Author's note: The word "woman" is used to make the article more readable. It here refers to all people with a vulva, including cis women, trans men, and non-binary people.
For starters, do you know exactly what a vulva is?
It's actually pretty simple: the vulva is the exterior part of a woman's genitals. It includes the inner labia, the outer labia, and the exterior part of the clitoris.
The vagina, uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries constitute the internal part of this beautiful whole.
And yet, this pretty simple definition of the vulva is beyond a lot of people. The words "vulva" and "vagina" are often used interchangeably to refer to the female sex in popular culture, and even in feminist culture (famous example: "
- Vag, pussy, vajayjay, fanny,
- Vagine, mop, muff, furburger
- Clam, taco, fish lips
- Camel toe, beaver, meat curtains
You'd think that public schools at the elementary and secondary levels would address this confusion, which is detrimental to women's physical, mental, and sexual health. I mean, how can we be expected to correctly name our anatomy when we're in pain at the doctor's office?
Unfortunately for younger generations, education on the subject is pretty uneven.
In elementary school, basic notions about the fundamental differences between the two sexes (vulvas vs. penises) are generally covered.
And in high school, the reproductive part of sex is taught. But what about the precise anatomy of the vulva? That's only taught if the teacher wants to, meaning only if they're "comfortable" enough to talk about it.
The clitoris, on the other hand, is largely absent from the classroom. According to popular belief -- and to biology textbooks -- it is not an "active" part of the reproductive system (even though a recent study has found that orgasms promote fertility) and is "only" used for the pleasure of half the human population.
Given the current lack of general knowledge about what a vulva is, the next section might just blow your mind.
The vulva was worshipped 20,000 years ago
Most of the first pre-historians were convinced that only cis men produced art. You might say that these historians' patriarchal worldview influenced their so-called discoveries.
So when all kinds engravings of vulvas were found in caves or on objects (they were dated between about 40,000 to 20,000 years ago), historians gave them bawdy meanings, as if they constituted a kind of proto-pornography. Talk about a phallocentric vision produced by men, for men.
But what if these vulvas were also made by women?
Other meanings emerge! These artworks, far from reducing women to their sex, could celebrate their creative power and, why not, signify other spiritualities centred on female deities.
Statuettes of women giving birth, their baby passing through their vulva, could've been protective talismans for pregnant women.
More recently, about 3,000 years ago, mythological accounts give amazing properties to the vulva.
Inanna, Sumerian goddess of war, love, and fertility, sang: "My vulva, the horn, the boat of the skies, is full of ardor like the young moon. Who will plow my field? Who will plow my wetland?"
On the attainment of her desire depended the entire future of the population! That's because the abundance and fertility of the cultures resulted from sex with Inanna.
The poets of the time, from Sumer to Babylon, declared: "Her vulva, like her lips, is sweet as a drink! And her drink is so sweet."
Then there was the goddess Hathor, daughter of Ra (the Egyptian version of Inanna, without her warrior aspect). She solved a serious diplomatic crisis between the gods . . . by lifting her dress and showing her vulva!
Her gesture was widely taken up by the female population of the time who, skirts raised from the banks, joyfully greeted pilgrims going up the Nile River.
This set of signs, of ancient mythologies, shows that the vulva, before being hidden and demonized, was an organ with a pretty positive impact on the collective imagination, even if its sacred dimension is still very much debated.
The perfect vulva doesn't exist
These days, a new diktat is weighing on women's shoulders: the perfect vulva. This almost hairless sex -- or cleverly coiffed -- has a uniform, slightly pink colour and a bouncy, apricot shape from which absolutely nothing protrudes (the inner lips being well "hidden" by the outer).
This image, favoured by men because of pornography, can cause insecurity and weaken women's self-esteem, and quite unfairly in fact: according to a study conducted by the website Gynoversity, only 27% of vulvas don't show the inner lips.
That means that more than 2 out of 3 vulvas have inner lips that protrude, more or less, from the outer. Puts things into perspective, doesn't it? So if your inner lips are visible, then yeah, you're totally normal!
By the way, have you noticed that I've been naming the lips by their position (inner/outer) instead of their size (small/large)?
That's because even the words we use for them can be a source of complexes for some people: "Is my vulva 'normal' if my labia minora protrudes from my labia majora?"
More and more young girls, influenced by unrealistic images in porn, are resorting to plastic surgery in order to fit into what they consider normalcy. This is worrying because there are still few data on the long-term consequences of this type of surgery.
The injunctions of beauty issued against women are so omnipresent that people are willing to take risks to fit in, which is pretty scary.
