The Anatomy They Failed to Teach You in Sex Ed
June 18 | Written by Miranda Van Haarlem (She/Her), Graphics by Sissi Chen (She/Her)
To become a sex-positive society, we must embrace being sexually educated. In other words, we have to know what on earth is going on down there. Understanding how our bodies work and what constitutes normal is essential to living a healthy sexual life. If there is one thing to understand about the female genitalia it is that everyone’s is different, and that’s alright. We all have the same parts, but configured differently in a way that is unique to each of us. The Ontario Sexual Education Curriculum, among other regional curricula, just barely scrapes the surface of the anatomy of female genitalia. With a focus on reproductive factors, young females are often left in the dark about important components such as the labia, the clitoris, the hymen and much more.
Note: The information contained in this blog is true to the best of our knowledge. We, however, are not medical professionals, so we recommend that you also explore The Canadian Women’s Health Network and seek out information from trusted health professionals.
The External - The Vulva
Did you know the vagina is only a small portion of the female genitalia? While the most common term is the vagina, the vulva is the correct term used to describe the external genitalia. The vulva includes but is not limited to the mons pubis, labia minora, labia majora, glans clitoris, vaginal opening, urethra opening, vaginal corona (more frequently called the hymen), perineum and anus. Again, it is important to note that the diagrams included in this post are not one size fits all; everybody is different.
The Mons Pubis
The mons pubis, also known as the mons, is a layer of fat tissue that protects your pubic bone and throughout puberty often gets covered in pubic hair. You can thank your mons for providing you with a cushion during sex, as without it you would be grinding bones together.
Often referred to as the lips of the vulva, the inner Labia (Minora) and the outer labia (Majora), both assist in enclosing the opening of the vagina and the urethra. The inner labia are often hidden inside the vulva while the outer labia contain fatty tissue and grow pubic hair. An important thing to note about labia is that they VARY from person to person. Colours range from pink to black, and there can be significant variation in size.
MYTH: Your labia will stretch if you choose to have sex frequently.
It is a common belief that females who’ve had multiple sexual partners or have sex frequently will have stretched out labium. This is a myth; The size of a labia is unrelated to the number of sexual partners a female has had. Further, this myth serves to shame females for physical characteristics outside of their control. Labias do change size when a female is sexually aroused - the tissues of the vulva and the vagina will become filled with blood and will start to increase in size - but this is not a permanent change!
The Glans Clitoris
I like to refer to the clitoris as an iceberg. It is a common myth that the clitoris is a small powerhouse; while it is a powerhouse of pleasure, it is not small. The majority of the clitoris is internal to the body, just like the majority of an iceberg is underwater. The external part of the clitoris, called the glans clitoris, refers to the clitoral hood and the head of the clitoris. The clitoral hood protects the head, which contains multiple nerve endings and is central to orgasm for many females. To find your clitoris, spread your labia apart and look for a pea-like structure above the urethra opening.
Fun Fact: Clitorises contain roughly 8,000 nerve endings - twice the amount of nerve endings in the head of the penis!
The Vaginal Corona (The Hymen)
The vaginal corona, also known as a hymen, is a thin membrane that surrounds the vaginal opening. Most information we learn about hymens is false. We are taught that hymens are a sign of virginity, yet some females can be born without a hymen, with an imperforate hymen (a solid membrane covering the vaginal opening), or with a microperforate hymen (a solid membrane covering the vaginal opening with small holes throughout). Hymens can be frail or they can be strong, with some still present in menopause. Again, all hymens are different.
MYTH: Having an intact hymen means you are a virgin.
FALSE. The hymen does not pop or break and is not an indicator of virginity. Society has associated an intact hymen with purity when in reality, the hymen can be torn through exercise or tampon insertion. Further, associating hymen loss with a loss of virginity implicitly defines vaginal intercourse as the only relevant category of sexual activity - excluding many females who are neither virgins nor have had vaginal intercourse.
The Perineum and The Anus
The perineum is the patch of skin between the vulva and the anus. The anus is also a small patch of skin that is the entrance to the rectum.
Fun Fact: The skin surrounding the anus on both males and females is packed with nerve endings and for some can be a pleasurable area.
If the vagina is not the external part, what is it? The vagina, also called the birth canal, is a tube that connects the vulva to the cervix. The vagina on average is 4 to 7 inches long but it lengthens when a female is sexually aroused, and conforms to the shape of whatever is inside of it.
MYTH: A vagina will become loose if a female chooses to participate in a lot of sex.
The vagina does not become more stretched out the more a female has sex. The vagina is intended to stretch for childbirth and sex and is very flexible. The vagina does change in size depending on how sexually aroused a female is but does not become permanently loose.
Fun Fact: Just because an individual has a vagina does not mean they identify as a woman.
Our genitals are not an indicator of gender. Individuals may have a vagina and identify as a man or nonbinary.
The urethra opening sits just in front of the vaginal opening. The urethra leads to the bladder and is in charge of transporting urine out of the body.
Fun Fact: A female’s urethra is approximately 4cm in length, whereas a male’s urethra is approximately 20cm in length. This happens to be one of the reasons why females are at a greater risk of contracting Urinary Tract Infections (UTI).
The cervix sits at the top of the vagina and the bottom of the uterus, acting as a gate for menstrual blood and semen. The cervix is much smaller than the vagina but will dilate up to ten centimetres in preparation for labour.
The uterus is a muscular organ that holds a fetus during pregnancy. The uterus is where period blood comes from as the inner lining sheds every month that a fertilized egg is not implanted.
Fallopian Tubes and Ovaries
In most cases, females are born with two fallopian tubes and two ovaries. Fallopian tubes are the egg’s pathway from the ovaries to the uterus, and where sperm travel to fertilize an egg. The ovaries produce important hormones, store eggs, and release an egg each month.
The Clitoral Body
The internal parts of the clitoris are shaped like a wishbone. It consists of crura (legs) that engorge with blood during sexual arousal. The vestibular bulbs are made of erectile tissue located between the crura and lengthen behind the labia, passing by the urethra and towards the anus. The vestibular bulbs also contract during orgasm.
Fun Fact: The crura are approximately 5 to 9 centimetres long!
All The Same Components - Arranged in Your Way
Throughout this blog, it is important that the differences between individuals are stressed. There is no perfect genitalia for males or females, no ideals, no wrongs, no rights. It is important to note that intersex individuals, in particular, may also have genitalia that includes only some of the anatomical parts listed in this blog. Further activism is needed for intersex individuals as society currently treats intersex as a medical problem that must be solved. We are all different and that is okay. Societal norms regarding our personal bits need to be kicked to the curb and uniqueness should be celebrated. While this blog does not mention everything about the female genitalia, it is important that each identifying woman knows their own normal.