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External Anatomy of the Female Reproductive System

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  1. 0:05 We All Start the Same
  2. 1:03 Female External Genitalia
  3. 2:16 Clitoris and Vestibular Bulbs
  4. 3:45 Vestibular Glands
  5. 5:20 Lesson Summary
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Taught by

Heather Adewale

Heather has taught reproductive biology and has researched neuro, repro and endocrinology. She has a PhD in Zoology/Biology.

We all know that men and women are different. But just how different are they? Learn a little more about the differences between men and women in this lesson on female external reproductive anatomy.

We All Start the Same

What is it that makes men and women so different? As an adult, your answer might be a little more in-depth: we think different, we feel different and we have different hormones that influence our feelings and our actions. But when you ask a child, what is their first thought? Simply that they look different, right? But did you know that we actually all start out the same? Did you know that the male and female external genitalia actually stem from the same set of tissues? That's right; the same tissues that develop into the male's external genitalia (the penis and the scrotum) also make up the female's! The only difference is the type of hormones that each tissue is exposed to during development. That small difference creates huge differences in structure, as you will see in this lesson on external female genitalia.

Female External Genitalia

The two types of labia in the vaginal area
Vaginal Labia Types

The entrance to the female reproductive tract is through an opening of the vaginal canal. You see, the vaginal canal opens into a space called the vestibule, which is surrounded by a number of skin folds and other external structures. The area containing the female's external genitalia is called the vulva. Within this area, there are two main sets of skin folds: smaller ones called the labia minora, which are closest to the vaginal entrance and lack hair; and larger folds called the labia majora, which make up the outer margins of the vulva and are surrounded by pubic hair.

The labia help protect the clitoris, they guide urine flow and they contain numerous sweat glands that help to keep the vulvar area moist. The labia minora are also important for providing lubrication during sexual intercourse. In addition to the labial folds, you have other structures within the vulva. These include the urethral opening (that's where urine exits from), the clitoris and the vestibular bulbs.

Clitoris and Vestibular Bulbs

Now, the clitoris is a small, rounded structure located at the top of where the labia minora join together and is actually covered by extensions of the minora that form the prepuce (or hood) of the clitoris.

Now, if you thought that only males had erections you have been misled. You see, the clitoris is the female's version of erectile tissue! And that means, as you may have already guessed, that it develops from the same embryonic tissue that the male's penis develops from. Females just have significantly less amounts of that erectile tissue, and it's distributed a little differently as well. You see, the clitoris contains tissue that is comparable to the male's corpus cavernosa tissue.

But what about the corpus spongiosum? Well, in females, their version of the corpus spongiosum is called the vestibular bulbs, and it's actually located alongside the labia minora.

And just because the distribution and the amount of tissue in females is a little bit different than in males, that doesn't mean it works any differently. Both sets of erectile tissues in females are filled with blood during sexual arousal, making them more sensitive. But due to differences in the amount of tissue present, you just can't notice the changes in the female's tissues as much as you can in the male's.

Important structures of the external genitalia
Female External Genitalia

Vestibular Glands

Okay, so now we know that females have some of the same erectile structures as males, just different versions of them. But what about other structures? Well, there is one more that we'll talk about in this lesson. This next structure is found in the external anatomy of the female, but its male counterpart is actually part of the male's internal anatomy. So, using that clue, while I talk about the female's vestibular glands, you can think about what their male counterpart might be.

These glands are located adjacent to the vestibular bulbs and in between the labia minora and the labia majora folds on each side of the vaginal entrance. Their main function is to secrete a mucus-based lubricant during sexual arousal that aids in sexual intercourse.

Now, if you have already learned about male internal anatomy, can you think of what structure in males has a lubrication function? Specifically, which accessory gland lubricates the tip of the penis to aid in sexual intercourse? Anybody?

If you said the bulbourethral glands, you would be correct. Just like the vestibular glands lubricate the vaginal area during sexual arousal, the bulbourethral glands of the male secrete pre-ejaculate during sexual arousal. So it shouldn't surprise you to know that both of these structures develop from the same embryological tissues.

Lesson Summary

See how men and women aren't quite as different as you may have thought? Even though we look different on the outside and think and feel different on the inside, we all start out the same. Our differences are just magnified as we go through the developmental process and grow into adults.

So let's take a quick moment to review. The female's external anatomy consists of six main structures. The labia minora and the labia majora help to protect and moisten the vulvar area. Extensions of the labia minora make up the prepuce, or the hood of the clitoris. The clitoris and the vestibular bulbs are the female's version of erectile tissue. And the vestibular glands lubricate the vaginal area during sexual arousal. So there you have it - a quick and short breakdown of the female's external genitalia.

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