Female sexual anatomy is mostly presented only in terms of pregnancy and reproduction, even though pregnancy and reproduction are only fractions of what drives female sexuality. True discussions of female sexual anatomy must include the concept of pleasure, the greatest part of what drives female sexuality. A simple thought-experiment demonstrates just how great this pleasure is: Ask any adult female to calculate the number of times she has had (and will have) sex over her lifetime, then ask her to divide this number into two categories: (1) The number of times she had (and will have) sex for reproductive purposes and (2) The number of times she had (and will have) sex for purposes of pleasure. Lastly, ask her which category’s number is greater (way-way-way greater!)? Thus, this paper explores female sexual anatomy in terms of its capacities for PLEASURE and to a lesser extent, reproduction.
(Note: This paper uses the labels “female” and “male” to designate the two human organisms necessary for reproduction in nature.)
“Apparent” Female Sexual Anatomy
Most people — including females themselves, find female sexual anatomy confusing or mysterious. For example, a 2019 study found only 45% of females correctly labeled the urethra on an anatomically correct drawing, and only 55% and 57% of females correctly labeled the vagina and labia, respectively on this same drawing. (Males performed even worse with percentages of 39%, 41%, and 48%, respectively.) And a 2017 study found only 5% of females and males able to define “vulva.” This lack of knowledge about female sexual anatomy may be because historically, culturally, and stereotypically speaking, females are expected to be sexually modest and secretive regarding their bodies. Whatever the cause, let this paper remove any shroud of confusion or mystery about female sexual anatomy.
The most visible structure of female sexual anatomy is the vulva (see Figure 1). The vulva’s primary functions are pleasure and protection; and it is composed of:
(1) The labia majora, defined as the “large lips” enclosing and protecting the female’s internal sex organs. Of interest to note, when it comes to the 90+ percent of the female population who masturbate, the most touched areas of the body to initiate orgasm is the clitoris, closely followed by the labia majora, and the labia minora
(2) The labia minora, defined as the “small lips” surrounding and defining the openings of the vagina and urethra.
(3) The minor and major vestibular glands (see Figure 2). The minor vestibular glands, also called Skene’s glands, are on the wall of the vagina and when stimulated through touch, are associated with female ejaculation, and vaginally induced orgasms. The major vestibular glands, also called Bartholin’s glands, are located just to the left and right of the vagina and produce lubrication to aid in vaginal sexual intercourse.
Most females, especially those who are postmenopausal, at some time in their lives report inadequate lubrication, which, in turn, leads to discomfort or pain during vaginal sexual intercourse. Extending foreplay and using commercial water-, silicone-, or oil-based personal lubricants are simple solutions to this common problem.
The clitoris and vagina are considered part of the vulva as well as internal sex organs. They are the most talked about organs in relation to their capacities for female pleasure. Most of the clitoris, with an average overall excited length of about four to six inches, composed of as many as 18 independent anatomical parts is considered an internal sex organ, unable to be seen from outside the body (e.g., the corpus cavernosum and crus clitoris).
The parts of the clitoris considered part of the vulva, and able to be seen outside of the body, are the glans and prepuce (see Figure 3). The glans and prepuce are located above the urethra and join the labia minora at its pinnacle. As a whole, the clitoris is highly sensitive, composed of thousands of sensory-nerve endings, and is associated with initiating orgasms. Ninety percent of females can orgasm by clitoral stimulation alone. The clitoris’ sole anatomical purpose is to bring pleasure to the female. No other female organs or any male organs have such a singular purpose.
The vagina, also called the “birth canal,” is a muscular canal that spans from the cervix to the introitus. It has an average overall excited length of about four and a half inches and has two parts (see Figure 4):
(1) The inner two-thirds, called the posterior wall, formed during the first trimester of pregnancy.
(2) The outer one-third, called the anterior wall, formed during the second trimester of pregnancy.
Having more sensory-nerve endings, the anterior wall of the vagina is more sensitive than the posterior wall of the vagina, but dramatically less sensitive than the clitoris. Only between 10% and 30% of females achieve orgasms by vaginal stimulation alone; and less than 20% of females who masturbate do so with vaginal penetration.
At each end of the vagina are the cervix, the lower portion of the uterus, and the introitus, the vaginal opening to the outside of the body, considered a part of the vulva. Although there is a popular stereotype of “most females preferring a larger than average size penis when engaging in vaginal intercourse (i.e., greater than 5½ inches),” this stereotype is false. The falsity of this stereotype makes anatomical sense. Vaginal intercourse with a larger than average size penis likely would have the penis stimulating the cervix. Although the cervix may be sensorially sensitive, and “cervically induced orgasms” are described in popular media, there is no empirical evidence for cervically induced orgasms’ general existence, and most females do not find deep pressure on the cervix sexually stimulating.
