Five Things I Didn’t Know About My Body

They say female sexuality is mysterious. Olivia Davis explores some things about female sexuality and anatomy even she didn’t know.

I hope you don’t learn anything from this article, but if you do I hope you’ll tell your friends.

When I was four years old, my mother got pregnant with my oldest brother. In order to explain what was happening to her only child, my mother got me a book. It was about pregnancy, but was written specifically for young children. I pored over it, absorbing information. It was fascinating to me. I can still recall some of the illustrations: it had black and white photos of sperm fertilizing an egg and the subsequent cell division, diagrams of reproductive systems, and pictures of a pregnant woman in profile showing the fetus growing within her. I remember knowing the word “embryo.” I don’t remember my mom and I ever talking about the book, but I know that if I’d had questions, she would have answered them for me.

That my mom bought her four-year-old a book with a picture of a penis in it tells you a lot about her: she’s pretty amazing; accurate information is really important to her; she values learning from books, etc. It also tells you about me: I have, for all of my life, been exceptionally well-educated about reproduction. I feel like I’ve always known where and what the clitoris is. As an adult, sex and gender have become important interests of mine. I’ve learned an awful lot about them. So I’d really expect that I should know most of what I need to know about my own body, especially with regards to sex.

And yet I’m still learning. I’ve picked up a startling amount of information in just the past six months. And not just kinky shit like “urethral sounding is something you can do to ladies,” stuff I think I should have known. Stuff somebody should have told me. And I’m mad that I didn’t know.  The following is an informal survey of things I was wrong about until recently, as well as times when I could have been set straight.


The Hymen

What I thought: The hymen a thin membrane that covers the vaginal opening internally. PIV sex will “pop” it, but you can break it by doing all sorts of things, including gymnastics, horseback riding, and having bicycle accidents. All girls with hymens are PIV virgins, but not all girls without them aren’t. Hymens sometimes bleed when broken, but not always. Breaking a hymen may be extremely painful, or it may not be.

What’s true: Hymens are a thin membrane that cover part of the vaginal opening, not all of it. Excepting unusual anatomical circumstances, there is always at least a small opening. Hymens, therefore, aren’t “popped,” they’re torn, and sometimes they can be grown back. If you’re very careful with a hymen, and warm it up over a long enough period, you can successfully engage in PIV intercourse (or intercourse with a strap-on) without ever tearing it.

When I should have been told: I’m willing to cut the universe some slack on this one. First of all, I wasn’t grossly misinformed. I knew a fair amount that it would have been easy to be mistaken about. I also always knew that people with hymens could use tampons because I did it myself. From that, I deduced that there was an opening big enough to put a tampon or fingers in, but not big enough for a penis. But information was never explicit enough for me to put two and two together—to actually realize that the hymen wasn’t what I’d thought it was. This could have been clarified in a sex education class in high school, or the during “maturation” program I had in sixth grade that told me about my period. My parents might also have told me during “the sex talk,” or when I first bought tampons. I’m not sure if they knew, though.

Vaginal Looseness

What I thought: You can stretch out your vagina by putting large things in it. If you do, sex with male partners will be less pleasurable for them since men enjoy vaginal tightness.

What’s true: The vagina is a muscular organ. If you work at it, you can stretch it so that it can fit large things inside (e. g. fists, babies). You can also strengthen your vaginal muscles such that they can clamp tightly down on whatever you put inside. You can control of its capacity and tightness by exercising it, just like any other muscle. No vagina is irrevocably stretched out, or permanently tight.

When I should have been told: Sex ed again, or perhaps my first pap smear.

Periods and Birth Control

What I thought: Some hormonal birth control pills prevent the user from having a monthly period. Most do not. Though there’s no medical reason to have a period, you can use hormonal birth control without interrupting your monthly cycle.

What’s true: There’s no medical reason to have a monthly period—as evidenced by the fact that women who take hormonal birth control do not have them. The monthly bleeding they may experience is called “withdrawal bleeding.” While it’s not a period, it is a good indicator that you’re not pregnant: regular vaginal bleeding during pregnancy is very unlikely.

When I should have been told: The times I’ve been prescribed birth control. Informational packets about my birth control pills. While looking up information about my medication.

Female Ejaculation

What I thought: There is no such thing.

