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Everybody knows that when a girl is ready to have sex her vagina gets wet--but what produces the wetness? My girlfriend and I were arguing about this. I think it is from sweat glands. Are there sweat glands in the vagina? Is this what produces the wetness? And what about vaginal discharge? Is it the same sweat glands that produce the wetness? Or something different?

--Pussy Poker

When confronted with questions about women's reproductive organs, I know now to proceed with caution. Vaginas are like gorgeous, gummy, gooey orchids--delicate, if damp, flowers--and a lot of easily angered people out there reading this take their vaginas very seriously. People got pretty upset, for example, when I suggested a woman unhappy with her long labia should have them lopped off. When your letter arrived, PP, I thought to myself, "What an interesting question!" Normally I like to answer interesting questions myself, but I got so many irate letters after the labia column I'm just a little gun-shy. If I were to venture a guess, though, I'd say vaginal secretions are produced by little gnomes way up in the vaginal canal stomping teensy champagne grapes in tiny tubs. I mean, how else does one account for the gol' danged deliciousness of women's vaginal secretions?

But while little gnomes stomping teensy champagne grapes in tiny tubs may be a delightful image, it's not really an answer to your question, PP, is it? Not wanting to take any chances--I'm still getting hate mail about that labia column!--I decided to line up a competent guest expert rather than tackle your question myself. But when I called the Northeast Women's Health Center in Philadelphia, the woman who answered the phone thought I was a prank caller and refused to help. I despaired for a moment, but then I got Kristina Chamberlain of the Chicago Women's Health Center on the phone.

In contrast to the grumpy, unhelpful staff at the Northeast Women's Health Center, Kristina and the rest of the women at the Chicago Women's Health Center were helpful in the extreme. So what produces vaginal wetness when a woman's aroused? "The vulvovaginal glands inside the vagina secrete the arousal fluids," Kristina told me. "Another source of wetness is the urethral sponge, located under the pubic bone. It's the cause of female ejaculation."

Are there sweat glands in the vagina? "There are no internal sweat glands in the vagina, and the vulvovaginal glands do not produce vaginal discharge." What does produce vaginal discharge? "All kinds of stuff, good and bad. The most common among healthy women is the sloughing off of skin cells. Since the vagina is a mucous membrane and constantly wet, the skin comes out in liquid form, rather than flakes like skin from your arm. This constant shedding of skin cells is responsible for the healthy vagina being the cleanest part on a woman's body."

Vaginal discharge is, as anyone who's been paying attention is aware, one warning sign that a woman may have a sexually transmitted disease. How can a girl tell if her discharge is the normal, healthy, yummy, scrummy vaginal discharge she and her partner should expect and celebrate, or an STD-related abnormal, unhealthy, icky, sticky vaginal discharge? "A skin-cell discharge will normally be clear and have a nonpungent odor," Kristina explained. "The consistency of the liquid may change at different times during a woman's menstrual cycle from liquidy to thicker and sticky (even stringy), but will probably remain mostly clear or have a white tinge and will not smell pungent." Hm--how reassuring. "A discharge caused by infection will have an odor that is yeasty, sour, fishy, or strongly pungent, and the discharge could be watery, thick, or chunky. And is often white or some other icky color."

All this technical info about glands and sponges and sloughing off is helpful, but it's not very--oh, I don't know--mysterious, is it? I mean, where's the magic? So I asked Kristina if it would be all right for me to continue to believe that vaginal secretions are produced by little gnomes way up in the vaginal canal stomping teensy champagne grapes in tiny tubs. "Little gnomes? Uh, sure, you can believe that. Mostly it's the glands, but I'm sure there's a whole village of gnomes up there too. And since we've just had the millennium, floods of champagne have been flowing out of women all over the place." Are there any gnomes in Kristina's vagina? "Of course." How did Kristina's gnomes spend New Year's Eve? "You know, I was on call for prenatal that night, sitting by the phone. So me and the gnomes had a very mellow New Year's Eve at home."

How reliable are polyurethane condoms at preventing pregnancy? I am in a monogamous relationship, so I am not concerned at the moment about STDs. The boyfriend and I have tried both and have found polyurethane to be the better choice where sensation is concerned, but is latex the better choice for protection?

--Lady Luck

According to Adam Glickman at Condomania headquarters in Los Angeles, when polyurethane condoms came on the market in 1994 they had a high breakage rate. "They were called Avanti," Adam said, "and the company released them prematurely. In fact, they were so bad that the FDA got involved and the Avanti went back to the drawing board." High breakage rates do not pregnancies prevent, so polyurethane condoms would have been a bad bet for you in '94. But the new, improved polyurethane Avanti condoms introduced in '96 met all the same safety and reliability standards as regular ol' latex condoms. "But there was a lot of bad PR from the first few months before they were recalled," Adam told me, "and polyurethane condoms still sell at lower numbers because of it."

As far as STDs are concerned, polyurethane condoms are nonpermeable and when used correctly--barring any breakage or leaking--provide more protection than latex condoms. (You can also use longer-lasting, better-feeling oil-based lube with polyurethane condoms.) Condomania has a Web site, naturally, at www.condomania.com. There you'll find loads of condom info and statistics. Be sure to check out the Condom Wizard feature: answer a few questions and the Condom Wizard will recommend a condom just for you.

You printed a letter recently from a guy who discovered that someone he was attracted to was a racist. If the letter writer is who I think he is, then he needs to hear this: Your racial background is not the reason I don't like you. I am not intimate with you because I choose not to have friendships with people I am not on an equal par with. So you see, it is not your "mixed racial heritage," whatever heritage your windmill brain tells you that you happen to have this week (you have claimed to be Japanese, Jewish, Puerto Rican, and Native American at different times), that turns me off. It is your manipulative nature and desire to continually be "on top" that put me off!

--The So-called Asshole

Thanks for writing, TSA. Glad I could help you get that off your chest.

Send questions to Savage Love, Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611 or to letters@savagelove.net.

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