7 Myths About The Vulva That Are Hurting Your Sexual Health

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The vulva is shrouded in a lot of mystery and misconceptions, thanks to a culture that considers it a receptacle for a penis at worst and an inferior version of a penis at best. The Wonder Down Under: The Insider's Guide to the Anatomy, Biology, and Reality of the Vagina by medical student Ellen Støkken Dahl and Dr. Nina Brochmann aims to clear up these rumor and impart the facts. Throughout the book, the reader learns not just how these myths are hurting our health and sex lives but also how they're fueling sexist, heteronormative, cisnormative ideas about bodies and sex.

“We hope that women who read our book will become more confident about their bodies and sexuality and take with them some of the fascination and love we have for women's incredible genitalia," Brochmann tells Bustle. "Our goal with The Wonder Down Under is that women will get the honest, science-based information they need to make wise choices for their own sexual health. Women deserve to know how their bodies work.”

Toward that end, here are some major myths about the vulva that the book busts — and the facts that you deserve to know instead so you can take care of yourself and make the best use of your own vulva (or your partner's).

1Having A Vulva Makes You A Woman

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Many of us learn as kids that boys have a penis and girls have a vagina. But in reality, it's a lot more complicated than that. As Brochmann and Dahl explain, gender identity has biological, psychological, and cultural components. "Whether we are women or men is not determined only by our sex organs or our body shape," they write. And even if you do have a vulva and identify as a woman, neither your biology nor your gender identity means you'll be "feminine," whatever that even means.

2The Vulva Is Very Different From Male Genitalia

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In fact, male and female genitalia themselves are actually very similar because they evolve from the same structure in the womb. It's sometimes said that the clitoris is like a small penis, but really, the penis is more like a big clitoris, since the original structure is more clit-like.

"The physical difference between the sexes is much smaller than you think," Brochmann and Dahl write. "If you don’t believe us when we say that a man’s external genitalia are very much like our own, you should take a good look between the legs of the next man you see naked. As you’ll see, his scrotum is divided in two by a neat, thin line, just like a seam. And guess what — it is a seam! This is where the labia have fused together to become a scrotum! The penis is nothing but an overgrown clitoris with an inbuilt urethra: imagine shrinking it massively, shifting the urethra a bit farther down, and dividing the scrotum in two, and you’ll get a kind of vulva."

3Having Sex For The First Time Will "Pop Your Cherry"

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There's so much fear and shame built around the first time someone with a vulva has sex due to the belief that it will "pop" the hymen — and that this event is significant. "The idea that a woman is an innocent flower and that 'taking' her virginity is the same as ripping the head off a flower is even encoded in medical language," Brochmann and Dahl write. "The bleeding that is supposed to occur when a woman has sex for the first time is called 'deflowering.'"

Aside from being sexist, this idea has very little science behind it. The hymen is not a seal blocking off the vagina but a thin membrane partially covering it, and it does not have to be "popped" in order for someone to have sex. It often tears, stretches, and wears away naturally over time, and if it doesn't, there are ways to stretch it yourself so that sex doesn't hurt for you.

"Ever thought about how we say 'pop her cherry' like it’s some kind of freshness seal on our vaginas?" Brochmann tells Bustle. "In reality, the majority of women will not bleed the first time they have vaginal sex and there will be no reliable, medical way of checking if a girl is a virgin as the hymen most often will never take any damage from penetration. You don’t loose your knee from getting a bruise, right?”

4Removing Pubic Hair Is Good For Hygiene

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Perhaps due to all the hairless vulvas in mainstream porn, it's become increasingly popular to remove pubic hair, with a 2016 study finding that 62 percent of American women had at some point. Most said they did this for hygiene, but pubic hair actually has lots of hygienic benefits, like keeping bacteria out of the vulva and preventing the sensitive skin from getting irritated.

Pubic hair can even improve your sex life, Brochmann and Dahl write: “Hairs help to heighten our sexual sensitivity. If your partner strokes you lightly over your pubic hair, the bending of the hairs will send a signal to the follicles, which will pass the message on to your nervous system. Our follicles are connected to many nerve endings, so without hair we lose a part of the sensory experience.” Of course, it's still your choice, but you shouldn't remove your pubic hair because you think the hair makes your vulva less clean, less attractive, or less sensitive. It doesn't!

5Vaginal Discharge Is A Problem

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As demonstrated by that idiotic "panty challenge" from a few years ago, where people showed off their discharge-free underwear, there are a lot of misconceptions about vaginal discharge. In reality, it's perfectly healthy for fluid from your vagina to collect on your underwear. It's only a problem if it has an unusual color or scent.

"All healthy girls who’ve reached puberty will find discharge in their underwear," Brochmann and Dahl write. "Every single day. It’s a fluid that seeps out of our vaginas continuously from the very first day our sexual organs come under the influence of a hormone called estrogen at the onset of puberty. Some of the discharge comes from glands in the cervix." Between a half and whole teaspoon will come out, but this will depend on where you are in your cycle and whether you're using hormonal birth control."

6The "Vaginal Orgasm" Is Better Than The "Clitoral Orgasm"

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The unrealistic expectation that women orgasm through their vaginas is actually very new, Brochmann and Dahl explain. Since female orgasm used to be considered necessary for reproduction, people in the 1700s had accurate information: that for most women, clitoral stimulation was necessary for orgasm. Then, Freud came along and proposed in 1905 that women should develop the ability to orgasm vaginally when they became adults.

In reality, there is no distinction between a "vaginal" and "clitoral" orgasm. "All orgasms are the same. The physical and mental response is the same," Brochmann and Dahl write. "To talk about clitoral orgasm and vaginal orgasm is imprecise, since the clitoris is thoroughly involved in vaginal sex." So, the clitoris is involved in almost all if not all female orgasms, even the "vaginal" ones.

This means that what our society defines as "sex" — a penis in a vagina — is not enough for most women. “The sex you have regularly should be designed to maximize pleasure and orgasms for both partners, so couldn’t having sex in a hetero relationship just as well mean, for example, fifty-fifty oral sex and penetration?" Brochmann and Dahl write. "It’s wrong to write off the female orgasm as a pure bonus. Orgasm should be the rule, for women as well as men."

It also means that vaginal orgasms are not superior to clitoral ones. "There's just a bunch of men, Freud included, who have misled us to believe that there is a whole grail in our vaginas, when in fact the clitoris has been the seat of female sexual pleasure all along," Brochmann tells Bustle. "Only about one in four women regularly come from vaginal intercourse, the rest need clitoral stimulation. And the orgasm in itself? Well, there is absolutely no physiological difference between them. An orgasm is an orgasm, no matter how you achieve it.”

7Relaxing Your Body Will Help You Orgasm

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You're often told to relax if you want to orgasm, but while mentally relaxing may help, physically relaxing will actually do the opposite. Instead, the trick is actually to squeeze the right muscles.

"If you lie there motionless and expect the orgasm to hit you like a bolt of lightning, you’re on the wrong track," Brochmann and Dahl write. "It’s a matter of tightening up your body. Clench your buttocks together and try to tense the muscles in your genitals, preferably tightening and relaxing them, as if in an orgasmic rhythm or in time with your breathing. For one thing, this increases the blood flow to your genitals — in other words, you turn yourself on. For another, it’s a kind of mental exercise in directing your attention to where the action is. You can try, but it’s really hard to think about the pizza you’ll be having for dinner at the same time you’re working to clench all your pelvic muscles."

Given that the full clitoral structure wasn't discovered until 2009, there's still so much we still don't know about the vulva. Thankfully, people are finally taking an interest in it, and more and more fascinating facts should come out in the coming years.