What’s true: While not all women can ejaculate, the Skene’s gland, or “female prostate” on the anterior wall of the vagina may produce fluid during sex. This gland may make up all or part of the “G-spot.” It is more apparent in some women than others. The amount of fluid produced is dependent on the woman, but is often a few tablespoons’ worth. It may be expelled during orgasm, or before. While the fluid has some similar characteristics with urine, it is not urine.

When I should have been told: Sex education. Pamphlets at my university’s health center, or Planned Parenthood. Websites about having safe, happy sexual relationships. Anywhere that told me that orgasms are mostly clitoral should also have told me that female ejaculation exists.

Autoimmune Progesterone Anaphylaxis

What I thought: There is no such thing.

What’s true: If you go on hormonal birth control, your hormones and their levels change. If you stop taking hormonal birth control, they return to normal. This can trigger an allergic reaction, as your body now views its own hormones as foreign substances.

When I should have been told: Autoimmune progesterone anaphylaxis is a rare condition, and I’m not a person with many allergies. But two doctors have prescribed me birth control and I’ve read the informational packets that come with the pill. I’ve also done research about birth control pills while deciding what method of birth control would be best for me, and the term never came up. I first heard of autoimmune progesterone anaphylaxis when I told a friend I was writing this article and she replied that I should talk about the condition. She’d never heard of it until it was too late: an allergist mentioned it to her when she went to see him complaining of chronic hives.


Let me reiterate: I’m lucky. I had mostly good information on the things I knew about. I’d never have been in a position to think that swallowing semen could get you pregnant. Long before I ever had sex, I learned that most women only orgasm clitorally. I first learned the exact ways that AIDS can be transmitted from an educational TV show I watched when I was a kid (hi, Mom). I always knew that you couldn’t catch it from a cough or toilet seat. And yet there’s so much about my body, how it works, and how the medication I’ve taken for three years changes it. These things are important, be it for peace of mind, decision-making, or just knowing what’s going on. But I didn’t know. Not because I’m stupid. Not because I’m ignorant. Because no one told me and because even when I looked for information, it wasn’t always there.

A lot of talk in feminism is about empowerment. It’s about women—but also people—having control over themselves and their actions. It’s about them being able to do what they want, regardless of gender. It’s about fair treatment, fair access to knowledge, and a lack of arbitrary constraint. The ability to act as a free agent, even in defiance of social codes is empowerment. It’s the gaining of confidence, where there was none before. It’s necessary. Scarcity of information makes empowerment more difficult and lies—like the ones women are told about flappy vaginas, hotdogs, and hallways—are direct impediments to empowerment.

It may seem like I’ve framed this as a women’s issue, but it isn’t one. The absence of accurate information about women’s bodies affects their male partners. It can help cause unwanted pregnancies and assists the spread of disease. Silence on the subject of sexual function also keeps men from knowing about their bodies, as well. Many men don’t know about the prostate, for example. It makes people have worse sex than they might otherwise. Some myths and misconceptions about sex, like the fact that many people don’t know that female ejaculation exists, are comparatively benign. Others, like the idea that AIDS can be cured by sex with a virgin, or drinking bleach, are actively harmful. This must end. Sex can’t just be something we do, it has to be something we know about. Knowledge is a means to empowerment and empowerment is the goal.


  1. Agemaki says:

    One thing that I wish I had been told about is that some women can have great difficulty inserting anything into the vagina, including tampons. I think it is called vaginisimus. When I was a kid I assumed that sex would be fun and easy. It had puzzled me how some of my friends in high school took wearing tampons for granted when it seemed that I would never be able to use them. Yet for some reason I never suspected that sex would be the same. When I tried to have sex with a boyfriend for the first time I was baffled by what seemed like an impenetrable hymen. A really really strong hymen that could not be overcome by any amount of force.

    After doing some research I figured that it might be an involuntary muscle contraction instead of a hymen issue. There was a cure and it involved using a dilator. Essentially, I had to teach my pelvic muscles how to coordinate relaxing and contracting so as to allow comfortable penetration. At the time it seemed completely counter-intuitive as my natural reaction was to tense to prevent any foreign objects from entering my body.

