Lots of people seem unsure about what makes up typical XX genital anatomy – the uterus, ovaries and vulva ensemble. Unlike penises, the majority of the bits that ‘do’ something are hidden – either internally or amongst lots of indistinct lumps that are hard to view on self-examination.
Let’s start with the external genitalia – the vulva. Sometimes people refer to it as the ‘vagina’, although this is the name for a specific part of the vulva.
This is my version of a typical textbook diagram:
To orientate yourself, imagine that the person you’re looking at is lying on their back, bottom on a surface below and legs akimbo. You are standing at the foot end, looking ‘into’ the vagina and at the vulva from here. The person’s bum is at the bottom of the picture and any hair covering the vulva at the top of this image. Without pretty sound gymnastic skills and an ingenious mirror system, it is unlikely that anyone has ever seen their own vulva from this angle. However, it is the view that a doctor or nurse (for example) would obtain to do a gynaecological exam, which is probably why it gets used in diagrams so often.
The bits that make up the vulva are as follows:
Clitoris: A bundle of sensory nervous tissue. It can feel good to touch or otherwise stimulate here. In Alice Walker’s novel ‘The Colour Purple’, Shug refers to her clitoris as her ‘little button’ that gives her pleasure.
Urethra: An opening for urine to pass from. A tube (sometimes with a bag) called a ‘catheter’ can be passed here to drain wee in some circumstances.
Labia Majora: The ‘big lips’ – the bigger folds of tissue that cover the front of the vulva. If a person with a vulva were standing up, walking around, this is probably the only bit you could make out. All other bits mentioned here would be hidden by it and the legs.
Labia Minora: The ‘little lips’ – smaller folds of tissue surrounding the inner part of the vulva. Although there is relatively less tissue here than the labia majora, there is a huge amount of variation in the size and shape of the labia minora between individuals. Surgery to reduce the amount of tissue here is called ‘labiaplasty’ and it is usually this that people mean when they refer to ‘designer vaginas’. This area is not really called the vagina though…
Vagina: This is the passage in to the body and the rest of the reproductive tract (i.e. the cervix and womb). A penis (or other objects!) can go in and believe it or not a baby can come out of here.
The area within the labia minora in to which the urethra and vagina open up can be called the vestibule. The area between the vulva and the anus is called the perineum.