Anatomy of the Vulva

Photograph Showing the Anatomy of the Vulva
This is a well developed vulva with clearly defined structures, identified.

First a note about the illustrations and photographs shown in this article. The shape and appearance of the female genitals vary considerably from one woman to the next. A woman's vulva is as unique in appearance as her face. Only a small percentage of women will have genitals that look exactly like those portrayed. I use multiple images to provide an indication of just how varied in appearance the vulva can be. Many of the illustrations are taken from life, whereas anatomy and sexuality books often show what the author or illustrator felt was the correct or ideal shape. Few women's genitals are as symmetrical as they portray. As such, they are usually inaccurate for the majority of women.

The external female sexual organs, genitals, are collectively know as the vulva. The vulva is comprised of many anatomical structures, and is much more complex than many realize. The reason why many have no idea as to the anatomy of the female genitals is, we as a society have reduced women's sexual anatomy down to nothing more than their vagina. We say girls and women have a 'vagina,' rather than saying they have a 'vulva', which is both inappropriate and inaccurate. We have made the vagina the center of female sexuality, when in fact, for the majority of women their vulva is. By not naming the vulva we deny its existence, along with all that it contains, which has negative consequences for girls and women.

Since many sex education classes are more about reproduction than sex, the anatomy of the female genitals is frequently not taught, or is lacking in detail. Since much of the vulva plays no active role in reproduction, having only a sexual purpose, some believe it is inappropriate to teach children about it, as doing so would expose them to 'harmful sexual information'. Reportedly, few men can identify all the different parts of a vulva, and I suspect many women are just as unaware of their anatomy. Women may be less aware than men, as men have likely seen their partner's vulva, or photographs of the vulva, but many women have never viewed their vulva, or anyone else's. The information presented below will help you become more aware of female sexual anatomy, and as a result, more women will find sex enjoyable and satisfying.

Vulva at Rest, with Birth Canal Identified
Vulva at Rest, with Birth Canal Identified. From the book Atlas of Human Sex Anatomy by Robert Latou Dickinson M.D., F.A.C.S.. Copyright 1949 The Williams & Wilkins Company.

The above illustration depicts what the adult female genitals may look like when the labia majora are at rest, that is, not spread open. The illustration depicts what the illustrator, a doctor, determined was an average vulva, based on his examination of European and North American women. The original is life size. The black outline depicts the placement of the pelvic bones that form the pelvic outlet, or birth canal. The visible structures are the mons veneris, labia majora, pudendal cleft, perineum, and anus. While not depicted in this illustration, a significant percentage of women will have labia minora that are always visible, as they project out between the labia majora, and often the clitoral hood is always visible too . Illustrations and photographs showing vulvas having these characteristics can be found below, and in the articles about clitoral and labial size and female body image.

The mons veneris or mons pubis is the pad of soft fatty tissue that covers the pubic bone. It is often covered by a thick growth of hair after the onset of puberty, unless a woman chooses to trim or remove it. In Latin, "Mons veneris" means "mound of Venus." Venus was the name given to the Roman Goddess of love. Hence, "mons veneris" has come to mean "Mountain of Love." It is so named because the fatty tissue located here is sensitive to estrogen, and with the onset of puberty estrogen levels increase causing a distinct pubic mound to form. It is often very visible when a woman is naked, or wears form fitting clothing, depending on the shape of the underlying pelvic bones and/or amount of fat present. It is thought to provide a protective cushion between the pubic bones of a woman and her partner during sexual intercourse, when penetration is from the front.

The skin covering the mons veneris contains many nerve endings. As a result, a woman may enjoy having this area caressed, as well as having the hair that covers it stroked and tugged on gently. Some women find they are able to experience orgasm when their mons veneris is massaged, or when they press it against a firm or padded surface while masturbating. This is in part due to the clitoris being located beneath its lower boundary, and the suspensory ligament of the clitoris extending up into the tissues of the pubic mound, which may transfer pressure and strain to the clitoris. A woman may find this area more sensitive to stimulation when it is clean-shaven, as then the nerve endings can be directly stimulated.

