7 Fascinating Facts About Your Vulva

Andrew Zaeh for Bustle

Your vulva is a fascinating part of your body. For one thing, it contains multitudes: the term 'vulva' refers to your entire genitalia, according to Planned Parenthood, including your labia, vaginal opening, clitoris, and the opening of your urethra. If you're referring to the area in general, you should use the term vulva, not vagina — which is a mistake that a lot of people make. Understanding your vulva is crucial for keeping on top of your health. The art of getting to know your vulva means knowing about both the whole and its component pats — and there are a lot of intriguing facts to know about the vulva.

The basic anatomy of the vulva area is pretty easy, if you remember your high school anatomy classes — or ever took the advice of healthcare gurus and looked at it in a mirror. The labia majora are the bigger flaps of skin on the outside, while the labia minora are the smaller ones that protect the urethra, clitoris and vaginal opening. At the top of the labia minora is the clitoral hood, the small bit of skin that 'hoods' the exterior clitoris. Under the clitoris is the urethra opening or urinary meatus where you pee. Beneath it is a small space called the 'vestibule', and then the vaginal opening. It's all pretty clear-cut — but once you start getting into the intricacies, you can discover some very interesting things. Here are seven fascinating things you probably didn't know about your vulva.

1. There's Huge Variety In Vulva Shapes

Andrew Zaeh for Bustle

There is no one 'perfect' vulva; there's huge variety in the shapes, sizes and colors on women's vulvas around the world. "There’s really no such thing as a “normal” looking vulva," Planned Parenthood noted. "Vaginas and vulvas are as unique as faces — they all have the same parts, but everyone’s looks a little different. Labia (the inner and outer lips) come in all shapes and sizes. [....] It’s totally common for your vulva to be asymmetrical (when one side looks different than the other). And vulvas come in a whole rainbow of skin colors, from dark brown to purple to tan to light pink, with many different textures, types, and amounts of pubic hair."

2. Your Clitoris Is Larger Than You Think — And It Can Get Erections

The anatomy of the clitoris, a fundamental part of the vulva, takes up more of your body than you might think. If you weren't aware, the exposed part of the clitoris is only a small section of the total organ; it's actually shaped like a wishbone, extends into your pelvis, and is between three and five inches long, according to Women's Health. When you get aroused, the clitoral head and the rest of its body swell with blood flow, meaning that you do in fact get a tiny erection. In some people, the erection actually makes the clitoral hood harder to see, because the clitoral tissue inside has straightened and 'pulled' the head back into the body.

3. Chronic Vulvar Pain Is A Thing And Science Doesn't Know Why

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Chronic vulvar pain is thought to affect up to 200,000 U.S. women, according to WebMD, but the cause of the condition is little understood. That number may also be a big underestimation; a study in 2011, for instance, found that over 300,000 women in southern Michigan alone have the symptoms of vulvar pain, itching or discomfort regularly without a distinct cause like thrush or an infection. We know that women with fibromylagia and other chronic pain conditions are also more likely to have chronic vulvar pain or vulvodynia, as it's known. The National Vulvodynia Association also reports that vulvodynia may be caused by nerve issues or inflammation of the vulva, but science still knows very little about how it works or why.

4. Male And Female Urethras Are Only Slightly Different

You may also be intrigued to know that people with penises and people with vaginas actually have pretty similar peeing apparatus. Despite the one fundamental difference — people with penises both pee and eject semen from their urethral meatus — the only other distinction is the length of our urethral tubes. LiveScience explains, "In [female-bodied people], the urethra is about 1.5 to two inches long (3.8 to 5.1 cm) and sits between the clitoris and the vagina. In [male-bodied people], it is about eight inches (20 cm) long." The more you know.

5. Patterns Of Pleasure On The Vulva Differ Wildly

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What feels good on one vulva may not be as effective on another. That's the conclusion of science, anyway. A study by researchers at Indiana University in 2017 asked more than 1,000 women about their patterns of pleasure, or which areas of the vulva they particularly liked to stimulate during sex. Over 40 percent said they preferred just one type of touch in bed, but the answers were hugely diverse; everybody, it seems, has a different pleasure style when it comes to the nerve endings of their vulvas. Which is why it's a good idea to communicate with your partner about what you like and where you like it.

6. It's Possible To Have Cancer Of The Vulva

While cancers like breast and ovarian cancer are more well-known, vulvar cancer is an issue with a high mortality rate: in 2019, it's estimated that 6,070 female-bodied people will be diagnosed with cancers of the vulva, and nearly 1,300 people will pass away as a result of vulvar carcinomas, according to the American Cancer Society. While it's only the sixth most common cancer in women, it's also dangerous. Causes are difficult to pin down, according to the Mayo Clinic, and symptoms include a lot of things that can be mistaken for other issues, including itching, pain or small sores. If you notice changes in the skin of your vulva or have unexplained symptoms, it's a good idea to see a doctor.

7. Pregnant People Can Get Varicose Veins In The Vulva

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Like all areas of the body, the vulva has its own blood supply, and in pregnancy that can cause a particular strain. Pregnant people can experience vulvar varicosities, or varicose veins in their vulvas. The Mayo Clinic explains that this is because of higher blood flow to the vulva and pelvis when you're pregnant, raising the risk that veins will expand. It's also possible to get them even if you're not pregnant, though they're often completely asymptomatic. In most people, they disappear after pregnancy or treatment, so they're not something to worry about.

From sexual pleasure to bodily health, the vulva has a lot to offer. Get a mirror, find some good lighting and get to know yours better today.