    It took a great deal of practice (preceded by years of confusion and sexual frustration) to learn how to have penetrative sex and yet it was never mentioned in my sex education. What I have heard from others who have had similar experiences is that they too were never told of such a possibility.

  2. Agemaki says:

    Oddly, I think I might have torn my hymen when I started using a menstrual cup (but had already been having PIV sex for some time with no noticeable tearing). I thought it was kind of funny since typically hymen tearing/virginity is associated with PIV sex and not menstrual products.

  3. I’m in the middle of reading Naomi Wolf’s ‘Vagina: A New Biography’ and it’s amazing! Part of it explains that, unlike men’s, women’s genital neural wiring varies a LOT from person to person which explains why some women can have vaginal/anal/g-spot/ejaculating orgasms and others can’t. Again, it’s all about education and knowing what is right for your body rather than conforming to some mythological pornonormative view of sex.

    • I wonder if this is due to women masturbating less than men during development years and the “use it or lose it” neural connections don’t get made?

  4. Great post! I would add two things for myself:

    Birth Control Can Have Many Side Effects

    I tried birth control three different times with three different brands and three different doctors before deciding I am sensitive to it and should not be on it. All of my doctors told me that my symptoms from birth control would only last the first three months after going on the pill. When I still had symptoms much later, they said it must’ve been caused by something else. Wrong! The pill gave me migraines, nausea, and major mood swings, and after doing online research I found out I’m not the only one. Doctors aren’t always right!

    An IUD is Acceptable Birth Control for Women of All Ages

    Doctors generally do not recommend IUDs to women who are either unmarried, childless, or in their twenties. There is no medical reason for this. It’s all cultural. When I realized this (again, thanks internet!), I pushed for the Paragard IUD because it is non-hormonal. It was difficult to get! Yes, it can last ten years, but it can also last fewer. If I decided to take it out today, I could get pregnant tomorrow, meaning it’s more baby-making friendly than the pill.

  5. Can you comment more on female ejaculation? I researched this once , and found almost no science behind it, just a couple of unreplicated studies, tons of porn, misinformation and mythology.

    My biggest complaint is that a couple of boyfriends have really pressured me to achieve “ejaculation” which I have no interest in doing and which I don’t believe exists. Actually it sounds suspuciously like peeing and I’m not going to pee on myself during sex.

    I feel like this is a porn-influenced urban legend but if you have actual research I ‘m happy to be enlightened…

    • I am a trans man and I have been ejaculating ever since I became sexually active (which was before I began any medical transition). The amount varies – a teaspoon to at least a cup; it’s not urine; and it doesn’t correlate exactly with orgasm (I do not ejaculate when I masturbate, and I sometimes ejaculate without orgasming).

      So yes, it’s possible for someone with a vulva/vagina to ejaculate. That doesn’t mean everyone can do it – and I honestly wish I didn’t because it’s so messy – but it does prove that it’s not a myth.

      • Olivia Davis says:

        Sarah, the science behind it is really conflicted there’s shockingly little of it. There’s a lot of feminist backlash against the notion of it, too: people definitely seem to feel like it’s tied up in myths about vaginal orgasm and so forth. So, I can’t give you actual research. But I can say this:

        I didn’t want to mention it in the post for fear of… bragging, I guess? but I do, myself, ejaculate sometimes. Not often, usually before orgasm. It’s not a super wonderful mega-happy experience for me. Sometimes the build-up of pressure is actively uncomfortable. And I almost always need a towel around for clean-up, which is inconvenient, because sometimes it comes as a surprise. I’m with Tobias on this one—I rather wish it didn’t happen.

        Also, it’s not pee. It feels like peeing, to some extent, but the fluid is pretty clearly not pee. It’s clear and doesn’t smell or taste like urine. As time goes on, it breaks down and can leave a urine-y scene on whatever you ejaculated on, but only after twelve hours or so.

        I understand your skepticism, though. It sure sounds like a pornomyth.

        • There’s a lot of feminist backlash against the notion of it, too: people definitely seem to feel like it’s tied up in myths about vaginal orgasm and so forth.

          The little I “know” about it (and it might just as well be mythical since I’ve never seen it myself with a partner) is what I’ve seen and read in porn, but it seems to require lots and lots of g-spot and clitorial stimulation.

