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Let’s stop confusing vulva and vagina!

For too long, we have ignored the difference between vulva and vagina, using the latter to describe both. It’s time for the confusion to end.

da Giada | 6 March 2022
Illustrazione di una vulva
Cecilia Grandi

For too long, the difference between vulva and vagina has been rather ignored, and whatever biology class we took at school has done little to change that. Amidst the confusion, vulvas definitely haven’t received the attention they deserve. In order to allow everyone to gain better knowledge of their bodies and sexuality, we wanted to highlight the differences once and for all (they’re major).

What is the difference between vulva and vagina?

The vulva refers to the external genitals such as the labia and clitoral glans, while the vagina is the internal canal that connects the uterus and ovaries to the vulva. It seems obvious enough that they are NOT the same. The two words aren’t synonymous and refer to distinct body parts. Too often, out of habit or sheer laziness, we use the latter to describe both when, in fact, the vulva is everything we see externally. When talking about intimate hygiene, we only ever refer to the vulva and its pH and microbiome.

The vulva, from the mons pubis to the vaginal opening.

Throughout the years, distorted representations and unrealistic beauty standards have defined the way we perceive female genitals, giving us the wrong idea on how they ought to look. But every vulva is different and no two vulvas are the same. Let us also remember how its aspect might evolve over the years, from puberty to menopause, and through hormonal cycles.

  • The mons pubis: also known as pubis, it is a rounded mound of fatty tissue that covers the pubic bone. During puberty, it becomes covered with hair. The mons pubis contains oil-secreting (sebaceous) glands that release substances that are involved in sexual attraction (pheromones).
  • The labia majora: they are relatively large, fleshy folds of tissue that enclose and protect the other external genital organs. The labia majora contain sweat and sebaceous glands, which produce lubricating secretions. During puberty, hair appears on the labia majora.
  • The labia minora: they lie just inside the labia majora and surround the openings to the vagina and urethra. A rich supply of blood vessels gives the labia minora a pink color. During sexual stimulation, these blood vessels become engorged with blood, causing the labia minora to swell and become more sensitive to stimulation. They are lined with a mucous membrane, whose surface is kept moist by fluid secreted by specialised cells. When stimulated, Bartholin glands (located beside the vaginal opening) secrete a thick fluid that supplies lubrication for intercourse.
  • The glans clitoris: it is the only visible part of the clitoris. It is located at the top of the vulva. Packed with nerves, it is highly sensitive to stimulation. It is protected by the clitoral hood, the fold of skin that covers the glans clitoris. It is technically a part of the labia minora, but is sometimes included in the clitoral anatomy.

Fun fact: The clitoris contains nearly 8,000 nerve endings, many of which are located on the glans. This makes the clitoris highly sensitive to stimulation and the only organ entirely dedicated to pleasure!

  • The urethra: it is the small opening out of which urine is evacuated, as well as squirt liquid.
  • The vaginal opening: located between the urethra and perineum, it is the entrance to the vagina, internally surrounded by clitoral bulbs.

Ma come puoi iniziare a scoprire che aspetto ha la tua vulva? Uno dei modi più semplici è prendere uno specchio, guardarla in tutte le sue parti e toccarla con le dita. L’esplorazione della propria vulva non solo è utile per conoscerne la forma, i colori e l’odore, ma è anche un ottimo modo per tenerla sotto controllo e capire se qualcosa cambia.

The vagina: uterus, ovaries and more.

The vagina is a muscular canal that connects the cervix and the uterus, leading to the outside of the body. Parts of the vagina are rich in collagen and elastin, which give it the ability to expand during sexual stimulation and childbirth.

  • The hymen: it is a thin tissue that sits at the vaginal opening and has no known biological function. It becomes more elastic with age and breaks or ruptures at some point in a woman’s life. While sexual activity is one way the hymen can rupture, a broken hymen is not evidence of sexual activity
  • The cervix: it is the lower part of the uterus that separates the lower uterus and the vagina and may play a role in lubrication. During childbirth, it dilates so the baby can move out of the uterus into the vagina and out of the body.
  • La fornice vaginale: conosciuta anche come il “cul-de-sac vaginale”, è in fondo alla vagina e circonda completamente la cupola che forma il collo dell’utero. 
  • The uterus: it is located in the lower pelvis (belly area between the hips), through the vagina just past the cervix. Often called a womb, it’s where a baby lives during pregnancy. Interestingly, it has three layers of muscle and is one of the strongest muscles in the body.
  • The Fallopian tubes: they connect the ovaries to the uterus on each side and tend to be between 12 and 18cm . Cilia, hairlike structures, guide the egg in the right direction from the ovary to the uterus.
  • The ovaries: they are small organs located on both sides of the pelvis. They play a crucial role in female hormone production and produce eggs during ovulation.
  • Some would also include the so-called “G-spot” to refer to the spongy tissue that surrounds the urethra. However, there is a dispute as to whether this is a fabrication or a biological truth, which we will discuss in a further piece.

The difference between vulva and vagina is major, obvious and fundamental. Using the right words to describe how we are made “down there” can help us overcome the taboos, stereotypes and doubts that surround female genitalia, pleasure and sexual health in general. Finally giving the vulva the attention it deserves.

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