OK it’s time for a pop quiz. Raise your hand if you feel confident that you can both name and label the various parts of the female reproductive system.
If you are finding that you’re having a bit of trouble don’t worry. You’re not alone.
In fact in a recent survey of 1000 British woman, 44% were unable to accurately identify where their vagina was. In fact only 1/3 of women were actually able to name some of the major female organs such as the vagina, the vulva, the ovaries, the fallopian tubes, and the clitoris.
This is consistent with research that we’ve conducted at Caia where we found that only 30% of men and 40% of women were able to correctly identify the key phases of a women's menstrual period, or the physical changes that occurred in the reproductive system during a women's monthly period.
So let’s do a quick run through of female anatomy 101 starting with the vulva - popularly, and incorrectly, known as the vagina:
This is the outermost part of the vagina. It includes the labia, the vaginal opening and the clitoris. We’ll get to the vagina and clitoris later. For now let’s get familiar with our labia. The word labia is Latin for lips so just imagine that you’ve got two lips which protect the opening to your vagina. The smaller, and innermost lip is the labia minor. The labia minor is usually hairless. The outermost lip is larger and is called the labia major. It has hair on the outer layer. There’s really no such thing as a normal vulva. You vulva just like breasts come in all sizes, shapes, and colors.
As you move towards the front of the vagina opening where the labia minor meet you’ll find the clitoris hidden underneath a hood of skin called the prepuce. It’s only recently that an accurate and complete anatomical description of the clitoris was even available. It is the epicenter of the female orgasmic response and embryologically it is most similar to the male penis in structure and function. It becomes engorged with blood during sexual arousal. The clitoris is extremely sensitive due to having more than 8,000 nerve endings. Twice that of the male penis. We might as well call 2020 the year of the clitoris as you can find hundreds of articles on the topic. We are barely halfway through and already there have been 60% more articles written on the clitoris compared to last year. If we head back to 1950 there were only 3. There is so much more that we know today about this amazing organ than we ever did before.
I like to think of the fallopian tubes as the reproductive transport highway. They are the female structures that transport the ova, or the eggs from your ovaries to the uterus. At the end of the fallopian tubes are little hair like fingers called fimbriae which reach out and grab the egg and pull it into the fallopian tube so that they can get it down to the uterus. (Many people are not aware that the ovaries do not actually attach to the fallopian tubes). The fallopian tubes are also commonly the location of where the sperm and the egg meet and the egg becomes fertilized. After fertilization, the egg will then move into the uterus where it may implant into the uterine lining.
The vagina is transterior design at its best, bringing together the interior and exterior by connecting the uterus to the outside world. It’s a closed muscular canal that extends from the vulva to the neck of the uterus which is called the cervix. It is the passage through which the baby is born.
The uterus is a hollow upside down pear-shaped organ located between the bladder and the rectum. It is connected to the outside world by the vagina and is also connected to the ovaries by way of the fallopian tubes. The uterus is also commonly known as the womb. It is where the fertilized egg is housed and nourished.
Each woman normally has two ovaries. There is a rare condition affecting less than 1% of women known as a unicorn uterus where a woman is born with essentially only one side of her uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries. The ovaries are fluid filled sacs which produce and release eggs into the female reproductive tract. They have three primary functions 1) to produce hormones 2) store the eggs and effectively the genetic code for life! and 3) release and egg monthly in the event that it could be fertilized. In fact all the eggs that a woman will ever have are stored within her ovaries from the time of birth. What starts at between 1 to 2 million eggs gradually decreases throughout puberty, going down to the hundreds of thousands as a woman grows up and continuing to decrease throughout the fertile period. On a monthly basis eggs are effectively being absorbed back into the body until you reach menopause when there are just a few remaining.
The ovaries also play the important role of supporting the pregnancy during the early stages of development until the placenta is fully developed and can take over the role of supporting the developing baby. It’s worth noting that 1 in 5 Australian girls and women are affected by PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) which is a condition where cysts develop on the ovaries and is one of the leading causes of infertility. Many women aren't even aware that they have the condition at all and will frequently go undiagnosed.
This is the space between the vagina and the anus. Most women only get introduced to their perineum when they’re delivering a baby. One of the things that can happen is that as the vagina is opening in order to allow the baby to depart from the body the perineum can tear. We will talk more about the things that you can do to support your body and help prevent perineal tearing and also how to recover and heal from perineal tearing in another blog post.
Anatomy of the clitoris journal of urology 2005 October 174(4pt 1):1189-95