vulva n : external parts of the female genitalia [also: vulvae (pl)]
EtymologyFrom vulva, earlier volva, probably from volvare. Akin to Sanskrit |.
Usage notesvagina is often used to refer to the vulva or female genitals generally, even though strictly speaking the vagina is a specific internal structure. Calling the vulva the vagina is rather like calling the mouth the throat.
Derived termsrel-top terms derived from vulva
Related termsrel-top terms related to vulva
collectively the external female sexual organs
- Arabic: حِر
- Estonian: häbe, vulva
- Finnish: ulkosynnyttimet
- Modern: αιδοίο
- Irish: pit
- Italian: vulva
- Korean: 보지, 씹
- Lao: ໂຍນີ
- Polish: srom
- Scottish Gaelic: pit
- Spanish: vulva
The vulva (from Latin, vulva, plural vulvae or vulvas; see etymology) is the region of the external genital organs of the female, including the labia majora, mons pubis, labia minora, clitoris, bulb of the vestibule, vestibule of the vagina, greater and lesser vestibular glands, and vaginal orifice.
The vulva has many major and minor anatomical structures. Its development occurs during several phases, chiefly the fetal and pubertal periods. Outer portal of the human matrix or womb, it protects its opening by a "double door": the labia majora and the labia minora, as well as a vulval vestibule, and a normal microbial flora that flows from the inside out. Normal external cleanliness is usually sufficient to assure good vulvovaginal health, without recourse to any internal cleansing. The vulva is more susceptible to infections than the penis.
These external body structures also have a sexual function; they are richly innervated and provide pleasure during sexual intercourse when properly stimulated. Since the origin of human society, in various branches of art the vulva has been depicted as the organ that has the power both "to give life" (i.e., often associated with the womb in pre-historic periods and antiquity, decreasingly so as science has progressed), and to give sexual pleasure to humankind.
In common speech, the term vagina is often used to refer to the vulva or female genitals generally, although, strictly speaking, the vagina is a specific internal structure, whereas the vulva is the exterior genitalia.
This article deals with the human vulva, although the structures are similar for other mammals.
EtymologyThe word "vulva" was taken from Middle Latin volva or vulva "womb, female genitals", probably from Latin volvere "to roll" (lit. "wrapper"). Similar to Sanskrit ulva "womb".
An alternate term, also from Latin, is genitalia feminina externa.
SlangAs with nearly any aspect of the human body that is involved in sexual or excretory functions, there are many slang words for the vulva.
Sexual homologyMost male and female sex organs originate from the same tissues in the development of a foetus. The vulva is no different. The anatomy of the vulva is related to the anatomy of the male genitalia by a shared developmental biology. Organs that have a common developmental ancestry in this way are said to be homologous.
The clitoral glans is homologous to the glans penis in males, and the clitoral body and the clitoral crura are homologous to the corpora cavernosa of the penis. The labia majora, labia minora and clitoral hood are homologous to the scrotum, shaft skin of the penis, and the foreskin, respectively. The vestibular bulbs beneath the skin of the labia minora are homologous to the corpus spongiosum, the tissue of the penis surrounding the urethra. The Bartholin's glands are homologous to Cowper's glands in males.
StructuresIn human beings, major structures of the vulva are:
- the perineum
- the Sebaceous glands on labia majora
- the vaginal glands:
The labia minora are two soft folds of skin within the labia majora. While labia minora translates as "minor (or small) lips", often the "minora" are of considerable size, and protrude outside the "majora". Much of the variation between vulvae lies in the significant variation in the size, shape, and color of the labia minora. The clitoris is located at the front of the vulva, where the labia minora meet. The visible portion of the clitoris is the clitoral glans. Typically, the clitoral glans is roughly the size and shape of a pea, although it can be significantly larger or smaller. The clitoral glans is highly sensitive, containing as many nerve endings as the analogous organ in males, the glans penis. The point where the labia minora attach to the clitoris is called the frenulum clitoridis. A prepuce, the clitoral hood, normally covers and protects the clitoris, however in women with particularly large clitorises or small prepuces, the clitoris may be partially or wholly exposed at all times. Often the clitoral hood is only partially hidden inside of the pudendal cleft.
The area between the labia minora is called the vulval vestibule, and it contains the vaginal and urethral openings. The urethral opening (meatus) is located below the clitoris and just in front of the vagina. This is where urine passes from the bladder to the outside of the body.