          • Olivia Davis says:

            For me, it’s all g-spot all the time. My clitoris is awesome, but it’ll never make me ejaculate. There are specific njoy toys designed to help ladies ejaculate, and all kinds of techniques on the internets. Most of them seem internally focused, but like Tobias says, people are different.

            • I don ‘t think I have a G spot. There is nothing in there that feels more interesting to stimulate over anything else in there. Actually I prefer clitoral stimulation. Intense stimulation in any one place in my vagina gets irritating after awhile. I’ve never had a “vaginal orgasm” that I know of. Guess everyone is different!

      • I sometimes get a lot of lubrication, that is very messy, not too get too graphic or anything. But I don’t think it is an ejaculation. But I can’t argue with your and Olivia’s experiences. Maybe it’s a real thing. 🙂

        • It’s definitely distinct from lots of lubrication. Believe me, if you ejaculate, you know it!

          Just one more note: vaginal stimulation *prevents* me from ejaculating. I’m not sure how it is for others, but “vaginal orgasms” have nothing to do with it for me.

          • Olivia Davis says:

            Like I said above, my vagina is necessary to ejaculation.

            Otherwise, I’m with you, Tobias. Ejaculate… splashes. It’s not viscous. I can feel it building up.

  6. “There’s no medical reason to have a monthly period”

    Not true. There is a medical reason to have a monthly period. I have PCOS and NEVER have a period unless it is induced. I never thought this was a problem until I learned that women who do not menstruate regularly are at an increased risk of certain types of cancers. It IS medically important to menstruate.

    • Olivia Davis says:

      Can I get a source on that? Information I was looking at just yesterday suggested that not having monthly bleeding could actually be beneficial.

    • I have PCOS too. It’s medically important to have *balanced hormones*, whether it happens naturally or on the pill. In PCOS there is an imbalance where estrogen is too high and progesteron is too low. It causes the endometrial lining to grow and grow, and as the uterus tries to hold onto that overly thick lining, it forms precancerous and eventually cancerous cells. If you are chemically suppressing menstruation, you are fine because you are either taking a combination of estogen and progesterone, or progesterone alone. It’s circulating estrogen overload that is the problem, not failing to menstruate for any reason.

  7. Considering I grew up in a fairly small, very conservative (politically) town, I’m very very grateful for the sex ed I got. I’m 25 as I read this article and the only thing I didn’t know about was the progesterone allergy.

    I can’t remember when or where I learned about the anatomy of the hymen; I think I learned about female ejaculation thru porn (sad though that is); vaginal looseness, I’ve known about Kegel exercises since I was a teen, though I don’t remember the source; periods and birth control, I learned through conversations with women using all sorts of methods of BC, and when I researched BC methods when I wanted to switch from the Patch to something less easy to lose without noticing it when you’re toweling off after a shower. :-\

    But there are all sorts of medical things about our bodies that we’re never told until they become a problem. Someone in my family just recently got a bacterial infection of the intestines that can be potentially life-threatening, but I’d never heard of it. And then there are things other people seem to know about their bodies that I don’t, and can’t figure out how and when they learned it – for example, I don’t know what my blood type is, and I am mystified that all my 25-ish friends know theirs, and I haven’t the faintest idea how to go about finding that out, or if I should even worry about it (I can’t donate blood because of my sexual history, but should I ever need to receive blood, they’d be able to figure out my blood type on the spot – right?).

    • Olivia Davis says:

      I knew about kegels for a long time, but didn’t ever quite put two and two together—this, I suppose, is a story of my life. Kegels always seemed like they might be, I don’t know, something light vaginal tightening cream: something that would assuage fears, but not actually work. Or I misunderstood slightly and thought it was an exercise of the upper thighs. I was definitely afraid of being stretched out by my first male partner.

      The progesterone allergy peeved me because, while it is rare, neither I nor my friend who developed it had ever heard of it. Both of us have done a fair amount of research about hormonal birth control and had never come across it. It’s doubly annoying because, unlike me, she’s a person with a tremendous number of allergies, so it makes sense to imagine that she’s at higher risk for the condition than other folks. But no one told her.

      Blood typing can be done on the spot, yes. We did it once in a college biology class I took!

      • I see what you mean about Kegels – and I can also see how it’s confusing because they’re also recommended for people who have trouble controlling their bladder/urine flow.

