The external female genital organs are collectively known as the vulva (also sometimes called the pudenda).
In human beings, this consists of the labia majora and labia minora (while these names come from as "large" and "small" in Latin, the minora are often larger, protruding outside the "majora"), clitoris, the opening of the urethra (the meatus), and the vaginaal opening.
The main biological functions which occur in or through the vulva are urination, sexual stimulation, menstrual blood excretion, and childbirth.
In common speech, the term "vagina" is often improperly taken to mean the vulva, or female genitals generally, even though strictly speaking the vagina is a specific internal structure, while the vulva is the exterior genitalia only. Calling the vulva the vagina is akin to calling the mouth the throat. Likewise, the ancient English term cunt is often used to mean both.
The soft mound at the front of the vulva is the mons pubis, or specifically for humans, the mons veneris or "mount of Venus". After puberty it is more or less covered with pubic hair, the amount being determined primarily by heredity. The labia majora (large lips, or more reasonably, outer lips) extend on either side of the vulva, and are often also covered with pubic hair. The labia majora entirely or partially hide the other parts of the vulva. 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 is often pink or brownish.
The labia minora (small lips, or more reasonably given the common size variations, the inner lips) are two soft folds of skin within the labia majora and to either side of the opening of the vagina. The clitoris is at the front of the vulva where the labia minora meet. The visible tip of the clitoris, the clitoral glans is entirely or partially covered by a 'hood' of tissue (the clitoral hood).
The opening of the vagina is near the back (or bottom) end of the vulva; the much smaller opening of the urethra is between the clitoris and vagina. In young girls, the opening of the vagina is partially occluded by a piece of skin, the hymen. "Opening of the vagina" is something of a misnomer, as the vagina is normally not open but collapsed, and the walls of the vagina touch.
Slightly below and to the left and right of the vaginal opening are two Bartholin glands; when the woman is sexually aroused, they produce a lubricating substance that makes sexual penetration easier (the interior surface of the vagina also exudes vaginal lubrication). If this lubrication is insufficient, artificial lubrication may be used to facilitate penetration by penis, fingers, or sex toys.
The area between the vulva and the anus is the perineum.
The appearance of the vulva and the size of the various parts varies substantially from one woman to another, and it is common for the left and right sides of the vulva to not "match" exactly in an individual woman. The variations are extreme. There are women in whom the vulva appears to be a mere slit in a slighly bulging pad of flesh, and others in whom the vulva appears as variagated and protruding as the petals of an exotic orchid. There are several Web sites which display photos of vulvas; the range of normal difference is astonishing.
Relation to male genitals
The anatomy of the vulva is related to the anatomy of the male genitalia by a common developmental biology. Organs that have a common developmental ancestry in this way are said to be homologous.
The clitoral glans is homologous to the glans penis in males, and the body of the clitoris, or the crura, is homologous to the corpora cavernosa of the penis. It extends downward on both sides of the vaginal entrance and is the reason that, in some women, sexual arousal is shown by a swelling and protruding out of the vaginal walls. 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.
Heterosexual couples wishing to avoid pregnancy should note that conception is possible if semen comes in contact with the vulva (even through underwear) because spermatic fluid (and of course, the sperm) can be introduced into the vagina by capillary action. Furthermore, if penetration occurs but ejaculation never takes place, pregnancy can still result since pre-cum contains small amounts of sperm. The chances will be somewhat reduced, though.
Many cultures have commonly viewed the vulva as something shameful that should be hidden; the term pudendum literally means "shameful thing" in Latin. Some cultures consider the vulva to be "unclean" and go as far as to advocate, and practice, female genital mutilation. There is a considerable international diplomatic, NGO, and legal effort to reduce the incidence of forced female genital mutilation, particularly child genital mutilation. In the West, among a trendy and well off group, cosmetic vulvar surgery (not quite genital mutilation, as not intended to reduce lusts or sensitivity nor to remove entire vulvar structures) is sometimes practiced to reduce florid inner lips to something more allegedly 'attractive'.
Note that "female circumcision" is sometimes used as a loose synonym for all female genital mutilation; however, "female circumcision" should properly be used only for the removal of a tiny flap of skin partially surrounding the clitoris (but not the clitoris itself), since this is the structure in female genitals which is homologous to the male foreskin.
However, in several other cultures it has been celebrated, and even worshipped. In some Hindu sects the vulva is revered under the name yoni, and texts seem to indicate a similar attitude in some ancient Middle Eastern religions. As an aspect of Goddess worship such reverence are part of some modern Neopagan or Wiccan beliefs. Several paleolithic European artworks (up to 40 000 years ago) as well as a common Celtic art motif (the sheela-na-gig), suggest similar attitudes throughout Europe in prehistoric times and for a considerable aggregate period.
Hair and artistic depiction
In many cultures, including modern Western culture, some women have shaved or otherwise depilated part or all of the vulva.
In the past many sculptors and painters chose not to display vulvas in their works, even when depicting nude women. The pubic region was often covered with a piece of cloth, fig leaf or a hand. When it was displayed, it usually lacked pubic hair as well as the vulva, even though the vulva would be visible on a real woman in that particular pose. Certainly the florid appearance of some vulvas has been widely avoided. In modern times, Japanese anime artists often depict female characters without vulvas (even in hentai pornography) so as to comply with censorship laws. Because for most of history vulvas were neither displayed by women, nor shown in art, aesthetic standards for the vulva in the West developed after visual pornography became more widespread. Artworks by Judy Chicago, plays such as The Vagina Monologues, and others have contributed to changing this.
- Anatomy of the vulva 1, or Anatomy of the vulva 2 and click on 'Body image', then 'The Vulva revealed', for extensive descriptions, numerous illustrations showing the large variations among women
- Web site containing many illustrations of sexual anatomy
- Vagina Institute A commercial website with (somewhat unscientific) statistics on vaginas.