The external genital organs of the female are collectively known as the vulva. In human beings this consists of the labia majora (large) and labia minora (small), clitoris, and the opening of the vagina. The vulva also contains the opening of the female urethra, but apart from this has little relevance to the function of urination.
The vulva also has a sexual function; these external organs are richly innervated and provide pleasure when properly stimulated. In various branches of art, the vulva has been depicted as the organ that has the power both to "give life" (often associated with the womb), and to give sexual pleasure to humankind.
In common speech, the term "vagina" is often used improperly to refer to the vulva or female genitals generally, even though strictly speaking the vagina is a specific internal structure and the vulva is the exterior genitalia only. Calling the vulva the vagina is akin to calling the mouth the throat.
In or around 2004, researchers from the Department of Gynaeology, Elizabeth Garret Anderson Hospital, London, measured the labia of 50 women betwee the ages of 18 and 50, with a mean age of 35.6:
|Measurements||Mean [Standard Deviation]|
|Clitoral length (mm)||5.0 – 35.0||19.1 [8.7]|
|Clitoral glans width (mm)||3.0 – 10.0||5.5 [1.7]|
|Clitoris to urethra (mm)||16.0 – 45.0||28.5 [7.1]|
|Labia majora length (cm)||7.0 – 12.0||9.3 [1.3]|
|Labia minora length (mm)||20 – 100||60.6 [17.2]|
|Labia minora width (mm)||7.0 – 50.0||21.8 [9.4]|
|Perineum length (mm)||15.0 – 55.0||31.3 [8.5]|
|Vaginal length (cm)||6.5 – 12.5||9.6 [1.5]|
|Tanner Stage (n)||IV||4.0|
|Tanner Stage (n)||V||46|
| Color of the genital area
compared to the surrounding skin (n)
|Color of the genital area<p>compared to the surrounding skin (n)||Darker color||41|
|Rugosity (measure of wrinkles) of the labia (n)||Smooth (unwrinkled)||14|
|Rugosity of the labia (n)||Moderately wrinkled||34|
|Rugosity of the labia (n)||Markedly wrinkled||2.0|
In human beings, major structures of the vulva are:
- the mons pubis (pubic area)
- the labia (literally "lips"), consisting of the labia majora and the labia minora
- the external portion of the clitoris, consisting of the clitoral glans and the clitoral hood
- the urinary meatus (opening of the urethra)
- the vaginal orifice (opening of the vagina)
- the hymen
- the vulval vestibule
- the pudendal cleft
- the frenulum labiorum pudendi or the fourchette
- the perineum
- the sebaceous glands on labia majora
- the vaginal glands:
The soft mound at the front of the vulva is formed by fatty tissue covering the pubic bone, and is called the mons pubis. The term mons pubis is Latin for "pubic mound" and it is gender-nonspecific. There is, however, a variant term that specifies gender: in human females, the mons pubis is often referred to as the mons veneris, Latin for "mound of Venus" or "mound of love". The mons pubis separates into two folds of skin called the labia majora, literally "major (or large) lips". The cleft between the labia majora is called the pudendal cleft, or cleft of Venus, and it contains and protects the other, more delicate structures of the vulva. The labia majora meet again at a flat area between the pudendal cleft and the anus called the perineum. The color of the outside skin of the labia majora is usually close to the overall skin color of the individual, although there is considerable variation. The inside skin and mucus membrane are often pink or brownish. After the onset of puberty, the mons pubis and the labia majora become covered by pubic hair. This hair sometimes extends to the inner thighs and perineum, but the density, texture, color, and extent of pubic hair coverage vary considerably, due to both individual variation and cultural practices of hair modification or removal.
The labia minora are two soft folds of skin within the labia majora. While labia minora translates as "minor (or small) lips", often the "minora" are of considerable size, and may protrude outside the "majora". Much of the variation among vulvas lies in the significant differences in the size, shape, and color of the labia minora.