The labia majora are two folds of skin, in some they are more like mounds than folds, that define the pudendal cleft, and conceal and protect the more delicate structures of the vulva. The size and shape of the labia majora vary considerably. The labia majora of young girls are usually flat and smooth, having the same color as that of the surrounding tissue. With the onset of puberty, and the subsequent increase in body fat, the labia majora often times become more prominent. The front portion of each labia majora is usually thicker than the rear, tapering down and merging with the perineum. The above illustration depicts labia majora having this triangular shape. With increasing age, they may lose some of their fat content, becoming flatter and more wrinkled in appearance.

In adulthood, the outer surfaces of the labia majora are sometimes of a different color than that of the surrounding tissue, and may appear smooth or wrinkled. The skin may have the same wrinkled appearance as the scrotum, their male counterpart. After the onset of puberty the outer surfaces are usually covered with hair. When a woman is sexually aroused, the labia majora may darken or become reddish in color, as blood flow increases in the area.

The inner surfaces are smooth and shiny, and densely populated with oil and sweat producing glands and nerve endings. The oil and sweat glands are responsible for the smooth shiny appearance, and helping keep the vulva healthy. The skin color is dependent on a person's skin tone, varying from light pink to dark brown. Between the inner and outer skin surfaces is a collection of fat and smooth muscle. We can not voluntarily control smooth muscles; the skin of the scrotum automatically relaxes or contracts depending on the ambient temperature and level of sexual arousal.

The flat area between the pudendal cleft and the anus is called the perineum. Some references indicate the perineum is hairless, but this is not true for many women. The skin of the perineum is populated by numerous nerve endings, causing some women to enjoy having this area caressed and massaged during sex. The muscles covering the clitoral bulbs and crura contract automatically as a result of stimulation of this area. Anatomy references, versus sexuality references, indicate the perineum extends from the anus up to the urethra.

The anus is the passage into the rectum and lower intestine through which feces passes during a bowel movement. The anal tissues are rich with blood vessels and nerve endings. Many women find their anus to be very sensitive to stimulation. The sensitivity being the result of a protection mechanism intended to keep foreign objects out, to prevent injury and disease. Two sets of muscles encircle the anus just under the skin. The involuntary contraction of these muscles can make anal sex and intercourse painful or impossible, if proper care and technique isn't utilized. For some women, their anus is an important part of their sexual anatomy, sometimes being more sensitive than their vagina and clitoris.

Vulva of Virgin - Labia Spread Open
Vulva of Virgin - Labia Spread Open. From the book Atlas of Human Sex Anatomy by Robert Latou Dickinson M.D., F.A.C.S.. Copyright 1949 The Williams & Wilkins Company.

The above illustration demonstrates what the vulva of a virgin may look like when the labia are drawn open to expose the inner structures. The illustration shown below reveals what a woman's vulva may look like following pregnancy and vaginal delivery. The visible structures in these two images are the labia minora, prepuce or hood, clitoral glans, frenum, vestibule, urethral meatus, vaginal introitus, fossa, fourchette, and hymen. They demonstrate how a woman's genitals may change in appearance several times during her lifetime.

There are several events that will likely affect the appearance of the vulva:

At birth an infant girl's vulva and breasts may appear swollen or enlarged, as a result of being exposed to adult hormone levels while in the womb. As the affects of the maternal hormones slowly diminish they will decrease in size. At birth a girl's clitoris is proportionally larger than it is likely to be during the remainder of her life. From the time a girl is one year of age until about the age of eight, her genitals should not undergo any significant change in appearance, other than growing in proportion to her body. If they do, a doctor should be consulted.

The next major changes to the vulva occur during puberty. The genital tissues are highly sensitive to hormones. As a girl's ovaries and other endocrine glands start producing increased levels of hormones, her vulva will likely undergo a major transformation. The thin tissues of the vulva will become thicker and more elastic, and their color may change as well. The structures of her vulva may become larger and more pronounced. This includes her labia majora and minora, as well as her clitoris and hymen. Since pubic hair also develops at this time, a girl may not be aware of all the changes that take place. Teaching a girl to examine her genitals with a mirror at a young age will help her to feel more comfortable with her vulva, and perhaps more aware of these changes.

