We’ve all heard about Breast Self-Exams, but how many of you have performed a Genital Self-Exam?

Self-exam reminder. Tee shirt reads "Check yourself on the front. Pat yourself on the back."

Each semester, I spend four days teaching anatomy. Then, I include an option for the students to do an assignment called a Genital Self-Exam. This is a powerful assignment – one that is both important, and maybe even a little confronting.

What and Why?

The exam itself isn’t difficult at all; it is not a sexual exercise, yet many people feel strange about it nonetheless. To me, this exercise is about learning where everything is, what it looks like, with a goal of establishing a baseline so you can be aware should there be any changes and you can go to a doctor if there are. Getting comfortable with one’s own parts is our personal responsibility. I don’t want to leave the job of making sure everything is okay solely to a doctor I might see, at best, one time per year. So much can change in a year.

One of my favorite books featuring the male genitalia “Manhood: The Bare Reality” (p. 14) tells a story of a young man who was “having a scratch down there” and discovered a lump the size of a pea on a testicle. He was too embarrassed and didn’t tell anyone or see the doctor. Nine months later he checked again, and the lump had grown to the size of two fingers! Nine months. He then went to the doctor to find out it was testicular cancer.

I’d hate for any of my students to die just because I failed to tell them about this valuable tool to monitor their own health/sexual health.

The Assignment

Do a genital self-exam as described in textbook.  Write what that process was like (how you felt before, during, and after, any surprises you had, what you learned about your body, if you would recommend to others to do self-exams, if you will do another one in the future, etc.).

The exercises are easy to find online. Theirs comes from the textbook. For a person with a vulva, I recommend going to SexInfoOnline for a “Female Genital Self-Exam*.” You might find you stop at about step 7 and that’s okay. I encourage you to come back and try to continue later on, eventually working your way through step 7.

For a person with a penis and testicles, I recommend going to SexInfoOnline for a “Male Genital Self-Exam*” to learn how to perform an exam on yourself.

*Please excuse the assumption that all people who have a vulva identify as “female” and all people with a penis identify as “male.” If you do not understand this sentence, you are welcome to keep reading as it is intended for a different audience. 🙂


I have permission from a couple of students in my classes to share the write-ups they did for the assignment. These papers are exemplary and share some of the emotions that come up and what they got out of doing the homework. I can only say so much, so I’ll let the students speak for themselves.

A review by a student with a penis:

Prior to conducting this genital self-exam, I remember having been told previously to do so by either my doctors, health teachers, or both. I recall them telling me that by doing this, I have the ability to notice irregularities that may happen in my genital area, specifically my testicles. Checking for any abnormalities can help diagnose health problems I may have without even going to the doctor’s office. These abnormalities have the possibility of being testicular cancer. I would always ignore going through the self exam, however. I never really felt the need to as I always thought I was healthy. Nonetheless, this assignment finally gave me the motivation to conduct the exam. This course early on has talked about a subject that many would feel uncomfortable talking about. This self exam, another prime example of doing something many are uncomfortable with, would provide an opportunity to be more in touch with my body. While I was fairly sure I wouldn’t find anything wrong with my testicles, the fact that I had never done this exam before gave me the slightest worry that I may find some sort of lump or abnormality.

I started by taking a hot shower since the book said doing this would allow my “testes to descend.” I dried off, sat in a chair, and tried to practice the cremasteric cycle of contraction and relaxation. This was the most difficult part for me, as I wasn’t sure if I was initiating the cremasteric reflex correctly. Regardless, I moved on to feeling my testis. I followed the directions of placing my thumbs on top of my right testis and my index and middle fingers on the bottom. It felt very smooth and honestly gave me a better understanding of how my testis should feel. I conducted the same process with my left testis which felt similar to the right one. It seemed to me that my left testis was slightly larger from the right one, which the book said was normal (phew). I didn’t detect of any lumps in my testicles or experience any pain while examining them, which is ideal. Throughout this process, I felt very relaxed and more familiar with how my testicles feel. I had never done this self-exam before and it was quite interesting becoming more in touch with my genitals. I didn’t realize how smooth they were and got an idea of what should be considered “normal” for me.

Because I had never practiced this self-exam before, I never realized how easy it was. I could easily and quickly do this after every shower I take just to make sure there are no abnormalities within my testicles. This exam provided me with a better understanding of how my testicles should feel, which will make it easier to detect any variations in the future. Sitting in front of a mirror, I was also able to get a good look at my penis through this exam. I briefly checked if there was anything about it that didn’t look normal. Overall, I would highly recommend others to do genital self-exams. It’s easy, doesn’t take much time, allows one to be more in touch and familiar with their genital areas, and provides the ability to detect anything that may need to be seen by a doctor. One can gain an understanding of what is normal for them, since everyone is different. I will definitely be doing this exam again.

