Why should I seek help?
Is it my fault?
What anatomy is involved?
What is healthy sexual function?
How do I know when to seek help?
Where do I go for help?
What can I expect when seeking help?
How do I seek help?
What self-help options do I have?
What anatomy is involved in female sexual pleasure?
An understanding of female bodies is important for your own sexual function, and accurate terminology is imperative for effective communication between you and your healthcare providers.
Female genitals contain the same type and almost as much erectile tissue as male genitals, but it is laid out differently, as most female erectile tissue is inside the body. Erectile tissue has many nerves, which allow for movement and the perception of sensation.
Note: The diagrams I have included in this section were chosen because they were the most comprehensive high-quality images I could access. However, I prefer the diagrams in A New View of a Woman’s Body: A Fully Illustrated Guide by the Federation of Feminist Women’s Health Centers, which you can purchase at ComeAsYouAre.com, a sex shop in Toronto. Those images include more organs (and the book is an amazing resource).
What genital anatomy is on the outside?
The term vulva refers to all female external genitalia or all the visible parts of female genitalia. You may have grown up referring to the entire genital area as the “vagina” but this is inaccurate. The vulva includes the mons pubis, outer labia, inner labia, external clitoris, urethral opening, vestibule, and vaginal opening. The parts of the vulva vary in shape, size, and colour from female to female.
The vulva, or female external genitalia. From page 25 of Discovering human sexuality (4th ed.) by LeVay, Baldwin, & Baldwin.
The mons pubis, or mons (see diagram above) is a mound of fatty tissue over the pubic bones and it is covered in pubic hair. Its purpose is to provide cushioning during vaginal intercourse and attract sexual partners by secreting pheromones.
Outer and inner labia
The mons connects directly to the outer labia or outer lips (see diagram above). The outer labia are a fleshy pair of skin folds that cover and protect the inner parts of the vulva. The outer labia are also known as the labia majora (“big lips”), but outer labia is a more inclusive name because some inner lips protrude out from between the outer lips. The outer sides of the outer labia are covered in pubic hair while the inner sides are smooth and contain oil glands and sweat glands. These lips can be a source of sexual stimulation, though they are not as sensitive as the inner labia or clitoris. During sexual arousal, the outer labia engorge with blood and appear swollen.
The outer labia surround the hairless inner labia, which are a pair of thinner skin folds with oil glands that look and feel like tiny bumps. The inner labia surround the head (glans) of the clitoris to form the clitoral hood and the frenulum and they also extend around the vagina. The inner labia surround and end at the vestibule. Diversity in the appearance (e.g., colour, size, shape, symmetry) of the inner labia is normal—both between females and within one vulva. Because they are dense with nerves, the inner labia are extremely sensitive and best touched with lubrication, either natural or synthetic. During sexual arousal, the inner labia will become engorged with blood, causing their colour to darken.
The clitoris is the primary pleasure organ in females (just like the penis is the primary pleasure organ in males). In fact, the clitoris serves no other purpose but pleasure for its owner. It consists of both external and internal parts. The external clitoris (see diagram below) consists of the glans (head), hood (also known as the prepuce or foreskin), and the frenulum. As the clitoris body (shaft) can be felt through the hood, it may also be considered part of the external clitoris.
The clitoral hood is formed by the joining of two inner labia over the glans. The hood protects the sensitive glans from overstimulation, though the degree that the hood covers the glans varies between women. Pleasure can be created through the friction of rubbing the hood against the glans.
The glans is the visible part of the clitoris (though sometimes the hood needs to be pulled back to see it), at the end of the clitoral body. Both the clitoral body and the glans are very sensitive to stimulation. Glans size varies between females and is unrelated to clitoral sensitivity. On the underside of the glans, the inner labia connect to form a small area of sensitive skin called the frenulum, which is also rich in nerve endings. During sexual stimulation and sexual arousal, the glans will become erect as it becomes engorged with blood. Arousal and impending orgasm will cause the glans to retract under the hood in order to protect itself from overstimulation.
The glans of the clitoris connects to the clitoris body (or shaft), which is a soft, tubular pipe of erectile tissue running just beneath the hood. It is about the width of a chopstick or a pencil, about half an inch to one inch long, and can be easily felt with the fingers, especially when it is engorged. The clitoral body is extremely sensitive receptive to sensation, and the hood allows for the shaft to be rubbed without friction. The clitoris body is about two to four centimetres long and extends toward the mons for about ¾ inch before splitting into two thin crura (legs) under the inner lips.
