On seeing this article’s headline, you may have had one of the following thoughts:
1) Why does anyone need a guide to masturbation when it comes so naturally?
2) Oh, good, some new techniques!
3) Phew! Maybe someone is finally going to answer the questions I’ve been too embarrassed to ask.
4) Gross, they’re trying to lure in readers by talking about lady-wanking.
No matter which of those above groups you’re in—even you, No. 4—you may be pleasantly surprised that there’s more to learn about female pleasure, which we’ve gathered with the help of Denver-based sex and intimacy coach Irene Fehr.
So what don’t we know about masturbating?
“There are a lot of women who, as little 3, 4, and 5-year-old girls, discovered masturbation by accident— ‘Oh, rubbing against that feels really good,'” Fehr says. “They know it feels good, and they continue to do that. Then there are others, myself included. I didn’t masturbate until I was 33.”
According to the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior in 2010, 72 percent of women ages 25-29 reported having masturbated in the past 90 days, but in other age groups, that number dropped to the mid- to lower 60s.
Why isn’t everyone doing it? We live in an era when Dolly Parton talks about vibrators onstage at the Emmys, so it’s not just about cultural prudishness. Dozens of advice columns out there will tell women who don’t masturbate, or who have trouble achieving orgasm when they do, that they just need to relax and find the right setting, touch the right places. The result is yet another source of shame women feel for “not doing it right.”
But Fehr says that the problem might stem from the fact that all women are built pretty differently. When it comes to getting off, women can be sexually aroused in different ways; some women’s clitoral nerve endings are close to the surface, so light touch can get them off, while others’ nerve endings are deeper. For these women, “it might feel OK to touch yourself, but it’s kind of like touching your arms or your legs. It isn’t really doing anything.”
And for some of those women, a perky pink vibrator isn’t the answer, because what they really need is external, energetic stimulation from a partner (or from porn) to build up their desire. It’s like the difference between being an introvert and an extrovert, only in terms of sex instead of talking at parties.
“The key is to start developing your own sexual fire from within, so that you’re not wholly dependent on a partner, so you can access that energy sustainably of your own accord,” Fehr says.
Give yourself a refresher course in Down-There 101.
Whether you’re a sexual introvert or extrovert, you may enjoy a little anatomy refresher course—less of a textbook diagram and more of a good exploration of your own lady parts.
For the regular masturbators, this means setting aside your favorite sex toy and using the tools you were born with… and maybe also a mirror. Give yourself extra time for this, and make your surroundings comfortable (it might seem silly, but really, you can get out those candles and soothing music if you want).
“A lot of women will learn how to masturbate with the vibrator to get to orgasm, but they often don’t know still what feels good to them all over,” Fehr explained. “If you’re exploring yourself with a finger, your finger has thousands of nerve endings. You’re registering so much more. That’s a harder one for women because it takes more time, a lot more patience, and a lot more capacity for seeing all that’s down there.”
This is about more than just rubbing one out. Rather than going straight for that big O, try looking at your labia and clitoris in the mirror as you touch them, experimenting with different sensations and noticing how they change. Even if that doesn’t make you reach orgasm, it’s still an enjoyable experience, and Fehr says removing that goal is helpful for some women. It will also help you know what to request of a partner.
But orgasms are also nice, and you can learn how to have different kinds.
Women don’t just have the capacity to reach orgasms through clitoral stimulation or even vaginal stimulation, however. Through deep, massage-like penetration, some women can also experience cervical orgasms. At the other end of the spectrum, some women can have nipple orgasms or full-body orgasms with no genital touch at all. Some lucky people can even get there by having their knees touched, or even through breathing techniques. And of course, there’s also that porn staple: female ejaculation.
If you want to try to develop your ability to enjoy any of these orgasms, here are some excellent resources at your disposal.
A good sex toy shop
The employees of many of these stores have an encyclopedic knowledge of pleasure to share with customers as they guide you through what to buy. (Seriously, you never knew so many lube options existed.) Woman-owned, female-friendly spots like Babeland, Come As You Are, and Good Vibes are all excellent bets, but also check out local shops near you. Some places also offer classes.
Orgasmic Meditation (OM)
You may have heard about these OneTaste group classes, which have been getting more and more popular. The practice involves one person stroking a partner’s clitoris for 15 minutes, without the goal of getting them to climax, but simply to feel the sensations and release oxytocin. Does the idea of doing this with complete strangers, albeit in a very controlled environment, make you feel icky? (We get it.) No worries: There are online classes as well. You can also try tantric workshops, which treat sexual pleasure as part of a spiritual practice.
This app features an adorably anthropomorphized vulva that you’re encouraged to stroke in different ways after reading different lessons about female anatomy. “The fact that we’re talking about female anatomy and pleasure in a fun way serves the cause very much,” Fehr says of this playful app.
For a one-time fee, you can access 62 videos about the different ways women experience pleasure, plus 11 “touchable” videos of actual vulvas that you can use on any kind of touch screen or computer.
If you’re experiencing a low libido, pain during sex, or inability to orgasm, individual coaches are out there. Good ones will help talk you through the underlying issues that affect your sexual pleasure. These sessions can occur in person or via Skype.
This is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. “It’s a one-way arrangement where you’re experiencing being touched, but there is no reciprocation,” Fehr explains. “It’s like a massage, but with a sexual aspect to it.” Only the state of California recognizes this profession, but practitioners in other states have found loopholes to avoid being classified as prostitution.
Of course, there’s also pornography, erotica, and, say, a good episode of Outlander to help you along. Fehr cautions against using porn as a regular substitute for human connection, however, because unlike those actors on the screen, humans are messy and complicated. But if what you want is a good source of arousal for the moment, go for it.
To make any of this work—heck, to read through this whole article—what we all truly need is to get over the notion that female masturbation is anything but awesome.
“Women enjoying themselves sexually is a taboo,” Fehr says, noting that much of society still believes that “women becoming lascivious and desirous can lead to only disaster.” Well if that’s true, then let’s bring on the apocalypse, ladies.
Sabrina Rojas Weiss lives in Brooklyn, surrounded by her fellow freelance writers and competitive stroller-pushers. Her work has appeared on Refinery29, Yahoo, MTV News, and Glamour.com. The views expressed herein are her own and are meant to be taken with a grain of salt. Follow her on Twitter @shalapitcher.