The clitoris is located at the front of the vulva, where the labia minora meet. The visible portion of the clitoris is the clitoral glans. Typically, the clitoral glans is roughly the size and shape of a pea, although it can be significantly larger or smaller. The clitoral glans is highly sensitive, containing as many nerve endings as the analogous organ in males, the glans penis. The point where the labia minora attach to the clitoris is called the frenulum clitoridis. A prepuce, the clitoral hood, normally covers and protects the clitoris, however in women with particularly large clitorises or small prepuces, the clitoris may be partially or wholly exposed at all times. The clitoral hood is the female equivalent of the male foreskin. Often the clitoral hood is only partially hidden inside of the pudendal cleft.
The area between the labia minora is called the vulval vestibule, and it contains the vaginal and urethral openings. The urethral opening (meatus) is located below the clitoris and just in front of the vagina. This is where urine passes from the urinary bladder to be disposed of.
The opening of the vagina is located at the bottom of the vulval vestibule, toward the perineum. The term introitus is more technically correct than "opening", since the vagina is usually collapsed, with the opening closed, unless something is inserted. The introitus is sometimes partly covered by a membrane called the hymen. The hymen will rupture during the first episode of vigorous sex, and the blood produced by this rupture has been seen as a sign of virginity. However, the hymen may also rupture spontaneously during exercise (including horseback riding) or be stretched by normal activities such as use of tampons and menstrual cups, or be so minor as to be unnoticeable. In some rare cases, the hymen may completely cover the vaginal opening, requiring surgical correction. Slightly below and to the left and right of the vaginal opening are two Bartholin glands which produce a waxy, pheromone-containing substance, the purpose of which is not yet fully known.
The appearance of the vulva and the size of the various parts varies a great deal from one female to another, and it is also common for the left and right sides to differ in appearance.
Relation to male genitals
The anatomy of the vulva is related to the anatomy of the male genitalia by a common developmental biology. Organs that share a common developmental ancestry in this way are said to be homologous.
The clitoral glans is homologous to the glans penis in males, and the body of the clitoris, or the crura, is homologous to the corpora cavernosa of the penis. The labia majora, labia minora and clitoral hood are homologous to the scrotum, shaft skin of the penis, and the foreskin, respectively. The vestibular bulbs beneath the skin of the labia minora are homologous to the corpus spongiosum, the tissue of the penis surrounding the urethra. The Bartholin's glands are homologous to Cowper's glands in males.
In many cultures, including modern Western culture, some women have shaved or otherwise depilated part or all of the vulva. This has been done for either aesthetic or religion reasons in regard to doctrine regarding cleanliness.
Many cultures have commonly viewed the vulva as something shameful that should be hidden; the term pudendum literally means "shameful thing." However, in some other cultures it has been celebrated and even worshipped. In some Hindu sects the vulva is revered under the name yoni, and texts seem to indicate a similar attitude in some ancient Middle Eastern religions. As an aspect of Goddess worship such reverence may be part of modern Neopagan or Wiccan beliefs, and may be indicated in paleolithic artworks. Some cultures consider the vulva to be "unclean" and go as far as to advocate female circumcision.
In the past many sculptors and painters chose not to display vulvas in their works, even when depicting nude women. The pubic region was often covered with a piece of cloth, fig leaf or a hand. When it was displayed, it usually lacked pubic hair and the vulva, even though the vulva would be visible on a real woman in that particular pose. In modern times Japanese anime artists often depict female characters without vulvas (even in hentai pornography) to comply with censorship laws. Because for most of history vulvas were neither displayed by women, nor shown in art, aesthetic standards for the vulva in the West developed after visual pornography became more widespread and allowed men to see and compare many vulvas.
- Female Sexual and Reproductive Anatomy, extensive description, numerous illustrations showing the large variations among women
- Female Body Image: Social Ideals Versus Reality
- Web site containing many illustrations of sexual anatomy
- Lerner, Harriet (2003). ‘V’ is for vulva, not just vagina. The Lawrence Journal-World. Retrieved on 1 August 2010.
- A Surgical Temptation: The Demonization of the Foreskin and the Rise of Circumcision in Britain, Darby
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