The opening of the vagina is located at the bottom of the vulval vestibule, towards the perineum. The term introitus is more technically correct than "opening", since the vagina is collapsed, with the opening closed, unless something is inserted into it. The introitus is sometimes partly covered by a membrane called the hymen. The hymen will rupture during the first episode of vigorous sex, and the blood produced by this rupture is often used as a sign of virginity. However, the hymen may also rupture spontaneously during exercise, or be stretched by normal activities such as the use of tampons, or be so minor as to not be noticeable. In some rare cases, the hymen may completely cover the vaginal opening, requiring surgical separation. Slightly below and to the left and right of the vaginal opening are two Bartholin glands which produce a waxy, pheromone-containing substance, the purpose of which is not fully known.
The appearance of the vulva and the size of the various parts varies a great deal from one female to another, and it is common for the left and right sides to differ in appearance.
FetusDuring the first eight weeks of life, both male and female fetuses have the same rudimentary reproductive and sexual organs, and maternal hormones control their development. Male and female organs begin to become distinct when the fetus is able to begin producing its own hormones, although visible determination of the sex is difficult until after the twelfth week.
During the sixth week, the genital tubercle develops in front of the cloacal membrane. The tubercle contains a groove termed the urethral groove. The urogenital sinus (forerunner of the bladder) opens into this groove. On either side of the grove are the urogenital folds. Beside the tubercle are a pair of ridges called the labioscrotal swellings.
Beginning in the third month of development, the genital tubercle becomes the clitoris. The urogenital folds become the labia minora, and the labioscrotal swellings become the labia majora.
ChildhoodAt birth, the neonate's vulva (and breasts) may be swollen or enlarged as a result of having been exposed, via the placenta, to her mother's increased levels of hormones. The clitoris is proportionally larger than it is likely to be later in life. Within a short period of time as these hormones wear off, the vulva will shrink in size.
From one year of age until the onset of puberty, the vulva does not undergo any change in appearance, other than growing in proportion with the rest of the body.
PubertyThe onset of puberty produces a number of changes. The structures of the vulva become proportionately larger and may become more pronounced. Coloration may change and pubic hair develops, first on the labia majora, and later spreading to the mons pubis, and sometimes the inner thighs and perineum.
In pre-adolescent girls, the vulva appears to be positioned further forward than in adults, showing a larger percentage of the labia majora and pudendal cleft when standing. During puberty the mons pubis enlarges, pushing the forward portion of the labia majora away from the pubic bone, and parallel to the ground (when standing). Variations in body fat levels affect the extent to which this occurs.
ChildbirthDuring childbirth, the vagina and vulva must stretch to accommodate the baby's head (approximately 9.5 cm or 3.7 in). This can result in tears in the vaginal opening, labia, and clitoris. An episiotomy (surgical pre-emptive cutting of the perineum) is sometimes performed to limit tearing, but its appropriateness as a routine procedure is under debate.
Some of the changes that occur during pregnancy may be permanent.
Post-menopauseDuring menopause, hormone levels decrease, and as this process happens, reproductive tissues which are sensitive to these hormones shrink in size. The mons pubis, labia, and clitoris are reduced in size in post-menopause, although not usually to pre-puberty proportions.
Sexual arousalSexual arousal results in a number of physical changes in the vulva. Arousal may be broken up into four somewhat arbitrary phases: Excitement, Plateau, Orgasm, and Resolution.
ExcitementVaginal lubrication begins first. This is caused as a result of the vasocongestion of the vaginal walls. Increased blood pooling there causes moisture to seep from the walls. These droplets collect together and flow out of the vagina, moistening the vulva. The labia majora flatten and spread apart, and the clitoris and labia minora increase in size.
Unlike in men, where sexual excitement produces large and readily apparent changes, namely an erection, women are not necessarily aware that vaginal lubrication and blood engorgement of their vulva has occurred.
PlateauIncreased vasocongestion in the vagina causes it to swell, decreasing the size of the vaginal opening by about 30%. The clitoris becomes increasingly erect, and the glans moves towards the pubic bone, becoming concealed by the hood. The labia minora increase considerably in thickness, approximately 2–3 times, causing them to spread apart, displaying the vaginal opening. The labia minora change considerably in color, (in Caucasians) going from pink to red in women who have not borne a child, or red to wine in those that have.