Masturbation and non-penetrative sex can have a minor affect on the appearance of the female genitals. When a girl or woman is sexually aroused her genitals fill with blood, resulting in their temporary increase in size. If the engorgement with blood occurs frequently, the affects of this engorgement may become permanent. As with all other organs of the body, the more you use them, the larger they become, to a point. Daily masturbation and/or sex may result in a very slight increase in the size of the erectile organs of the vulva. This is normal and healthy. A doctor will not be able to tell if a girl or woman masturbates, even if this occur.

The appearance of the entrance to the vagina, the introitus, is likely to change when a woman begins engaging vaginal intercourse, or inserts fingers or other objects into her vagina. Using tampons should not have any significant affects on the appearance of the vulva or vagina, unless their insertion injures the hymen. If a girl or woman has a hymen, depending on the force applied when objects are inserted into the vagina, it will either stretch or tear. Over time the hymeneal remnants may slowly disappear, as it is repeatedly stretched open. The hymen usually does not disappear completely until a woman delivers a baby vaginally. As the vaginal entrance becomes more elastic, surrounding folds of tissue may become more pronounced.

When a woman becomes pregnant, the blood supply to her reproductive and sexual organs increases in order that they may be able to support the developing baby. As a result, a woman's vulvar structures may increase in size. Blood vessels may become more prominent and visible. The sensitivity of her vulva may become greater, this can be pleasurable or irritating. When a woman delivers a baby vaginally, her vagina and vulva must stretch to accommodate the baby's head, up to 9.5 cm. (3 3/4 inches) across. This can result in tears to the vaginal opening and labia, and injury to the clitoris. A doctor may make an incision, called an episiotomy, at the vaginal opening to prevent tearing of the vagina and vulva; the resulting scar tissue changes the appearance, and possibly the function, of the vulva. Some of the changes that occur during pregnancy and delivery are likely to be permanent.

The next major change to the vulva occurs during menopause. During this time, the amount of hormones in a woman's body decrease, and as a result the tissues sensitive to these hormones may decreases in size, and become less elastic and moist. This may result in sex being somewhat of challenge, but does not necessarily eliminate the need or desire for it. If a woman continues to masturbate or engage in sex regularly, the changes are not as great, and sex is likely to be easier to facilitate and enjoy.

Vulva of Woman - Labia Spread Open
Vulva of Woman - Labia Spread Open. From the book Atlas of Human Sex Anatomy by Robert Latou Dickinson M.D., F.A.C.S.. Copyright 1949 The Williams & Wilkins Company.

Perhaps the greatest variation between the vulvas of women occurs in the size and shape of their labia minora, or nymphae. While the name literally means 'minor lips,' for many women, their labia minora are large and prominent. Much larger than what many anatomy and sexuality references portray or mention. In addition, the labia minora may not be totally concealed by the labia majora. Many teens and women, who have examined their vulva, have come to believe their vulva is somehow deformed, causing some to seek out plastic surgery. The illustrations shown below, by Betty Dodson, reveal the normal variations in labial size and shape. There are also women who do not have labia minora, or who only have one. While some women do have the symmetrical heart-shaped labia commonly shown in anatomy illustrations, many if not most, do not.

The labia minora are made up of soft spongy tissue containing a dense concentration of blood vessels. This tissue is the same as that which surrounds the urethra of the penis. They are populated by many oil-producing glands, but are devoid of fat. They are usually very elastic, as one of the following illustrations demonstrates. During sexual arousal, blood pools in them, causing them to swell and increase in size, as well as change color.

While the labia minora have many nerve endings, their sensitivity to stimulation varies considerably. Some women find them totally insensitive to sexual stimulation, others find them exquisitely sensitive, with anything more than a light touch causing discomfort. Some women have indicated they become pinched during sexual intercourse. Infection, pregnancy, and frictional or chemical irritation may cause them to swell and become painfully sensitive.

Natural Variations of the Vulva 1
From the book "Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving" by Betty Dodson. Copyright 1987, 1983, 1974. By Betty Dodson.

