Five things romance writers should know about vaginas

If there’s one thing you’d think romance writers – who tend to be women writing for women – know about, it’s the workings of their own bodies.

After all, some of us write fairly explicit sex scenes, right?

Read My LipsThis week, though, I was surprised to discover how ignorant I was as I read the delightfully informative Read My Lips: A Complete Guide to the Vagina and Vulva by Debby Herbenick, PhD, and Vanessa Schick, PhD.

This book, which will be released on November 14, should be required reading for everyone – women and men. It expels myths, builds confidence, and contains vital health information that would surprise many women.

And there are craft projects! I don’t want to reveal any spoilers, so let’s just say I know what I’ll be dressing as next Halloween.

Luckily, Debby and Vanessa are giving away a copy of Read My Lips right here! (Details at the end of the post.)

For those of you who don’t write romance, please don’t feel you need to click away. Vulva knowledge is good for everyone – whether you carry one around all day or love someone who does.

First, a brief word on terminology. Vulva is used here to describe the genital region that can be seen from the outside (clitoris, lips, vaginal opening, etc). Vagina means the passage between the outside world and the uterus. But I won’t be anal about people using “vagina” to refer to the whole shebang.

Ready to learn about the mighty vulva?

1. All vulvas are different.

This might sound obvious, and maybe it is to people who have seen lots of naked women.

Then again, depending on where you encountered those women you might be forgiven for thinking most vulvas look the same. Apparently, most of the women pictured naked in magazines and online have a certain look: hairless or nearly hairless, with small inner labia that are fairly uniform in color.

But women are much more diverse. The authors say:

Painted lady statueThe inner labia (labia minora) are perhaps the most diverse part of women’s genitals. The color of women’s inner labia may vary greatly from one woman to the next. They may be a shade of pink, red, brown, gray, black, or slightly purple (particularly as women become sexually aroused and blood flow increases to the genitals, as the inner labia are filled with blood vessels; inner labia also sometimes darken in color while a woman is pregnant). The outer ridges of the inner labia are often darker than the rest of the labia. Similarly, in one study, forty-one of fifty women (92 percent) had genitals that were darker than the skin around their genitals.

Now, a lot of romance novelists skim over this kind of detail when describing sex scenes, but some don’t. And if you write explicit scenes, then you might like to add a little more genital diversity. Not only will it make your heroine more interesting, it’ll make her more real.

Most importantly, though, it could encourage your readers that their bits are normal, healthy and sexually desirable.

Wikipedia has a set of drawings showing vulvar diversity.

2. The hymen is at the vagina’s entrance.

The hymen seems to have mostly disappeared from romance. It certainly doesn’t play as large a role in plots as it did when I first started reading romance. Good Lord, dukes tore through a hell of a lot of hymens in the early 90s.

But I don’t think most of those authors knew where their heroines’ hymens actually were. Learning anatomy substantially from romance novels, as I did, for years I thought hymens were somewhere inside the vagina – maybe half-way up. Heroes sure seemed to get deep before they nudged up against one.

The website Healthy Strokes has drawings of different types of hymen, if you’re a visual learner.

While we’re on the subject of hymens, did you know that some girls are born with only a little hymen tissue? And some are born with an imperforate hymen, meaning there’s no hole in the middle for body fluids to escape from, so doctors need to create a hole.

Church with St Patrick's cross

One of the names for the vaginal entrance (where the hymen is) and its surrounding area is “vestibule”, which is also what a church’s entrance is called. Debby and Vanessa say:

Some people have likened churches to vulvas in their design and in their ability to give birth to new life.

Not at my Christian high school, I assure you. Vaginas weren’t discussed at all, and if they had been they certainly wouldn’t have been likened to anything holy.

Heh. Get it? Hol(e)y?

I’ll get my coat.

3. Vaginas are usually only three to four inches long.

And erect penises are five to six inches long on average.

My math skills are rusty, but at first read that sounds like a pretty flawed design. But something magic happens as a woman’s body becomes aroused:

More blood flows to her genitals. Her heart rate and breathing increase. And her vagina? It lubricates and tents. Tents? Yes, tents. During sexual arousal, muscular tension pulls the uterus upward, which makes more room in a woman’s vagina (after all, the uterus is at the far end of the vagina, so when it lifts up, more space is created). This process is called “vaginal tenting.”

