Many people use the term ‘vagina’ to describe female sex organs. In reality, the vagina is just one part of the female genitalia. The terms ‘vagina’ and ‘vulva’ are often confused and used interchangeably, but they refer to two very different parts of the female anatomy. Vulva (a medical term) is the external part of female genitalia. The vulva has many tissues, each with different functions. They include the labia majora, labia minora, clitoris, clitoral hood, and urethral opening. The vagina is the internal part of the female genitalia. Here, we’re going to delve further into our own bodies to understand the female genital anatomy – beginning with our external anatomy.
The labia majora, also called the outer lips, are the folds of skin that enclose other parts of external sexual anatomy. The inner surface of labia majora is hairless. The labia majora contains the sebaceous gland, sweat glands, and hair follicles. The shape and size of these tissues can vary from one person to another. It’s common for the labia majora to be darker than the rest of your skin.
The labia minora are two thick folds of skin, also called the inner lips. The labia minora are located inside the labia majora, and their appearance can vary. In some people, they’re very small, and not so small for others. During sexual intercourse, these tissues swell and become more sensitive. The folds contain connective tissues, numerous sebaceous glands, erectile muscle fibres, and numerous vessels and nerve endings. Unlike the labia majora, the labia minora does not contain hair follicles.
The clitoris is located at the top of the labia minora. The visible portion of the clitoris looks like a pea-sized nub, but it’s actually much larger. It has a spongy shaft that extends into the body that can’t be seen externally. With a lot of nerve endings, the clitoris is a very sensitive tissue. Unlike other vagina parts, its only purpose is in creating pleasure.
The clitoral hood is the small flap of skin at the point where the inner lips meet. The clitoral hood surrounds and protects the sensitive tip of the clitoris. Glands in the hood produce a lubricant that helps the tissue glide across the clitoris.
This is the external opening of the transport tube that leads from the bladder to discharge urine outside the body in a female. The urethra (the urinary transport tube) in a female is shorter than the urethra in a male. The meatus (opening) of the female urethra is below the clitoris and just above the opening of the vagina.
The vaginal opening, also called the vaginal vestibule or introitus, is the opening into the vagina. It’s located between the urethra and the anus. The opening is where menstrual blood leaves the body. It’s also used to birth a baby and for sexual intercourse.
Female Sexual Anatomy: Internal Organs
The key organs for female reproduction are protectively located deep within the body. These include the following:
A female normally has a pair of ovaries that resemble almonds in size and shape. They are home to the female sex cells, called eggs, and they also produce estrogen or oestrogen (the female sex hormone). Women’s ovaries already contain several hundred thousand undeveloped eggs at birth, but the eggs are not called into action until puberty. Roughly once a month, starting at puberty and lasting until menopause, the ovaries release an egg into the fallopian tubes – this is called ovulation. When fertilisation does not occur, the egg leaves the body as part of the menstrual cycle.
The ovaries connect to the uterus via the fallopian tubes. Fertilisation usually happens within the fallopian tubes. Then, the fertilised egg makes its way down to the uterus.
The uterus is located in the pelvis of a woman’s body and made up of smooth muscle tissue. Commonly referred to as the womb, the uterus is hollow and holds the foetus during pregnancy. Each month, the uterus develops a lining that is rich in nutrients. The reproductive purpose of this lining is to provide nourishment for a developing foetus. Since eggs aren’t usually fertilised, the lining leaves the body as menstrual blood during a woman’s monthly period.
The lower part of the uterus, which connects to the vagina, is known as the cervix. Often called the neck or entrance to the womb, the cervix lets menstrual blood out and semen into the uterus. The cervix remains closed during pregnancy, but can expand dramatically during childbirth.
The vagina has both internal and external parts, and connects the uterus to the outside of the body. Made up of muscle and skin, the vagina is a long hollow tube that is sometimes called the ‘birth canal’ because, if you are pregnant, the vagina is the pathway the baby will take when it’s ready to be born. The vagina also allows menstrual blood to leave a woman’s body during reproduction and is where the penis deposits semen during sexual intercourse.
Bartholin’s Glands/Greater Vestibular Glands
The bilateral racemes glands are located at the sides of the vaginal orifice. These glands secrete mucous that helps maintain the acidic pH balance of the vagina (pH 4.5 or lower) and acts as a lubricant during sexual intercourse.
If you’d like to learn more about your body through a visual guide, I recommend The Great Wall of Vagina by Jamie McCartney. It’s a coffee table book that showcases hundreds of real women’s vulva casts. This intimate artistic exploration is supplemented with explanations by a sexual health advisor who aims to destigmatise and educate people on common misconceptions.
Discover more about your body by following Dr. Amna Raees Khan, a specialist Obstetrician and Gynaecologist, on Instagram.