Female Anatomy: Your Ultimate Guide
Sex ed didn't cover the half of it. From little-known facts to tips on safe handling, here's everything you need to know about your pink partsThat's right, we're shining a spotlight on the almighty vajayjay. And it's about time. Given the ridiculous amount of maintenance it requires —gynecologist visits, bikini waxes, Monistat, and more — you'd think we'd know everything about this attention-getting organ's intricate design and how to keep it running smoother than a top-of-the-line Lexus. Yet even women who feel perfectly comfortable in their skin don't give much thought to the nooks and crannies of their pink parts. "Many women never connect with their sexual anatomy because of our society's 'keep away' attitude toward the vagina and vulva," says Elizabeth Stewart, M.D., author of The V Book.
The following guide to a healthy honeypot explains a few things you might still wonder about, like why discharge varies during your cycle and the secret to finding the nerve-packed hot spots that make intercourse feel as good as a clitoral rubdown. And we bet you know someone who could benefit from some pelvic area info as much — if not more — than you, so be sure to leave this story out where he can see it. For a visual guide, dig deeper with WH's "The Ultimate Guide to Your Vagina"
The VIP Lounge
Most people call the whole kit and caboodle between a woman's legs the "vagina." But the compendium of visible outer parts is technically the "vulva." Meant to keep dirt and bacteria out while providing a welcoming environment for worthy partygoers, the vulva is like a VIP lounge where the clitoris is the DJ. "The labia majora [outer lips] are a protective layer of fat covered by skin and hair," says Lillian Schapiro, M.D., an Atlanta ob-gyn. Their job is to keep sex comfy even if your partner's pelvis is bonier than Iggy Pop's. Located inside the labia majora (though sometimes extending beyond them), the labia minora, or inner lips, act like a pair of swinging doors guarding the entrance to the vagina and the urethra, the tube that leads from the bladder. "The labia minora are much thinner than the labia majora and even more sensitive," Dr. Schapiro says. Plus, they contain erectile tissue, made up of clusters of tiny blood vessels, which means they become slightly stiffer (though not as stiff as the clitoris) during arousal. The anatomist who named the parts of the vulva must have found it loungelike too, because the area between and including the inner folds of the labia minora is called the "vestibule."
Your Sprinkler System
Hiding just below the skin of the labia and clitoral hood (called the prepuce) are hundreds of small glands that secrete oil and sweat to protect these delicate areas from friction and overheating. That means it's normal if the crotch of your yoga pants is soaked by the end of a workout. The inside of the vagina also stays moist to maintain healthy tissue, but as you've no doubt noticed, it gets wetter when you're turned on. That's because the lining of the vagina fills with blood during arousal, causing the salt water in blood plasma to push through the vaginal wall. The Bartholin's glands — on either side of the vaginal opening — also pump out a few beads of slippery mucus. In missionary position, most of this fluid collects in the back of the vagina and fails to lubricate the opening, making sex uncomfortable. Unfortunately, in some women, lubrication occurs for only a few moments, then stops. In both cases, a water-based personal lubricant is key to ensuring a smooth entry.
Pleats and Ruffles
Like an haute-couture handbag, the vulva and vagina feature a variety of textures. Most of the vulva is smooth, but some women's labia minora have a ruffled appearance. "Labia come in all shapes and sizes," Dr. Stewart says. "The tips of the nipples and labia are similar because they both contain small, bumpy-looking glands." Examine your labia minora closely (using a hand mirror) and you may see the glands, which sometimes look like tiny pimples. Separate the labia minora and you may notice that the entrance to the vagina also has a ruffled border or just a few irregular bits of skin. Those are the remnants of the hymen, a thin membrane that once partially covered the entrance but has been torn or pushed aside by sexual intercourse. As for the texture inside the vagina, it's full of bumpy ridges called rugae. Similar to pleats on a skirt, the rugae stretch and retract to accommodate objects ranging in size from super-slender tampons to roly-poly 8-pound babies.
Finding the Wishbone
In a body full of hardworking organs, the clitoris is like a trust-fund baby who does nothing but party. It's the only part of the human body whose sole purpose is pleasure. The one thing the clitoris has that a trust-fund baby lacks? Depth. "The clitoris is larger than it seems," says Laura Berman, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor of ob-gyn and psychiatry at Northwestern University's medical school and author of The Passion Prescription. Beneath the visible pink button, called the glans, lies a wishbone-shaped structure comprising a shaft, which extends about an inch up toward the pubic bone, and two 3*inch arms called crura that reach down and back toward the pelvic bone in an inverted V shape. Though the shaft and crura send pleasure signals to the brain during sex, the glans is more sensitive. That's why it has a hood — without it, a pair of tight jeans would send your nervous system into overdrive.
