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. planning to study to become a sex and relationship therapists, these sort of articles grab my attention and up my mood on a down day, thank you!

  2. So excited & can’t wait to read it and better yet quite possibly make it the first book review on my blog A book that expels myths, builds confidence, contains vital health information and craft projects is a book after my own heart!
    Thanks for the book club idea, can’t wait to see the looks on the women’s faces in my mommy & me group 😉

    Viva La Vulva!

    Sexpert & Love Coach Lexi

  3. Very, very interesting.

    “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.”

    How miss guided we were, LOL.

  4. Wow! I learned more about my hooha!!! LOL

    This was really interesting! Funny that we’re all so in the dark about our own parts, but in our defense it’s really hard to see down there! 🙂


  5. This is so interesting! I know what you mean about Catholic schools though, haha. I think my chancellor would have died if I’d even mentioned the word vagina in her presence.
    Thanks for the giveaway, I’m pretty excited to read this ^_^

  6. As a women’s health nurse practitioner and forensic nurse I work with women who have all kinds of questions and insecurities about their bodies. Great that this book exists to help alleviate some of that!

  7. Given that my Vagina Monologue shirt cued a conversation with my 9- and 11-year-old sons the other day, I think I’d better get a copy of this book to make sure I’m not spreading any disinformation! Thanks for the review!

  8. Given the extreme details some writers put into describing intimate body parts, it looks like a lot of us need to bone up on female bodies. Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun! What a wonderful and valuable book to have available!

  9. It’s time for vaginas and vulvas to be understood and lauded for the magnificently designed parts they are! Thanks so much for your focus and persistence. A great resource for women and men of all ages. Hmm.

  10. I had no idea where the hymen was, and I never knew about the tenting effect but it explains a lot of my experiences… Awesome post (also I’m a poor grad student and I want a free book!)

  11. With all this information about the debt and width of the vagina, I wonder how the myth that ‘bigger is better’ for a male started at all.

  12. I had heard of the great Sheela Na Gigs in English and Irish churches and have been fascinated ever since by the significance of this powerful symbol. It is so very interesting that female biology can still in taboo, even in 2011. Great description of the book.

  13. I’m absolutely loving all the thoughtful and punny comments on this post. Thank you to everyone who’s been sharing it! I hope you’ll keep spreading the vulva knowledge!

  14. This is great! I love Debby’s work. I actually wrote a story about the difference between the vulva and the vagina for a start-up teen sexual health magazine at school. This is so important for women and men to know!

    1. Amen! And I do hope a lot of men read it – especially new fathers. There’s some interesting info about how newborn girls’ bodies are formed that would be really helpful, I imagine.

  15. Great post! the title is an irresistible hook, but the information is really fascinating. I don’t get too graphic when I write sex scenes, but this is all good to know. (LOL about the Dukes tearing through all those hymens…!)

  16. LOVE this post. I just love it. It’s delightful to see women’s bodies described in a way that is respectful, yet accessible. I hope I win this book…if not I think I’m going to have to buy it eventually.

  17. I hope the book mentions the artist who has made the wall of casts of many women to show how every woman is beautiful and unique.

    1. A few messages back someone brought up the concept of a “large” male, and the whole idea of the parts fitting together. And I’m thinking we who are discussing this blog are going to want to refrain from the excess male appendage descriptions. What do you think?

      1. I’m happy for people to share any of their thoughts/questions on this blog, as long as their comments are respectful (which is always a worry when publishing a post like this). I want people to feel free to explore, learn and question, so I wouldn’t want to encourage anyone to refrain from sharing their thoughts.

  18. This sounds like a great book. I’m picking the next book for my bookclub and I think I’m going to have to seriously consider this one. It would make for some great discussion LOL.

  19. This book sounds very interesting and I look forward to the release of it. Thank you for the article, very informative. 🙂

  20. Good to know I wasn’t alone in the hymen it somewhere inside. Guess we always have more to learn about out bodies. Also found the math interesting. All those inches wasted by the double digit heros.

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