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What's The Difference Between "Vulva" and "Vagina"?

If you're anything like me, or the majority of people in the United States, you grew up learning that the word vagina refers to all the 'bits' between the legs. Well, believe it or not, we have been fooled. I didn’t learn until my 20s that vagina is the wrong word for my genitals. And the only reason I found out was because I was studying sexuality.


If a vagina isn't what we thought it was, what is it?


The vagina is the inside of the body— or the area inside of the hole. It's where you might put a tampon, vibrator, fingers, penis, or other toys.


If vagina isn't the right word, then what is?!


Vulva is the medically accurate term for what we have been calling the "vagina." The vulva is all of the external genitals. It's the mons, clitoris, inner labia, outer labia, urethra, vestibule, vaginal opening, and the perineum (the area between the vagina and anus). So the vagina is a part of the vulva.


So do I have to use the word vulva now?


One of the reasons it's important to know the word vulva is because it is helpful to have the words to describe different parts of the body. This is especially true when it comes to being able to describe the location of pain to a medial provider, for example, or telling a partner where you want them (or don't want them) to touch you.


It's is also important to learn the word vulva and what it is because our culture has historically neglected this area of sexual pleasure. When we do not teach about vulvas, it erases the body part that contains the most nerve endings and when stimulated is the most reliable way for most people to reach an orgasm. Neglecting to teach the word vulva can be one element that keeps people from experiencing sexual pleasure.


However, with all that said, you don't have to use the word vulva. The reality is, you get to decide what words you want to use to refer to your body parts— they are your body parts after all.


I do encourage people to ask themselves, if they feel discomfort using the word vulva, to investigate where that comes from. For some people, using the word vulva may bring on gender dysphoria and it's important to find different words to describe you body parts if this is the case. For others, saying the word vulvas is loaded with shame because of how sex was treated in the culture they grew up in. If this is the case, and you'd like to work through some of that shame, I encourage you to start saying vulva more often, maybe just by yourself to start. From there, add in words like nipples, anus, clitoris, penis, erection, and other sex related words that feel a little uncomfortable.


Ultimately, you get to decide what words you want to use to describe your body. And the process of figuring out what words you like to hear or say can actually be really empowering and sexy.



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