Monday, February 22, 2010

Vulvas Aren’t Vaginas

This post is full of Vulvatastic information! Enjoy!

1. What’s a Vulva anyway?
So, I want you to imagine that there is a woman. She’s completely naked and she’s sitting on a stool with her legs crossed. Then (because she obviously wants to educate you) she spreads her legs wide open, points to her crotch and says, “This is NOT a vagina.” You’re like, “WTF is this then?” And she goes, “This is my vulva.”

In this culture, we often use the words Vulva and Vagina interchangeably, when the reality is they are not the same thing. When that naked woman spreads her legs apart, all that ‘stuff’ on the outside is a vulva. It’s where most genitally focused pleasure receiving nerve endings are located (thanks, in part, to the 8,000 nerve endings in the clitoris), and it is OUTSIDE the body. The Vulva is NOT the vagina, because the vagina is inside the body. If we go back to our imaginary naked woman who was nice enough to consent to educate us … all you can really see of the vagina is the entrance.

Although not all sex educators agree, nor practice, calling the vulva and the vagina by the different names, this sex educator (imagine me pointing at myself with my thumbs) thinks it’s extremely important to differentiate. Mostly because a) it’s scientifically accurate to utilize the terminology separately and b) when we talk about the vulva specifically, we bring more attention to female pleasure than we do when we simply reduce everything to a vagina.

2. Why are vulvas hairy?
Excellent question. Pubic hair, aside from keeping our genitals nice and warm back before the days of clothing, actually does serve a function, and that function has to do with pheromones.

Pheromones, in case you’re unclear as to what they are, are chemicals that our bodies release that affect other people without having to get processed first. If you look at someone and think they’re hot, your brain processes the image and then decides whether it wants to send a message to another part of your brain that makes you get turned on. Sex pheromones shortcut that system and go straight to the part of your brain that controls arousal. To oversimplify: you could be looking at someone you don’t find particularly attractive and they could still turn you on because of their pheromones.

Pubic hair, in a neat evolutionary trick, traps pheromones as they get released. The pheromones are then chillin’ in high concentrations. The high concentration of all these sexy pheromones has a more intense effect on your partner(s) brain.

In short, pubes are there to help people get turned on faster.

3. Should I shave/wax/trim/laser/otherwise remove hair from my vulva?
The answer that question is: that’s entirely up to you. Regardless of what you see in porn or on other ladies in the lockeroom, how you maintain your bush should be entirely about you. There are advantages to each side, some of which I’ve listed below:

In Support of Pube Maintenance
  • No pubes = no toilet paper stuck in said pubes.
  • Although pheromones won’t be trapped, bacteria and other smells also won’t be trapped.
  • If you’re not going for the fully bald look, you can shave or trim fun shapes into your pubes.
  • For some, less pubes = more erotic sensitivity.
  • Landscaping can be an activity for you and your partner(s) to do together.
  • Less pubes means that you can see more of the vulva.

In Support of Leaving Things Natural Style
  • It is a no effort, accessory free way to be.
  • Those pheromones have a nice, lush place to collect.
  • You never have to worry about things like razor burn, accidental cuts, or having wax strips yanked off your body.
  • For some, pubic hair provides an important cushion for the pushin’, and helps folks to avoid chafing and friction burn.
  • As (crazily enough) hair is in a constant state of re-growth, you don’t have to do continuous maintenance.
  • Your vulva looks like it’s gone through puberty.

At the end of the day … what you decide should be all about you. It should be about what makes you feel comfortable, sexy and beautiful. What you do with your pubes is completely up to you!

4. What is a normal vulva supposed to look like?
Okay. Here’s what you do. Find a mirror, strip down nekked, open your legs up, and look at your vulva. THAT, my friend, is what a normal vulva is supposed to look like.

So, I know you’re thinking “But, Becca, hold up. How can you say my vulva is normal when you’ve never even seen it?”

I know because Vulvas are like faces. Everyone has a different face, and pretty much every face is normal, even though they may not look alike.  It's the same deal with vulvas, except the basics (noses, eyes, ears, etc) are a little different. Vulva basics include two sets of labia (one set with hair, one set without hair), a clitoris, a urethra (which you may not be able to see), and a vaginal opening. It’s normal for your smooth labia to be longer OR shorter than your hairy labia. AND it’s normal for your right set of labia to be a different size and shape than your left set of labia. Also, even though I know that every textbook ever printed shows that vulvas are pink, let me tell you, vulvas come in all kinds of different colors. AND it’s normal for different parts of your vulva to be different colors. Also, if you’re trans or intersex with a vulva, a normal vulva may have all these attributes, or it may not.

