What is the Vulva?

By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

The vulva is the external genital organs of the female. It has more than one component part and is commonly confused with the vagina that lies deeper within the vulva.

Anatomical structures of the vulva

The anatomical structures of the vulva include:

  • The lips of the vulvar opening – Labia major and labia minora
  • The swelling at the upper part of the vulvar opening or the mons pubis
  • The seat for nerve endings and sexual stimulation in females or the clitoris
  • The sac like areas called the bulb of the vestibule and the vestibule of the vagina
  • The greater and lesser vestibular glands
  • And the vaginal orifice

Etymology

The word vulva is taken from Latin and is derived from its earlier form volva or wrapper and also from Latin ''volvere'' "to roll" (lit. "wrapper"). The Sanskrit term “ulvam” stands for womba and could be the origin of the term. An alternate term, also from Latin, is ''genitalia feminina externa'' or female external genital organs.

Development of the vulva

The vulva or the external female genitalia chiefly develops when the baby is still within her mother’s womb. Thereafter further development of the vulva occurs during puberty when the secondary sexual characters develop in response to rise in female hormones estrogen.

Functions of the vulva

The vulva acts as the gate for the uterus or womb and provides protection by opening and closing of the lips of the vulva – labia majora and minora.

Further the vagina cleans itself with a healthy microbial flora that flow from the inside out and the vulva helps by flushing out the vulvovaginal fluids and usually maintains normal vaginal health without the need for any internal cleansing or douching in normal women.

Apart from protective functions, the vulva also functions as a sexual organ. These external organs are richly innervated and provide pleasure when properly stimulated. The vulva in fact, along with the clitoris, is the seat for female sexual pleasure dispelling the myth that the vagina or internal genital organs having anything to do with sexual pleasure in women.

The term vagina is often wrongly used to refer to the female genitals generally. The vagina is a specific internal structure, whereas the vulva is the whole external genitalia.

Similarity between male and female external genitalia

The clitoral glans is homologous to the glans penis in males, and the clitoral body and the clitoral crura are homologous to the corpora cavernosa of the penis. The labia majora, labia minora and clitoral hood is similar to the scrotum, shaft skin of the penis, and the foreskin, respectively.

Further the vestibular bulbs beneath the skin of the labia minora are similar to the corpus spongiosum, the tissue of the penis surrounding the urethra. The Bartholin's glands in the vulva are similar to the Cowper's glands in males.

Reviewed by April Cashin-Garbutt, BA Hons (Cantab)

Further Reading

Last Updated: Oct 28, 2012

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