What are Vulvas?
It’s not a vagina!
Until recently, I too was happily referring to everything as a ‘vagina’. As a budding Sex-pert, I thought I was pretty clued up on these things, but a woefully inadequate sex education and lack of curiosity on the subject had me saying it all wrong.
For you see, the vagina is only the passageway between the cervix and the outside world (via the vaginal opening). Periods and babies can come out of here, fingers, penises and other stimulatory objects can go in, if that’s what you want.
But the stuff on the outside of the body? The labia, the vaginal opening, the urethra and the glorious clitoris? All vulva.
To reiterate: Vagina = internal passageway between the cervix and the vaginal opening. Vulva = the external parts you can see. But ‘vagina’ is often used to describe everything – internal and external.
Vagina… Vulva… Who cares?
Why does it matter? ‘Vagina’ is close enough and it’s so widespread, everyone will know what you’re talking about.
But is that really true? You wouldn’t call a knife a fork. While they’re both part of the cutlery family, they look different and do very different things.
Some people argue that vagina is the commonly used term because the vagina is the only part of the sexual anatomy useful for men. And by not using the term ‘vulva’, we erase the clitoris and by extension, sexual pleasure for those who have one.
Misinformation about the vulva – a symptom of something bigger?
I think the fact so many people – both with and without vulvas – erase it by lumping it in with the vagina is a sign of how society conceals and controls the sexuality of people with vulvas.
Sex can be a difficult topic to talk about, especially for young people. But the sexuality and bodies of people with vulvas are particularly taboo.
When I say this, I’m thinking back to my teenage years. I thought masturbation was dirty and wrong for a very long time. I thought my role during sex was to please the person I was having it with. And I was terrified for anyone to know that I had my period. As a young person, I felt shame about my body and exploring sexual pleasure.
You can see the evidence for this on a wider scale, too:
- Demand for labiaplasty (a cosmetic surgery where the labia are shortened or reshaped) is on the rise all over the world. Doctors say shame and a lack of information about the many shapes vulvas can take both contribute.
- Researchers for the book About Bloody Time asked 3000+ people who menstruate about their feelings around menstruation. The research unveiled a ‘pervasive menstrual taboo’, with shame and secrecy around periods affecting people’s lives at home, school and in the workplace.
- A 2005 study found a link between menstrual shame, body shame and sexual risk taking. People who reported more comfort with menstruation and their bodies also reported more sexual assertiveness and less sexual risk.
- The Eve Appeal, a UK gynecological cancer charity, reported that problems with using the terms ‘vagina’ and ‘vulva’, a lack of knowledge about the reproductive system and embarrassment all act as barriers for young people to get help for gynecological problems.
- The ‘pleasure gap’ has recently been gaining attention in the media. A 2017 study found that sex without orgasm and less orgasm satisfaction was more common for women in heterosexual relationships than queer ones. Researchers put this down to ‘heterosexual sexual scripts’, where vaginal sex is prioritized, a male orgasm signifies the end of sex and women feel a deep need to please their partners.
But how does using correct word help?
I’m not saying knowing the correct term for your external genitalia will single-handedly solve any of the problems outlined above. Far from it. But having a more open discussion about vulvas and all the wonderful things that come with them would help to reduce the shame and stigma common in all of the issues I raised.
We need to talk about vulvas and recognise all their wonderful different forms to help people understand that all vulvas have different shapes, sizes and even hair quantities – and that’s OK!
We need to talk about vulvas and the vital role they play in sexual pleasure (hello, clitoris!!). Then, people with vulvas might not feel shame when exploring their bodies and understanding what gives them pleasure during sex.
We need to talk about vulvas, the reproductive system and menstruation to break the menstrual taboo and ensure that people are not embarrassed to ask for help if they need it.
Vive la vulva!
When I went to the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart last year, I was enthralled by one exhibit – a wall of 150 vulva casts. I marvelled at their gloriously different shapes and sizes and wondered about the stories behind them. When I went to a festival the next day, I delighted in telling all my new festival friends about this experience. I’m sure they loved it, too.
Meanwhile back at my house, the model vulva is still doing it’s bit to educate our guests. I live with three boys and they know all about vulvas. I remember one night we were out with drinks with a wider group of friends. From my seat at the other end of the table, I overhead one housemate say to the other: ‘You mean a vulva, Norman!!!’ I smiled because my work there was done.
The wider work still continues, though. When I think about the huge task of combating vulva shame and stigma in Australia alone, my head hurts. And vulva shame and stigma exists in the context of a whole load of other issues – from sexual violence to poverty, which makes just talking about vulvas feel a bit silly.
What we really need is comprehensive, sex-positive, inclusive and non-judgmental sex education for all young people. I hope to one day be involved in helping that become the norm across Australia (big dreams for this girl!!). But for now, the best I can do is shout about vulvas to anyone who’ll listen.
Photo source: istockphotography.