Two bulbs of erectile tissue run alongside the crura. Many experts, including Berman and Helen O'Connell, M.D., a urologist at Royal Melbourne Hospital in Australia and the first person to map the clitoris using magnetic resonance imaging, believe that this tissue is part of the clitoris too. In studies, Dr. O'Connell found that the clitoris is also connected to erectile tissue surrounding the urethra and extending up to the front wall of the vagina — where the enigmatic G-spot has been known to pop up.
Over the Hedge
Before you shave or wax it into a perfect triangle, landing strip, or lucky shamrock, the hair that covers the pubic mound and outer labia grows in a pattern called the escutcheon (based on the Latin term for an ornamental shield).
When allowed to grow wild, some escutcheons will wander up toward the navel and down toward the upper thighs, while others wouldn't breech the borders of a Brazilian bikini. The shape of hair shafts differs depending on ethnicity: In Asian women they're typically round, in women of African descent they're elliptical, and in Caucasians and Latinas they range between the two. "Elliptical shafts are more likely to become ingrown after shaving or waxing as the hair curls in, pierces the skin, and creates a bump," says Susan Taylor, M.D., a Philadelphia dermatologist and author of Brown Skin. "A depilatory breaks the hair at the surface, which can make ingrowns less likely, but only if the chemicals don't irritate your skin." Whenever you try a new depilatory, always spot-test the product on your inner thigh before using it on your bikini area. Another way to create an aesthetically pleasing patch is with laser hair removal, but only by a trained professional who uses a laser like the Nd:YAG, which Dr. Taylor says won't create dark spots by damaging surrounding skin.
X Marks the Spot
While the vagina is nowhere near as responsive to touch as the vulva, it does contain hundreds of nerve endings. If a woman were lying on her back with a clock placed upright inside the lower part of her vagina (don't ask how it got there), the most sensitive area would be at 12 o'clock, right behind the urethra. In a 1982 study of more than 400 women, Rutgers University sex researcher Beverly Whipple, Ph.D., and two colleagues found that when this area was stimulated after a woman was already sexually aroused, a dime-size bump of tissue appeared and could sometimes trigger an orgasm. She named the area the G-spot after Ernst Grafenberg, the German doctor who first documented it in 1950. Further examination of this spongy tissue found it identical to that of the male prostate gland, a well-established pleasure zone. Some doctors believe the G-spot should be renamed the female prostate. Supporting that belief is a study showing the similarity between the fluid expelled by a very small percentage of women through their urethra during a G-spot orgasm (aka female ejaculation) and that produced by the male prostate. What if you've never found your G-spot, much less ejaculated? Whipple says don't sweat it: "There are many sensitive areas inside the vagina that, when stimulated by a finger, vibrator, or penis, can contribute to sexual pleasure."
That strip of cotton in the crotch of every panty is there for a reason — even if you're not on your period or the tiniest bit sweaty, it will collect moisture. The vulva and vagina produce an average of 1 to 2 grams of vaginal discharge (or about 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon) every 8 hours. But even normal discharge doesn't make a pretty picture. "It may be clear, white, or yellow, and fluid, waxy, stringy, or clumpy," Dr. Stewart says. Some of it is a buildup of the oil that the glands in your vulva produce. Some is cervical mucus. Still more comes from normal vaginal secretions. Throw a sample under a microscope and you'll also find bacteria, skin cells, and yeast spores. Quantity and consistency change over the menstrual cycle. "During ovulation, secretions are thinner and more plentiful," Dr. Stewart says. "After ovulation, discharge becomes thicker. As you near menstruation, there's less." How do you keep this fluid factory fresh? Don't mess with it. "The vagina cleans itself. Over-the-counter products can make matters worse, since the protective bacterial balance will be further disrupted," Berman says. "If discharge smells bad or is accompanied by discomfort, see your doctor." Wash with water and a perfume-free, pH-balanced soap like Dove, Berman says. Always wear cotton undies and go commando at night or whenever possible. That's right: Unless you're wearing something that could chafe or otherwise irritate you down under, docs are big fans of a panty-free lifestyle.
As seen on the diagram in every Tampax box, the vagina tilts back 30 degrees from the opening, which is why you're supposed to aim toward your lower back when pushing the plunger. A side effect of this 30degree angle is that in missionary position, the penis has little to no contact with the super-sensitive front wall of the vagina. As far as orgasm goes, this is not good. Placing a pillow under your hips, wrapping your legs around your partner's lower back, and rocking back and forth to create clitoral friction can help you get maximum bliss out of missionary, but other positions typically yield better results. "The best positions for G-spot stimulation include woman-on-top and rear entry," Berman says. Woman-on-top lets you experiment with different angles to find the most feel-good sensations. "Leaning back targets the anterior wall," Berman says. Zero in on your G-spot in rear entry by lying flat on your stomach and tucking a pillow under your hips. Or try reverse cowgirl, where you face his feet — and with that view, he'll be one very happy cowboy.
