No matter how many words we come up with to avoid using its proper name, it’s called a vagina. It’s the muscular tube that extends from the vulva to the neck of the uterus. It is not the vulva, clitoris or labia – though sometimes when people say the word, they could mean any part of or the entirety of the female sexual anatomy. As recently as 2010, television networks were rejecting ads that included the word vagina in their scripts. Today, it’s still taboo in some circles to say it out loud and even among mature adults, the word may be met with a giggle. Perplexing, really, when you consider the fact that approximately half of the world’s population has one.
Through the ages, the sexual parts of women's bodies have been shrouded in mystery and subject to myth, misinformation and mistreatment. To this day, false information persists and old wives’ tales can distract us from the reality of our vaginas. So let’s take a moment to set the record straight when it comes to vaginal health, fitness, hygiene and sex. We'll also take a look at the practice of douching, cosmetic & reconstructive procedures, and touch on the delicate issues of size and scent.
Vaginal health is important to overall health – mental, physical and sexual. So it’s vital to know this part of our bodies and to stay tuned in to what’s happening. It’s also important to be aware of the things that can have a negative impact on our vaginas. Here's a list of some of them.
- Unprotected sex can lead to sexually transmitted infection.
- Injury to the pelvic area can result in vaginal trauma.
- Scarring from pelvic surgery and certain cancer treatments can cause vaginal pain.
- Antibiotics can increase your risk of getting a yeast infection.
- Barrier contraceptives like condoms and diaphragms – and the associated spermicides can cause vaginal irritation.
- Feminine hygiene products like sprays, deodorants and douches can make a bad situation worse when it comes to irritation. They can also cause problems by upsetting the delicate balance of the vagina.
- Childbirth can cause vaginal tears and a decrease of muscle tone in the vagina.
- Anxiety and depression can cause a low level of arousal and that can result in decreased natural lubrication and pain during intercourse.
- Sexual trauma can lead to painful sex.
- A loss of estrogen can cause the lining of the vagina to thin and that can make sex painful.
There are also infections, conditions and illnesses that can affect your vagina. We all need to be aware of their causes, signs and symptoms.
Vaginitis (inflammation of the vagina)
bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections, trichomoniasis
Caused by: change to the normal balance of yeast and bacteria in the vagina
Signs & symptoms: vaginal discharge, odor, itching and pain
Weak Pelvic Floor
Caused by: supporting ligaments & connective tissue supporting the uterus and vaginal walls become weak and the vaginal walls can slip down (prolapse)
Signs & symptoms: urine leakage, a bulge in the vagina
Dyspareunia (pain before, during and/or after sex)
Caused by: vaginismus (involuntary spasms of the muscles of the vaginal wall), tense pelvic floor muscles, vaginal dryness, vaginal cysts
Signs & symptoms: pain
chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital warts, syphilis, genital herpes
Caused by: unprotected sex
Signs & symptoms: unusual discharge, genital sores
Caused by: human papillomavirus (HPV) and, sometimes, the cause is unknown
Signs & symptoms: may first appear as bleeding after menopause or sex
When to See A Professional
Consider medical care, if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- A change in the color, odor or amount of vaginal discharge
- Vaginal redness, itching or swelling
- Vaginal bleeding between periods, after sex or after menopause
- A mass or bulge in your vagina
- Pain during intercourse
- Unexplained pain
Vagina Health Checklist
Here are steps we all can take to keep our vaginas healthy:
- Use a condom, if you’re not in a mutually monogamous relationship
- Vaccinate to protect yourself from HPV and Hepatitis B
- Make kegels a part of your everyday routine
- Discuss vaginal side effects of medications you’re taking with your doctor
- Limit alcohol (chronic alcohol abuse can impair sexual function)
- Don’t smoke (nicotine can inhibit sexual arousal)
- Substance abuse can affect overall physical health as well as mental health – both of which can affect sexual function
- Wash with water and mild soap
- Don't douche or use chemicals on or near your vagina
- Use clitoral stimulation to orgasm on a regular basis
- Get regular check ups
Surgeries & Procedures
We’ve all heard the jokes and crude comments about vagina size. The message is always the same: tight is good; loose is bad and it's kind of our fault. Enter vaginal rejuvenation or, vaginoplasty, the medical term for procedures aimed at tightening up the vagina. But it doesn’t stop there. Female genital cosmetic surgery also includes procedures like G-spot amplification, as well as labiaplasty, clitoral hood reduction, hymenoplasty and labia majora augmentation. Most of these procedures promise to turn back time and change the aesthetics of normal anatomy. For example, a labiaplasty might be considered, if one side of your labia is bigger than the other. Except it’s normal for one side of the labia to be bigger than the other. And it’s normal for all of us to look different from each other – different sizes, shapes and colors. In realty, it’s not about the size of your vagina or the shape of your vulva. It’s about accepting your own normal and enjoying pleasure in a way that you cannot when you’re chasing the illusion of physical perfection.