The vagina acts as a transport mechanism for sperm cells coming in, and menstrual fluid and babies going out. On a scale from zero to 14 with zero equaling highly acidic, seven equaling neutral, and 14 equaling highly basic, a healthy vagina has a pH level of about four, which is acidic. When the pH level changes, often due to normal circumstances (e.g., menstruation, using tampons, sexual intercourse), it facilitates the production of microorganisms that often cause vaginal odor and pain. This potential problem can be solved with over-the-counter vaginal gels or oral probiotics to maintain normal vaginal pH levels, but most gynecologists recommend allowing the vagina’s own mechanisms to bring its pH level back to four.
“Not-So-Apparent” Female Sexual Anatomy
The anus is the opening at the end of the alimentary canal through which solid waste matter leaves the body. It is also a highly pleasurable sex organ for the female. In fact, a 2010 study reported when comparing females engaged in mutual masturbation, anal sexual intercourse, oral sexual intercourse, or vaginal sexual intercourse, those engaged in anal sexual intercourse were most likely to report having an orgasm. With its dense sensory-nerve innervation shared with the muscles involved in orgasm, few other organs besides the clitoris are as anatomically equipped to promote orgasm intensity. However, unlike the vagina’s Bartholin’s glands, the anus does not have any self-lubricating glands to aid in anal sexual intercourse. Thus, beyond analingus, lubricants are often necessary for pleasure to come from anal sexual intercourse. And the best lubricants to use are store-bought lubricants because natural lubricants like saliva are associated with promoting sexually transmitted infections.
Other internal sex organs of the female produce hormones; and store, transport, and keep ovum cells (eggs) healthy (see Figure 5). These organs include:
(1) The uterus, also called, the womb, is where human development occurs until birth.
(2) The ovaries are glands that house the ova (eggs; about two million at birth to eventually none at menopause) and produce the hormones progesterone, estrogen, and small amounts of testosterone.
(3) Fertilization is most likely to occur within the fallopian tubes. These tubes allow for ovulation (usually ranging from every 27 to 30 days), which is when ova travel from the ovaries to the uterus (usually taking about 12 to 24 hours). Because of peak rising testosterone levels, ovulation tends to increase a female’s sex drive. Ovulation often varies in when it occurs from one cycle to the next. This normal variability of ovulation occurrence may be caused by the percentage of body fat a female has, levels of stress, and other females living in proximity. If fertilization does not occur during ovulation, menstruation begins. Menstruation, also known as a “period,” is the discharge of ova along with the lining of the uterus through the vagina, usually taking several days to complete.
The “Biggest” Part of Female Sexual Anatomy
At first glance, or touch for that matter, it seems the clitoris is the part of a female’s sexual anatomy that brings the most pleasure. However, the clitoris pales in comparison to the female’s central nervous system’s capacity for pleasure. Extensive regions of the brain and brainstem are activated when a female experiences pleasure and orgasm, including: the insula, temporal cortex, somatosensory cortex, limbic system, nucleus accumbens, basal ganglia, superior parietal cortex, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and cerebellum. Neuroimaging shows these regions of the brain are active when females have spontaneous orgasms caused by thoughts, feelings, fantasies, and involving no direct stimulation of the skin; and these same regions are active when females’ erogenous zones are stimulated (see Figure 6).
Erogenous zones are sensitive areas of skin. When touched, females typically interpret erogenous zones as being ticklish, painful, or sexually pleasing. Erogenous zones are sexually pleasing because they increase levels of oxytocin and dopamine. Oxytocin is the so-called “love hormone.” Oxytocin causes feelings of empathy, trust, love, and sensuality. It also stimulates the ejection of milk into the ducts of the female’s breasts. And during the birthing process, oxytocin increases contraction of the female’s uterus. Dopamine is the so-called “feel good neurotransmitter.” Dopamine causes feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. It also boosts attention, motivation, and mood. And because it is a significant part of the brain’s reward system, dopamine is associated with learning, memory, and emotions.
As described above, the clitoris, labia majora, labia minora, anus, and vagina are considered typical erogenous zones bringing sexual pleasure and orgasm. Additionally, a female’s breasts, nipples, lips, neck, ears, buttocks, inner thighs, lower abdomen, pubis, scalp, feet, wrists, and behind her knees have been experimentally found to bring sexual pleasure. And, a 2016 study found beyond the clitoris, labia majora, labia minora, anus, and vagina, 12% of females can achieve orgasm by physically stimulating one of the following erogenous zones: breasts, nipples, lips, neck, ears, buttocks, inner thighs, lower abdomen, or pubis. Thus, the skin is not only the female’s biggest organ, but also the female’s biggest sex organ.
Whether you are a female or not, I hope this paper has removed some of the shroud of confusion and mystery about female sexual anatomy. And I hope any knowledge you gained from this paper allows you to fight the inequitable social mores forcing females to be sexually modest and secretive regarding their bodies. Lastly, I hope this paper is merely a starting point for you to continue researching and exploring your own sexual anatomy.
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Dr. Don Lucas, Ph.D. is a Professor of Psychology and head of the Psychology Department at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio Texas. He loves psychology, teaching, and research.
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