The Vulva Monologues

Nadine’s post today is about sexuality and anatomy. No graphic terms are used, but it is likely not safe for work reading.

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By Nadine, Already Pretty Contributor

People often use the words “vagina” and “vulva” synonymously. At the risk of being labelled a nit-picky know-it-all, I feel compelled to point out that they aren’t the same thing. The vagina is the tube that leads from the cervix of the uterus to the outside of the body. The birth canal for some. The outer stuff – the clitoris, inner and outer labias and the urethral and vaginal openings – are known collectively as the vulva.  It may seem like an unimportant distinction but every time I hear the vulva called the vagina, I get a little twitchy.  For example, one does not typically wax their vagina…unless they’re making a vagina shaped candle.

Vaginas are on the inside!

As children, many of us learn that “boys have a penis and girls have a vagina.”  Which they do. Sometimes. But some boys have vaginas, some girls have penises, some have both or neither. Biological sex and the accompanying gentials don’t define a person’s gender.

But also? The vagina isn’t the homologue of the penis. The clitoris is. I think it’s important to acknowledge those distinctions for many reasons, not the least of which is sexual pleasure. A lot of our conventional notions of sexual pleasure are still based on male models of sexual response. Penis-in-vagina sex is usually good times for the penis and it’s long been assumed that the same was true of the vagina. The vagina can be a source of sexy awesomeness for many people, but because of nerve endings and other anatomical designs, it’s not the central pleasure centre for many people. Meanwhile the vulva – the lips and specifically the clitoris tend to be quite potent in terms of the sensation they deliver. But stimulating the vulva often gets designated as “foreplay” – the thing that come before the sex – while vaginal penetration is billed as the main event.

Even though vaginal stimulation can feel great for lots of people,  it isn’t always the sexual highlight. Fortunately, more people today seem to be aware that the clitoris exists and that it needs stimulation. Still, activities like oral sex, fingering and other forms of clitoral stimulation are frequently described as foreplay – the precursor to the “real” sex, that is a penis going into a vagina. I wonder if that perspective persists at least in part because we talk about vulvas and vaginas as though they’re basically the same thing AND we talk about vaginas and penises as though they’re basically the same thing. Which they aren’t.

Vaginas are on the inside.

I also want people to call my bits what they are. People don’t say “testicles” when they mean penis. They say “testicles” (or “balls” or “nuts”) and the penis is called “penis”/”penis-related-slang.” There are distinct sets of words so we understand penis and testicles as related but distinct anatomical parts. Again, history hasn’t been as kind to those of us with female anatomy, because for so long women’s sexuality was at best ignored and at worst vilified as emasculating and dangerous. For a long time, save for a few doctors and anatomy enthusiasts, no one learned the details of what we have going on down there. And while we’re making great progress, using “vagina” as a catch-all for female genitals feels like a remnant of a time gone by. Penises and testicles get separate names. It’s time vulvas and vaginas deserve the same respect.

Vaginas are awesome. As are vulvas. They’re connected but different in form, function and response. So one more time:

Vaginas are on the inside.

photo credit: Pond 5

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Already Pretty contributor Nadine Thornhill is a sex educator and blogger at Adorkable Undies. She is a new resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, having recently moved from Ottawa, Ontario to pursue a Doctor of Education in Human Sexuality. Her writing tends toward subjects such as clitorises, feminism, vibrators, body image, gender politics and non-monogamy. She is a passionately committed Scrabble player and lifelong klutz, having sustained 16 concussions to date.

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4 Responses to “The Vulva Monologues”

  1. Ailyn Koay

    hahaha.. doubt people really care about the intricate parts of the female anatomy . but good job explaining it

  2. jan.4987

    It’s not nitpicky at all. Saying “vagina” when you mean “vulva” is like saying “thigh” when you mean “knee”; just downright wrong. I was shocked when I found out that people ever did that, then wondered how many childhood clandestine sex chats I’d misinterpreted!

  3. Coline Russelle

    Language is there to aid communication but use of language becomes more sloppy all the time and what people mean becomes less clear. Bad word use in the media can spread incorrect use faster than a flu virus…