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How can vaginas not vary much in size, for real?

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Anonymous asks:

I was reading posts and noticed that a lot of them said how sex should be easy if the girl is turned on and relaxed. I have a smaller build and perceive it to be proportional in "all areas". I'm 19. I really enjoy sex and I have been sexually active for two years. However, I have found that no matter how much foreplay my boyfriend and I engage in, sex is difficult to start with and I feel sore during the end and afterwards. My boyfriend has also noticed a large difference in "tightness" between myself and other girls he has been with. We always use a good amount of lubrication and I do feel really relaxed and aroused with him. I don't understand how a guy can have a larger or smaller penis, but yet everything I have read on your site says that women have little to no variation in size. Does this mean that I'm generally the same size as the girls he's been with and that there is something else wrong with me?

Heather Corinna replies:

The size of someone's body in terms of height and weight really doesn't have any bearing on genital size. If you have the idea that a very small woman has a much smaller vagina than a very large woman, time to toss that idea out, since there's never been any data to support that premise. When it comes to size, shape and the way they work, you also just can't really compare penises and vaginas. They are very different organs. The penis, for instance, is not a muscle. The vagina, however, is. While the size of a man's erection can vary a little from day to day, it's a pretty small window of variance, and what size it becomes when erect before or during intercourse has no bearing at all on what size a vagina is. Vaginal size, however, during intercourse, is directly influenced by what size the penis inside of it is.

A given vagina does not have any one size: our vaginas are one general way when "resting," then tend to have more room and flexibility when we get aroused, and on top of that, can also often stretch past that aroused size if something wider or longer than that aroused size is when inside of them. And the variance in sizes between women are much lesser than those between men. With all "states" of the vagina when we're not talking about the back of it (the very back of the vagina, which you really can't feel much since it's not rich with nerve endings, "tents" or kind of grows a bit like the widest part of a balloon when a woman is super-dee-duper aroused), differences between pre-menopausal women of a similar reproductive history -- as in, how many times they have been pregnant or given birth: not how many times they have had sex -- usually only vary within an inch or so, max. Even between women with some variance in reproductive history and age, we still don't see the kinds of differences we see among men with penis size.

Vaginas are closed, or collapsed, muscular tubes when nothing is in them, kind of like when your mouth or throat is closed, they're pretty much collapsed unto themselves.

When a woman is just lying around, hanging out and reading a book, her vagina is not hanging open: it's closed. But when we put something inside the vagina -- be that a finger, a tampon, a penis, a speculum or -- from the other direction -- an infant's head during childbirth -- the vagina expands to surround and grip what is inside it and has a great deal of flexibility and variability in terms of how big or small it can be when something is inside of it. Given the vaginal canal is a muscle, we usually also have a good deal of grip around what is inside: you can feel that yourself with your own fingers. When we take whatever that thing inside is out, in a very short period of time (excepting with childbirth, where it can sometimes take a bit longer, though that often is due in part not to physical changes, but changes in feelings about sex), the vaginal opening and canal snap right back to their "resting," collapsed state. In a lot of ways, even talking about vaginas as having sizes is about as apt as talking about rubber bands or balloons as being a certain size: with something stretchy and designed to be expandable, whose size is ever changing, it doesn't make sense to consider that thing as having a static size at all.

Think about it like a pair of tights you just took out of the dryer. They're very stretchy, but before you put them on, the legs of them look very tiny and tight, as there isn't anything inside them and like nothing large could fit into them. If someone thin legs put them on, they'll stretch to fit right around those legs. If someone with a thicker leg puts them on, they'll stretch to fit that leg, too. If you take a basketball and put it inside, they'll stretch around that, too. And after any given size of leg was put in, if we toss them back in the wash, when they're done, they're going to be that constricted size again that'll stretch to accommodate what's put inside.

(And if you're going to go to the place that says, "But wait: after a bunch of wears, tights get less stretchy and get kind of saggy! That means vaginas CAN wear out that same way, right?" Don't bother. Tights and vaginas are different in that way, because vaginas are not made out of nylon or cotton and are built to last and be more way more resilient.)

Does all of this make any more sense now?

