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Vagina

Vagina

In human beings the vagina links the external female genitals (the vulva and labia) to the internal reproductive organs. Extending approximately four inches from the vulva to the cervix, the vagina is a muscular canal that extends both upward and back toward the spine when a woman is standing. The opening of the vagina is at the back end of the vulva, behind the urethral opening and in front of the anus. The vagina is lined with mucous membranes and is wrinkled and pink. It expands to accommodate objects larger than itself, such as a penis, a tampon, or a baby. The mucous membranes that line the vagina are slippery because they are lubricated by glands called Bartholin's glands, which are near the vaginal opening and the cervix. Lubrication makes it easier for objects to move in and out of the vagina. The entrance to the vagina also has many nerve endings, which provide pleasurable sensations when touched. There is another sensitive area inside the vagina, called the G-spot or Grafenburg spot, that sometimes can be reached by fingers pressing upward inside the vagina. The vaginas of some women are partially covered by a membrane called the hymen, which can be ruptured during sexual intercourse or by medical examinations, some kinds of strenuous exercise, or the insertion of objects.

The vagina has several functions. It serves as the channel through which menstrual fluids leave the uterus each month. It is the orifice through which babies are born unless the mother has the child by means of a cesarean section (surgery that opens the uterus through the stomach). Babies born through the vagina experience a "vaginal birth." It is a site of sexual pleasure for many women because of stimulation of the nerve endings near the vaginal opening and the G-spot. Some women experience pleasure from the sensation of having the vagina filled.

The vagina usually keeps itself clean through the balanced environment of the microorganisms that typically inhabit it. If the balance of the vagina's environment is upset, it can be infected with yeasts and other microorganisms that produce discharge, itching, and irritation called vaginitis. Doctors examine the vagina during a pelvic examination, taking a smear of cells called a Pap smear that tests for unusual cells from the cervix and other tissue that might indicate cancer.

Culturally, the term vagina often is used to refer to female genitalia in general even though the vagina constitutes only a part of the genitalia. Often considered merely a complement to the penis, the vagina is depicted as both desiring and unaccommodating or "frigid." Unlike the penis, the vagina rarely figures as anything more than a hole or receptacle. Jokes circulate about the desirability of small or tight vaginas. Recently, plastic surgeons have developed procedures for tightening the vagina, with the idea that such tightening will increase the pleasure of heterosexual intercourse.

In response to the denigration of the vagina, the feminist playwright Eve Ensler composed a play, The Vagina Monologues (1996), that features women talking about their sexual experiences and vaginal pleasures.

see also Genitals, Female.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Boston Women's Health Book Collective. 2005. Our Bodies, Ourselves: A New Edition for a New Era. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Morris, Desmond. 2005. The Naked Woman: A Study of the Female Body. New York: Thomas Dunne.

Van de Graaff, Kent, and R. Ward Rhees. 1997. Schaum's Outline of Theory and Problems of Human Anatomy and Physiology. New York: McGraw-Hill.

                                                Judith Roof

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