This section is meant to act as a realistic anatomy lesson for the average college student. We've added some applicable tips and tricks that may not have been taught in your grade school sex ed class (check out the buttons below!).
Note: We have tried to make the language in this section as inclusive and gender-neutral as possible. Unfortunately, very few studies and related resources utilize gender-neutral language, including some we deemed important to include in this page.
People with Vaginas
Left: Teen Vogue, artist Lucy Han
Vulva vs. Vagina
Individuals with this type of anatomy are said to have a vagina to describe the external genitalia. However, this part of the body is actually called the vulva. The vulva makes up the external parts of the genitalia, including the clitoris, labia, and vaginal opening. The vagina itself is part of the internal genitalia. Here is a short video to learn more.
Here is an amazing website called The Vulva Gallery with a thorough and inclusive anatomy guide of vulvas! Vulvas naturally look very different depending on the person, and this website illustrates just that.
Folx with vaginas have three openings: the urethra, vagina, and anus. The reproductive cell, or gamete, of this reproductive system are the eggs, which are found in the ovaries.
When the person with the vagina is aroused, the external genitalia (including the clitoris) enlarge due to increased blood flow to that area. This also causes the inside of the vagina to become lubricated, or "wet". When the person orgasms, it is usually not physically noticeable, as it is in men. Those with vaginas can orgasm in a number of different ways (check out this link), and some release fluid when they orgasm, essentially ejaculating.
Washing the vagina can be easily done during a shower/bath. You just need warm water and unscented plain soap. The vagina naturally cleans itself with natural discharge, so there is no need to use any strong cleaning agents. Douching is actually discouraged by physicians, unless recommended by a professional. These can actually disrupt the important natural microbiome in your vagina, and there is no evidence that they prevent STIs or UTIs.
Perfumed soaps or other agents are also discouraged. The vagina is supposed to have a mild scent and discharge, and it can change during the course of one’s cycle. These types of soaps can also be pretty irritating to the vagina. If your vagina is smelling to the point that you feel like you need to cover it with another scent, it is likely that you have some kind of infection and you should see a professional.
Wearing cotton underwear and avoiding thongs are also highly recommended for good vaginal maintenance. Also, using non-scented tampons and pads during your period, rather than scented or "deodorant" ones.
What is the menstrual cycle?
It allows someone with the uterus to get pregnant. The average age someone gets their period is 12 years old. 2-3 years after the first period, a person’s menstrual cycle should be regularly occurring every month. At the beginning of the cycle, the person is menstruating (or having their period). They will bleed from their uterus continuously for about five days, and the amount of blood depends on the person, hormones, and any birth control the person is taking. During this time, a person can experience a number of side effects including cramping, bloating, acne, and many other symptoms.
A video with a general overview of how the menstrual cycle works
A page on normal and irregular period symptoms
You can get menstruation-related products at any local drugstore or the SHWC. They can also be found in some restrooms on campus. If you have any concerns about your period, call the SHWC to schedule an appointment with one of their providers.
People with Penises
Folx with penises have two openings: the urethra and anus. The gamete of this reproductive system are sperm, which are generated constantly in the testes. The urethra, at the tip of the penis, is the channel by which urine and sperm exit the penis. Here is a helpful video to learn more about this type of anatomy
When the person with the penis is aroused, blood flows to the tissue in the penis, making the penis erect or "hard". A hard penis is (mostly) necessary for penetrative sex. When the person orgasms, sperm is released from the urethra. Those with this type of anatomy can also orgasm in several different ways (such as stimulating the prostate, see this link), although they tend to not be as diverse as those with vaginas.
A Note on Circumcision
Penises can be circumcised or uncircumcised. Circumcision is the act of cutting the thin layer of skin at the head of the penis, or the foreskin. This procedure is often done when a child is very young, and is done for a variety of reasons; it is a tradition for many cultural/religious groups, and others have the procedure done since circumcision tends to prevent STIs. When not erect, an uncircumcised penis has the foreskin covering the tip of the penis, so it isn’t visible. A circumcised penis always has the head of the penis exposed, erect or flaccid. Here is an article with more information.
It is recommended that the penis is washed (like any other body part) every time you shower. This can be done with just a bar of mild, unscented soap and warm water. A lack of cleaning can lead to the build-up of smegma, which is an objectively unpleasant bodily fluid that can build up below the tip of the penis and/or below the foreskin.
The penis should smell slightly, usually like sweat. However, it should not be pungent; this may indicate that you have a UTI or an STI.
There are more than two anatomies!
The anatomical configurations mentioned above are a very general description of what occurs during embryonic development. It is very important to know that reproductive anatomies are on a spectrum, and there are a variety of other structures that naturally form and do not perfectly fit into binary boxes.
Some of these more “drastic” variations are known as intersex. It is estimated that 1-2 in 100 people are born with what are deemed to be intersex traits. Here are just a few ways an individual could be given this label by a physician:
They could appear to have a penis on the outside, but also have a uterus and ovaries (and vice versa). This is due to varying levels of sex hormones that embryos are naturally exposed to in the womb.
Chromosomal variations, like XXY or XXX
Produces significant amounts of one type of hormone that is not associated with their assigned sex.
As mentioned previously, sex anatomy is on a spectrum (like sexual orientation and gender identity), so there isn’t a clear line where male sex, the female sex, and intersex begin and end. Doctors tend to assign intersex children one gender at birth, which often includes surgeries to have that child cosmetically look like that gender. However, surgery is not always necessary for an intersex individual to have a healthy life (and sex life!)
Being intersex is NOT the same as being transgender. Transgender people are those who identify (pubicly, or not) as a gender that was not assigned to them at birth. Trans people can transition at any point of their life, although many of them innately feel like they do not identify as their gender assigned at birth early in their life. Gender-affirming surgeries exist that allow transgender people to change their physical appearance. However, there are trans people who have not had or choose not to undergo these surgeries. Some intersex people can be transgender, but definitely not all (and most trans people are not intersex).
Please note that asking someone who identifies as trans or intersex about their reproductive anatomy is not an appropriate thing to do, unless they have made it explicitly clear that they are comfortable sharing that information. These questions are invasive and may be triggering to the individual.
Here is an article with more information on and for intersex people
More information on and for trans people.
The LGBTQ Life Center is an on-campus resource for members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community. Here is their website: https://studentaffairs.jhu.edu/lgbtq/
Getting Familiar with Hormones
There are several sex hormones produced by the body. Their levels are relatively fluid, since they can fluctuate over time. Excess or deficiencies of hormones can lead to a number of disorders in the body. Here is a list of a few that are most commonly talked about:
Estrogen: This is the main hormone for people with vaginas. They play a big role in female puberty, menstruation, and pregnancy.
Progesterone: This is produced after ovulation within the menstruation cycle, as well as during pregnancy.
Testosterone: This is the main hormone for people with penises, and very important for the development of the male reproductive system. It is also found in small amounts in people with vaginas, where it plays a role in sex drive and menstruation regulation. Testosterone is a type of androgen, which is the encompassing term for all types of hormones that impact male development.
More info in this article.