The illustrations shown above and below demonstrate some of the normal variations that occur in the size and shape of the vulva. They show the vulva of real women, women who posed for Ms. Dodson. As can be seen, the vulva comes in a multitude of shapes and sizes. No two are exactly alike, and each is equally beautiful. For a woman to fully enjoy the pleasures of sex, she must love her vulva in its entirety. Betty's books are required reading for many reasons, these illustrations are just one of them.

Natural Variations of the Vulva 2
From the book "Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving" by Betty Dodson. Copyright 1987, 1983, 1974. By Betty Dodson.

The clitoris is a specialized sexual organ having only one purpose, to give women sexual pleasure. The clitoris is formed from the same tissues as the penis, and for the most part, functions the same as a penis. The only major difference between the two being, the female urethra does not pass through the body of the clitoris. The tissue that transports urine and ejaculate through the penis is present, in the form of the labia minora. While the average clitoris is much smaller than a penis, some clitorises are just as large as a small penis. These large clitorises look very similar to a penis, which unfortunately makes some people feel uncomfortable.

The labia minora often attach to the base of the clitoral glans at a point called the frenum or frenulum. The frenum indicates where the urethral outlet would have been located had the clitoris developed into a penis during fetal development. Some believe, this attachment results in the clitoris being indirectly stimulated by the movement of the labia minora as the penis enters and exits the vagina during sexual intercourse. For a small percentage of women, this stimulation is sufficient to produce orgasm when combined with the stimulation resulting from the penis caressing the vaginal wall.

The labia minora often merge with the prepuce or hood. The prepuce covers the clitoral body and all or part of the clitoral glans. While the labia minora merge with the prepuce, they are not made of the same tissue; the difference in tissues is more obvious in some than others. Unlike the second and third illustrations shown on this page, the prepuce usually conceals the clitoral glans unless it is manually retracted. The clitoral glans of some women is always partially or completely exposed, as shown, and in some cases the clitoral hood may be absent. The prepuce protects the very delicate and sensitive clitoral glans from constant stimulation and irritation.

The portion of the prepuce that covers the clitoral glans is just like the foreskin of the penis. It is comprised of two separate layers of skin, an outer layer that is an extension of the tissue along the body of the clitoris, and an inner layer made up of mucous membrane. During fetal development the prepuce and the glans are fused together, they are one. Sometime during late fetal development or childhood the glans and prepuce shed their outer layers of cells, resulting in their separation. The shedding of these skin cells occurs throughout life, even after separation of the glans and prepuce. Glands on the underside of the prepuce, within the mucous membrane, produce enzymes that attack bacteria and protect the glans and prepuce from infection. There are also oil-producing glands located on areas of the clitoral glans that lubricate the glans and prepuce. These oil glands are less active in childhood than after puberty.

The shedding of skin cells and the production of oil and enzymes results in the formation of smegma. Smegma is a white cheesy substance that may have a strong odor, in the female it is reported to be 'fishy' in nature. Because of the restricted space between the glans and hood, the smegma may collect under the prepuce in the form of small 'pearls' or kernels. Smegma, because of the oil and enzymes does not pose a health risk.

It is recommended that while the prepuce and glans are fused together, that only smegma that has seeped out from under the prepuce be rinsed away with plain water. After separation occurs, the prepuce should be retracted so the glans can be rinsed with plain water. The use of soap appears to increase the likelihood of irritation and infection. If the prepuce and glans do not fully separate, or if an infection develops between the glans and prepuce, clitoral adhesions may develop between the two. Parents should not forcibly retract the hood of their daughter's clitoris while caring for her vulva.

The size of the clitoral hood varies considerably from one woman to the next. Its size is not necessarily based on the size of the clitoris. A short thin clitoris may have a long fleshy prepuce and a long thick clitoris may have a short thin prepuce. It is believed that most women can retract their prepuce far enough to expose all or part of their clitoral glans. Some women have a prepuce that is so long and/or has such a narrow opening that their clitoral glans is always hidden. A small percentage of women have reported that their long thick prepuce has prevented or impaired their ability to experience orgasm, so they had it surgically trimmed or removed. The process of trimming or removing the portion of the prepuce that covers the glans is called circumcision. It is rarely necessary as there is no evidence to show the size of a woman's prepuce has any bearing on her ability to experience orgasm. It is more a cosmetic procedure that may have psychological benefits for some women.

