Why We Should Really Call “Vaginas” Vulvas

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Written by Jessica Ann Pin

In our culture, little girls grow up learning that boys have penises and girls have vaginas. In consequence, the vagina is conceptually understood to constitute the essence of female genitalia. The vulva may be mistakenly included in the notion of the vagina or simply ignored. This ignorance of vagina vs. vulva persists among adult women, many of whom may not even be familiar with correct anatomical terms.

There is no doubt that “vagina” is the most frequently used colloquial term for the female genitalia. This “widespread denial of female external genitalia” contributes to ignorance and insecurities among women, which are easily exploited for profit.

via @jessica_ann_pin

Think for a moment how little it makes sense to tell little girls that their genitals are called “vaginas.” Children are aware of what they can see and feel, which is the vulva. Most little girls aren’t even aware of their actual vaginas, which are simply cavities allowing for insertion of a penis and delivery of a baby — functions completely irrelevant to children. Why do we teach girls, at such an early age, that the anatomy capable of giving them pleasure is not important enough to name?…” (Read more)

The cloud of ignorance surrounding female genitals starts at an early age, when we learn to call our genitals “vaginas.” Think how absurd it is that we teach little girls that the most defining feature of their genitals is a hole. Meanwhile, we don’t tell them the name of what they can see and feel. Women and men alike grow up conceptualizing female genital anatomy as an absence, as a cavity. Is it any wonder women develop insecurities regarding anatomy that goes unnamed?

Read More: How to Talk to Your Kids About Sex

Even in some academic texts and medicial committee opinions, the term “vagina” is used as a catchall term for female genitals. Such terminological non-specificity and inaccuracy is highly problematic. Reference to the female genitals as “vagina” rather than “vulva” leaves the semantic impression that the vulva doesn’t exist. As researchers of genital appearance satisfaction in women note, “women often lack knowledge or vocabulary to distinguish between the different anatomical structures and functions of the genital area.” As a result, many women may not even have a language with which to qualify the presence and function of the vulva. The implication of this sociolinguistic phenomenon is that structures of the external genitalia are extraneous.

Language imposes semantic constraints on cognitive conceptions of reality. As one author has noted “a language that does not enable women to talk about the different parts of the genitalia or to conceptualize the genitalia as comprised as various parts, might perpetuate the absence of women’s genitalia from their conceptualized body.” Integration of this anatomy requires directed educational measures.

In one interview study of 15 women, aged 19–22, many of the participants responded with confusion to the question “How well do you feel you understand the various parts that comprise women’s genitals?” The authors reported that other participants also responded with anger, embarrassment and confusion. In addition they reported, “the women in this study reported a vagueness, lack of knowledge, and even admitted outright ignorance about their genitals.” The athors of this study specifically noted that in the absence of information about vulvar anatomy, young women “may worry unnecessarily about their bodies.”

The focus on the vagina is symptomatic of our conception of female bodies and female sexuality in general. Female sexuality is framed as passive while male sexuality is framed as active. The general conception of sex is framed around penetration and male orgasm. We call female genitals “vagina,” which is a word meaning “sheath,” and we neglect to name or adequately represent anatomy critical for female sexual arousal and orgasm.

Focus on the vagina leads to an expectation that vulvas be invisible. As one author notes, “although representations of female nudity are common, detailed, accurate representations of female genitals are rare.” In one analysis of women’s magazines, the authors identified a social norm that women’s genitalia should be invisible, with only a “smooth curve between the thighs” and no protruding labia. Most commercial images of underwear or swimsuits are either airbrushed or feature the model with legs slightly crossed or hips turned.

There is a social “premise that women’s genitalia are an ‘absence’ contrasted with the ‘presence’ of the male phallus.” Essentially, the presence of external genitalia is equated with masculinity. This premise leads to a “simplistic typing of male and female genitalia from a young age,” as exemplified in reports by two women of “a child relative mistaking their labia for a penis.” The use of vague, euphemistic terms by parents likely exacerbates this situation. That childlike vulvas are considered ideal is likely evidence that this simplistic understanding of gender difference extends into adulthood.


The following analysis of ACOG (American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology — most authoritative entity on all things GYN) patient education pages was written in 2012. One update is offset. If this is something people will respond to, I’ll update it completely. I would appreciate feedback on what people think is meaningful. This was originally written to explain how professional entities contribute to motivations for genital cosmetic sugery, but it has wider reaching implications.

