From the time we were born, we've all had an innate curiosity about our bodies. As babies, we look at our hands in astonishment, analyzing each finger in pure wonder, and delight. And this intrigue doesn't wane the older we get either. In fact, our inquisitive nature only grows as we try to understand all the changes our bodies experience both externally, and internally. While most of us will openly ask questions about our brain health, digestive concerns, heart issues, or our breasts, there's one body part many of us don't even discuss with our doctor: our vaginas.
According to celebrity gynecologist Sherry A. Ross, MD, (she treats Reese Witherspoon as well as Gigi, Bella, and Yolanda Hadid), and author of She-ology—The Definitive Guide to Women's Health, Period, a "shocking 45% of women never talk about their vaginal health with anyone, not even their doctor." So in a bid to open up the conversation, we asked Ross to share the most common questions she hears from women about their vagina and debunk a few myths along the way.
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis
My vagina has a smell. Is that normal?
"All of us vagina owners know how disconcerting it can be to encounter a new smell down south, so the key is to know what your particular 'normal' smells like. Since the vagina is very sensitive to changes in your daily environment, anything that affects its pH balance will also affect the smell and consistency of discharge.
Factors that affect this balance include:
- Antibiotic use
- New sexual partners
- Frequency of sexual intercourse
- Sex toys
- Hormonal imbalances such as pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause
- Diet, stress, exercise, and weather changes
A strong, foul, fishy vaginal odor with a thin, grayish-white discharge is a classic symptom of bacterial infections, but it can also be a result of other types of organisms (infections) such as candidiasis, bacterial vaginosis/gardnerella, trichomoniasis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea.
If you experience any of these symptoms, it is important that you see your healthcare provider who can take a series of vaginal cultures in order to determine what organism is involved. Many women will invariably self-diagnose vaginal discharge and itching as a common yeast infection. I know it seems much easier to head to the drugstore for an over-the-counter medication, but, unfortunately, you may only make your symptoms worse and delay a proper diagnosis and treatment.
Vaginal cultures can confirm what organism is causing your disruptive symptoms in order for the best treatment to be prescribed. Even if you tend towards more 'natural' remedies, please, before you start packing yogurt into your vagina, take a trip to your healthcare provider to check things out properly."
Is it bad for me to masturbate?
"First let me say that masturbation is a normal, common activity that is completely healthy. It is an act during which you touch or self-stimulate your genitals to achieve sexual arousal and pleasure, resulting in an orgasm. A recent study revealed that 89% of women masturbate and 95% of men. Masturbation tends to be the very first sexual experience to bring on an orgasm for both sexes. Unfortunately, masturbation is a topic that is strictly off limits in some circles. The word alone can bring about embarrassment, insuring shame and anxiety around the very thought of it.
The benefits of masturbation (or why you should have a date with Rosey Palmer) are:
- You will understand what makes you feel good, so you may help your partner with a successful road map in bed.
- It's a sexual activity that’s not only normal and healthy, it's pleasurable and safe.
- It's the perfect tension and stress reliever.
- It's a natural sleeping pill.
- It's a guaranteed way to avoid SDIs and pregnancy.
I've never squirted but definitely get wet—what is normal?
"The vagina normally gets wet or naturally lubricated when sexually stimulated either visually, mentally, or physically. Squirting takes getting wet one step further, and both are considered normal sexual responses. No one really knows the exact statistic of who can squirt or who actually does squirt, so with that uncertainty in mind, it was found that 10% to 50% of women have, at one time or another had a 'gushing' moment during orgasm.
For some, the experience is likened to wetting the bed; for others it is less obvious. If you haven’t heard about 'the squirt,' you may feel embarrassment in thinking that you have peed. If the fluid is actually urine, you would need to discuss this with your healthcare provider, but you'll know if you've gushed because the liquid tastes and smells the same as the 'wetness' from an orgasm."
How in the world do I find my G-spot? Is it possible I was born without one?
"There is an ongoing debate as to whether the G-spot actually exists. For those 'believers' (myself included), the G-spot is located one to three inches on the top or anterior surface of the vagina. If you insert your finger into the top surface of your vagina, up to about the second knuckle, the slightly bumpy mound or ridged area you reach can be identified as the G-spot (some describe it as having the same texture as a raisin). When a woman is sexually aroused, the G-spot fills with blood, giving it a swollen feeling. When properly stimulated, you may orgasm or even ejaculate.