Basically, the only things that should have you worried are warts, sores or lesions. Anything else is super chill and super normal.

5. How do I take care of my vulva?
So, washing your vulva regularly is a good first step in taking care of it.

Another good step? Looking at, touching, and getting to know your vulva. See, unlike dudes, a lady could go pretty much her whole life without ever taking a look at her vulva. Which, if that’s how you’d prefer to roll, is cool with me. However, touching, looking at and knowing your vulva is important in knowing when something may be wrong with it. If you don’t know what your vulva looks like normally, it may be difficult to figure out when something has changed, or when something isn’t quite right. Looking at and touching your vulva may seem weird at first, but just think about how many times a day dudes touch their penises. It’s just as okay for a dude to touch his penis as it is for you to touch your vulva (at the appropriate time and place, of course). Just like breast self exams, you can do a vulva self-exam every month. Although vulvar cancer is relatively rare, it still does happen. So when you’re checking out the vulva, make sure you squeeze the labia to see if there are any lumps.

Plus, another bonus of looking at your vulva is that you’ll (hopefully) increase your comfort with the way your vulva looks. You may even come to think that your vulva is the prettiest vulva ever!

Another good way to take care of your vulva is to sex it up (either alone or with a partner). Just like in other parts of the body, increased blood flow means a delivery of fresh oxygen to your tissues. The more fresh oxygen your tissues get, the healthier your tissues are. Getting turned on, playing with your own vulva, having someone else play with your vulva, and non-sexual exercising are all ways that you can get that fresh blood pumping to your vulva. (Of course, if you’re having someone else play with your vulva, make sure you’re doing so in a way that is conscious of safer sex practices).

6. Can you get surgery on your vulva?
Yes. It’s called vulvaplasty’ and it’s a cosmetic type of surgery. (Although, if you’re having issues where because of the length of your labia you’re experiencing discomfort, getting vulvaplasty is kind of like getting a breast reduction because your breasts are so big your back hurts. In that case, the surgery would be non cosmetic.) People seek out cosmetic surgery all over the body for many different reasons, but when it comes specifically to vulvaplasty, here are some things I feel you should keep in mind:

  • Because it’s usually for cosmetic purposes, insurance won’t cover the cost, which can be in the thousands.
  • Make sure that the surgeon you get to do the procedure has a good track record. Some surgeons who offer vulvaplasty are just butchers. You’re looking for a reconstruction, not a mutilation, so choose your practitioner wisely. A good way to figure out if they do good work is to ask if they have before and after photos of surgeries they’ve performed.
  • Get ready for a period of recovery where you won’t be able to use your vulva in a sexual way.
  • Have an idea of what you’d like done to your vulva, and work with a practitioner that listens to what you want (not one that pushes his/her ideals of what a ‘perfect’ vulva should look like).
  • As with all cosmetic surgery, there is a risk that your vulva may not come out the way you wanted it, you may be left with irreversible nerve damage, there may be scarring, and there may be loss of sensation. Keep in mind that these are risks. It’s also possible none of these things will occur.
  • Getting a vulvaplasty should be something you decide for yourself. If you are only doing it because it’s something your partner wants, I encourage you to think very long and hard about a) your partner choice and b) whether the risks are worth it for something that you’re not doing for you.

7. What happens to my vulva when I get turned on?
When a vulva gets aroused, it’s going to fill up with blood. The smooth labia are going to experience the most swelling from that increased blood flow, and can increase in size up to 3 times. Also, your clit is going to get hard. The cool thing about this increased blood flow is that it means your vulva is going to get way more sexually sensitive! Holler.

8. Wait, after reading this, shouldn’t the Vagina Monologues be called the Vulva Monologues?
Many of the monologues in that play should DEFINITELY be characterized as vulva monologues. But I can’t blame Eve Ensler for using ‘vagina’ as it is more widely recognizable.

Yay for vulvas! I hope, as always, that you’ve learned something!



  1. Thanks for this post, Becca! I've had a love affair with my vulva since I was a little girl. When I was younger, I loved looking and touching because it was so pink and beautifully layered. And although the Vagina Monologues is mislabeled, it did persuade me to take a mirror down there in high school--which made me fall in love with myself all over again!

  2. Love your posts Becca, keep 'em coming! :)