Internal Anatomy of the Clitoris
From the book "The New Sex Therapy" by Helen Singer Kaplan, M.D., Ph. D.. Copyright 1974 By Helen Singer Kaplan, M.D., Ph. D.

The above illustration shows the entire clitoris, with most of the surrounding tissues removed. The three main parts of the clitoris are shown, the glans, shaft, and crura. Some feel the vestibule bulbs should be considered a part of the clitoris, referring instead to them as the "bulbs of the clitoris."

The clitoral glans is made up of fibrous and vascular tissues that are not erectile in nature. This means it is comprised of numerous blood vessels and supporting structures but does not become engorged with blood during sexual arousal. I don't know if this is equally true of highly developed clitorises, as in this case they look similar to a penile glans. The glans penis is made up of soft erectile tissue called corpus spongiosum and becomes engorged with blood during sexual arousal.

When a woman experiences sexual arousal her clitoral glans may expand slightly as a result of increased blood flow to the genitals, and become more sensitive to stimulation. The clitoral glans remains soft to the touch even during sexual arousal, unlike the body of the clitoris that may feel firm.

The surface of the glans is not covered with regular skin tissue, the tissue there is much like the mucous membrane of the adjoining prepuce. Tiny oil producing glands populate the surface of the glans, at least some areas of it. The oil they produce gives the glans its shiny appearance and allows the prepuce to glide effortlessly across the surface of the glans. If the glans dries out, undergoes cornification, it becomes dull and rough in appearance, as with a circumcised penis.

Clitoris Microscopic Structure
Moving your mouse cursor over the above image will highlight the erectile tissue (blue), clitoral glans (fuchsia), and clitoral hood (yellow). Observe how the adjacent tissues of the glans and hood have stained the same color of red, likely indicating a similar cellular structure; they are normally fused during fetal development and early childhood. The clitoral glans may be adherent to the hood along the bottom edge of the glans. Image Source

The average size of the glans is 4-5 mm. (0.15-0.2 inches, a little less than a quarter inch) in diameter, but ranges from 1-15 mm. (0.04-0.6 inches, tiny to a little more than half an inch) in diameter. There is more information about the size of the clitoris in the article about clitoral and labial size.

I believe the glans of the clitoris has as many nerve endings as the glans of the penis, only in a much smaller area. This results in the clitoris being extremely sensitive. The size of a clitoris does not determine how sensitive it is, as the number of nerve endings is reportedly always the same, regardless of size*. Limited research has been completed that addresses the anatomy of the clitoris, and explored the full range of natural diversity.

Some women find direct clitoral stimulation painful, and they cannot tolerate any form of clitoral stimulation, as they experience intense pain not pleasure when it is touched, even indirectly. Usually, the hood serves to protect the glans from direct stimulation, and the natural oils present reduce the friction between the two. This is probably why women generally masturbate by massaging the shaft and prepuce rather than the clitoral glans directly. While the clitoris is usually very sensitive, some women report their clitoris is insensitive to stimulation. The cause of this is unknown, but it may be the result of clitoral nerve damage, disassociation from one's body, diseases or illnesses that attacks the nervous system, or lack of use. The sensitivity of all sensory organs varies from one person to the next, and the clitoris is no different.

The body and crura (crus singular) of the clitoris are made up of two cylindrical shaped structures comprised of erectile tissue called corpora cavernosa. This erectile tissue is enclosed in a dense fibrous network of tissue. The body is the portion of the clitoris that hangs downward from the pubic bone, to which the glans is attached. In the body of the clitoris, the two cavernous bodies are joined to one another along their common side and the surrounding tissue makes it appear as if there is only one erectile structure. At the point where the body meets the pubic bone, the two cylinders separate and conform to the shape of the pelvic bones, forming an inverted "V".

The size of the body of the clitoris varies from zero to two inches (0 to 5 cm). The average clitoral body is three quarters of an inch (1.9 cm), resulting in the average body and glans being an inch (2.5 cm) in length. This is the portion of the clitoris you will be able to touch and feel with your fingers, beneath the hood. The crus are about three inches in length, making the average clitoris four inches in length.