The Big Squeeze
You've heard of sex-enhancing Kegel exercises: Squeeze the muscle you'd use to stop urine midflow (except don't actually do it while you're peeing, since that can cause bladder infections), hold it for as long as you can, release, and repeat. But perhaps you haven't seen Berman's vaginal barbells. Neither had we. For beginners, there's the Isis, which looks like a slim, clear plastic bow tie with smooth, rounded edges. And for women with power vaginas (Asia Argento? Shakira? Condi Rice?), there's the Juno, a plastic rod containing four spherical, 0.3- to 1.5-ounce weights in a row from smallest to largest (you'll find both for sale at My Pleasure). Start by inserting the bigger end in your vagina, tightening your pelvic floor muscles around it, and holding it in place with your hand. You'll know your muscles are getting stronger when you can hold the smaller end in your vagina with no hand support. "Just like other muscles, strengthening pelvic floor muscles is more effective when you add resistance," Berman says. "Over time, using the Isis or Juno leads to improved vaginal tone and enhanced arousal and orgasm ability." But even without resistance, Kegels make a real difference; according to Dr. Stewart, if you squeeze out 10 to 20 daily, you'll sense stronger orgasms in about 3 months.
Inside your vagina reside trillions of bacteria, some friendly, some not so friendly. "Lactobacillus is a beneficial bacteria that keeps nastier bacteria in check," says Christopher A. Czaja, M.D., an infectious disease fellow at the University of Washington at Seattle. "Classic urinary tract infections often occur when the number of Lactobacillus drops and E. coli bacteria [often present in the vagina] start to flourish and ascend the urethra." Yech. To prevent E. coli from migrating into the vagina from the other side of the 'hood, always wipe from front to back after going to the bathroom. Besides bullying bacterial bad boys like E. coli, Lactobacillus also crowds out yeast spores, another normal inhabitant of the vagina, which can otherwise grow to the level of an itchy infection. Keep your Lactobacillus count up by eating a daily cup of yogurt that contains the bacteria and avoiding unnecessary antibiotics, which kill off the good guys along with the bad. (For more information, see "It's Alive!")
As tender as the vagina may seem, it's actually a pretty tough cookie. When it sustains small scrapes from, say, enthusiastic booty, the vaginal lining can heal surprisingly fast. Another way it gets beat up is by improper use of super-absorbency tampons. This is different than scary toxic shock syndrome, a rare, dangerous condition (odds of getting it are about 1 in 100,000) that results from an overgrowth of Staphylococcus aureusbacteria. The staph bug can be exacerbated by wearing the same tampon for longer than 8 hours — but is not actually caused by tampons themselves. (The best way to avoid TSS, besides changing your tampon regularly, is making sure that only clean hands and objects come in contact with your cooch.)
What tampons can give you are vaginal ulcers that don't cause any discomfort but do make you more vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections. "Using a high-absorbency tampon during light flow days or when spotting can draw too much fluid out of the vagina, damaging cells and causing them to erode," Dr. Stewart says. The good news is that the vaginal lining is quick to produce new cells, allowing ulcers to heal completely in as little as 48 hours. To prevent vaginal stress, avoid super-absorbency tampons on all but your heaviest days and don't use them at all between periods.
Many lucky-as-hell women report experiencing three different kinds of orgasms (four if you include the faux-gasm): one that radiates from the clitoris and feels a little bit superficial, a more satisfying one that happens deeper inside the vagina, and an even bigger bang that's a divine blend of the two. Makes sense, considering that our brains receive pleasure signals through as many as four sensory fields. According to The Science of Orgasm, a new book coauthored by Whipple, Barry Komisaruk, Ph.D., and Carlos Beyer-Flores, Ph.D., clitoral stimulation sends tingles up the pudendal nerve; sensations inside the vagina travel up the pelvic nerve; and pleasurable contact with the cervix activates the pelvic, hypogastric, and vagus nerves.
That last link — between the cervix and the vagus nerve, which controls activities as seemingly unrelated as swallowing and sweating — is a new one that Whipple's team discovered during a clinical study of women with spinal cord injuries. "We don't yet know if it's a supplemental tract that the genitals normally use to send messages to the spinal cord or if it's activated only if the spinal cord is cut off by injury," Dr. Stewart says. But one thing the involvement of the vagus nerve makes clear is that female orgasm is just as mysterious on the inside as it can seem from out here.