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, exercise caution if you decide to go down the road to aesthetic perfection. Female genital cosmetic procedures are not well-studied and efficacy has not been proven. Also, they can be expensive, they don’t provide permanent results and there are risks. Potential complications include pain, bleeding, infection, scarring, adhesions, altered sensation, dyspareunia and the need for reoperation.
Reconstructive surgery is fundamentally different than cosmetic surgery, because it’s purpose is to improve function as opposed to changing appearance. Childbirth is a case in point as it can cause the muscles of the vaginal wall to separate. When this happens, reconstructive surgery can be an effective method of repair. Also, reconstructive surgery is considered to be medically necessary for conditions that include female sexual dysfunction (clinically diagnosed), pain with intercourse, interference with athletic activity, previous injury (straddle or obstetric), reversing female genital cutting, vaginal prolapse, incontinence and gender affirmation surgery. Of course, any reconstructive procedure comes with the usual risks of surgery and general anesthesia.
Unless you have a diagnosed medical issue that has impacted the size of your vagina (like extreme laxity), your vagina size is normal. So, focus on arousal and lubrication instead of size. And remember that any DIY tightening that you feel needs to be done should be focused on the pelvic floor muscles. Keep reading.
The vagina is made of highly elastic tissue supported by a network of muscles in the pelvic floor. The vaginal tissue can stretch and return to the same size, so things like tampons and penetrative sex are very unlikely to change its size. In fact, changes to the way your vagina feels is more likely due to changes in the pelvic floor muscles that support your vagina. And, good news . . . there’s a kegel for that.
Kegels can tighten your vagina, but not by strengthening your vaginal muscles. They actually strengthen the pelvic floor muscles that surround the vagina. They're easy, discreet, free and effective. Here’s how to get started.
- Make sure your bladder is empty
- Find the muscles you would use to stop your urine midstream
- Isolate, squeeze and hold those muscles for 10 seconds, then relax for 10 seconds (start with 5 seconds and build to 10 seconds, if needed)
- Do two to three sets per day (be careful to not overdo kegels as this can lead to over-tightening the pelvic floor muscles)
Don’t hold your breath while you do kegels and don’t squeeze your thigh, buttock or abdomen muscles. It’s also important that you don’t do kegels by repeatedly stopping your urine flow as this can lead to unwanted consequences.
Here are a couple of resources for more information about kegels:
And don’t forget your crunches!
No, not that kind of crunch. I’m talking about a crunch for the vagina that is accomplished by clitoral stimulation that leads to orgasm. Dr. Elena C. Arias (director of the Graal Clinic in Marbella, Spain) explains it like this:
"At the moment of orgasm the clitoris surges with increased blood pressure. The uterus contracts off the pelvic floor, increasing pelvic muscle tension and strengthening the entire region. It's like a stomach crunch for the vagina."
Oh, there’s more . . .
"In addition, clitoral arousal increases vaginal elasticity because it stimulates the function of the gland of the vagina, which produces a mucosa lubricant which has a moisturizing and rejuvenating effect on the entire vaginal area. If clitoral stimulation and orgasm are initiated on a regular basis, this will improve the tone and elasticity of the vaginal area."
As if we needed another reason to love the clitoris!
Vaginal fitness is important at all stages of our lives and, fortunately, a partner is not required for us to orgasm on a regular basis as part of our vaginal fitness program. There really is no reason for us to be sexually inactive – ever. That’s what imagination and vibrators are for.
Overall health from good nutrition, regular exercise (including kegels), adequate sleep, effective stress management and frequent orgasms are the recipe for success when it comes to vaginal fitness.
Keeping It Clean
The vagina has sweat glands and hair follicles that can attract bacteria that can make for a strong odor. Plus, your vagina is located in close proximity to your anus. For these two reasons alone, it’s not overstating to say that cleanliness is of the utmost importance. Yet, the washing instructions that came with your vagina are amazingly, refreshingly short and sweet: wash your vulva with mild, unscented soap.