A woman is not fully ready for vaginal intercourse until the plateau stage.
OrgasmImmediately prior to orgasm, the clitoris becomes exceptionally engorged, causing the glans to appear to retract into the clitoral hood. This is thought to protect the sensitive glans during orgasm. However, there is some doubt that this is the case, since the same engorgement prior to orgasm occurs in the male homologous structure, the penis, the function of which is thought to be to extend the penis as close to the cervix as possible prior to ejaculation.
Rhythmic muscle contractions occur in the outer third of the vagina, as well as the uterus and anus. They occur initially at a rate of about one every 0.8 seconds, becoming less intense and more randomly spaced as the orgasm continues. An orgasm may have as few as one or as many as 15 or more contractions, depending on intensity. Orgasm may be accompanied by female ejaculation, causing liquid from either the Skene's gland or bladder to be expelled through the urethra.
Immediately after orgasm the clitoris may be so sensitive that any stimulation is uncomfortable.
ResolutionThe pooled blood begins to dissipate, although at a much slower rate if orgasm has not occurred. The vagina and vaginal opening return to their normal relaxed state, and the rest of the vulva returns to its normal size, position and color.
Fluids and odourThere are a number of different secretions associated with the vulva, including urine, sweat, menses, skin oils (sebum), Bartholin's and Skene's gland secretions, and vaginal wall secretions. These secretions contain a mix of chemicals, including pyridine, squalene, urea, acetic acid, lactic acid, complex alcohols, glycols, ketones, and aldehydes. A secretion associated with ovulation is known as "spinnbarkeit".
SmegmaSmegma is a white substance formed from a combination of dead cells, skin oils, moisture and naturally occurring bacteria, that forms in mammalian genitalia. In females it collects around the clitoris and labial folds.
Aliphatic acidsApproximately one third of women produce aliphatic acids. These acids are a pungent class of chemicals which other primate species produce as sexual-olfactory signals. While there is some debate, researchers often refer to them as human pheromones. These acids are produced by natural bacteria resident on the skin. The acid content varies with the menstrual cycle, rising from one day after menstruation, and peaking mid-cycle, just before ovulation.
Disorders affecting the vulvaGynaecology is the branch of medicine dealing with the diagnosis and treatment of the diseases and disorders associated with the vulva. Regular examinations are necessary to detect any abnormal changes in the vulvar region. Several pathologies are defined, a complete descriptive listing may be found in Chapter XIV of the list of ICD-10 codes; the most significant disorders include:
Vulvar cancervulvectomy – removal of all or part of the vulva.
Altering the female genitalia
The most prevalent form of genital alteration in some countries is female genital cutting: removal of any part of the female genitalia for cultural, religious or other non-medical reasons. This practice is highly controversial as it is often done to non-consenting minors and for debatable (often misogynistic) reasons.
In some cases, people elect to have their genitals pierced, tattooed or otherwise altered for aesthetic or other reasons. Female genital enhancement surgery includes laser resurfacing of the labia to remove wrinkles, clitoral repositioning for those not achieving optimum stimulation, labiaplasty (reducing the size of the labia) and vaginal tightening.
Cultural attitudesIn some cultures, including modern Western culture, some women have shaved or otherwise depilated part or all of the vulva. This is a fairly recent phenomenon in the United States, Canada, and western Europe, but has been prevalent, usually in the form of waxing, in many eastern European and Middle Eastern cultures for centuries, usually for the belief that it is more hygienic. High-cut swimsuits compelled their wearers to shave the sides of their pubic triangles. Shaving may also include all or nearly all of the hair. Some styles retain a "racing stripe" (on either side of the labia) or "landing strip" (directly above and in line with the vulva). See the article on pubic hair.
Since the early days of Islam, Muslim women and men have followed a tradition to "pluck the armpit hairs and shave the pubic hairs". This is a preferred practice rather than an obligation, and could be carried out by shaving, waxing, cutting,clipping or any other method. This is a regular practice that is considered in some more devout Muslim cultures as a form of worship, not a shameful practice, while in other less devout regions it is a practice for the purpose of good hygiene. (See Islamic jurisprudence.) The reasons behind removing this hair could also be applied to the hair on the scrotum and around the anus, because the purpose is to be completely clean and pure and keep away from anything that may cause dirt and impurities.