The truth is not all women respond sexually to stimulation of this apparently magical place known as the G-spot, so don't worry if you've tried and failed to locate it. It is not a magic button; rather it's another avenue in achieving sexual pleasure. If you haven't tried to locate it, you might want to try to do so on your own or with your partner."
I notice bumps, almost like pimples, on my vagina. Is this normal?
"A healthy vagina needs the same hygienic attention as any other part of your body similar to the way we care for our face. The vagina has sweat glands and hair follicles prone to dirt buildup (just like the rest of your body) with hair and sweat. Between urine, sweat, and being so close to the anus, cleaning the vagina regularly is critical to prevent dirty bacterial buildup which could lead to acne, pimples, and foul odors. Keeping the vagina clean with an intimate vaginal wash and preventing dryness of the skin will help avoid unwanted hygiene obstacles.
If you use a razor or laser or wax your pubic hair, make sure the skin is always kept clean before and after removing the hair. If you loofah the skin after any kind of hair removal, this helps prevent acne and in-grown hairs during the regrowth process. Antibacterial intimate soaps and lotions are also helpful in protecting this delicate area against acne and rashes.
If you use a razor, make sure it has a clean blade. Use shaving gel or cream with warm water and apply gentle pressure. Use after-skin cream to keep the skin hydrated and clean. Avoid products containing alcohol. Lastly never be in a rush when you have to shave the pubic hair area.
Any female tool used on your body daily needs to be cleaned regularly. The bathroom can be a reservoir for bacteria, so it is absolutely necessary to clean or replace bathroom items weekly. Washing your hands before touching any female related body parts or beauty tools, in addition to keeping the tools clean and replacing them appropriately, is your best bet to keeping your skin down south looking healthy, fresh, and free of acne.
Sex feels better when I am fully shaved down there!
Some women think a little grooming goes a long way in the bedroom, while others go all out with hair removal, and then there are those who tell you that a clean vagina is good enough. It's personal opinion whether or not removing it all makes sex feel better.
No one really knows the official purpose of pubic hair, but there are some theories: Pubic hair prevents dirt from entering the vagina; keeps the genitals warm; acts as a cushion during sex, spinning, SoulCycling, and other forms of exercise; creates sex pheromones, which are erotic smells that excite a partner; and, depending upon the culture, is solely of decorative value.
For those who think pubic hair adds exciting sex pheromones, complete removal may not be for you. I say to each their own in the bedroom.
Why is it sometimes easier to orgasm while masturbating than by intercourse with a partner?
It’s much easier having an orgasm through masturbation than with intercourse with your partner. With vaginal penetration, the clitoris usually has to be directly stimulated with fingers or indirectly stimulated with the penis in order to have an orgasm. Some women can have an orgasm with intercourse by only having other erogenous zones, such as breasts and nipples, stimulated.
Why can't I have a vaginal orgasm?
"Don't we all secretly wonder if we are sexually normal? But then what is sexually normal anyway? What does it mean? Does it even exist? I hear so many questions on this topic. According to a recent study from the University of Montreal, sexual desires and behaviors considered abnormal in psychiatry are actually the norm. (In fact, almost half of us could have sexual fantasies that are considered 'deviant' or 'atypical' under current psychiatric criteria). So, unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to sexual norm, but there is a way to help you understand your own normal—your own sexuality.
Women achieve sexual pleasure primarily from the stimulation of the clitoris, a highly sensitive part of a woman's anatomy composed of millions of nerve endings similar to that of the penis. When your clitoris is touched, caressed, rubbed, or stroked (with varying degrees of pressure), you may become sexually aroused, which can ultimately lead to orgasm. With sexual arousal, there is an increased blood flow to the genitals and the tensing of muscles throughout the body, particularly in the genitals. Orgasm reverses this process and returns your body to its pre-arousal state through a series of rhythmic contractions. Those contractions are felt in the vagina, uterus, anus, and pelvic floor.
While a clitoral orgasm is more commonly and easily achieved, some women are able to have a vaginal orgasm with penetration. These women are more successful achieving orgasm with vaginal penetration if the clitoris is stimulated with fingers or sexual positions at the same time. If you are on top during sex—a position known as the cowgirl position, with or without the cowboy hat—there's a better chance of your clitoris being stimulated than if you are in the missionary position. Similarly, if your partner enters from behind, they can simultaneously caress your clitoris. Knowing your personal sweet spot and what allows you to have an orgasm is all that matters."
Up next, the one habit a gynecologist swears by for a better sex life.