The female sexual organs include the vagina, vulva, clitoris, cervix, womb, ovaries, urethra and back passage (anal area). Female sex hormones are also an important part of a woman’s sexuality and sex life.
The female reproductive system includes a number of parts. The ovaries hold the eggs which are released each month during childbearing age. They also produce sex hormones which control periods. The fallopian tubes connect the ovaries to the womb (also called the uterus).
When an egg is released it travels down the fallopian tube towards the womb. At this time, sperm from the male can pass into the fallopian tube where it may meet the egg and fertilise it. Fertilised eggs pass down the fallopian tube to the womb, which holds and protects the baby during pregnancy. The lining of the womb is called the endometrium. It thickens during the menstrual cycle ready for pregnancy. If you don’t become pregnant, you have a period which is when the lining sheds.
The cervix is the lower part of the womb. It is the opening into the vagina. During a period or menstruation, blood passes from the womb through the cervix and then to the vagina. The vagina also opens and expands during sexual intercourse and stretches during childbirth to allow a baby to come out.
On the outside of the body is the vulva. It is made up of two pairs of lips. Between these is the opening of the vagina. Above the vagina is the urethra - a short tube that carries urine from the bladder to outside of the body. And above the urethra is the clitoris - a very sensitive area that gives sexual pleasure.
For more information about cancers that can start in the female reproductive system, go to cruk.org/cancer-types.
The vagina, vulva and clitoris
The vagina is the passage that leads from the cervix to the vulva. The cervix is at the bottom of the womb (uterus). The vulva is visible from outside the body. It forms the skin flaps around the entrance to the vagina.
The outer flaps are called the labia majora and the inner flaps are called the labia minora. The clitoris sits at the top of the labia minora and is very sensitive to touch. This gives women a lot of their sexual pleasure. During sexual arousal there is an increased blood flow to this area, which leads to swelling and extra sensitivity in the vulva and clitoris.
We have more information about the vulva, and how it is different from the vagina, on our vuvlval cancer pages.
The cervix, womb and ovaries
These organs are found inside the female body and make up a woman’s reproductive system. The cervix is another name for the neck of the womb. It is the opening from the vagina to the womb. There are two ovaries, one on each side of the womb. The womb (uterus) is the pear shaped, muscular bag that protects a growing baby during pregnancy.
In fertile women the ovaries produce an egg each month. If the woman’s egg is not fertilised by a sperm, the thickened lining of the womb is shed through the vagina as a monthly period. Women are fertile between puberty (when periods start) and menopause (when periods stop).
Each ovary is connected to the womb by a tube called the fallopian tube. The ovaries produce the female sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone, and a small amount of male sex hormones (androgens).
The urethra and anal area
Just below the clitoris, near the opening to your vagina, is the urethra. This is where urine comes out from your bladder.
Between the vaginal opening and the opening to your back passage (anus) is an area of skin called the perineum. During an orgasm the muscles in this area tighten.
Other important structures and organs
Your breasts and nipples might enlarge and harden during sexual activity. The dark area around the nipples (areola) might also become larger.
A woman’s buttocks, neck, inner thighs and abdominal area are also very sensitive to touch during sexual activity. These are often called erogenous zones.
Everyone is different. There may be other areas of your body that are more sensitive to touch when you are sexually aroused.
Female sex hormones
Oestrogen is made in the ovaries. It keeps your vagina moist and able to stretch. This natural lubricating and cleaning system is important to help keep your vagina healthy and protect it from infections. When you get sexually aroused the cells lining the vagina release drops of fluid that make the vagina wet.
If you have low oestrogen levels your vagina may feel dry and be less able to stretch. This can happen in women who have had their menopause. Vaginal dryness is very uncomfortable and can make having sex painful and less pleasurable. There are gels and other treatments that can help.
Progesterone is made in the ovaries and affects the female body in many ways. Its most important function is to prepare the womb (uterus) for receiving and developing a fertilised egg. It also maintains the womb throughout pregnancy.
Androgens are male sex hormones produced in the testicles. But women have small amounts of these hormones too. These are the hormones that help a woman want to have sex. In other words, they contribute to her level of sexual desire (libido).
In women, androgens are made in the adrenal glands (found at the top of each kidney) and the ovaries. Even though the ovaries may stop making androgens after menopause, the adrenal glands continue to make enough to support a woman’s sexual desire.
Research suggests that the factors affecting a woman’s desire for sex are quite complex. Both emotional factors and hormone levels play a part.