        I wasn’t so concerned about being stretched out by a male partner (I was more afraid of too much length than too much girth), but I always thought that childbirth is what really wrecks a vagina and stretches it to a point that even vaginal exercises can’t get it back to pre-birth tightness. Sort of like how pregnancy can create stretch marks that just won’t ever go away for good.

        The sort of ironic part about the blood typing is that I’ve had bloodwork done all my life. I was born with an underactive thyroid so for all my life I’ve needed blood tests at least yearly, if not more frequently, to monitor my medication dosage. Yet for all those times I’ve had blood drawn, no one has ever told me my blood type. And despite being a very curious and inquisitive person by nature, I tend to go mute around doctors, or forget any questions I had until well after I’ve left the exam room. I’m due for bloodwork by the end of this month; I think this time, I will ask. 🙂

        • Olivia Davis says:

          It’s funny: too much length is actually a problem. Too much girth can be solved by working at it. Yet men want nine inch dicks and ladies are warned not to get too stretched out. The idea of vaginal stretch marks makes me shudder. Looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t understand that, well, a vagina can be healed from having a baby come out of it, so just a penis probably isn’t going to make it too sad. Maybe I thought that it was like an elastic band: you could stretch it really far once or twice and it’d be fine, but if you stretched it habitually, it’d have a hard time returning to its natural shape.

          Hm! I’d expect that they probably know it, then. It’s easy for me to imagine that typing is part of a normal blood work regimen… but who knows? Still, good luck in asking! I imagine that even though they can be tight-lipped, if you pester them enough, doctors will tell you things.

        • I had my thyroid chopped out for cancer last year, 12 blood tests in 2012 and not a single doctor could tell me my blood test. Next time I visit the vampires I’m gonna ask them to do a blood-type test. What’s annoying is I had 2 surgeries last year and it wasn’t even on my charts! I thought it’d be pretty damn significant to know your blood type for surgery.

  8. “urethral sounding is something you can do to ladies,”

    Well! I learned something today.

    Interesting post. It’s both fascinating and frustrating to see what we leave out of sex education in this country. From the guy’s side of things: despite poring over the What’s Happening to My Body Book For Boys (a surprisingly detailed book that explained everything from the mechanics of reproduction to the phenomenon of male group masturbation) from third grade onward, I had no idea what “premature ejaculation” meant. That meant that when I had my first ejaculation, I was terrified I’d had it too early and I was going to sicken or die. In the absence of knowledge, kids’ minds can go weird places. It took me a week to work up the gumption to ask a teacher.

    • Olivia Davis says:

      Cervical sounding is also an option!

      It’s absolutely frustrating. I don’t actually recall learning anything useful from my sex ed classes. Almost everything else I learned from my mom, or the Internet. I think a friend had the What’s Happening to My Body Book For Girls, but Mom got alarmed when she learned that the friend had excitedly chatted to me about the joys of masturbation that the book had informed her of. We were twelve or thirteen.

      Books are not enough. Kids need to be able to talk to adults about thing to get clearer explanations. It was brave of you to actually ask a teacher! I don’t think I ever could have done that as a kid, even though they always tell you it’s an option. People escape sex ed with all kinds of crazy misconceptions. My partner didn’t realize sex could be had for pleasure until shockingly late.

      • I had a friend in college who genuinely believed she could not get pregnant from woman-on-top sex. And she had a pretty active sex life. Luckily as soon as we (her friends) caught wind of that, we set her straight before she could get knocked up!

        My sex ed through school was great in terms of pregnancy prevention, but not so much on the pleasure front. I knew nothing about what pleases men’s bodies (beyond the generalities of PIV and oral) or my own body. And those aren’t exactly things any kid is going to feel comfortable going to a parent or teacher about! “Hi Mrs. Wilson, can you teach me how to masturbate?” LOL.

        But seriously, it’s a tough spot to teach these things at a younger age – the same age where pregnancy-prevention sex ed is happening – because in general, adults want to discourage sexual activity among teens. So in that context, telling them how they can please themselves and each other is like giving them a loaded gun and a target range with instructions not to fire. So while I dislike misinformation and poorly drawn conclusions about sex, I don’t envy the job of sex educators for that particular age group.

