“Hey, hey, look down here! It’s me your vulva.”
“What’s a vulva?”
For those who were assigned female at birth, the vulva is the external genitalia (the parts you can see when you look between your legs with a mirror). The vulva includes the mons pubis (think the FUPA – Fat Upper Pelvic or Pubic Area), which generally gets covered with hair during puberty and has glands that secrete pheromones, the labia majora (the outer lips), the labia minora (the inner lips), the clitoris and the perineum (the space between where the folds of the labia minora meet and the anus). The folds or lips protect the opening of the urethra and vagina.
Vulvas are like snowflakes – no two are alike and each is unique. Our lips or folds are full of nerve endings, so can be pleasurable to the touch and may even swell during arousal. Our vulvas can also change as we go through puberty and age. For example, the inner lips grow and may darken during puberty, so for about 50% of vulva owners, these inner lips actually extend beyond the outer lips throughout adulthood, whereas in children the labia majora tend to cover the labia minora.
Wouldn’t that have been a handy chat to have during your sex ed class (if you were even lucky enough to have one)? Because we don’t discuss these changes or this diversity, vulva owners can experience shame and embarrassment with their vulvas which can in turn impact their relationship with their sexuality (cue the number one question I’m asked, “Am I normal?”).
As much as I enjoy a good ole porn sesh, the depictions of vulvas that we see in mainstream porn are not realistic and many have undergone labiaplasty (reconstructive surgery that changes the size and shape of the labia), which in turn has contributed to people’s false perception of what a vulva is supposed to look like.
Just like our labia are unique to each person, so is our clitoris. With age and particularly after menopause, the clitoris may actually grow in size. It is estimated that 75% of people with vulvas reach orgasm through external stimulation of the clitoris rather than through penetrative sex. The clitoral glans is like an iceberg. What we see outside of the body is only a small part of the structure and it is estimated that the internal structure can reach up to 5 inches.
There are many similarities between the penis and the clitoris, but the clit is the only organ in the human body that exists solely for pleasure = winning!! There are approximately 8,000 nerve endings in the clitoris, which is twice as many as the penis. When a vulva owner becomes aroused, not only does the vagina lengthen, but the clitoris becomes erect (yes, vulva owners get erections too) and can swell up to 200% of its regular size.
Some quick self-care tips:
• The outer labia can be washed with lukewarm water and a gentle non-scented soap, while the inner labia, clitoral hood and vaginal opening should just be washed with lukewarm water. The vagina is self-cleaning, not the vulva.
• Rinse the folds of the lips to avoid any bacterial build up.
• Avoid douches, scented soaps, antibacterial soaps, wearing a wet bathing suit for a long period, wearing non-breathable panties etc. as these can upset the delicate balance of good bacteria and actually lead to infection.
• Pee after any kind of sex (masturbation with and without toys or inanimate objects, penetrative sex, fingering, oral sex etc.). The urethra opening is closely situated to both the clitoris and vaginal opening, so bacteria from mouths, fingers and the like can enter the urethra and can lead to UTIs, which ouch!!
There is great diversity in the vulva – size, texture, colour and many are asymmetrical. I encourage all vulva owners to grab a mirror, lay back and celebrate the uniqueness and beauty of your vulva!
Elisha Miller is a sex educator and Director of 5 Circles Bermuda, which provides modern and inclusive sex positive education and awareness through discussions, workshops and events. Follow 5 Circles Bermuda on Instagram.