Feminine hygiene is about staying clean without upsetting the delicate balance of bacteria needed for vaginal health. Experts agree that you do this with soap and water. Here are a few common sense tips for a clean and healthy vagina:
- Don’t douche
- Wash your vulvovaginal area with mild, unscented soap
- Wipe from front to back
- Avoid antibiotic medications that kill “good” bacteria in the vagina
- Stay as dry as possible by wearing panties with a cotton lining
Here’s the bottom line. Your vagina is self-cleaning. Its acidity naturally controls bacteria and washing your vulva with water and mild soap is all you need to be clean.
To Douche or Not To Douche
"The vagina is a self-cleansing organ. With regular bathing, douching is completely unnecessary.” -- David Eschenbach, M.D. (professor of gynecology at the University of Washington)
Douching has never been nor will it ever be necessary or healthy for you or your vagina. The practice takes a physical toll, because it upsets the natural balance of bacteria that your vagina needs to be healthy. And unintended consequences can result – like a significantly increased risk of chlamydia, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), bacterial vaginosis, trichomonas, yeast infections, cervical cancer, infertility, ectopic pregnancies and preterm delivery.
Douching dates back to the ancient world, but it really came into its own in the nineteenth century when physicians prescribed them as an effective form of birth control (they’re not!). And, as you’ve probably guessed, the concoctions they came up with back then were no Summer’s Eve. Women pumped their vaginas full of water mixed with zinc sulphate, alum, pearls, and different types of salt. That is, until the Lysol company began marketing actual disinfectant that promised to keep husbands from falling out of love with their wives. One ad header from the 1950s read, “Often a wife fails to realize that doubts due to one intimate neglect shut her out from happy married life”. The advertisement goes on to say, “One most effective way to safeguard her dainty feminine allure is by practicing complete feminine hygiene as provided by vaginal douches with a scientifically correct preparation like “Lysol.”
Unfortunately, the collective she was duped into believing the message that was sent loud and clear: your vagina is dirty and offensive and in need of regular disinfectant cleansing.
In case you were wondering . . . no, no one ever suggested soaking a penis in a chemical bath.
Happily, the medical community has since reconsidered the practice of douching.
"There is no good reason to douche and many good reasons not to. Douching should be discouraged.” -- Jean Anderson, M.D. (gynecologist at Johns Hopkins)
In fact, most doctors and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) suggest that women do not douche.
The Smell of You Is The Smell of Love For Me.
– Abhishek Sanghi
Here’s the thing. Our vaginas were never intended to give off the same fragrance as a bouquet of flowers. That notion is a marketing gimmick meant to guilt us into supporting a multi-million dollar industry that’s built on a lie. The fact is that each one of us has our own special scent. It’s one of the things that makes us unique. So, it comes down to accepting ourselves and learning to embrace the reality of our femininity, not an idealized, fictional version. In this context, that means your vagina smells like your vagina.
That’s not to say that the aroma of your vagina will never vary. Eating certain foods can result in changes. Specifically, garlic, onions, mint, turmeric, blue cheese, cabbage, cauliflower, asparagus, red meat and vinegar are some of the foods that can upset your vagina’s pH balance and cause an odor you may not like. Drinking too much alcohol and not enough water, not to mention smoking, can also be factors that effect the scent of your vagina.
Sometimes a smell you aren’t used to could signal the need to follow up with a medical professional. If it’s particularly strong and certainly if you’re noticing other things like a thick or greenish discharge, pain, rawness or sores – see your doctor.
Speaking of vaginal discharge: it’s normal when it’s slippery and clear or whitish (it may turn yellowish when it’s dry) and has little odor. Colored discharge (yellow, greenish, gray or thick white) with a strong, unpleasant odor is a warning flag that should prompt you to seek medical treatment.
That’s right, I’ve saved the best for last: glorious, orgasmic, vaginal sex. Of course, familiarity with our own bodies and pleasure points is imperative when we’re talking about orgasms of any kind. But, when it comes to the vagina, a little history lesson may also help to shed some light on this sometimes baffling subject.