        • Olivia Davis says:

          I agree that talking to kids about the pleasurable elements of sex is tricky, because it’s reasonable to not want kids to have sex. I’ve heard of people wanting to encourage low-risk activities like mutual masturbation and solo masturbation as an alternative to PIV, anal, and oral sex. So do give them a gun, I guess, but make it a BB gun.

          I don’t have children. If I did, I think my first priority would be safety. I’d rather my child act, than act in ignorance.

          • If kids are young enough, they won’t masturbate for sexual reasons because they don’t have a working sex drive to the extend adults do. I played around a bit as a kid but it wasn’t really for anything. If they’re old enough to WANT to masturbate then they’re already sexually awakened and they need expert level education to avoid all the pitfalls. Trying to stop them once they want to masturbate is a very bad bad bad bad bad idea, I know of people who’s sex lives got screwed up because of shame they received as kids for masturbating.

            People need to relax, young kids aren’t going to go have sex if they know about it, the desire has to exist first! At most they will play doctor but that will probably happen anyway in the years where they realize girls have a vagina, boys have a penis and how different they area. The major thing to watch out for is signs of sexual abuse and to guide the children into healthy thoughts about sex such as sex is NOT degrading or bad like some religions love to shame with, and to perform it safely.

  9. I knew about all of these except the autoimmune progesterone anaphylaxis, but, yikes, an allergic reaction to one’s own hormones seems like an important possibility to be aware of.

    Here’s one of my own. I wasn’t told that I had a retroverted uterus until I was twenty-two and getting fitted for an IUD at Planned Parenthood. Despite the fact that I’d had regular pelvic exams since the age of 18, nobody had previously bothered to tell me this. It’s a completely harmless condition, but knowing I had it explained a lot of things. Planned Parenthood educated me more thoroughly than any sex-ed class or private practice gynecologist ever did.

    • Olivia Davis says:

      Congratulations on being better informed than me! I’m really glad this information is out there. For me, a big question is still “when did you learn it?” but, for some things, better late than never really is true. Not for the anaphylaxis, unfortunately, but for a fair amount of what’s on this list.

      What! I can’t believe no one told you that. I guess they might have been worried that you’d react badly to “You have an abnormal uterus,” but it’s patently absurd for them not to share that information with you. Seriously, thanks Planned Parenthood. I’ve had unilaterally lovely experiences with them and hope to continue to do so in the future.

      • Yeah I knew quite a lot of this too, cept the autoimmunity stuff. What’s interesting is I find quite a few guys know more about the workings of a vagina than quite a few girls I’ve known. I guess being a horny devil n wanting to know all about them leads to learning that. I heard one woman who thought babies were born via the anus….

    • I have a retroflex uterus and some on-gyns have mentioned it and some haven’t haven’t. One doctor reassured me it’s a normal variation found in many women and she said she wouldn’t even call it a “condition.” other doctors have made it sound abnormal.

      One thing that bugs me is that despite having had two mammograms since I turned 40, no one has ever mentioned to me that I have very dense breast tissue, I saw this on the mammogram report and looked it up. It means that I have a higher risk of breast cancer and unfortunately, mammograms will be far less accurate in diagnosing it. I was pissed my doctor never said anything even though she knows my mother had breast cancer which puts me at even higher risk, and I also have naturally fibrocystic (lumpy) breasts which makes breast exams difficult to interpret as well. Doctors have also never discussed the pros and cons of mammograms with me, they just nag me to have it done yearlynbut never give me an indication of whether they think it’s a benefit to me or not.

      • Olivia Davis says:

        Sheesh, that’s unfortunate. It wouldn’t surprise me terrible if it was not merely the case that doctors are scant with the information they give women about their bodies and health, but that they’re equally miserly with everyone. Regardless, they absolutely need to cut that out.

        Especially in cases like yours, Sarah, and cases like my poor friend with the progesterone anaphalaxis, this lack of information seriously affects health care decisions and that’s absolutely messed-up. It’s one thing to not know that you have, say a palatial taurus like I do (the roof of my mouth is very obviously, but harmlessly deformed. No dentist has ever told me, I learned when my partner pointed out to me that the roof of my mouth was weird). It’s another to not know vital things about breast cancer. Frankly, that’s bullshit. I’m sorry it’s happening to you.


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