well·8 min read

What You Didn’t Learn About the Vagina in School

Illustration of the vulva, including the vagina, labia, and clitoris
Illustration: Caitlin Keegan
Feb 24, 2022

You might’ve learned about the female reproductive system in middle school. But class probably didn’t illuminate much about what the inside of the vagina looks like. Or about the anatomy of the vulva, which is the word people often mean when they say “vagina.” Because the topic can feel like an awkward one. Not to mention it hasn’t exactly been a priority for scientific exploration until recently. See: sexism in science and the NIH waiting until 2012 to establish a gynecological branch

We asked journalist Rachel E. Gross, author of “Vagina Obscura: An Anatomical Voyage,” to help shed some light on this topic. The goal: to help Skimm’rs feel more connected to their bodies. And empower them to seek help when things feel off.

Note: We say “lady parts,” “women,” and “female reproductive system” in this guide, but not all of the parts listed are reproductive organs, not all people who have them identify as women, and not all women have them. 

Vulva

  • What it is: “All the fun stuff,” says Gross. That includes the inner and outer lips (labia), the outer clitoris, and the urethra (where you pee). "Everything you can see and touch.” 

  • What it’s been called: The “pudendum” in several medical textbooks up until a few years ago, Gross says. Latin translation: “the part to be ashamed of.” The term was originally used for both sexes, Gross says. But its application to men in textbooks dropped off a long time ago. Another term that’s related to the vulva: “schamlippen.” It’s the German word for labia, which means “shame lips.” We’re sensing a theme.

  • Let’s discuss:  “A lot of people use the word ‘vagina’ to mean the whole shebang,” says Gross. “Actually, the vulva is the outer landscape.” Even Gwyneth Paltrow, CEO of the wellness company Goop, didn’t know what the vulva was until it was a topic on her Netflix show “Goop Lab” in 2020. “It seems like a logical leap to say that there was a lot of focus on fertility, procreation, and penetration. Both on the science and sex-ed side,” Gross adds. “And that might implicate the vagina more than the outer parts.” Other TTK: Gross says that although market research suggests that labiaplasty is one of the fastest-growing cosmetic plastic surgeries in the world (and most often involves modifying the labia minora to make it look smaller), it’s totally normal for your labia minora to be longer than your labia majora.

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Clitoris

  • What it is: The central pleasure organ. The nub you can see is just the tip of the clit iceberg. The full clitoris is “kind of this penguin shape,” says Gross. “It has a shaft and it connects down to these two arms that kind of flare back against the pubic bones. And then has two bulbs…that hug the vagina.”

  • What it’s been called: In 1527, a French anatomist dissected one and called it “membre honteux.” Aka “shame member.” Lovely. People also use words like “bean,” “little hill,” and “button.” But really, that’s just the glans clitoris. Remember: The whole organ has an interior part, too.

  • Let’s discuss: It took thousands of years, modern imaging tools, and the first female urologist in Australia to fully map the clitoris in 2005. Which means some people still might not realize that about 90% of the clitoris lies beneath the surface. But there’s a growing awareness. And even some clitoral art and jewelry now. See: Sophia Wallace.

Vagina

  • What it is: The muscular canal that goes from the vulva to the cervix (the lower end of the uterus). It’s the part that’s penetrated during vaginal sex and it also serves as the birth canal. It has its own complex microbiome and is self-cleaning. Note: Douching isn’t good for your vagina’s natural balance. But if things seem funky, they might be. Bacterial vaginosis affects nearly one in three women ages 14 to 49. Even if you’ve never talked to your friend about it.

  • What it’s been called: We already mentioned “birth canal.” But also: “self-cleaning oven.” Gross says, “That makes me think it’s on a dishwasher cycle or something. And that’s not really how biology works.” Oh, and btw, the word “vagina” in Latin referred to a "sheath" or "scabbard." "Basically something to house a sword,” says Gross. And sword equals…you get it. 

