may change. Drier times usually occur before puberty, during lactation, and after menopause as well as during that part of the menstrual cycle right before and right after bleeding. Wetter times occur around ovulation, during pregnancy, and during sexual arousal. These continuous secretions provide lubrication, help keep the vagina clean, and maintain the acidity of the vagina, which helps to prevent some infections. Thus the vagina is a wonderful self-cleaning instrument that does not require douching. In fact, douching may be harmful to your vagina.
Now let’s try to find a particular area near the vagina: the urethral sponge (also called perineal sponge) or G-spot. Some of us know exactly where our G-spot is, and for others of us, locating our G-spot is more challenging. The G-spot (named for Dr. Grafenberg who originally wrote about it) refers to an area inside our bodies (it surrounds the urethra but we can feel it when we press up against the front wall of our vagina). Stimulating this area may lead to orgasm and/or ejaculation. To feel your G-spot, try to touch the front wall of your vagina, below your belly button. You may feel it about 1/3 to half the way up your vagina, not as high up as your cervix. It’s another stop on the self-guided tour that may be more difficult to find, but many women report that it’s a hidden jewel.
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