We’re saturated by the thought that men are obsessed with how their penises are perceived. Penis jokes have entered our daily vocabularies. I only have to say ‘size matters’ and, by some magic process of osmosis, we all know I’m talking about dicks. One of the most popular articles on this very blog is about whether or not it’s possible to enlarge a penis. (I’m proud to say I wrote that article, and the answer is definitively ‘no’.)
But worrying about the perception of our genitalia is not a gender-specific characteristic; penis-havers don’t have the monopoly on flesh-based insecurity. Vulva-havers do it too. Women often fear that their visible genitals look unusual, a-typical, or otherwise unattractive. Increasing amounts of women are turning to cosmetic surgery, or labiaplasty, to shape their labia to look “more appealing”, according to conventions almost certainly dictated by pornography. Luckily, science has come to the rescue.
Sex researchers have unusual jobs. Researchers in the UK, apparently eager with the desire for intimate knowledge, measured the vulvar dimensions of fifty women from a representative selection of women. Their findings indicate starkly that, when it comes to your most erogenous zone, there’s no such thing as normal.
The fifty British participants were all pre-menopausal, aged between 18 and 50 with an average age of 36, and the measurements were conducted in the presence of their usual gynecologists. They were all taken from the racially diverse London catchment area, with 26% being made up of non-white ethnicities. 3% had never had sex, and 42% were mothers.
So what did the research find? Well, a whole lot of diversity and inimitability. Here are the numbers:
Width of the head (glans) of the clitoris: 3-10 millimeters (mm).
Length of the clitoral shaft: 5-35 mm
Distance from the clitoris to the urethral opening: 16-45 mm.
Length of the outer vaginal lips (labia majora): 7-12 mm.
Length of the inner vaginal lips (labia minora): 20-100 mm.
Length of the vaginal opening: 7-13 mm.
Distance from the base of the vagina to the anus: 15-55 mm.
Vulvar color compared with surrounding tissue: same, 18 percent; darker 82 percent.
Inner lips appearance: smooth skin, 28 percent; some fluting/wrinkling, 68 percent; very fluted/wrinkled, 4 percent.
The study went on to describe pubic hair coverage as ‘extremely variable’, from a ‘sparse growth of silky hair over a small area above the clitoris’ to a ‘dense profusion of thick, coarse hair from the navel to the anus’. I love science.
Perhaps the most important part of the study concerns the thing most women are most concerned about. The study found that the dimensions, appearance, and colour of a vulva-havers’ vulva had absolutely no relationship with their ethnicity, age, sexual experience or number of children. There’s no correlation.
It demonstrated that, while the delivery of children “stretches” the vagina temporarily (in the study’s words), the study found absolutely no difference when comparing women with and without children.
82% of vulvas are darker than the surrounding skin and thighs. That means it’s normal – after all, the lips of your mouth are darker than the rest of your face, right?
Progress Of A Kind
I’m kind of delighted that I found this study. In matters of sex and sexuality, solid information can be really hard to come by. There are very few studies of this nature, and despite the relatively small sample size of fifty women, this is valuable knowledge that should be more widely known. After all, the first study of penis size came out of Germany in 1899; we had to wait 90 years, until 1989, for the first vulva studies. Thanks to age-old cultural stigma, that’s often the case: we know a lot more about dicks than vaginas.
One team of scientists from Cincinnati used MRI to determine the dimensions of the external part of the clitoris. They concluded that those with clitorises on the smaller end of the spectrum had more trouble coming to orgasm, suggesting that the size of the clitoris is related to sexual responsiveness – if you agree that orgasm is a good measure of such a thing. (I don’t necessarily.)
But then, another Cincinnati team ran a similar study and found the exact opposite: that those with smaller clitorises had the greatest desire, easiest arousal and lubrication, and most reliable orgasms. And besides, the size difference between a ‘smaller’ and a ‘larger’ clitoris is so tiny as to be essentially meaningless anyway, in the grand scheme.
The upshot of all this is that vulva-havers’ concerns about labial and vulvar perception are as misguided as penis-havers’ concerns about the size of their penises. It has helped confirm what most of us already knew: your vulva is as unique as you are, and if it’s something you worry about, you shouldn’t, and you’re not alone.