  • Let’s discuss: Sigmund Freud had people believing that as women matured, their sexual pleasure zones changed from the clitoris to the vagina. But the data doesn’t show that. At all. In one survey, about 18% of women reported that intercourse alone was sufficient for them to orgasm. Compared to about 37% of women who said they needed clitoral stimulation in order to orgasm during intercourse. And an additional 36% indicated that even if they didn’t need clitoral stimulation during sex, it felt better when they got it. But here’s the thing: Even someone who says they had a vaginal orgasm at the so-called G spot, probably got there because the back of their clitoris was involved, Gross says. Note: She says that the G spot is less a specific “spot” and actually where the “root” of the clitoris wraps around the urethra and vagina. And for some women, that’s a more sensitive area on the belly-side of the vaginal wall. “As far as we know, there’s no orgasm without the clitoris,” Gross says. 

Hymen

  • What it is: Usually a thin membrane at the entrance of the vagina. Read: Not a virginity seal.

  • What it’s been called: A “cherry” that’s “popped” by having sex. Except that isn’t how it works at all. One group of Swedes has pushed to move away from “hymen” and all the myths around it, to a new name: “vaginal corona.” Because hymen in Swedish — “mödomshinna” — translates to “virginity membrane.” The new label hasn’t exactly stuck, though. TTK: Hymen is also the name for the god of marriage in Greek mythology. So there’s that.

  • Let’s discuss: Again, the hymen has nothing to do with virginity (which has nothing to do with purity). “It's the remnant of an embryological membrane that forms when the vagina develops in the womb, and it can be different shapes and sizes,” says Gross. “For some people, it's just a little semi-circle or crescent.” No, it doesn’t always break or bleed when you have sex for the first time. And it can get stretchy and tear as you get older. “It’s nobody’s business what’s happening with your hymen, or whether or not you have one,” says Gross. 

Ovaries, Fallopian Tubes, and the Uterus

  • What they are: The ovaries produce hormones like estrogen and progesterone, which power things like your menstrual cycle and mood. And also testosterone, which is important for healthy brains and strong bones, among other things. Ovaries are the primary reproductive organs. They contain follicles that grow eggs. Mature eggs can travel into the fallopian tubes. If the egg is fertilized in the fallopian tube, it might link up with the sperm and head to the uterus. TTK: The fallopian tubes don’t actually connect directly to the ovaries, Gross says. The eggs have to cross a layer of fluid in between, where fingerlike extensions on the fallopian tubes sweep them in.

  • What it’s been called: As reproductive organs, ovaries are also considered “gonads.” And when it comes to fallopian tubes, they’re named after Italian anatomist Gabriele Falloppio (the same guy who named the vagina “sheath”) who studied the tubes in the 1500s. But some people choose to call them “uterine tubes” instead of a man’s name. Quick not-so-fun fact: the word “hysteria” comes from the Greek word for uterus — “hystera.” And still today, the word “hysterical” is often used to write off women as irrational. It all has to do with the idea of the “wandering womb.”

  • Let’s discuss: Ancient Greek physicians came up with the idea that if a woman wasn’t pregnant, it could cause her womb to wander around looking for sex and motherhood, Gross writes in her book. So it was the woman herself who was responsible for any problems in her uterus. Yes, really. Which means any conditions like those later called endometriosis, fibroids, or PCOS were dismissed or thought to be psychological. It’s now thousands of years later, but there’s still a lack of medical knowledge on these once-taboo conditions. Which a number of women have for years before they’re able to get diagnosed. Fortunately, there are doctors and researchers pushing our understanding of these diseases forward.

theSkimm

The female reproductive system is not merely a “sheath” for men and not something to be ashamed of, but a complicated and beautiful system that’s yours. So get acquainted with your body and don’t be afraid to investigate if you think something's off. Science may be behind, but you can get in front of any concerns you have about your lady parts.

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Skimm'd by Carly Mallenbaum, Becky Murray, Anthony Rivas, Eleanor Goldberg, and Jane Ackermann

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