I just need some advice about my sex life because my family doesn’t really talk about it at all. It seems like an absolutely inappropriate subject. I think my problem is that I don't know how to satisfy myself, and that annoys me because there is also not a real boy in my life that can get the job done. Do you have some advice for me? (Sorry for the bad spelling — English is not my first language.)
Dear Hopelessly Unsatisfied,
Your English is great, and what I’m about to tell you is even better. You don’t need anyone to begin figuring out what you like. Play with yourself before playing with someone else.
As young women, society teaches us that we exist to satisfy men. Our bodies aren’t made to feel good for us — they’re made to feel good for them. When we’re allowed to think of our own pleasure at all, it’s through his gaze. He’s the only one with enough power to make us feel good. We’re morally corrupt to think or explore otherwise — especially if we’re not cisgender or straight.
The first time I gave myself an orgasm I cried. I cried almost every time after that too. I thought I was wrong to be feeling so good, weird for my body to behave the way it did, and strange that I could make it react so strongly to myself. I don’t remember well, but I have memories of being really little and getting excited when I was playing with the Barbie dolls I was so obsessed with. I’d be sitting on my bed watching TV and accidentally shift over a pillow, and shiver at how good it felt. I’d be swimming in the pool and find myself up against the jets and wonder why my body felt so foreign — but at the same time, so very much mine.
These experiences were all by accident. I didn’t start intentionally touching myself until I was older, once I had begun to (very tentatively) let someone else explore my body. I trusted him and it felt so good to discover how my body reacted to his fingers — but it terrified me. I was in my late teens in a serious relationship, and yet I was constantly worried that my dad would find out that I had let someone touch me, and I felt a burning guilt that I was beginning to act on my sexuality when I felt like it wasn’t for me, but rather for others to merely impose on me.
Not having family be a safe space for these conversations can be really hard. Many of us, especially those growing up with immigrant parents (which sounds like it may be you, and it’s certainly me), end up feeling that our pleasure as women shouldn’t be talked about or acknowledged. Depending on our families’ cultures, machismo and gender roles can be even heavier to shift, even within conversation.
When I was eight years old, my dad took me and my younger brother out for a walk. He asked us if we knew what sex was.
“You might have heard some things from friends at school, or seen things on TV — but this is how babies are made,” he said.
Our mom was pregnant with our little sister, and her changing body forced my parents to explain things to us. I wonder when they would have had “the talk” with us if my mom’s belly hadn’t ballooned.
Until I was in my mid-20s, that was the last time either of them spoke to me about sex. Besides the physiological mechanics (and once a reminder about using condoms), sexual pleasure has only been brought up maybe twice with my mom, after my career in the space starting gaining some notoriety. My dad still won’t read anything I write — but at least he’s finally accepted that I do it, and accepts and loves me anyway.
Because no one talks to us about it, the messages we internalize about pleasure and self touch are all cultural, and therefore don’t really include us (except as vehicles for men’s pleasure). I didn’t play with a shower head or my fingers or the back of a hairbrush until I had let a boy touch me there first. It had always seemed like I wasn’t allowed, like I wasn’t supposed to. No one had taught me that my body was mine.
I thought sex was what a boy did to me. I thought growing up meant kissing a boy even when I didn’t want to. I thought it was my fault when boys touched my boobs because they “couldn’t help themselves” and there I was — my mere existence a temptation. Everything I knew about sex, pleasure, or my body had always been in relation to men.
That is, until I formed deep friendships with women who I trusted to talk about masturbation with, and finally got my first vibrator.
My last year of university, I lived with two best friends. One of them was the youngest daughter of three and spoke openly about sex and masturbation with her mom. She was also my first friend to speak openly about it with me. While she was very comfortable in her sexuality, the other two of us were the oldest children in our families and we were both struggling with our sexual identities and expression during this time. After four years of being so close, our sexually confident friend knew neither of us had ever had toys and saw that we needed them, so she took us to the local feminist sex shop to buy our first vibrators.
I remember feeling so ungraceful in the space, having no idea where to begin. The educator in the store was wonderful, and made us all feel really comfortable as we giggled, touching all the buttons, putting each vibrator up against our noses to test (this is a great way to see if a toy is right for you, as your nose is both fleshy and sensitive). I ended up going with a long, thin matte black vibrator that was beautiful and not phallic, which made me feel comfortable, as if I was holding a piece of art made just for me.
