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 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.
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.
It should be noted that this term strictly belongs to Master Milk and the likening of the female reproductive organs to that of the male has been highly contested by feminists like Luce Irigaray.
In human beings, major structures of the vulva are:
The soft mound at the front of the vulva is formed by fatty tissue covering the pubic bone, and is called the mons pubis. The term mons pubis is Latin for "pubic mound", and is gender non-specific. In human females, the mons pubis is often referred to as the mons veneris, Latin for "mound of Venus" or "mound of love". The mons pubis separates into two folds of skin called the labia majora, literally "major (or large) lips". The cleft between the labia majora is called the pudendal cleft, or cleft of Venus, and it contains and protects the other, more delicate structures of the vulva. The labia majora meet again at a flat area between the pudendal cleft and the anus called the perineum. The colour of the outside skin of the labia majora is usually close to the overall skin colour of the individual, although there is considerable variation. The inside skin and mucus membrane are often pink or brownish. After the onset of puberty, the mons pubis and the labia majora become covered by pubic hair. This hair sometimes extends to the inner thighs and perineum, but the density, texture, and extent of pubic hair coverage varies considerably. The practice of cosmetic trimming and shaping the edge of the so-called "bikini line" is common, but a trend toward the severe reduction, or even complete removal, of pubic hair has gained popularity in recent years.
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.
During 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 groove 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.
From one year of age until the onset of puberty the vulva does not undergo any change in appearance.
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.
Some of the changes that occur during pregnancy may be permanent.
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.
A woman is not fully ready for vaginal intercourse until the plateau stage.
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.
Symptoms of vulvar cancer include itching, a lump or sore on the vulva which doesn't heal and/or goes larger, and sometimes discomfort/pain/swelling in the vulval area. Treatments include vulvectomy – removal of all or part of the vulva.
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.
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.
Many 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 III de' Medici 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 vulva images of pornographic associations.