After all, it's a relief that can only be temporary because . . .
Your vagina changes throughout your lifetime
Let's compare it to your face for a second. In much the same way as your face changes throughout your life, so does your vulva. It "ages." The changes are a result of:
- genetic factors
- vaginal births
The shape, tone, and colour of the vulva will naturally change.
Specifically, the inner lips may lengthen and turn from pink to brown. Their edges may no longer be smooth and show delicate undulations.
The pubic area and outer labia, being places where fat is stored, may also become fuller over the years, like the rest of the body.
Or on the contrary, these areas may flatten around menopause as hormonal changes influence subcutaneous fat.
Therefore, the race for the perfect vulva, unchanging in a fixed beauty, is really just a chimerical ideal that once again distracts women from the self-appreciation and well-being every human being should experience.
The clitoris is the most sensitive part of the human body
Did you know that? The clitoris and the penis develop from the same embryonic tissue! Until very recently, it was commonly believed that the clitoris has 8,000 nerve endings, just like its counterpart. However, a recent study has shown that this figure is as high as 10,000! That makes it the most sensitive part of the human body.
By the way, for those of you who might be wondering: the clitoris can emerge from under its hood . . . or not at all! Some clitorises are shy and never show their nose, or rather their gland! 😉
And contrary to popular belief, the clitoris is responsible for 100% of all female orgasms. Erotic pleasure can be felt in multiple places (primary and secondary erotic zones) and lead to an orgasm. But the orgasm is physically caused by the clitoris.
Where does this belief come from that a "real" orgasm is obtained from penetration?
From our dear Freud (yes, another man; amazing, isn't it?). This charming character (not) thought that clitoral orgasms were "immature" and that only vaginal orgasms (resulting from penetration with a penis, please) were to be sought by "accomplished" women. According to him, "clitoral" women had a problem of denial of their femininity and should consult . . . a psychiatrist, of course.
The real facts are that only one in five women can achieve an orgasm through penetration alone. This means, on the other hand, that 4 out of 5 women need their clitoris stimulated in order to have an orgasm. People with a vulva have an orgasm from their external clitoris, and there is no shame in that. It's biological.
The glorification of penetration is based first and foremost on male pleasure. It's time to take back our orgasms!
The vulva doesn't make the woman
(Warning, this section will surely shock some readers! I'm aware of this, and I'll reassure you right away: it's normal to be shocked! All these data go against what we were taught when we first started to understand the world. It took me a long time to open up to this new worldview.)
Gender is multifactorial
Until not so long ago, defining the sexes, separating girls from boys, was standard: girls had vulvas and boys had penises. This simplistic classification, based on external biological characteristics, was abusive to intersex people, who constitute 1 in 50 people (as much as with red hair).
Intersex people were often mutilated at birth or in early childhood to fit into the binary categories of "girl/woman" or "boy/man." A clitoris that was too large, for example, had to be "corrected" at all costs.
And at the time, no one was shocked by the idea of operating on children who were otherwise very healthy. Parents were often manipulated and made to feel guilty by surgeons with ready scalpels: it was necessary to intervene "for their own good." A magnificent book deals with this theme: "Le choeur des femmes
Contrary to the widespread idea that humans are of two sexes, male or female, the sex of a person is multifactorial and results from the appearance of genitals, of course, but also from the presence of gonads (testicles, ovaries), the situation of the urinary tract, genes, and hormones.
Sex doesn't determine gender
Gender is fluid and doesn't necessarily correspond to the one we're assigned at birth. Thus, a person assigned to one gender may very well identify with another throughout their lifetime. For example, a person may -- despite having a vulva, XY genes, and a rise in so-called "female" hormones -- identify as a man and decide whether or not to change his sex.
Once again, contrary to contemporary thinking that always has simplicity as its primary quality, the reality of transition is a complex thing. Some people will choose to take hormones, but others won't. And the operation, aimed at "correcting" the external sexual organs to make them "conform" to the gender of destination, is by no means a norm. In short, roses are red, violets are blue, some women have penises, and some men have vulvas. 🌹
From the revered vulva 20,000 years ago to the unknown and taboo vulva of today, women have become disconnected from their bodies. Their vulva has become a source of insecurity and shame.
Today, to take hold of the symbol of the vulva, to reappropriate it as a symbol of power and creation, to contemplate its beauty -- all this is an act of rebellion against these millennia of disinformation.
Each vulva is perfect in its uniqueness and deserves consideration, attention, and tenderness.
To become aware of this is to protect yourself against the diktats of our androcentric society and to regain confidence and assurance.
Long live patriarchal detoxification!
Long live free vulvas!