Page last updated December 2020

What is a vulva? Anatomy explained

What is a vulva? Anatomy explained

Often mistakenly referred to as the vagina, the vulva collectively includes all parts of genitalia assigned as female that are outside the body. The vagina is the internal, muscular canal that leads from the outside to the uterus, via the cervix.

There are a few different ways one could explain this mistake, but fundamentally, they all stem from the moral panic our patriarchal society attaches to sexuality and genitals, especially when in relation to women. As a result, many of us were never taught about our genitals nor even learned the correct name for them.

It’s never too late to learn, and we’ve put together a guide explaining vulvar anatomy: what it looks like, how it works, and why it’s important.

What is a vulva?

The word “vulva” is said to come from the Latin words for wrapper (volvere) and for womb (volva).

Vulva is a collective term that refers to all parts of the external genitalia, including the mons pubis, labia majora (outer lips), labia minora (inner lips), clitoris, urethra, vulva vestibule, vestibular bulbs, Bartholin’s glands, and Skene’s glands. Some consider the vaginal opening to be a part of the vulva, as it is technically outside. However, as the vagina is an internal organ, we have not included it in this piece.


Read: What is a vagina? Anatomy explained


The vulva plays an essential role in urinary function, sexual health, and sexual pleasure.

What does a vulva look like?

Vulvar anatomy

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Mons pubis (pubic area)

This is a triangular area of fatty tissue between the skin and pubic bones, located on the front of the torso below the abdomen. Pubic hair usually grows on the mons pubis.

The mons pubis works as a source of cushioning during sex, and also contains sebaceous glands (oil-producing) that secrete pheromones,1 chemical substances thought to play a role in inducing sexual attraction.

Clitoral hood

A fold of skin that surrounds and protects the head of the clitoris, which is a highly sensitive organ, from friction. The clitoral hood is the equivalent of the foreskin on a penis.

There is no ‘normal’ when it comes to the shape, size, and colour of a clitoral hood, which can all vary from person to person.

As well as protecting the head of the clitoris, the clitoral hood produces a lubricant which helps it to move smoothly over the clitoris. When you are aroused, your clitoris swells (just like a penis does) which can move the hood aside.

Clitoris

For people with vulvas, the clitoris is the sexual organ most associated with pleasure. It contains over 8,000 nerve endings2 and is highly sensitive, and when you are aroused, it becomes erect — engorged with blood and swollen.

Only the head of the clitoris — the glans clitoris — is visible from the outside, and connects to an internal structure of two corpora cavernosa that sit beneath the skin. These are masses of erectile tissue that are present both in the penis and clitoris and are responsible for getting and maintaining an erection.

In a 2017 survey, the FPA found that 80% of surveyed [cisgender] women could not reach orgasm from penetrative sex alone, and needed stimulation of the clitoris in order to get there.3

Using the correct language when referring to our body parts, particularly those involved in sexual function, is an important way to remove the shame and stigma that surrounds them

Urethra

The opening of the bladder, from which urine and ejaculate exit the body. The urethra is an extension of a tube that leads from the bladder to the outside. The point where it opens to the outside is called the “meatus”.

Some people with vulvas will expel fluid from the urethra during sexual stimulation while others may expel fluid at the point of orgasm — this fluid is not the same thing as urine, and is referred to as female ejaculate.4

Inner lips (Labia minora)

Two small, hairless folds of skin that sit on the inside of the outer lips, that are approximately 3-4 cm long.5 They meet and fuse above the glans clitoris (this fold of skin is called the “fourchette”), and extend out around both sides of the vaginal opening.

The labia minora work as protective structures for the clitoris, urethra, and vaginal opening, but also have a number of sensory nerve endings and receptors, as well as sebaceous glands, connective tissue, and erectile tissue.6

Outer lips (Labia majora)

Two external skin folds that sit on the outside of the labia minora, that can grow pubic hair. They extend from the mons pubis downwards and meet at a point in front of the anus. This point is known as the “posterior fourchette”.

The labia majora work to protect and cover all other parts of the vulva, and during sexual arousal become engorged with blood and swollen.

