Genital Exam, Vaginal Exam or Vulvar Exam: What Women MUST Know

You’ve probably heard of breast self-exams (for women) and testicular self-exams (for men; check out this TSE sing along for some fun!) but have you heard of vulvar self-examination?

Some doctors recommend that women perform vulvar self-examination. Getting used to looking closely at your genitals about once per month can help you to understand what looks normal for you in terms of the size and shape of your genital parts, the coloring (are your labia minora – which are the inner vaginal lips – more pink? red? gray?), and how it feels to be touched in certain parts (re some parts sore, tender or painful when touched?). Performing vulvar self examination can also aid with early detection of vulvar cancer (which is a relatively rare, but still serious, cancer). If you have questions about how your vulva parts (the outside genital parts) look or feel, ask your healthcare provider for more information.

Doctors will typically look at a woman’s vulva as part of a routine gynecological exam. They may notice, for example, white spots of genital skin that may be a sign of a skin condition called lichen sclerosus. Or else they may notice reddened areas around the vaginal opening that, along with a woman’s reports of pain around the entrance to her vagina, may be a sign of a pain condition called localized vulvodynia.

A vaginal exam is different from a vulvar exam. A vaginal exam is almost always performed by a woman’s healthcare provider as part of a routine gynecological exam or as part of a prenatal visit. During a vaginal exam, a woman’s doctor will typically check the health of both the vagina and the cervix. In some cases, women decide that they want to have a look at their own vaginas (the inside part also called the birth canal) and may even purchase a speculum that they will use to open their own vagina and view their cervix. Like I said, though, this is not something that women commonly do though it is an option if you are interested. (Check out the Beautiful Cervix web site for photographs that one woman has taken of her own cervix at different times of the month as well as before and after sex).

To perform a vulvar self examination, try the following:
- Try to find a time when you can have some uninterrupted privacy
- Find a space in which you can feel comfortable getting naked
- Make sure that the room is well-lit or that you have a lamp nearby or a hand held flashlight and a mirror
- Find a seated or standing position that allows you to open your legs in a way that you can use a mirror to see your vulva
- Spend some time looking at and touching each part: what does your clitoral hood look like? How about your glans clitoris, your labia majora (outer vaginal lips that typically have hair on the outside of the labia), your labia minora (inner vaginal lips) and the area around your vaginal entrance? What shades of pink, grey, red, brown, black, or peach are your genitals? How does the color vary? How does it feel to touch your genitals during your vulvar self-examination?

With time and practice, vulvar self-examination will likely become more comfortable – and maybe even enjoyable. Some women find that during this practice, they may occasionally notice that they feel sexually aroused or excited. Some notice that feeling and then go on with their day. Others notice it and decide that they may want to take some time to enjoy self-pleasuring ot partnered sex. How you use vulvar self-examination – whether as a health practice or as foreplay – is up to you.

Related MSP Posts:
- Where is a woman’s G Spot?
- Why is a woman’s clitoris sensitive after orgasm?
- What’s the clitoral complex?

About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at