Depictions of vulvaMany cultures have commonly viewed the vulva as something shameful that should be hidden; for example, the term pudendum, which denotes the external genitalia, literally means "shameful thing". Some cultures have long celebrated and even worshipped the vulva; some Hindu sects revere it under the name yoni, and texts seem to indicate a similar attitude in some ancient Middle Eastern religions. As an aspect of Goddess worship such reverence may be part of modern Neopagan beliefs, and may be indicated in paleolithic artworks. Other cultures consider some or all parts of the vulva to be "unclean" and may go as far as to advocate the so-called "female circumcision", which in fact exists in several levels of severity. Fortunately, a better understanding of female anatomy and sexuality is resulting in the abolishment of many of these archaic cultural stigmas.
ModestyMany sculptors and painters have chosen not to display vulvae in their works, even when depicting nude women. The pubic region was often covered with a piece of cloth, figleaf or a hand.
In the case of a wall painting such as The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from The Garden of Eden by Masaccio, fig leaves were added, probably at the request of Cosimo de' Medici III at the end of the seventeenth century, three centuries after it was painted, because nudity was thought to be repugnant. During the restoration of the this fresco in the 1980's, the fig leaves were removed, as well as centuries of accumulated dirt and smoke.
When it was first painted, the figures lacked pubic hair (see glabrousness) and Eve's vulva lacked physical depiction. Even in modern times Japanese anime artists often depict female characters without vulvae in hentai pornography to comply with censorship laws.
As throughout history the actual or artistic display of vulvae was uncommon, aesthetic standards for the depiction of the vulva in the West developed after visual pornography became more widespread. Currently, color desaturation is often used to purge photographic images of pornographic associations.
See alsowikt vulva
- is for vulva, not just vagina," article discussing the common usage of the word "vagina."
- Vulvar Anatomy Video - Video tour of the vulva detailing all the structures
- Vulvas and Vaginas in Mythology, History and Art - This article by Kirsten Anderberg explores vulvae and vaginas in empowerment mythology, in history and in art.
- The Vulva Revealed - Extensive descriptions and numerous illustrations showing the large variations in vulva shape among women.
- Erogenous Dot - Numerous 'tasteful' illustrations showing the variation in appearance (warning: popups)
- Pink Parts - "Walk through" of female sexual anatomy by sex activist and educator Heather Corinna (illustrations; no explicit photos)
vulva in Arabic: فرج
vulva in Bavarian: Vulva
vulva in Bulgarian: Вулва
vulva in Bosnian: Stidnica
vulva in Breton: Kourzh
vulva in Catalan: Vulva
vulva in Czech: Vulva
vulva in Danish: Vulva
vulva in German: Vulva
vulva in Estonian: Häbe
vulva in Modern Greek (1453-): Αιδοίο
vulva in Spanish: Vulva
vulva in Esperanto: Vulvo
vulva in French: Vulve
vulva in Ido: Vulvo
vulva in Italian: Vulva
vulva in Japanese: 外陰部
vulva in Turkish: Vulva
vulva in Hebrew: פות
vulva in Croatian: Stidnica
vulva in Haitian: Koko
vulva in Latin: Vulva
vulva in Lithuanian: Vulva
vulva in Dutch: Vulva
vulva in Norwegian: Vulva
vulva in Low German: Puus
vulva in Polish: Srom
vulva in Portuguese: Vulva
vulva in Romanian: Vulvă
vulva in Russian: Вульва
vulva in Simple English: Vulva
vulva in Slovak: Ženské ohanbie
vulva in Slovenian: Vulva
vulva in Serbian: Vulva
vulva in Finnish: Häpy
vulva in Swedish: Vulva
vulva in Tagalog: Bulba
vulva in Thai: ช่องสังวาส
vulva in Chinese: 女陰
bag, ballocks, balls, basket, beard, breasts, cervix, clitoris, cod, cods, cullions, family jewels, female organs, genitalia, genitals, gonads, labia, labia majora, labia minora, lingam, lips, male organs, meat, nuts, nymphae, ovary, penis, phallus, private parts, privates, privy parts, pubic hair, pudenda, reproductive organs, rocks, scrotum, secondary sex characteristic, sex organs, spermary, testes, testicles, uterus, vagina, womb, yoni