When we refer to the vulva as “the vagina”, we are overlooking and erasing all its important functions, including the role it plays in helping us experience sexual pleasure

Vulva vestibule

This is the area that is enclosed by the labia minora, that contains the opening of the vagina and the urethra. The point where the vulva vestibule meets the labia minora is demarcated by something called Hart’s lines, which is essentially a sort of border around the vulva vestibule.

The vulva vestibule is a tissue that has been found to have unique properties compared to neighbouring organs, in terms of how it responds to hormonal stimuli and inflammation, and the way in which it’s supplied with nerves (innervation).7

Vestibular bulbs

Also known as the “clitoral bulbs”, these are bulbs of erectile tissue that are positioned on either side of the urethra. They play a key role in sexual arousal and function.

During sexual arousal, the vestibular bulbs become engorged with blood, which then exerts pressure onto the erectile tissue within the clitoris. Rhythmic muscle contractions within the bulbs can cause orgasm.8

Bartholin’s glands

Two pea-sized glands that secrete a mucus-like substance which works to lubricate the entrance of the vagina during sexual arousal and to moisturise the vulva. They are sometimes referred to as the “greater vestibular glands”.

They are located in the vulvar vestibule, on either side of the vaginal opening.

Skene’s glands

Also known as the “lesser vestibular glands”, these are two glands that open out as ducts on either side of the urethra. Their function has been the subject of much debate and is not fully understood, with some suggesting that they are the source of female ejaculate.9 The Skene glands are also widely considered to be the equivalent of the prostate gland found in cisgender men (“homologous”).

The Skene glands are believed to secrete a substance that works to lubricate the vaginal opening, that also has antimicrobial properties.10

Language matters

Using the correct language when referring to our body parts, particularly those involved in sexual function, is an important way to remove the shame and stigma that surrounds them. Language is important not only for clarity but shapes the way we perceive and attach meaning to the world. When we refer to the vulva as “the vagina”, we are overlooking and erasing all its important functions, including the role it plays in helping us experience sexual pleasure.

Featured image is an outline illustration of a person wearing a necklace with a vulva pendant. They are looking at the vulva pendant using a small, hand-held mirror. The person is outlined in a dark magenta colour, against a pale peach background

Page last updated December 2020

Monica Karpinski

Founder & Editor, The Femedic

Monica is the Founder and Editor of The Femedic. Against a journalism background and after years of leading content marketing projects in the healthcare space, it became clear that health information out there for women simply wasn’t good enough. No-one had bothered to look deeper into the ways women were searching for information, or consider the depth of what they actually needed to know. Instead of waiting for the perfect publication to approach her, she created The Femedic.

Monica has been named one of The Drum’s 50 under 30 for influential women in digital 2018 and was shortlisted for Female Entrepreneur of the Year in the 2018 British Business awards. She speaks and writes widely on gender and health inequality.

View more

References

  1. Nguyen, J., and Duong, H., Anatomy, abdomen, and pelvic, female external genitalis, in: StatPearls, Treasure Island, Florida, StatPearls Publishing, January 2020 [online] (accessed 22 December 2020)
  2. Ibid
  3. Delvin, D., and Webber, C., Orgasms in UK women — an online survey, FPA, FPA website, April 2017 [online] (accessed 22 December 2020)
  4. Whipple, B., Ejaculation, female, International Encyclopedia of Human Sexuality, November 2014 [online] (accessed 22 December 2020)
  5. Graziottin, A., and Gambini, D., Chapter 4 — Neurology of sexual and bladder disorders, in Vodušek, D.B., and Boller, F.’s, Handbook of Clinical Neurology, Elsevier, 2015, vol 130, pp 39-60
  6. Ibid
  7. Lev-Sagie, A., et al., The vulvar vestible, a small tissue with a central position: anatomy, embryology, pain mechanisms, and hormonal associations, Current Sexual Health Reports, 2019, vol 11, pp 60-66
  8. Puppo, V., Anatomy and physiology and the clitoris, vestibular bulbs, and labia minora with a review of the female orgasm and the prevention of female sexual dysfunction, Clinical anatomy, 2013, vol 26, issue 1, pp 134-152
  9. Ibid
  10. Nguyen, J., and Duong, H., Anatomy, abdomen, and pelvic, female external genitalis, in: StatPearls, Treasure Island, Florida, StatPearls Publishing, January 2020 [online] (accessed 22 December 2020)