woman in underpants holding a flower

Vulva and vagina

The vulva is the external female genitalia.

The vulva is what you can see on the outside of your body, between your legs.

Vulva Labia Clitoris
© Love Matters

Vulva

Look for yourself

Do you know what your vulva looks like? Take a mirror, then you can see and feel all the different parts of it properly.

  • Make sure you’re on your own, and no one can walk in on you.
  • Lean back on a pillow, pull up your legs and let them fall either side of you.
  • Take the mirror. Pull your labia – the lips of your vagina – apart a little so you can see everything properly.
  • Apart from looking carefully, you can also feel.

You may notice that your labia minora (inner lips), labia majora (outer lips), or clitoris is not visible. If this is the case, and if you remember going through a special ceremony to become a woman when you were younger, you may have been circumcised or cut.

Check out the section on female genital cutting to learn more about how this could affect the way your vulva looks.

Why?

It’s useful to get to know your own body well. Then you know what you look like. You also know what feels good, what you like, and what you don’t like. When you have sex, it'll be easier for you to let your partner know what you want.

No two women are alike!

So your vulva may look different from these ones:

Labia Types
© Love Matters

Hygiene

Use warm water to wash your vulva, but it’s not a good idea to use soap, especially on your inner labia and inside your vagina.

Soap can upset the natural balance of bacteria and actually make you more likely to get yeast (fungal) infections. It can also be a cause of itching and irritation or pain during intercourse. If you do choose to wash your labia with soap, use a gentle one without strong perfumes.

Labia

The labia – which means lips – protect the entrance to the vagina. There are two outer labia and two inner labia.

The labia are full of glands that produce fluid so your vagina gets moist when you’re sexually aroused.

The inner and outer labia are also called the labia minora and labia majora. This means the smaller and larger labia, though in reality the inner labia are often larger than the outer labia.

Look for yourself

Every woman's labia look different. Some women’s labia are large, some are small. Pubic hair grows on the outer labia. The inner labia are between the outer labia, and the skin is usually a little darker.

Size and shape

There is no normal size for your inner labia. Unfortunately, if you look in medical books or find pictures on the internet you're likely to find white models, and people with ‘fashionably’ small labia.

The models may even have had surgery to make their labia smaller. This means young girls and women are often unaware of just how many natural variations there are in the way labia look. Labia come in many different shapes and sizes!

Most women's inner labia grow to between 0 and 6 centimeters (2.3 inches) beyond the outer labia. Some ethnic groups such as Khoisan and San in Southern Africa have even longer inner labia – up to 10 centimeters (4 inches) beyond the outer labia.

What are labia for?

Both the outer and inner labia help to stop bacteria, viruses, or anything else that might be harmful from getting into the vagina. Unfortunately they can’t keep all the bacteria at bay, which is why it’s so important to have safe sex and use condoms! The inner lips can also increase pleasurable feelings during masturbation and sex.

No labia?
If you don’t have labia, read more in the section on female genital cutting.

Clitoris

The clitoris is the sexual organ most involved with sexual pleasure – in fact, that’s all it’s there for! The tip of the clitoris is on the outside of your body, but a large part of it is actually hidden away inside you.

The outer part is a small bump between your labia, where they meet at the top. It’s often about the size of a pea, but it can be bigger or smaller. The tip can be covered by a little hood. The colour of a woman’s clitoris depends on her skin tone. It can be pink, deep red, or brown.

clitoris clitoral hood
© Love Matters

The clitoris goes on a long way inside your body – in fact, most of it is on the inside. Like a penis, it has a shaft and a sensitive head, but with a clitoris the shaft is inside the body and only the tip is on the outside.

 

 

internal clitoris vagina
© Love Matters

Sensitive

The clitoris contains more than 8000 nerve endings, and it's the most sensitive place for a woman. Sometimes it feels so sensitive it’s painful, especially if you've never touched it before.

If the clitoris is stroked, rubbed, or licked, it gets a bit bigger. This creates a pleasant feeling, which gets more intense the longer the stroking goes on. This is the way that many women have orgasms.

