As sex coaches, it’s vital that we use correct terminology for sexual anatomy. Do you know the difference between the vagina and the vulva? Do you think these terms are interchangeable? Many of your clients will not know the difference and may believe these terms are synonymous…if they have even heard the word “vulva” at all.

The difference is actually quite simple. The word “vagina” refers to the canal that connects the uterus to the outside world. Both babies and menstrual blood flow through this canal and out through the vaginal opening. Penises, fingers, and toys can be inserted into this canal.

“Vulva” is the term that encompasses the external genitalia. As the National Vulvodynia Association (NVA) states, the vulva is the external part of the female genitalia. It protects a woman’s sexual organs, urinary opening, vestibule and vagina and is the center of much of a woman’s sexual response. The outer and inner “lips” of the vulva are called the labia majora and labia minora.

As a sex coach, it’s important that you know the difference and utilize the terms correctly for the following reasons.

It demonstrates your expertise and authority on the topic of sexuality.

If you were seeing a diabetes doctor to help you manage your diagnosis, how confident would you feel in their expertise if they referred to your pancreas as the insulin-producing thingy? Or worse, if they thought that the pancreas produced sugar, rather than insulin? This is not an exact metaphor, but you get the idea.

If as a sexuality professional you misuse terminology for sex-related body parts, how confident will your clients and colleagues feel in your ability to successfully work in this field?

It allows you to educate your client on correct terminology and understanding of their own (or their partners’) anatomy.

Many of us did not receive adequate sex education in school, so some people have never heard the term “vulva” and have no idea they’re using the term “vagina” incorrectly. Many women (and even more men) don’t know where the clitoris is, either. So when you educate your clients about where the clitoris is located in the vulva area, and that this is a separate piece of anatomy from the vagina, they can have a glorious lightbulb moment. 

It supports your clients in learning to specifically ask for what they want sexually, and to do so without shame.

Many of us teach our clients how to ask for what they want and how to describe what they don’t want during their sexual interactions with others. If someone wants their partner to touch their vulva, but they use the word vagina, they may feel a finger poking into them before they are ready or wanting such contact. Learning the difference can result in more satisfying erotic encounters on all sides.

It empowers your client to feel a sense of ownership toward their genitalia, especially if they’ve only ever used or heard euphemisms such as “down there,” “vajayjay,” or “la cucaracha.”

When we use euphemisms for a body part, particularly ones with negative connotations (like “la cucaracha,” which translates to “the cockroach”), we teach people that those body parts are something to be ashamed of. We teach them that they’re not parts we should want to identify as ours, but rather, we need to have some psychological distance from them. 

Conversely, by giving someone the correct terminology for their body parts, they can own them proudly. They will feel more connected to their own eroticism and won’t harbor the disgust or self-hate using the wrong terms or euphemisms can engender.

Using the correct term counters the rampant, often unacknowledged, patriarchal attitudes toward a woman’s body and sexuality, which are centered when using “vagina” to refer to the parts that are NOT important in traditional cishet male sex (i.e., labia, clitoris, etc).

A vagina, while also necessary to childbirth and menstruation, is only used in sexuality for penetrative acts. The way most cisgender, heterosexual men have been taught to think of sexuality is to penetrate a vagina with their penis, fingers, or a toy. But sex encompasses far more than PIV (penis-in-vagina) activities, which women-who-love-women and trans people know all too well. 

By dismantling the socially-accepted use of vagina to refer to the sexual purposes of the genitalia, we can reinforce the more egalitarian attitude that a woman’s body does NOT exist solely for a man’s use and amusement. 

As you can see, one simple word change can have so much power!

It’s imperative that you begin changing your own word choice when thinking about and referring to the female genital region. Remember, the “vagina” is what’s inside and the “vulva” is everything you can see on the outside.

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Continue the Conversation

As a sex coach, what are your thoughts on the correct terminology for female genitalia? In your work, do you make it a point to use “vulva” and “vagina” as separate terms, or have you caught yourself interchanging them? Do you listen to see if your clients are using these terms properly, and point it out when they aren’t? We would love to know! Please join us on our Facebook discussion group, Sex Matters, and tell us about your experiences educating your clients—or yourself—on this important distinction.