Just below the clitoris is the top of the vestibule (see diagram above), a smooth surface just inside the inner lips that surrounds the vaginal opening and the urethral opening. The urethral opening is a small and sensitive hole or slit between the clitoris and the vaginal opening which opens into the urethra, a tube that extends from the bladder to the outside of the body in order to allow for the excretion of urine.
The vaginal opening (see diagram above) is also within the vestibule. Its opening is partially covered by the hymen (not depicted in the diagrams), a membrane which can vary in shape, thickness, and how much it covers the vaginal opening. We aren’t sure of the hymen’s purpose, but it is probably simply to protect young females’ vaginas from infection. While you may have been taught that an intact hymen (and subsequent bleeding with first vaginal intercourse) is proof of no previous vaginal intercourse, the state of the hymen is not a reliable indicator of prior vaginal penetration. The hymen may be torn or stretched by accident, tampons, intentional stretching, physical activity, or first vaginal intercourse. Painful tearing and bleeding can occur during first vaginal intercourse, but it is the exception and is usually due to inadequate arousal, feeling unsafe, or non-consensual experiences—not the hymen itself. If bleeding does occur, it will likely only be a few spots and should only occur the first time. Hormonal changes during puberty may also thin the hymen and cause it to disappear on its own, or the hymen may also remain intact after sexual activity. In rare cases, the hymen can be very thick and obstruct the vaginal opening. Medical intervention is required in this case.
Within the vestibule are also two sets of ducts that expel fluid from glands: the paraurethral glands and the greater vestibular glands. While these ducts open into the vulva, the glands themselves are not visible, and will be discussed with internal anatomy.
Between the vaginal opening and the anus is a smooth area of skin called the perineum (see diagram above). The surface of the skin is not very sensitive, but underneath the perineum is the perineal sponge, an area of sensitive erectile tissue. This area responds well to firm, rhythmic stimulation and will become firm and spongy and pleasurable to touch when you are highly aroused. Stimulating the anus can also be very pleasurable, as the inner anus is lined with nerve endings.
What genital anatomy is on the inside?
Female internal genital anatomy includes the internal clitoris, vestibular bulbs or clitoral bulbs, the urethral sponge, the paraurethral glands, the greater vestibular glands, the vagina, the uterus, the cervix, and a bunch of muscles.
I discussed the external parts of the clitoris (i.e., glans, hood, body), but I have not yet discussed the internal parts of the clitoris. The crura (legs) of the clitoris (see diagram) are about five to nine centimetres long. They follow along the inner pubic bone and anchor the clitoris. If you are not aroused, you probably will not be able to feel the crura with your fingers, but you may be able to feel the top part of the crura during high arousal.
Structure of the clitoris. The inner labia are shown as if transparent. From page 26 of Discovering human sexuality (4th ed.) by LeVay, Baldwin, & Baldwin.
Other organs that are considered by some to be part of a larger clitoral network include the vestibular bulbs and the urethral sponge.
The vestibular bulbs (also known as clitoral bulbs) are masses of erectile tissue that lie under the inner lips and vestibule, are surrounded by the crura, and extend from the clitoris body downward to surround the urethra and vagina (see diagram above). The vestibular bulbs are closely associated with the clitoris and are considered internal parts of the clitoris. In fact, stimulating the clitoris stimulates the vestibular bulbs and vice versa. Stimulation leads to arousal and engorgement, stiffening and lengthening the vagina and creating a snug but flexible vaginal opening, allowing the vagina to accommodate a penis of almost any size. The vestibular bulbs can be stimulated through the outer lips and later through penetration. They are easy to feel with your fingers when they are filled with blood (engorged), and a high level of engorgement increases the pleasure of vaginal intercourse, possibly because engorgement increases the pressure of the bulbs on the crura of the clitoris.
The urethral sponge (not pictured) is considered by some to be part of the clitoral network. Also known as the G-spot, the urethral sponge is a tube of spongy erectile tissue that surrounds the urethra. It is sensitive (though not as sensitive as the clitoral glans). Pleasure from G-spot stimulation will only occur after arousal and engorgement—prior to arousal and engorgement, stimulation will only produce an urge to urinate. Stimulating this area may be pleasurable simply because the clitoris is indirectly stimulated. Engorgement also protects the urethra from the friction of vaginal intercourse and from microbes entering the urethra.