If it hadn’t been for my friends, and for feeling so safe to open up about something that felt really vulnerable and scary, I may never have discovered how much power there was in playing with my own body. Our sexually confident friend stayed being confident, and I and our other friend went on to establish careers around sex — and it’s no surprise after this story. Since neither of us felt that we had had the space to safely explore our own sexualities, we now spend our days making sure we can provide those spaces for other people.
We’re all in this together. You’re not alone in feeling confused about your own body, or in believing that it has to be a man that makes your toes curl. It’s an intense journey to unpack everything you’ve been told is true, but again — we’re in this together.
I want to give you some practical tips to make this adventure all the more real. It may feel scary, and that’s OK. Remember you’re on the search for pleasure — so the outcome here is only fun. I brought in Rosa Sierra, Intimate Health and Literacy Advocate, to share with you her steps for beginning to discover the world that is self-pleasure.
First things first, I always acknowledge that exploring pleasure can seem scary and daunting — primarily because we've never been told we have a right to it (if you've been socialized as a woman, this is especially so). It can feel much easier to let someone else "figure it out" for us, but ultimately, our pleasure is only our responsibility.
If there has been little to no guidance from family, friends, media, or school, touching our own genitals can feel like a fleshy maze. Some are socialized and encouraged to explore more than others, which can feel like a disadvantage — but it's never too late to start.
RELAX: Arousal begins in the mind. Worry is a literal boner-killer and expectation can scare even the friendliest orgasm away. Try to be curious about your body and release any concern or insecurity you might have over how you "should experience pleasure." Try recreating environments or actions that feel naturally calming — soft music, a warm shower, reading, meditating, lighting incense or candles. You know yourself best. If navigating sexual circumstances brings lots of anxiety for you, this is a very important step.
LOOK IN THE MIRROR: Yes, really. Take your pants off and get intimate with your feel-good parts. Learn your anatomy. If you know the labels to the map, you'll eventually know how to find the treasure (and get good at enjoying it). Look up diagrams, and once you feel comfortable visually, try touching, massaging, and lifting different tissues. The clitoris is literally made for pleasure and yet it can be tucked behind so much skin. Remember that many times, a partner won't have the luxury of full light, unlimited time, and the sensation of responding to their own touch to guide them. But you do.
TOUCH YOURSELF: I can't recommend this enough. Do it often. Get to know what sensations you like and dislike. Try water pressure (the bathtub/shower is accessible for most, and it’s guaranteed alone time, which is great for shared spaces), hands, toys (there are plenty that vibrate, heat up, suck, and lick), or even soft items that you can grind against, like a pillow. Don't forget to explore other parts of the body and layer pleasure! Other areas of arousal (i.e. erogenous zones) can easily be stimulated and incorporated, like nipple rubbing.
COMMUNICATE: We can learn a lot from others; pleasure is not an exception. Are there friends you confide in? Ask them specifically how they like to touch themselves and how they tell their partners. There are tips and tricks we could never learn in our lifetime, and thankfully we don't have to. Use your community as your resource — especially if talking to family is tough or impossible. Sex conversations are intimidating and sometimes your own peers may be unwilling, but you can search for online communities, pleasure experts and/or head to a sex shop to speak with staff that are not only knowledgeable but compassionate. OmgYes is an incredible research-based resource (though subscription-based) that documents and illustrates dozens of ways to achieve pleasure for vulva-havers and also serves to help communicate that with partners. You'll learn that you're not alone in your pleasure journey and there will be others rooting for you.
SHARE: Help a partner out! How many times have you known exactly what to do the first time you did something? Practice makes better. Mind-reading, though romanticized in media, is unnatural to interpersonal relationships. Good sex needs communication. Great sex needs step by step instructions and constant readjustment, especially the heterosexual kind (same sex couples tend to have much higher percentages of sexual satisfaction). With the assurance that you know how to get the job done and how to communicate it, there will be less pressure on your partner to just know and more room to have fun.
Try it out. Maybe tonight you start with the shower head. Maybe you start by looking at yourself in the mirror. Maybe it’s only lighting a candle as you read a book. Reaching orgasm is awesome, but it doesn’t have to be the destination.
Pleasure can be found in running your fingernails against the insides of your forearms, it can be found in eating slightly melted chocolate really slowly, it can be found lying naked in bed, feeling clean sheets brush up against your skin. Pleasure is about discovering all the little bits of you that get excited when something feels good. Your body is a never ending playground of discovery, and focusing on what’s between your legs is an important piece of that, but it’s only a piece. Be patient with yourself, take your time, and remember there isn’t an end goal here except to feel good.
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