I have a few resources I share for the vulva owners’ day of anatomy: “I’ll Show You Mine” and “I <3 My Petals” are two of my favorites. You can see the beautiful variations between the different vulvae.

A write up from a student who has a vulva:

In preparation for the genital exam I had feelings of nervousness and excitement. I was about to enter unexplored part of myself. In some ways it felt as if I was about to unearth a hidden secret, so valuable I felt the need to lock the door of my room. I wasn’t completely sure what to expect, what feelings would arise. I was skeptical of the process to begin with, from the moment I had read about this assignment I thought it was ridiculous. Despite my preconceived notions I felt that I needed to give it a chance. In order to start my new relationship with my vulva off right, I chose to shower before I started my journey. It took me a few tries to actually start because I kept having to grab things I felt were necessary. I had to go back for my glasses so I could get a clear view, and I wanted to take notes during my process of what I saw and felt. In some ways I wonder if it was my conscious way of delaying the genital self-exam or if my anticipation was playing with my memory.

In the beginning I was having trouble finding the right angles to view my vulva and its many hidden layers. I started off laying down, legs spread open however it was difficult to look at my vulva in detail, I decided to scoot closer to the mirror. I began observing my vulva as it was, without opening the inner labia letting it sit in its ordinary pose. I wanted to capture it’s natural essence, this on its own was truly compelling. It felt like my vulva was screaming “look at me! I am a part of you, and I am beautiful”. There were layers of unknown beauty pouring out of her. It was our introduction to each other, my vulva and I in this moment were old friends rekindling a bond. It was not our first time meeting however it was our first time sitting down and having a sincere conversation. Throughout my exploration I was conversing with her, saying things such as “hi there, oh wow you are so soft”. She would respond to me by guiding me through the process, urging me to unlock her treasures. I learned how colorful my vulva is, the different shades of pink with hints of brown. It was intriguing to see the brown outer layers of my outer labia, my inner labia containing its own palette, with brown dyed tips, and hot pink interiors. It was not the first time looking at my clitoris even then I determined how long my clitoral hood is. I know it’s not a button but my clitoris looks like an adorable button just waiting to be played with! Among many things I discovered are the challenges us vulva owners face with become acquainted with our genitals. During my deeper exploration it was quite problematic to look at my vagina, for it was hard to hold the mirror in a position in which I was able to have a detailed look at the interior. In order to get a better view I switched positions, and began to inspect my vulva from a squatting position, my vulva opened up and I met my vagina for the first time. I immediately felt a fondness towards her, I had always felt her, but seeing her made me feel closer to myself. I stared at her for a long time, and digested the excitement of this possessed knowledge of myself. In her I saw myself, a delicate yet tenacious being, in that moment a bridge had been built between my body and mind.

I gave myself some time to wait before I wrote my summary in order to allow myself some time to reflect on my findings. I was surprised at all the different shades of pink! I am now infatuated with the color of my vagina, I didn’t think I would end up loving her as much as I do now. Although many emotions came up during the examination, more emotions came about hours after the examination. A sudden sadness struck me that other individuals had known my body better than I had, they had formed bonds with my vulva before I had ever even thought about forming one with my body. A sense of guilt washed over me, for having had adored someone else’s genitalia before learning to honor my own body. I realized that my relationship with my vulva had been built on a highly sexualized foundation of others which prevented me from establishing a healthy awareness of my body. This process helped me reclaim ownership of my body, and has inspired me to cherish my vulva by continuing to delve into its world. I highly recommend for everyone to do not just one, but multiple genital self-exams throughout their life. Our bodies are constantly going through changes, in order to take proper care of them we need to be intune with its needs.


So there you have it. Two different descriptions of a genital-self exam and the thoughts or feelings that came up with them. Again, everyone is different in how they feel about this exercise, but all students so far have come back with a sense of newfound comfort with their body.

Remember, even though genital self-exams are an essential way for you to understand your body and notice any abnormal changes, an exam should never replace regular checkups and pelvic exams by your physician or healthcare provider.

Go ahead and look. Your parts are, after all, yours.


The MamaSutra

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About the Author

The MamaSutra

Dr. Lanae St.John is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sexology and certified sex coach with a background in sexology and a passion for helping people improve their sexual health and relationships. She is the author of "Read Me: A Parental Primer for "The Talk"" and the upcoming "You Are the One: How stopping the search and looking inside will lead you to your romantic destiny," and is committed to staying up-to-date on the latest research and trends in the field. Dr. St.John aims to share her knowledge and expertise in a relatable and approachable way through her blog on themamasutra.com.

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