The urethral sponge houses the paraurethral glands (see diagram below). The paraurethral glands (also known as the Skene’s glands) connect to the ducts that open beside the urethral opening. These glands are the source of female ejaculate, an antimicrobial liquid that may help prevent infections in the urethra. Female ejaculation is not common and most females who do ejaculate had to learn how to do it. Some females can ejaculate voluntarily, though they seem to do it for entertainment purposes and it does not enhance arousal or pleasure. Females may ejaculate small or large amounts of liquid, though large ejaculations appear to come from the bladder and not from the paraurethral glands. However, what matters is whether it feels good, not whether the liquid is ejaculate or urine. Also, you should not be made to feel bad if you can’t or don’t want to ejaculate.
Side view of the internal female sexual organs. From page 31 of Discovering human sexuality (4th ed.) by LeVay, Baldwin, & Baldwin.
The vagina (see diagram above) is between the urethral sponge and the rectum. It is a flexible, muscular tube that points down and forward and opens through the vestibule. It is approximately six to eight centimetres in length and it can contract enough to be snug on a penis or expend enough to birth a baby. Despite many diagrams showing otherwise, the vagina is not actually a gaping hole or a spacious canal—it is a collapsed tube that can expand to accommodate whatever pushes its way in or out.
The word vagina comes from the Latin word for sheath, sword repository, or sword scabbard. This unfortunately defines the vagina in terms of its relationship to the penis or its dependency on vaginal intercourse for meaning. Some people prefer to refer to the vagina as a “pussy” or “yoni” or other terms; however, many of these words are ambiguous because they may also refer to the vulva, so I recommend using the word vagina when you want to be clear about anatomy.
The vagina functions as a passageway for menstrual blood, semen, and babies, but it can also provide pleasure when properly stimulated. Arousal causes the uterus to lift out of the way and expose the pelvic nerves, which can then be stimulated by thrusting activity, to which they respond well. That is to say, deep and repetitive thrusting may be pleasurable when highly aroused and the cervix is out of the way. If a female is not aroused enough, the uterus will not lift out of the way and deep thrusts will hit the cervix, which will likely be unpleasant or painful. The urethral sponge can also be stimulated through the front wall of the vagina.
On either side of the vaginal opening are the ducts that connect to the greater vestibular glands (also known as Bartholin’s glands—see the vulva diagram above), which secrete a small amount of lubrication into the vagina and labia minora, likely to decrease the friction of vaginal intercourse or maintain a healthy vaginal ecology. Vaginas always have some degree of natural lubrication which is increased by sexual arousal, while breastfeeding or being postpartum or postmenopausal will decrease natural lubrication and make the vagina more fragile. However, increased vaginal lubrication does not necessarily mean a female is ready for penetration, as this is an early sign of arousal. One important consideration about vaginas is that they never need washed—they are self-cleaning. The external vulva can be washed with water only or with a gentle cleanser—not soap—but neither water nor cleanser should be used in the vagina.
Uterus and cervix
At the closed end of the vagina is the cervix (see diagram above), which separates the vagina and the uterus. The uterus is a muscular, pear-shaped organ, with the approximate dimensions of three inches by two inches by one inch in a female who has not given birth. One of the major supports of the uterus is the round ligament, which connects the uterus and the inner lips and connects to muscles that encircle the vaginal opening. This allows the uterus to lift when a female is fertile and also during arousal and orgasm, making room at the back of the vagina for sperm and protecting the cervix from battering during penetration. Because the uterus is involved in orgasm, females who have had a hysterectomy may report that their orgasms feel different.
In female genital anatomy, there are a number of important muscles that either form or support the perineum and the pelvic floor. When these muscles are too tight and/or too weak (note that the muscles can be both tight and weak), a number of negative outcomes may occur, including genital pain and urinary urgency. It is important to remember that tight muscles are not necessarily strong—tight muscles are simply unable to relax—a strong muscle must be able to contract and relax. Kegel exercises (contracting and relaxing the pelvic floor muscles) can create or exacerbate pain if they are performed when they shouldn’t be, such as when the pelvic floor muscles are tight. Kegels should only be done after a qualified pelvic floor physiotherapist recommends them and teaches her patient how to do them correctly. While these muscles are relevant to female sexual function and dysfunction, a thorough overview is beyond the scope of this web-based guide. For a brief review, check out:
- Heal Pelvic Pain: The Proven Stretching, Strengthening, and Nutrition Program for Relieving Pain, Incontinence,& I.B.S, and Other Symptoms Without Surgery (Chapter 1) by Amy Stein (Amazon) or
- Women’s Anatomy of Arousal: Secret Maps to Buried Pleasure (pages 129–133) by Sheri Winston (Amazon).
For a thorough review, check out:
- Pelvic Pain Explained: What You Need to Know by Stephanie A. Prendergast & Elizabeth H. Akincilar (Amazon).