By all means, some things do impact how stretchy and snap-back the vaginal walls or opening are. Recent vaginal childbirth, for instance, will often have a temporary impact. Age can make a difference, as can general health, hormonal balances (estrogen plays a big part in vaginal elasticity, which is why menopause will often impact women's comfort with intercourse and other vaginal sex, and also why at certain times of the fertility cycle when estrogen levels are lower, intercourse doesn't always feel as good or as comfortable as it does at other times when estrogen levels are higher) and other issues I talk about in a couple paragraphs.

I'd not put a lot of stock in what a partner says about what your vagina feels like to them, particularly with male partners when we're talking about intercourse, and especially if they're circumcised, since as a whole, what a circumcised penis feels during intercourse is more about generalized pressure than more subtle sensations. It's often mentioned by sexologists that male perceptions of vaginal size have more to do with lubrication levels than anything else: a less lubricated vagina tends to feel more "tight" due to more friction, while an adequately or very lubricated vagina can feel "looser," because of less friction. So, if you're not also using lube from the start, adding more as needed, or you're just naturally drier during sex than his other partners were, that may be some of the difference he is perceiving.

I've had my own fingers and hands in plenty of vaginas, and if a person would ask me to rate "tightness" or "looseness" between different female partners in some sort of overall way (which is already flawed, since a given vagina does not feel the same from day-to-day), I really don't think I could, especially when I didn't have those vaginas right in front of me at one time for comparison, and despite being a very keen observer of all things sexual for my living. As well, sometimes men will think saying "you're tight" is more a compliment than a general commentary or objective observation. What it feels like for you is what you really want to focus on.

Some medical conditions or other issues can cause vaginal pain or discomfort with intercourse despite a woman being aroused, relaxed and lubricated throughout all of intercourse (though that "throughout" is something to pay attention to: if you're not staying aroused through the whole thing, just because you started aroused doesn't mean you won't have discomfort at some point), and her partner going about intercourse with her in a way that is comfortable and pleasurable for her. If you want an easy way to check in to see if your arousal is really there and sustaining or not, pay attention to vulval effects like the size and sensitivity of your clitoris and outer labia: with high arousal, both size and sensitivity should increase in those places in ways you can notice, even if they can be subtle sometimes. Inside the vagina, the g-spot should get more sensitive, as well.

Just to be sure that you're not overlooking a typical or easier-to-fix causes of pain or discomfort, do be sure you've given this a good look-over: From OW! to WOW! Demystifying Painful Intercourse.

If you've already ruled out all of those possibilities, this has been persistent and you haven't yet had a chat with your sexual healthcare provider about what's going on, go ahead and do that. Persistent vaginal pain or discomfort can be due to other issues which may need address or treatment. Some of those issues can be certain genital and/or sexually transmitted infections, hormone imbalances, blood pressure problems, certain formations of residual hymen, muscular tension, the effects of cervical cancer or cancer treatments, vaginismus, vulvar vestibulitis or vulvodynia, emotional issues (such as due to previous sexual trauma or relationship problems), psychological issues (including being mentally convinced sex is or will be painful or that the vagina is "tight" or small), yeast infections or imbalances, Sjogren's Syndrome, diabetes, the side effects of some medications (like anti-depressants or hormonal birth control), even allergies or sensitivities to things as seemingly benign as laundry detergents, latex condoms, lubricants or menstrual products.

You also have the opportunity when talking to that healthcare provider to get a second opinion on these questions about what vaginas really are like, how they work, and what size variances are. There's no reason you should feel you have to take only my word on all of this, after all.

In the meantime, while you're having discomfort, I'd suggest taking a break from vaginal intercourse. When we anticipate pain or discomfort -- which of course, you're going to do if you've been experiencing it persistently -- we're way more likely to have it happen. As well, you want to make sure not to irritate your vulva or vagina further if you have something going on that needs treatment. With kinds of sex that do feel good for you, without any pain, there's no reason you can't continue as you like, but before going for intercourse again, I'd at least get seen by a healthcare pro and rule out some of the possibilities.

Here are a few more links for you on this topic:

written 13 Jun 2008 . updated 20 Jan 2009

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