November 09, 2004

Vulva Vs. Vagina... Ultimate Cage Match!


The usual reason for listing as a pet peeve the misuse of the word vagina (when referring to a vulva or the entire female genitals) seems to be that it trivializes the importance of the clitoris as a pleasure organ and over-emphasizes the importance of penetration, leading to a skewed and male-centred vision of female sexuality. I can follow this logic, but it has never been my experience that the name confusion is actually what leads to any particularly misguided understanding of female sexuality or anatomy. I know a surprising number of pleasure-positive, pro-feminist folks who say technically impossible things like “These pants are pinching my vagina!” or “My girlfriend shaved the hair off her vagina.”

I sometimes wonder whether the mis-terminology really matters beyond the practical problems of describing symptoms to a doctor or desires to a lover, which are easily remedied by pointing. Maybe it is one of those arguments that makes wonderful logical sense, but isn't born out by experimental evidence, like the idea that expressing anger and “letting it out” will help a person calm down (in reality, acting angry makes people feel angrier).

Does anyone have any references to share on this subject that are more concrete or experimental than the various analyses, opinions and pet peeves (reasoned and interesting though those are)? Please share!


I've never been too worked up about the vulva vs. vagina confusion, figuring I'd do my part to offer information about female orgasms and the clitoris, and leave people to clarify their terminology on a need to know basis. Lately though, I'm curious about sort of the opposite confusion: do people really know what is going on inside a vagina? Are we paying enough attention to the internal parts?

I've read some strange-sounding psychological texts that list one function of menarche as “to confirm for a girl the existence of her vagina,” and I wonder whether many women (or men) know much beyond this confirmation that yes, there is an opening there. I wonder whether people are missing out on the cervix, fornix, and various internal vaults, bumps and curves. I seem to get more email asking “What is this bump inside my vagina?” or “How deep are vaginas?” than I get asking “Where is the clitoris?” or “Am I supposed to be able to have orgasms from vaginal penetration alone?” but that could be a function of the balance of information on this website.

The reason this seems even remotely important to me is that, while a detailed understanding of the Cowper's gland and various internal valves and vesicles might not offer much practical or emotional benefit to a male (Does it? Let me know, guys!), familiarity with internal geography is useful for any female who uses tampons, menstrual cups or diaphragms, participates in vaginal penetration, stimulates her G-spot, or otherwise wants to insert anything more than an inch or so into her vagina. There is a curve almost immediately to get past the pubic bone and urethral sponge tissue. The cervix protrudes, variably, to within 2-4 inches of the opening. That's handy to know.

Your thoughts?

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