Sex is, quite literally, an integral part of life—after all, we wouldn’t be here without it! A healthy sex life builds trust and intimacy and allows you to explore your desires and fantasies. Plus, studies have shown that positive sexual experiences can be beneficial to mental and physical health, and various reports have found that sex can increase self-confidence, improve sleep, lower blood pressure, and even strengthen the immune system.

When it comes to your sexual wellness, education is key to making deliberate decisions. Yet for so many of us, the sex ed we received in school was lacking…and sometimes downright confusing. 

This Sexual Health Awareness Month, LOLA’s launching a campaign dedicated to adult sex ed. We asked our community which topics they want to hear about, and we’ll be providing candid information on everything from masturbation to STI prevention all month long. 

Before we dive into some of the finer points, let’s go back to the basics: 

Defining sex 

Defining your sexuality is complex and personal, which is why there’s no right way to have sex. Even the definition of sex can differ from one person to the next: for some, having sex is limited to penetrative intercourse; for others, it includes oral sex; and for some the definition is even more expansive. Since there’s no one correct definition of what constitutes having sex, what’s “normal” for one person might not be for someone else. You know yourself best, and you can decide what’s right for you. Understanding and talking openly about your expectations is the best way to prevent misconceptions, unrealistic expectations, or hurt feelings.

Our bodies

While it may seem basic, having a firm understanding of human biology and anatomy is critical as you begin and continue to explore your sexuality.

Female anatomy

Since the female anatomy is quite complex, we find it simplest to break it down between the internal anatomy and external anatomy.

Internal female anatomy

The uterus, also known as the womb, is a hollow organ that expands to carry a growing fetus when a woman is pregnant. During reproductive years, the uterine lining in your uterus builds and sheds throughout every menstrual cycle. (This is why you get a period.) 

The ovaries are a pair of reproductive glands located on either side of your body that produce eggs (or ova), as well as female hormones such as progesterone and estrogen. Each month, a mature egg is released from one of the ovaries, typically alternating from one side to the other, and travels down a fallopian tube to the uterus. 

Fallopian tubes, also known as oviducts, are two hair-like tubal projections that extend from the top of the uterus on each side and connect to the ovaries. 

The cervix is a strong circular muscle that forms a tubal passage from the uterus to the vagina. It’s what keeps a baby in place throughout pregnancy and subsequently opens during a vaginal birth. 

The vagina is the passageway from internal to external female genitalia. Internally, it extends from the lower portion of the cervix to the vaginal opening. 

The hymen is a membrane that women are born with that either completely or partially covers the vaginal opening. It breaks from any sort of penetrative activity, including the first time you have penetrative sex, but also occasionally from exercise or the first time you insert a tampon. 

External female anatomy

The vulva is what protects the internal organs and urethral opening (where urine exits the body) from infection. It includes all of the visible female genitalia: The mons pubis is the padding that covers the front of the pubic bone. 

· The labia majora are the larger set of lips outside of the labia minora. 

· The labia minora are the small flaps, also known as lips, around the vaginal opening.

· The vestibule of the vagina is the vaginal opening.

· The bulbs of the vestibule describes the erectile tissue on either side of the upper part of the vaginal opening that converge at the clitoris.

· The clitoris is the small, highly sensitive erectile part of the female body that’s located on the front end of the vulva where the labia minora come together. It’s made up of the same embryonic tissue as the male penis, with similar features (including a glans, foreskin, erectile tissue, and a small shaft that becomes enlarged when aroused).

· Bartholin glands are the glands on either side of the lower part of the vagina that secrete lubricating mucus.

· Skene’s glands are located near the front wall of the vagina and around the lower end of the urethra. They secrete a milky, watery substance during orgasm. 

· The urethra is the opening where urine exits the body from the bladder.

Female breasts, while not considered a reproductive organ, are unique. They extend forward from both sides of the chest and have mammary glands that produce milk after childbirth. The breasts — and especially the nipples — are another highly sensitive part of the body that can increase desire; they typically become enlarged and engorged when stimulated. 

Female arousal and orgasm

During sex, the female body becomes aroused through both physical and mental stimulation. Physical arousal can occur by stimulation of the clitoris, nipples, and vagina; kissing of the neck, ears, and mouth; and general consensual physical touch. The most sensitive areas to physical arousal are the clitoris and nipples. 

