understanding the vagina

Illustration: Samantha Hahn/CWC-i.com

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A Fascinating Mystery
Jessica Winter on the female body's most misunderstood region.

The human vagina is both presence and absence, an open space closed in by complex walls: a layer of cells followed by layers of connective tissue and muscle that can expand accordion-like to accommodate (for instance) an infant's head. In terms of structural engineering, the vagina ranks as the biological equivalent of the Brooklyn Bridge. And yet it tends to inspire more embarrassment than awe.

We feel both uneasy about and intrigued by what we do not understand, and misunderstanding the vagina may start with simple logistics: The vagina is hidden, unless you're a contortionist (or have a compact mirror). There is also confusion over terminology. The word vagina is often taken as an umbrella term describing the genitals, including the clitoris and labia—both of which are under the jurisdiction of the vulva, not the vagina. The vagina is, however, home to the elusive G-spot: the promised land of the vaginal orgasm, said to be perched just up the vagina's front wall. Like Shangri-La or Brigadoon, the G-spot is a place so magical that some question its existence and, assuming it does exist, whether it's simply part of the clitoris or if it constitutes its own glamorous principality—the Monaco of a lady parts United Nations.

We also seem to be confused about the vagina's cleanliness or supposed lack thereof. A healthy vagina, as science writer Natalie Angier explains in Woman: An Intimate Geography, is full of the best kind of germs: "lactobacilli, the same bacteria found in yogurt." Lactobacilli "generate lactic acid and hydrogen peroxide," Angier writes, which help "prevent colonization by less benign microbes." This is why my eighth-grade health teacher described the vagina as "a self-cleaning oven." Not only does the vagina keep a tidy house, but it's also custom built for monogamy: As Angier points out, exposure to the sperm of multiple partners is more likely to throw its pH balance out of whack than unprotected sex with one mate.

Perhaps if we all were more familiar with the vagina's structure and talents, the word wouldn't inspire a culture-wide cringe. Then again, there's satisfaction in a well-kept secret—and if the heroic vagina never gets her due, at least those of us in the know can appreciate just how remarkable she really is.