There are many, many myths about vulvas out there. One of the biggest being what it’s called- often, the entire vulva is referred to as the vagina, even though that’s incorrect (check out this handy diagram of the vulva!)
From whether douching is good or not, to cultural ideas about virginity, it can be really hard to figure out what’s true and what’s not. Only two weeks ago I saw this tweet about outrage over a pill to make you “taste better than the next chick.”
Corporate marketing has done a lot to make women feel ashamed of their bodies and then offered solutions that often don’t work, are unnecessary and cause health problems. I remember growing up thinking that no woman had hair anywhere on her body besides her head, and when puberty hit, there was a sense of shame and stigma around the natural hair that grew.
The myths we learn start young and influence the way we see ourselves. It can be really hard to figure out what’s real and what’s not, so this week we decided to smash a few myths about what goes on “down there.” This is a must-read for any person looking to better understand vulvas and reproductive health!
The vagina is the most important part of your vulva.
While the vagina is key to penetrative sexual intercourse, pregnancy and menstruation, it is by far not the only part to think about. In addition to knowing about your labia majora and minora, the biological female reproductive system also consists of the cervix, ovaries, and fallopian tubes. You should learn more about the cervix especially, since this area, the opening of the uterus, is both the location of cervical cancer development and can often be felt inside of the vagina!
2. You need to douche or clean your vulva.
One of the biggest myths around vaginal health is that you need special products to keep it clean or make it smell better. While everyone has their own unique scent, most smells are often perfectly natural! A typical wash should just include warm water and soap that’s gentle on sensitive skin. Douching or other products can damage pH and lead to painful UTIs. Common products, like talcum powder, have been linked to risks for ovarian cancer. If you do feel that something is wrong with your vaginal discharge, perhaps because of a change in discharge color or smell that’s not quite what you’re used to, never be afraid to ask a doctor about your health.
3. The clitoris is just a little nub.
This is very wrong! The clitoris, in addition to emerging at the top of the labias under the clitoral hood, extends under the skin of the labias around the vaginal opening. The part of the clitoris that emerges from the skin, though, is the most sensitive, with over 8000 nerve endings. Every clitoris is different in shape and often in sensitivity. The idea of the G-Spot, in fact, comes from variation in clitoris shape, where it can sometimes be stimulated from inside the vagina.
4. Everyone with a vulva can have a vaginal orgasm.
Many factors contribute to orgasm, from different physical characteristics to the method and intensity of simulation to psychological affects. There are different ways to achieve orgasm, such as clitoral, vaginal, or anal. Only about 25 percent of vulva-owners can climax from vaginal intercourse alone. Physical differences between women can cause this, including the distance of the clitoris from the vaginal opening (the optimal distance for a purely vaginal orgasm is apparently one inch!). Talking with your partner about what you need, practicing on yourself, and giving it time are key steps to take in finding out if vaginal orgasms work best for you.
5. Perineum tears only occur during childbirth.
While this isn’t a myth per se, the idea that perineum tears only occur during childbirth obscures some genital injuries that can occur. Birth-related perineal tears are the most common and severe, but minor tears can also result from other situations like rough sex or sexual intercourse without enough lubrication. Most of these minor pains will disappear on their own, but this highlights the importance of being properly lubricated, either naturally or with lube!
6. Vaginas get permanently “stretched” by sex.
While childbirth can affect the structure of the vagina, most vaginas will return to their normal size post-childbirth. Sex, too, will not permanently stretch the vagina-- though often when a vagina-possessor is aroused, the vagina tents, growing from the average length of 3-4 inches to larger. Check out these amazing MRI images of vaginal tenting!
7. Hymens are one size fits all.
Some are born with them, some without. Some hymens are completely closed or have varying degrees of closeness. The idea that the hymen “pops” the first time you have sex is due to the fact that most women, the first time they have sex, are encountering a new sensation and nervous. This can add to some physical effects of having a hymen since sex is much more enjoyable when you’re relaxed and ready!
8. The vagina and uterus run parallel to your spine.
No! It’s important to remember here that the uterus curves forward towards the belly button, and that vaginas can come at the uterus from different angles. This may affect how you insert a tampon, or how comfortable you are in certain sex positions.
9. Only penises with foreskins get smegma.
While smegma buildup is a huge health concern with foreskins, because of high circumcision rates in the US, biological women are actually the most likely to get smegma buildup. The biggest area this can happen is under the clitoral hood. Too much smegma can be painful and lead to medical issues, but you can easily avoid this by washing with water every time you shower, as described above!
10. Clothing doesn’t affect your vulva.
Bacteria love dark, moist places but that doesn’t mean yeast and bacteria should be in your vulva. Wearing clothing with no airflow doesn’t let the skin breathe and can cause infections. Other clothing that can put you at risk for infection is wearing non-cotton panties, pantyhose, or pads and pantiliners for too long, as well as wet swimsuits and sweaty gym clothes.
11. UTIs mean something is wrong.
UTIs are incredibly common, especially for bio-women. Often, these are caused by gastrointestinal tract bacteria getting into the urinary tract. This happens more easily when there is a short distance from the urethra to the anus, so commonly occurs with women.
12. Menstruation means you can’t have sex.
This is so, so wrong. While you may not feel sexy or ready during menses because of cramps, bloating, hormones, and blood everywhere, but an orgasm can actually help relieve period cramping! Sex on your period can be fun and exciting, though some recommend limiting the stimulation of the cervix since that can increase blood flow to the area and make some cramping more intense. If you’re not squeamish, check out these amazing photos of your cervix during menstruation.
Shame and confusion often come around considering and understanding the body. Medical history has often failed to consider the biological female body to its fullest extent, often leading to misconceptions. Take care of yourself and those around you by recognizing these facts and being proud of your body (no matter the shape of your clitoris!).