Mental arousal can occur from general interest in sex, heightened feelings of intimacy, and for some, arousal-inducing visualization. Arousal, both physical and mental, initiates the physiologic process of vasocongestion (the movement of blood to the erectile tissues) and vaginal lubrication.

There are different types of orgasms — clitoral and vaginal — and most women require clitoral stimulation to orgasm. (That’s right! Although not often portrayed this way in the movies, vaginal penetration alone typically doesn’t do the trick.) The clitoris actually has double the sensitivity of the glans of a penis, with about 8,000 nerve endings. Its function is to facilitate arousal when stimulated. 

While purely vaginal orgasms are rare, they are typically a result of penetrative sex that stimulates the G-spot. You won’t find it in our anatomical drawing because the “spot” differs greatly from person to person, and even though discovered in the 1950s, the G-spot’s existence is still being debated. The G-spot refers to the sensitive erectile tissue typically located around the upper urethra toward the pubic bone. It can take some work to find yours: for some women, it can extend all the way from the clitoris intravaginally to the cervix; for others, it’s a smaller area that can take practice to easily locate. 

Male anatomy

Now let’s review the basic male anatomy, which also can be simplified by breaking it down between the internal anatomy and external anatomy. Let’s start with what’s on the inside.

Internal male anatomy

The testes (or testicles) are two oval shaped organs that produce and store sperm inside the scrotum. 

The epididymis is a coiled tube that is also located inside the scrotum and behind the testes. It stores sperm for two to three months as the sperm matures to the point of being capable of fertilizing an egg. 

The vas deferens is a muscular tube that connects the testes and bladder; when the male body becomes sexually aroused, it carries sperm in preparation for ejaculation. 

The ejaculatory ducts are located where the vas deferens reaches the seminal vesicles at the base of the bladder and help empty ejaculatory fluid into the urethra.

The seminal vesicles produce a sugar-rich fluid that provides energy to the sperm. 

The bulbourethral glands produce a slippery fluid that lubricates the urethra and neutralizes any leftover urinary acidity. 

The prostate gland contributes additional fluid as the urethra carries ejaculate (also called semen or seminal fluid; it’s made up of sperm plus secretions from the testes, seminal vesicles, and bulbourethral glands) through the prostate in preparation to leave the body during orgasm.

External male anatomy

The penis is the primary organ that becomes engorged with blood and erect when aroused. It’s composed of three different parts: the root (located below the bulbourethral glands), the shaft (the length of the penis that runs up to the head), and the head (also known as the glans or tip). 

The head of the penis may or may not be covered in a loose sheath of skin known as the foreskin. For some, this skin is removed (typically at a young age) via male circumcision for medical or religious reasons. The head of the penis contains the opening of the urethra, which is a shared exit for urine and semen. During sex or sexual stimulation, the urine is blocked so that only semen can come out during an orgasm.

The scrotum is a loose sack of skin that sits below and behind the penis. Its primary function is to encase, protect, and provide climate control for the testes. It contains the cremaster muscle, which can contract or relax based on temperature. It tightens to bring the testes closer to the body in cold temperatures and relaxes to move them away in warm ones.

Male arousal and orgasm

The male body also becomes aroused through both physical and mental stimulation. Physical arousal occurs by stimulation of the penis, scrotum, perineum (the skin between the scrotum and anus), and nipples. Male arousal can also occur from kissing the neck, ears, and lips, as well as through general consensual physical touch. Mental arousal can occur by general interest in sex, heightened feelings of intimacy, and arousal-inducing visualization. 

Arousal — physical and mental — initiates the physiologic process of vasocongestion (movement of blood to the penis) and erection. 

Precum, or preejaculate, a fluid that comes out of the tip of the penis during arousal, cleans out the urethra of any urine and provides lubrication during sex. Rhythmic stimulation of the erect penis can facilitate orgasm, where semen is expelled from the body. 

Different studies have come to different conclusions on whether or not sperm is present in preejaculate — in some study participants it was, and in others it wasn’t. Pregnancy can occur from sperm present in a male partner’s precum, so it’s important to use contraceptives before the penis comes in contact with the vagina to reduce the risk of unwanted pregnancy.

Looking for more information? Check out these related articles:

· Is the U.S. failing at sex education?

· Op-ed: The language of female sexual health

· How often should you have sex – really?

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