Anatomy 101: Your reproductive system
Our reproductive system is complex and powerful. With such complexity comes common misconceptions about the various components of the system, where they’re located, and what they’re called. If you’ve ever found yourself Googling what exactly a fallopian tube is or trying to figure out the difference between the vagina and the vulva, know that you definitely aren’t alone. A recent survey of women in the U.S. found that 1 in 10 women was not able to correctly label an anatomical diagram of the reproductive system.
There’s absolutely no shame in this, but we believe with knowledge of our body comes power, so below we’ve outlined the parts of the reproductive system (both external and internal) and what they each do.
The Mons pubis is an area of soft skin located above your vulva. It’s shaped like an upside-down triangle that reaches from the top of the pubic hairline down to the clitoris. After puberty, pubic hair typically grows here.
The vulva is the outer area of your genitalia that contains the labia majora, labia minora, mons pubis, clitoris, vestibule, and ducts of glands both your outer and inner labia/ and extends from your clitoris to the bottom of your vaginal opening. Labia are flaps of skin that are unique in shape and color. A lot of people commonly refer to this area of the body as your vagina but vulva is the anatomically correct term.
Just like fingerprints (and just about everything else about us!), everyone’s vulvas are different. There is no “normal” or “right” way for your vulva to look.
Clitoris & clitoral hood
The clitoris is located where your inner labia meet at the top of your vulva. This area is slightly covered by the clitoral hood. The external part of the clitoris is deceivingly small -- internally, the clitoris divides into two “legs” that extend more than 5 inches into your body. This gland has thousands of nerve endings at the tip and is sensitive to stimulation.
The urethral opening, below your clitoris, is where you pee from. That’s it!
The vaginal opening is below your urethral opening. This is where menstrual blood (period blood) leaves your body from, and where a baby is delivered from your body during childbirth. It is also where you can insert period products like tampons, or menstrual cups, as well as a location where a penis may enter, or for objects used for pleasure (e.g vibrators), fingers, etc.
It’s a common misconception that your pee and period blood leave your body from the same opening, so take note that the vaginal opening is completely distinct from the urethral opening!
The anus the opening of your rectum, which is where you poop from. You can also insert things into your rectum for pleasure.
The external components of the reproductive system are just the beginning! Moving inward from the vulva through the vaginal opening, there are more intricate organs that are a part of the system.
The vagina also referred to as the vaginal canal, is a hollow tube that extends from your cervix to your vaginal opening. The muscular walls of the vagina enable it to become more wide or narrow depending on what your body needs. For example, it can become wide enough for a baby to pass through it (if giving birth vaginally) or be narrow enough to hold a tampon in place. A vagina is also a place where penetrative sex can occur.
The cervix is a piece of tissue that separates the vagina and uterus. It’s small and circular with a hole in the middle (imagine a donut shape). The cervix meets the vagina at a 45 to 90-degree angle. Though tiny, the cervix can, like the vagina, contract and expand. The cervix does this to let menstrual blood from the uterus out, let sperm in from the vaginal canal, and keep things like tampons in the vagina from moving further into the body. It can also dilate up to 10 centimeters to enable a baby to move from the uterus to the vaginal canal during vaginal childbirth.
The uterus is a strong, upside-down pear-shaped muscular organ that’s typically 3-4 inches long or the size of a clenched fist. In a normal menstrual cycle, eggs from your ovaries come from your fallopian tubes and into the uterus. If fertilized by sperm, the egg will implant here. The uterus is also sometimes referred to as the womb because this is where a fetus develops over the course of a pregnancy.
When your menstrual cycle begins, the tissue lining of your uterus sheds, causing the start of your period. Learn more about the menstrual cycle and how it works here.
Ovaries are the female reproductive organs and are found on either side of the uterus that contains a person’s eggs. Around the time of puberty, the ovaries will typically collectively contain between 300,000 and 400,000 eggs. In addition to this, ovaries which are also glands, produce hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, and relaxin that control the menstrual cycle and pregnancy.
The two fallopian tubes are small passageway-like tubes that move eggs from the ovaries to the uterus. Though the fallopian tubes aren’t connected to the ovaries, they have little finger-like fringes, called fimbriae, that surround the ovary. When the ovary releases an egg, the fimbriae sweeps it into the fallopian tube.
Course complete! With this understanding of the place and purpose of each piece of our reproductive system, we can better know our bodies and capabilities (and hopefully spend less time down Google rabbit holes).
For more resources on your body and its many complexities (like the menstrual cycle, sexuality, pregnancy, and more), check our favorite sex-ed resources here.