Overview of the Female Reproductive System
The female reproductive system is also known as the female genital system. It is made up of internal and external sex organs. These sex organs and their complex functions synchronize together to provide the female body sexual pleasure and the ability to reproduce. This article offers an overview of the female sex organs and their functions.
Internal Female Genitalia
The internal sex organs of the female reproductive system are located inside the abdominal region and form a T-shaped structure. It is in this sex organs where ovulation, fertilization, conception, pregnancy, and menstruation occur.
Vaginal Opening: The vaginal opening, or the "introitus", is the entrance to the vagina. The vaginal opening is surrounded by the labia minora. The opening is usually in a closed state.
Hymen: The hymen is a thin flap of skin that covers the vaginal opening. Every hymen is shaped differently. The hymen can stretch and/or tear as a result from both sexual (e.g. penetrative intercourse, inserting sex toys or fingers) and nonsexual activities (e.g. tampons, gymnastics, horseback riding).
Vagina: The vagina is a cavity that extends up from the vaginal opening into the female’s body towards the uterus. It is often a collapsed space, however, the vagina can open and expand upon excitation or during childbirth. An unaroused vagina is on average three to five inches long. During sexual arousal, the vagina elongates, expands, and becomes lubricated.
Cervix: The cervix is a small, round structure at the end of the uterus that protrudes downward into the vagina. It serves as a boundary between the vagina and the endometrium. During childbirth, the cervix dilates (10cm) to allow the baby to pass from the uterus and into the vagina, where the baby will exit the mother’s body. 3
Os: The os is small hole at the tip of the cervix that connects the uterus to the vagina.
Uterus: The uterus is a hollow, pear-shaped organ at the center of the female reproductive system. A fertilized egg normally implants on the uterine wall. The inner lining of the uterus is called the endometrium. The endometrium nourishes the fertilized egg and provides a suitable environment for it to develop into a fetus. During sexual arousal, the uterus lifts or rises to create more space. After either orgasm is reached or stimulation ends the uterus lowers and returns to its original position.
Fallopian Tube: The fallopian tubes are spaghetti-like tubes that extend from the uterus to the ovaries, one on each side of the body. Eggs travel through these tubes on their way to the uterus. It is possible that the fertilized egg implants in the fallopian tube leading to an ectopic pregnancy. Ectopic pregnancies are extremely dangerous and require immediate medical assistance. One in every 50 pregnancies will result in ectopic pregnancies. Individuals with history of STI’s (sexually transmitted diseases) are at higher risk of experiencing ectopic pregnancies. 2
Fimbriae: The fimbriae are finger-like projections that extend from the fallopian tubes towards the ovaries. The fimbriae extend around the ovaries and draw released eggs into the fallopian tube.
Ovary: Ovaries are almond-shaped structures located at the end of the fallopian tubes; each ovary produces, and stores eggs. Each month, one of the two ovaries releases a mature egg during a process called ovulation. Additionally both ovaries produce two types of hormones: estrogen and progesterone. These two hormones are necessary for female sexual maturation and reproductive processes.
Egg (Ovum): An egg is the female gametic cell that carries a set of the female’s genetic information. During ovulation, an ovary releases an egg. The egg then travels into the fallopian tubes. Fertilization by a sperm cell occurs in the outer third of these tubes. If fertilized, the egg moves down the fallopian tubes and implants on the wall of the uterus. The implanted fertilized egg will develop further into an embryo and fetus during pregnancy.
Corpus Luteum: The corpus luteum is a hormone-realizing structure found in the ovaries. The structure forms from a ruptured ovarian follicle, an aggregate of cells that house a premature egg cell. The follicles rupture after they are released a mature egg to the ovary. The corpus luteum is a temporary structure that secretes high levels of progesterone, a hormone that helps regulate the menstrual cycle and pregnancy. 4
External Female Genitalia
The external sex organs of the female reproductive system are the physically visible and touchable parts. The structures on the female external genitalia are physically smaller in comparison to the external genitalia of men. However, the functions of the structures have similar roles during the sexual arousal cycle.
Vulva: The vulva refers to the entire region of the external female genitalia. Vulvas come in different unique sizes, colors, and shapes. The vulva consists of the vaginal opening, clitoris, and urethral opening.
Mons Veneris: The Mons Veneris, often referred to as simply the mons, is the fatty tissue and skin that covers the pubic bone. It contains many nerve endings and can be sexually stimulated. The mons is often covered in pubic hair.
Labia Majora: The labia majora, also called the “outer lips,” extend from the mons downward to the vaginal opening on either side of the vulva. They are padded with fatty tissue and partially covered with pubic hair. The labia majora can be sexually stimulated. During sexual arousal, the labia majora often swell and become darker through a process called vasocongestion.
Labia Minora: The labia minora extend around the vaginal opening, similar to the labia majora. They are hairless and lie between the labia majora, and closer to the vaginal opening. The labia minora are very erotically sensitive because they are filled with many nerve endings. They also contain blood vessels, allowing for an increased flow of blood to the structure and a darkened color during arousal. The place where the labia minora meet at the top forms the clitoral hood.
The Clitoris: The clitoris is found where the two labia minora meet (under the clitoral hood). It is made up of spongy tissue and has both external and internal portions. The clitoris is made up of a glans, shaft, crura and vestibular bulbs. It is the most sensitive of the female erogenous zones. The clitoris is often considered the female equivalent of a male’s penis. With proper, continual stimulation will produce orgasm. (The clitoris is labeled as “2” in the image.)
Clitoral Hood: The clitoral hood is the fold of skin that is located at the top of the clitoris. It protects the glans and has similar function as the foreskin of a male’s penis. The clitoral hood will retract during arousal prior to climax. (In the image on the left, the clitoral hood is labeled as “1”)
Clitoral Shaft: The clitoral shaft is about one inch in length that runs upward from the glans under the clitoral hood. The clitoral shaft is a sensitive structure, however, it is less sensitive than glans. It is erectile and is the female equivalent to the shaft of the penis.
Glans: The glans is the visible portion of the clitoris. It is extremely sensitive and similar in size and shape to a pearl. The glans contains as many nerve endings as the penis. It is erectile, meaning it will fill with blood and stiffen when aroused. When unaroused, the glans is underneath the clitoral hood.
Crus: The crus are internal extensions of the clitoris. Each crus is about three inches and gives the clitoris its wishbone shape. Together, the crus enwrap a portion of the urethral opening.
Vestibular Bulbs: The vestibular bulbs are internal portions of the clitoris that underlie the labia minora. They become erect during sexual arousal and help lengthen and stiffen the vagina.
Urethral opening: The urethral opening is the opening through which urine and potential ejaculate exits the body. Though it is still under dispute, there may be a form of female ejaculation that occurs when the G-spot is stimulated. The urethral opening is also found on the male body.
Perineum: The perineum is the hairless area between the introitus and the anus on females, and between the testicles and the anus on males. It can be sexually stimulated.
Anus: The anus is the opening through which feces exits the body. It has nerve endings and can be stimulated for sexual pleasure in both males and females.
- “Your Guide to the Female Reproductive System.” WebMD, 12 Nov. 2016.
- “What to Know About Ectopic Pregnancy.” WebMD, 28 Nov. 2016.
- “Pregnancy and Signs of Labor.” WebMD, 28 Nov. 2016.
- “Sex Glossary.” WebMD, 28 Nov. 2016.
Last Updated 30 November 2016.