Sigmund Freud understood the clitoris and its power to bring women to orgasm. And he approved of it – for young, single women, that is. According to Freud’s theory, women began having real orgasms once they were married and engaging in vaginal sex. Those who did not orgasm with vaginal intercourse were considered to be frigid, in his view. And, because so few women reported orgasms during intercourse, he concluded that most women were neurotic and frigid.
It would be years after Freud's death in 1939, before his theory was credibly challenged. But challenged it was - by William Masters and Virginia Johnson in the 1960s. The dynamic duo did agree with Dr. Freud that the vagina is a major source of orgasmic pleasure, but not for women. According to their research (and it was extensive), an aroused, lubricated vagina provided for orgasm about 95% of the time – for men. They also concluded that the vagina has few touch-sensitive nerve receptors, unlike the clitoris which has many. Masters & Johnson believed that the clitoris was the main source of sexual pleasure for women. In fact, they believed that all orgasms originate in the clitoris.
That might have been the end of it, but an interesting report from the 1950s discovered by sex researchers changed everything. In it, two gynecologists, Ernst Grafenberg and Robert Dickinson, wrote about a “zone of erogenous feeling” in the front wall of the vagina. The area they called the “urethal sponge” would eventually be named the G-spot after Dr. Grafenberg. The G-Spot And Other Recent Discoveries About Human Sexuality, was published in 1982 and became a best seller. However, the G-Spot was controversial, because a relative few of the millions who tried actually found it.
Since then, many studies have proven the concept of vaginal orgasm. But Dr. Helen O’Connell, an Australian urologist, would rock the boat again in 1998, with her revolutionary definition of the clitoris.
According to Dr. O’Connell, the clitoris is shaped like a wishbone with legs that extend out and down, around the pubic bone and into the front wall of the vagina. So, the G-spot is actually the legs of the clitoris. Not everyone agrees and Dr. O’Connell’s opinion continues to be debated, but it’s at least possible that all orgasms, even vaginal ones, originate with the clitoris after all.
In the end, whether you climax or not, vaginal sex can be a pleasurable and intimate way to experience sex with a partner. It can also be a fun and sexy way to play with yourself. Either way, here's to finding your G-spot and many (very) happy endings.
Here's some links that may be of help:
--Mary Smith for OneHowTo
--Annamarya Scaccia for healthline
Mayo Clinic, Vagina: What’s Normal, What’s Not, Mayo Clinic Staff, February 11, 2020
American Sexual Health Association, Vaginal Health, SHA Staff, Not dated
WebMD, Female Masturbation: 5 Things You May Not Know, Camille Noe Pagan, medically reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on March 11, 2014
Cleveland Clinic, Feminine Odor Problems? What Every Woman Needs to Know, Cleveland Clinic Staff, June 10, 2021
Web MD, What Is Vaginal Douching? Pros & Cons of Douching, Stephanie Watson, medically reviewed by Trina Pagano, M.D., Septebmer 9, 2020
Psychology Today, Don't Douche: It's Very Bad for Women's Sexual Health, Michael Castleman, M.A., April 4, 2011
UChicago Medicine, Kegels: The 30-Second Exercise That Can Improve Incontinence and Sex, Juraj Letko, MD, October 28, 2019
Harvard Health, Step-By-Step Guide to Performing Kegel Exercises, Harvard Medical School staff, September 16, 2019
Clue, Vaginal “tightness”: Myths, Tips and What You Need to Know About the Pelvic Floor, Anna Druet, April 27, 2016
Everyday Health, The Clitoris Is Important for This Reason, Too, Holly Pevzner, November 17, 2019
Huff Post, There’s Another Benefit to Having An Orgasm Besides, You Know, Physical Pleasure, Chloe Tejada, 8/3/2017
Her, The One Benefit of Orgasms You Probably Weren't Aware Of, Jade Hayden, No Date
Health, What Does a Healthy Vagina Smell Like?, Claire Gillespie, January 21, 2020
Health grades, 7 Things to Know About Vaginal Rejuvenation (Vaginoplasty), Elizabeth Hanes, R.N., medical reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS, May , 28, 2020
Web MD, Vaginoplasty & Labiaplasty, By Rebecca Buffum Taylor, Medically Reviewed by Traci C. Johnson, MD , April 19, 2021
Psychology Today, The Truth About Vaginal Orgasms, Michael Castleman, M.A., May 2, 2021
iNews, A Brief History of Vaginal Douching and Why Women Used Disinfectants as a Contraceptive, Dr. Kate Lister, May 2, 2019