Vaginas: Are they the great unknown to both men and women?

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In a 1993 episode of the television series "Seinfeld," Jerry finds himself unable to remember the name of the woman he's dating. When trying to get her to say it, he receives his only clue: The name rhymes with a part of the female anatomy. Jerry and his pal George Costanza consider some possibilities like Aretha and Bovary, before Jerry is forced to bite the bullet and call her Mulva to her face. As she storms out, Jerry hazards another guess -- Gipple -- but it isn't until the woman is on the street that Jerry runs to his window and yells, with gusto, "Dolores!"

The next day, a man in Wisconsin recounted the episode to a female coworker, thinking that she would find it as funny as he did. Rather than say the word "clitoris," though, he showed her the dictionary entry of the word (which, we should note, doesn't precisely rhyme with Dolores). The woman reported the man for sexual harassment, he was fired, and years of lawsuits began.

While this incident is tangled up in the thorny issue of what constitutes sexual harassment, it also speaks to our society's discomfort with women's private parts. We certainly don't hear much about vaginas on television -- in 2006, the creator of the show "Grey's Anatomy" was told that she had used the word "vagina" too much on her program, and she was asked to use a euphemism; thus, "va-jay-jay" was born [source: Rosenbloom]. The nickname was adopted by many people too uncomfortable to say the actual word. While jokes about penises are a dime a dozen, vaginas, vulvas and G-spots are considered unmentionable. Scientific researchers, perhaps operating on the principle of "out of sight, out of mind," have shunned the vagina for decades, which means we know much less about the female anatomy in comparison to the male counterparts. Even women -- the sex that actually has vaginas -- may not know much about them.

Why are vaginas so taboo? Well, the male reproductive system is obviously easier to study and understand -- the penis is outside the body, whereas much of the female reproductive system is internal. But throughout history, female sexuality has been a dangerous, forbidden thing in comparison to male sexuality. While some can accept that babies make their entrance to the world via the vagina, they may become uncomfortable when discussing how the vagina does (or does not) bring a woman sexual pleasure.

In this article, however, nothing is off limits. We'll discuss the vagina's role in human reproduction as well as its sexual function. What's normal? What's not? If you've ever wondered what's up with the area down there, read on.