Experiment with yourself to see how you like to be touched. You might prefer to stroke or rub to the side of your clitoris or above it if you find it too sensitive to touch directly.

As you get used to the feeling of touching your clitoris and the intense feelings this gives, you become more able to feel the difference between pleasure and discomfort – for many people, it’s a fine line. That’s one reason it’s good to experiment and see what you like.

Look for yourself

The clitoris head or tip is at the top of the inner labia, just where the two lips meet.

It's a little bump, measuring between about three and eight millimeters.

It's made rather like a penis, and the tip is like the head of a penis because it’s very sensitive to the touch.
 

Clitoris FAQs

1. Is it normal that my clitoris tip is so small?
Yes, the tip of the clitoris can be as small as 2 millimeters and as large as 4.5 centimeters! Small clitoris tips are just as sensitive as big ones. Remember most of your clitoris is inside your body anyway – the tip is just the bit you can see. No two women are alike!

2. I can’t find my clitoris. Now what?
Your clitoris may be a bit hidden. Run your finger straight down over your belly, as soon as you reach your labia, you’re there. Your clitoris is right at the top of your labia. You might not be able to see it, but if you touch it with your finger, it feels nice.

If the tip of your clitoris is missing altogether, see the section on female genital cutting.

3. Does my clitoris work?
For many women, their clitoris is the most sensitive and sexually pleasurable part of their body to touch. But for some women, their clitoris may not be as sensitive or too sensitive to touch.

Try using a lubricant when you are touching your clitoris. Dab a little lubricant on your finger, and gently stroke your clitoris in a circular motion. See how it feels – is it pleasurable? If it is, as you get more comfortable apply more pressure and carry on.

You’ll begin to feel more intense feelings of pleasure. If this continues, the feeling can grow until eventually you feel a release, an explosion of energy, which is an orgasm.

If you find your clitoris is not as sensitive even after experimenting, it is possible to get aroused by massaging other parts of the body as well, such as inside your vagina, the rim of your anus, or your nipples.

Urethra

The urethra is the tube that goes from the bladder to the urethral opening – where the pee comes out.

In women, this tube is between 2.5 and 4 centimeters long.

Look for yourself

The opening of the urethra is just below the clitoris, where the labia meet at the top.

urethra vulva
© Love Matters

Hymen

Most women are born with a hymen – a layer of stretchy skin that surrounds or partially covers the opening to the vagina.

Hymens can come in different shapes, sizes, and thickness. The differences in thickness means that some women's hymens may be very thin and they may not notice any tearing or bleeding during sex. Other women may have thicker hymens, and may see blood the first time they have sex. Thick or thin, both are normal. What’s more, some women are actually born without a hymen – this is also normal.

hymen varieties
© Love Matters

Menstrual blood

For most women, menstrual blood can easily pass through their vagina without being blocked by the hymen. But a few women have a hymen that almost covers the opening of the vagina (a microperforated hymen) or even covers it completely (an imperforate hymen), blocking menstrual blood from passing through the vagina.

This can cause the menstrual blood to get stuck in the vagina or collect inside your belly. Women may have abdominal or back pain, and bowel movements and passing urine may also be painful. A simple operation can remove the extra hymen tissue and create a normal-sized opening.

A few women have a hymen that divides the vaginal opening into two small holes. While this shape allows menstrual blood to pass through, it can make it difficult to insert a tampon or have sex. Here, too, a minor operation can remove the hymen tissue to create one opening.

Bladder infections

Women get bladder infections or urinary tract infections – more easily than men do. This is because the urethra, the tube from the bladder to the urethral opening where the pee comes out, is shorter than it is in men.

The urethra in women is closer to the openings of the anus and vagina, whereas in men there is a longer distance between the anus and urethra.

Normally, urine or pee is sterile – it doesn’t contain any bacterial or fungal infections. But an infection can be caused if bacteria or fungus come into contact with the urethra and start growing.

Tips to avoid bladder infections

  • Wipe from front to back when you’ve been to the toilet – first over your vulva, and then your anus. Then bacteria from your anus won’t get inside your urethra.
  • Pee after you have sex. This washes out the urethra so bacteria don’t get inside. 
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