News flash-Gwyneth Paltrow isn’t steaming her vagina; she’s steaming her vulva. 

Lately, everyone seems to be using the word vagina. That would be great news if they were using the term correctly.  Why are so many people uninformed about female genitalia? 

My irritation started with Gwyneth Paltrow. She’s now giving advice on a number of issues related to diet and health, including the recommendation that women steam their vaginas. Clearly she’s not up on her anatomy. Unless her vagina is in a different place from mine? My vagina isn’t visible to the naked eye; it’s internal. To steam it I’d have to stick the steam wand inside, or squat over the steamer and try to draw that warm air into my vagina. Is that even humanly possible? Not to mention the safety issues of hot moist steam on delicate tissue.

I suspect the steaming idea is driven by the anti-aging marketing frenzy and the rise in cosmetic enhancement of the labia. We’ve been led to think our vulvas aren’t pretty enough and therefore undesirable. Vaginal tissues do dry out during the menopausal years, but steam? Lubrication, both natural and artificial, is the better, safer solution. 

It seems that every day some article out there is incorrectly labeling the vulva as the vagina. There are many stories, websites and even books, like Gay Men Draw Vaginas, erroneously dedicated to the vagina. But they’re really talking about the vulva, which includes external female genitalia—clitoris, the labia—not the vagina. 

When did gay men become experts on female body parts? 

Look at The Great Wall of Vagina, the website for British artist Jamie McCartney’s project.  McCartney has cast hundreds of molds of female external genitalia. It’s amazing, beautiful and normalizing to see the variation of women’s labia—a good reminder that there are no guidelines for what labia are supposed to look like. Even if it is called the Great Wall of Vagina.  

Why does accurate labeling matter?

Knowing our body parts is the first step in understanding our bodies. How can women be in charge of their own sexuality without this basic knowledge?  Every woman should, in my opinion, examine her body with a mirror and explore with fingers. When a woman becomes intimately acquainted with her body she can communicate likes and needs with a partner.  If women don’t know the proper terms for their genitalia it’s a sure bet their male partners won’t either.  Then we have two people trying to make a meaningful connection without knowing what to call, or how to ‘handle’ her most erotic spots. 

In some cases the lack of knowledge leads to embarrassing statements, bordering on sheer ignorance. For example, the recent story of an anti-abortion Idaho state legislator, who asked if a woman could swallow a small device to allow doctors to do medical monitoring in cases of pregnancy. He needs an anatomy lesson. 

I understand the limitations of education; I didn’t know where the metatarsal bones were until I broke one. That was a painful, anatomy lesson. But there’s no real excuse for not knowing the names and locations of our genitalia. Keeping women in the dark about their bodies won’t stop women from feeling desire, or deter couples from having sex.  

The issue is bigger than calling everything ‘down there’ a vagina. You’ve heard the statement, “Name it and claim it”?  Women need to be informed about their bodies—it’s about ownership and knowledge. Knowing the correct anatomical terms is important if we are to discuss what gives us pleasure, or talk to a doctor about sexual health issues. Appreciating the beauty of our bodies starts with being knowledgeable about our genitals. There is nothing wrong with saying the word vagina, clitoris or vulva—in fact our ability to say those words leads to comfort with our sexuality in general.  When women embrace their sexuality and encourage others to do so only then can we rid our culture of negative messages about female sexuality. 

This article from Scarleteen, a website for teens, has accurate drawings of the external and internal genitalia and offers a guided tour through the female anatomy. 


Walker Thornton is a writer, sex educator and public speaker, with a Masters in Educational Psychology and over 10 years experience in the field of sexual violence against women. She is a strong advocate for midlife women’s sexuality, encouraging women to ‘step into their desire’. ranked her blog,, #17 in their top 100 Sex Blogging Superheroes of 2013. Walker is the Sexual Health columnist for Midlife Boulevard and writes about sex and the older adult for You can connect with her on her website ( ), Facebook ( )  Twitter  (  and Google+ ( ).