The vagina is the muscular tube that, in human women, leads from the vulva, the external portions of female genitals, to the cervix, the narrow opening that forms the entrance to the uterus. It is part of the reproductive tract in most female mammals and some nematodes. In botany and anatomy, it can refer to any sheath-like structure, such as that formed around a stem by the base of a leaf.
The walls of the vagina are mucous membranes, semi-porous epithelial tissues that permit the excretion of a protective mucosal layer which in turn maintains an acidic environment inside the vagina, discouraging the growth of infections. However, mucous membranes are vulnerable to permeation by some foreign substances, notably virii, which is why penetrative genital intercourse is a vector for the transmission of some virii.
In adult women, the vagina extends approximately 10cm upwards and backwards, until it meets the cervix at a right angle such that the 'front' wall is shorter than the 'back' wall. Normally, the vagina has a roughly H-shaped cross-section, with the walls touching or nearly touching. The thin muscular layer around the epithelial cell lining is very strong and elastic, allowing the walls to stretch during penetrative sexual intercourse and much more so during childbirth.
The human vagina, however, takes a very long time to become fully mature. At birth, the opening of the vagina is covered by the hymen, a thin tissue with a central perforation which is usually broken upon first sexual intercourse or first insertion of a foreign object (anything from a tampon or finger to a sex toy), but which is sometimes torn accidentally by some vigorous action or accident. The vagina further changes and matures at the onset of puberty, where it begins the secretion of protective mucous. However, the epithelial lining of the vagina does not fully mature in most women until they are into their 20s, remaining quite fragile and vulnerable to tearing or perforation, and therefore disease transmission. This is especially problematic during non-consensual or forceful intercourse.
The normal method of fertilisation in humans requires a penis to deposit sperm at the end of the vagina, from where the sperm make their way through the cervix. The vagina also doubles as the birth canal, demonstrating the remarkable elasticity of the vaginal walls.
Old-fashioned definitions of sexual intercourse, such as that supplied by the Dictionary of Sexology here, imply that intercourse consists of penile penetration of the vagina resulting in coitus and ejaculation. However, penetration of the vagina is required for neither female nor male orgasm. In fact, homosexual intercourse in men clearly requires no vagina at all; homosexual intercourse in women may consist entirely of the digital and oral stimulation of the clitoris; heterosexual intercourse, therefore, need not require penile penetration of the vagina. It is worth noting, however, that female orgasm typically involves some level of penetration, and results in rhythmic contractions or spasms of the perineal muscles (often called the pelvic floor muscles). Many women, in fact, report a marked difference between two categories of orgasm: 'external', clitoral orgasms, and 'internal' orgasms, usually associated with stimulation of an internal erogenous zone (the G-spot).
Phew, OK. So, vaginas.
Vagina is the Latin word for 'sheath'. There are two ways of reading this etymology.
- A sheath is any inverted shape which corresponds to an uninverted shape - consider, for example, that the finger of a glove can be invaginated by turning it inside-out.
- A sheath is the proper place to put a blade, such as a bodkin or dagger. (For larger blades, the term scabbard is preferred, but scabbards are just a special kind of sheath.) The phallic connotations of such blades are obvious - and indicate the inherent patriarchal sexism of anatomical and biomedical metaphors.
The vagina has always been a source of mystery and confusion as well as delight. Strong taboos about the vagina meant that public discussion of it was essentially impossible until very recent history. In fact, in March 2007 three high-school girls in New York City were suspended for saying the word during a recitation of, believe it or not, The Vagina Monologues1. Many young men and women in highly-educated parts of the world know little about this important and intimate part of a woman's anatomy. Sadly, many grown men and women know very little more.
With the onset of second-wave feminism came a forceful push to take female sexuality out of the darkness of shame and embarrassment and allow women to talk about their anatomy and their sexuality openly. Feminist authors such as Virginia Wolfe and Eve Ensler wrote highly publicised literature in an effort to reclaim the female body from the inescapable control of a patriarchal society. Articles on topics like female masturbation and marital rape were published, first in fringe feminist publications, but eventually in the mainstream press. The advent of the pill, and the corresponding control women finally had over their reproductive systems, irrevocably changed the vagina and its place in modern culture.
Disclaimer: This is rude. If you're easily offended, stop reading E2.
There are plenty of ways to refer to the vagina. Some are used as insults: cunt is often said to be the single rudest word in the English language; twat and pussy both have very different semantics, but are none-the-less derogatory. Others are belittling or derogatory of the shape and form of the vagina itself: axe wound invokes nauseating imagery, similarly gash; mud flaps, beaver, spam purse, bearded clam, and fur burger are disrespectful at best. Many are obscure: bermuda triangle (and the regional variant, map of Tasmania) are oblique enough to be tasteful; honey pot, muffin (or muff), and vertical smile are among the few pleasant metaphors used. Some are antiquated and therefore have a certain charm, such as quim and cunny. But sadly, most are just plain boring or strange: smoo; snatch; box; fanny; hole; pussy; slit; cooch; none of these are really very exciting, or even interesting.
Your typical Mills and Boon paperback romance includes so many euphemisms to describe female and male genitals that they usually vary all the way from the dirtiest and kinkiest through to the outright ridiculous.
To close, a poem:
Is 'vagina' suitable for use
in a sonnet? I don't suppose so.
A famous poet told me, 'Vagina's ugly.'
Meaning, of course, the sound of it. In poems.
Meanwhile he inserts his penis frequently
into his verse, calling it, seriously, 'My
Penis'. It is short, I know, and dignified.
I mean of course the sound of it. In poems.
This whole thing is unfortunate, but petty,
like my hangup concerning English Dept memos
headed 'Mr/Mrs/Miss' - only a fishbone
In the throat of the revolution -
a waste of brains - to be concerned about
this minor issue of my cunt's good name.
Joan Larkin, 1975
Cool Man Eddie says Hey, sweet! Someone likes vagina! Heh. Eheh. Hehehehehe.