Invisible Vulvas in ACOG Patient Pages

Discussion and representation of vulvar anatomy is lacking in medical literature. One of the most appalling examples can be found on ACOG’s patient page. Here, they have 130 FAQ pamphlets, available to educate patients. The topics presented range from “Birth Control Pills” to “Hyterosalpingography” to “Healthy Eating.” Of the 6 geared towards teens, including “Growing Up,” “You and Your Sexuality,” and “Your First Gynecologic Visit,” none contained any illustration of vulvar anatomy, or any mention of the labia minora. “You and Your Sexuality” includes only a picture of the “Female Reproductive System,” which features no sign of vulvar anatomy anywhere: no labia minora, no clitoris, no nothing. Is there really any wonder that women are insecure about a part of the anatomy that apparently doesn’t exist?

Anatomy featured in ACOG pamphlet “You and Your Sexuality” (as of 2012). Note complete absence of vulvar anatomy.

The 2018 version of the “You and Your Sexuality” page, contains no illustration at all. Notably, neither “vulva” nor “labia minora” are included in the glossary. Terms “rectum,” “ovaries,” “uterus,” and “fallopian tube” are all included. The definition of “clitoris” is very vague.

Jessica Ann Pin

Further examination of the ACOG patient education pamphlets reveals that an illustration of vulvar anatomy is very difficult to find. Not even the pamphlet entitled “Your Sexual Health” contains mention of the vulva, labia minora, or even clitoris, which really is absurd. However, an illustration can be found in the fact sheet entitled “When Sex is Painful.” Unfortunately, it is vague and conceptual, with no visible frenulum or clitoral glans. Nowhere, in all 130 FAQ pamphlets, do they describe the female sexual response or adequately describe the anatomy involved.

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The labia minora are mentioned in only 3 of the 132 fact sheets: “Vulvodynia,” “When Sex is Painful,” and “Disorders of the Vulva.” Thus, they are only mentioned in the context of pathology. Anatomical diagrams of the vulva are also only provided in these fact sheets. The vulva is only mentioned in 12 of these fact sheets.

The content of the ACOG patient pages effectively communicates to patients that vulvar anatomy is of substandard importance. The vagina is featured as the most fundamental aspect of female genital anatomy, while the vulva rendered extraneous through lack of representation and discussion. Furthermore, though discussion of sex and sexuality is frequent, female sexual response is not addressed. The ACOG patient page is likely reflective of the prevailing standard of patient education in Ob-Gyn clinical practice. If so, this should be cause of great concern. Aside from contributing to patient ignorance and insecurity, failing to educate patients about vulvar anatomy and sexual function may also contribute to the spread of STD’s.


This was written in 2012. Perhaps things have been changing, and that is perhaps partly why I’m able to write about this again without getting extremely depressed. These are certainly the themes I, and no doubt many other women, grew up with.

Themes of Objectification: Form Over Function, Giving Over Receiving

It is “well documented that women in Western cultures are objectified to a greater degree than are men, in that women’s bodies are looked at evaluated and sexualized with greater frequency.” In general, there is much more emphasis on female sexual desirability than there is on female pleasure and orgasm. Women are generally portrayed as sexual objects rather than sexual subjects. This imbalance in valuation of desirability versus sexual response no doubt arises from suppression of female sexualityin Western culture, and can be observed in a variety of media formats. The ramifications are clear: there is a great deal of pressure on women to be sexually attractive, and comparatively little emphasis on the importance of female sexual response.

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The idea of female sexual function being of secondary importance to sexual attractiveness is apparent in women’s magazine. Qualitative studies show that women’s magazines primarily communicate “the view that women are primarily sex objects, whose desire is best fulfilled by remaking themselves into commodities that are sexually available to men and designed to attract men.” Articles about sex tips primarily focus on the gratification of men. For example, one analysis of Cosmopolitan revealed undeniably that “‘the main goal of sex for the fun, fearless female remains pleasing men.” In sex tips, there is often explicit mention of various aspects of male anatomy, while the female genitalia are referred to collectively as “vagina” with no reference to the “vulva” or labia minora. The labia minora are generally only mentioned in the context of being problematic, such as in articles about labiaplasty.

The lack of value attached to female sexual function and response is reflected even in dictionary definitions, according to one study of both medical and English language dictionaries. In this study, the authors noted that female genitalia were “overwhelmingly defined by their location” while male genitalia were “defined in terms of function.” It has been noted that ignorance and misinformation about female sexual anatomy may “contribute to a continuing positioning of female bodies as shameful or as tools to be used to attract the male gaze.”


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About Jessica

Jessica Ann Pinn is an Activist for equitable coverage of the clitoris in medical literature & curricula to prevent harm. Find her on her Instagram, @jessica_ann_pin.

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