The erectile nature of the internal structures of the clitoris allow it to fill with blood during sexual arousal. Smooth muscles within the corpora cavernosa relax during sexual arousal allowing blood to pool within its chambers, as the result of chemical stimulation by nitric oxide. When the clitoris becomes engorged with blood, it feels firm to the touch. If you lightly grasp the body of the clitoris as a woman becomes sexually aroused, you will likely feel her clitoris become firmer. For women with small clitorises, the only way to locate the body of the clitoris within the prepuce is by feeling it become firm while the surrounding tissues remain soft. A woman may be very aware of this change in her clitoris, and feel it pulse and throb.

Immediately prior to a woman experiencing orgasm an increased amount of blood collects in the body of the clitoris, resulting in a firmer erection, which causes the glans to move upward toward the pubic bone. This gives the impression that the glans is retracting up under the prepuce, when it is actually just straightening out, as a result of the increased blood trapped within. Some incorrectly say this is protection mechanism of the exquisitely sensitive glans, saying the clitoris retracts to protect itself from direct stimulation that may be painful just prior to orgasm. The penis undergoes the same increased rigidity just prior to orgasm, and it in no way protect the glans of the penis, it perhaps ensures the penis is at full length so the ejaculate is deposited as near the cervix as possible. Women who report experiencing waves of pleasure radiating outward from their clitoris during orgasm are perhaps feeling the pooled blood rapidly draining away from the clitoris, in time with her orgasmic contractions.

The bulbs of the clitoris are two erectile bodies that attach to the body of the clitoris and lay beneath the labia minora. They are called "Bulbus Vestibuli" in the above illustration. The length of the bulbs vary from 3-7 cm. (1.2 - 2.75 inches). The bulbs of the clitoris correspond to the singular bulbus penis in the male. These structures fill with blood during sexual arousal, but unfortunately it appears that no one knows for sure their exact function during sex and orgasm. Because of their erectile nature and location near the vagina, they may firm up the vaginal introitus in preparation for intercourse. A woman may be aware of their firmness and congestion during sex. The bulbs are covered with a thin layer of muscle and other tissue.

Anatomy of the Vulva, Labeled Diagram
Anatomy of the Vulva Identified

The vestibule is the triangle shaped area below the clitoris and above the fourchette, with the labia minora defining the sides. The urethral meatus and vaginal orifice are located within it.

The urethral meatus is the opening into the urethra, through which urine, female ejaculate, and fluids from the female prostate glands exit the body. The size and shape of the urethral opening varies considerably from one woman to the next. It may not be as large and prominent as shown above, though sometimes it is even larger. The urethral meatus can be very sensitive to sexual stimulation, so sensitive in fact that a woman may mistake it for her clitoris. Some women masturbate by massaging the urethral meatus and by inserting objects into the urethra. Stimulating the urethra, through the vaginal wall, may result in female ejaculation and the release of fluids from the female prostate.

The vaginal introitus forms the mouth of the vagina. It is incorrect to say "vaginal opening" because unless there is something inserted into the vagina, the vaginal passage is always closed. One problem with some of the illustrations on this page, and in anatomy books in general, is that the vaginal opening is shown as a dark area, in affect indicating a dark empty space, a cave of sorts. The walls of the vagina are normally in contact with one another, the vagina is a potential space. As the illustrations and discussion above reveal, its appearance is dependent on several factors.

During the early stages of fetal development there is no opening into the vagina passage from outside the body. The thin tissue membrane that initially conceals the vaginal canal is called the hymen. Normally during fetal development this tissue divides, exposing the vaginal passage to the outside world. When the opening forms, some or most of the concealing tissue remains. The opening(s) in hymen come in many shapes and sizes, as illustrated in the article about the hymen.

The fourchette is the area where the labia minora join together below the vaginal opening. It is the forward edge of the perineum.

The fossa is the name given to the depression that exists between the perineum and hymen, below the vaginal opening.

 

Notes:

1) A medical study published in May 2013 states the density of one type of nerve ending varied significantly between the clitorises they analyzed, which may indicate the sensitivity of the clitoris may vary significantly from woman to woman. This study did not analyze all the different types of nerve endings present, including a type that is believed to be more numerous than those counted.