Tent sign

This (and the lack of lubrication) explains why intercourse can be uncomfortable  and feel like too tight a fit if a woman’s not very excited.

Although the book’s authors don’t say so, this also seems to explain those tummy flutters and funny sensations heroines get low in their bellies as they flirt with their partners.

4. Pubic hair may attract lovers.

If you read my post last Friday (At first scent: exposing the secrets of chemical attraction), you’ll know that animals – including humans – release pheromones through their skin. Pheromones act as invisible messages. We breathe them in through our noses, which take them straight to our brains for interpretation.

Through pheromones we can sense other people’s fear, anger, aggression, and arousal.

According to Debby and Vanessa:

Some scientists believe that the mons pubis (the triangular area where hair often grows; also called the “mons”) is a site where pheromones are released and that pubic hair may trap pheromones that can be “read” by potential partners as a sort of sexual signal.

So what happens if you wax or shave yourself bald? Not sure. Anecdotally, the authors say the fashion for less pubic hair seems to coincide with a decrease in the spread of pubic lice. So hey, maybe you lose opportunities for pheromone communication, but you also give nits nowhere to nest.

Mouth and nose

Remember how I relayed one pheromone researcher’s idea for why humans kiss (other than because it feels good)? Well, if the pubic area releases pheromones, that explains why humans like to get their noses and tongues up close and personal with their partners. No wonder that “musky” scent is such a turn-on.

5. Women can be allergic to semen.

Not much research has been done into it, but some women have allergic reactions to all the semen they’re exposed to, and some react badly to the semen of one particular man.

These allergic reactions can also be brought on through hormonal change, like menopause or giving birth.

Imagine that as a conflict for characters!


I told you there are vulva crafts, right? I swear to God, if I had a book club I’d suggest we read Read My Lips and then spend an evening doing one of the projects it describes.

The book also has a brief discussion of the sheela-na-gig which might interest writers whose stories are set in Ireland and Britain.

One thing I found useful, though, was the pages of quotes from men describing what they like about women’s genitals. If you ever write sex from a man’s point of view, it’s easy to feel like you have no idea what you’re talking about. It can also be tricky to ask men you know for intimate details about their preferences.


Debby and Vanessa are kindly giving away a copy of Read My Lips to one person who leaves a comment here. I’ll randomly choose a winner on Thursday November 17.

Giveaway’s open to anyone – whether you’re a woman or not, a romance writer or not. So comment below!


  1. Learned a ton about vaginas–yep, I’m using the word vagina to sum up the whole package, lol.
    Hmm, I thought I knew all there was to know about vaginas because hey, I’ve been carrying mine around for 40 years.

  2. I found your informative and fun page while researching this question: What word(s) do women prefer for referring to the vagina in romances?

    I’ll hope for a response on that, but meanwhile will continue to explore your content.

    Best wishes.

  3. I think, hymens have disappeared (Thank God!) because numerous medical articles have unveiled them as a myth. Hymens (the dense tissue at the vagina entrance) naturally wear off and are usually gone once girls reach the age where their bodies are prepared to have sex (namely, puberty).

    There are few exceptions of course, because every human body develops differently. But first-time sex pain is usually due to tensing up in anticipation of the ‘tear of the hymen’ and the associated pain society prepared us for. In many cases it’s also due to inadequate lubrication. Girls or women usually have their first sexual experiences with boys their age, who don’t really know what they’re doing yet. And since they themselves usually don’t really know their body either, and were kinda trained to believe the virginal myth by society, they don’t expect anything else than pain.

    Unfortunately the hymen myth goes so far that some girls from cultures where ‘virginal bleeding’ is still required in the wedding night undergo surgical procedures to ‘get sown shut again’. What the doctors do then is they tighten the tissue around the vagina again so that the penis will inflict (painful) injury upon penetration.

    I for one am glad the hymen myth is disappearing, because it is brutal and archaic. And I banned it from my erotic romances a long time ago for that reason. We shouldn’t idealize women being injured when they have sex the first time. And if we educated both girls and boys correctly, we could come clean on that myth. Let’s hope. Someday…

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