There’s a scene in the 2019 coming of age movie Booksmart where the main character—a budding lesbian—reluctantly reveals to her BFF that she’s been masturbating by humping her stuffed panda. While that’s incredibly cringeworthy, it’s also relatable. So much of our formative sex-related experience is haphazard and a little weird. Like it or not, for most of us, self-pleasure comes with shame. With minimal direction given to us in the early part of our sexual lives, we often find our way in the dark, fumbling for purchase like a midnight trip to the bathroom.
That bizarro beginning can lead us to confusion, ultra-specific proclivities (like humping stuffed pandas), and muscle memory that might be counterintuitive to what we want in partnered relationships. For example, if your body thinks it can only climax when you rub your clit counterclockwise while picturing your 8th grade social studies teacher, that can take you out of even the most romantic of sexual moments.
For some women, it’s a herculean task to find a voice for what they want, or even a vocabulary. But for others (and I include myself here) the task is even more fundamental. We need to understand our body’s topography to give ourselves or our partners a reliable GPS to our sexual pleasure.
If you’ve ever clammed up when a sexual partner breathlessly asked you, What do you want? during sex, it may be because it’s almost impossible to answer that question if you aren’t sure how you’re built or what you like. That’s when we revert to regurgitating imagery we’ve seen on Showtime or somewhere in the porny parts of the Internet.
Related: How to Explore Your Sexuality
But if you’re like me and hadn’t heard the word clitoris before Jerry Seinfeld’s date told him his named rhymed with a part of the female anatomy (Dolores!), expressing what you want is a battlefield riddled with landmines. I want you to pinch my nipples and rub my Dolores, please. (Gag.) But over time, and with practice and confidence, I am learning to communicate during sex in a way that feels authentic to me, and that is leading to wildly pleasurable sex that’s full of new discoveries. For me, the key to verbalizing what I want has been knowing what that is. From there, saying it takes practice—and sometimes an extra glass of cabernet.
That knowing takes practice and exploration. For example, I used to say I couldn’t come from oral sex. It turns out, I can’t come from just oral sex—but when we add in a few fingers up north and a couple down south, I can come. Several times.
To get you started crafting your own roadmap to your sexual promised land, here are a few pieces of key information, plus some resources to help you discover your treasure trove of amazing personal secrets.
You’ve got to practice. If you always do the same thing when you masturbate, your mind and your body may forget how to climax in other ways, with other people. So, try new things. If you’re used to making yourself come with your fingers rubbing your clit, try increasing the stimulation by using a vibrator. Use your free hand to increase the pleasure by adding your breasts or your ass into the mix, for example.
Related: 7 Most Common Questions About Orgasms—Answered by Experts
Exercise some control. Maybe sex should be intuitive, but sometimes it’s not. Knowing the difference between a clench and a wince is crucial to understanding your body and its needs. As you or someone else is exploring your body during a sexual encounter, you’ll know you’re on the right track when your muscles begin to twitch and tighten. The more you are able to tense and relax—not flinch or recoil—the more you be able to control your sexual experiences so you can ditch the panda and find pleasure and eroticism from all kinds of experiences.
Sex isn’t just sex. Orgasms and pleasure are not the same thing. And you can have one without the other. Sometimes, the purpose of a sexual encounter is simply to get each other off. However, there are other times when the journey is the destination. It’s okay—wonderful, really—to take your time and explore, even if the sex doesn’t end with a mind-blowing orgasm. We often put so much pressure on ourselves and our partners to deliver the Big O that we forget to enjoy the rest of the ride.
Related: 3 Ways My Wife and I Turn Each Other On—Without Even Touching
Try some light reading. There are sex books and websites just about everywhere you look. But that alone can be intimidating. If you’re willing to take the whole journey from the ground up, try a book called Girl Sex 101 by Allison Moon. It’s written about and for lesbians, but it takes you on a tour of your body (with some handy graphics and illustrations) and your pleasure centers that is both fundamental and illuminating. With a whole chapter on chemistry verses attraction and another dedicated to cunnilingus, Moon’s book is holistic and specific. It doesn’t throw research at you or talk in generalizations. So do yourself a favor and tuck into this book and then tuck into your own body.
Jess Downey is an award-winning writer and editor from Philadelphia. As the editor of Real Woman magazine, it is her mission to share the stories of women who are thriving, overcoming, and inspiring. She has contributed to Runner’s World, Destinations, Women’s Health, Yoga Journal, and told stories from inside a women’s prison and an operating room. She lives with her partner, two sons, and the most exuberant jack Russell/chihuahua you will ever meet, and she doesn’t mind that Eagles fans threw snowballs at Santa Claus.
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