nuts and bolts of masturbation

It’s rare, these days, that I get asked a basic nuts-and-bolts question, but recently a student asked me just precisely what is it a female-bodied person DOES to masturbate and have an orgasm.

Here are the highlights of the blog post I wrote for her:

There are many different ways to masturbate, but as a beginning, let’s imagine you’re lying on your back, naked in bed. (You can also try lying on your stomach with your hands clamped between your legs, lying on your side, a pillow locked between your thighs, or standing up in the shower, with the water stream pointed onto your genitals.)

1. Find your clitoris. You can find it visually or manually. To find it visually, get a mirror, spread your labia (the soft, hairy outer lips of your vulva) and actually LOOK AT IT. It’ll be a nub at the top of your vulva. Like this:


Or you can find it manually – i.e., with your fingers. Start with the tip of your middle finger on your mons, right where your labia begin to split. Press down gently and wiggle your finger back and forth, and scoot your fingertip slowly down between your labia until you feel a rubbery little cord or shaft under the skin. (It might help to pull your skin taut by tugging upward on your mons with your free hand. It might also help to lubricate your finger with spit, commercial lube, some allergen-free hand cream, or even a little olive oil.)

2. Stimulate the clitoris indirectly. Start out with “distal” stimulation, which means indirect, roundabout stimulation. Try any of these, or whatever else feels right:

  • Gently pinch your labia between your thumbs and forefingers, stretch the labia out, and tug from side to side. This will put very indirect pressure on the clitoris and move the skin over the clitoris (the “clitoral hood”) over top of it.
  • With your palm over your mons pubis, press down a little and pull upward, toward your abdomen. Again, this will put gentle pressure on the clit and move the skin around it. Try different pressures, different speeds of tugging (e.g., one long slow tug, several quick tugs in a row), or rotating your palm in a circle.
  • Place your palms against your inner thighs, so that the outside edges of your thumbs are pressing against your labia, possible even squeezing them together. Rock your hips against the pressure of your hands.

Some people prefer indirect stimulation over direct stimulation. You may notice as you try these techniques that the muscles in your arms, legs, butt, and/or abdomen get tense. That’s a normal part of the arousal process. You might even find yourself feeling like you really don’t want to stop doing a particular kind of stimulation. I humbly suggest you go with your gut; don’t stop. Keep going for as long as it feel good, just keep paying attention to the pleasurable sensations without trying to change it or even understand it.

Some people prefer direct stimulation, but for most it only works when arousal has already started up, so once you’re feeling pretty pleasurable and warm, try any of these:

  • With the flat of one or two or three fingertips, lightly touch the head of the clitoris with a steady back-and-forth motion. Try slow, fast, anything in between that feel good, and with light, brushing touch, light pressure, deep pressure… try different combinations of speeds and pressures.
  • With as many fingertips as feels comfortable, rub circles directly over your clitoris – fast or slow, light touch or deep pressure, or anything in between.
  • Again with varying numbers of fingers, and with different pressures and speeds, tug upward on the clitoris, from the clitoral hood.
  • With whatever variation on fingers, speed, and pressure you want to try, flick upward from just under the head of the clitoris.

As your arousal level changes, just notice and observe what happens to your body. Don’t try to MAKE it change. If you notice that your brain starts whirring away at anxieties or fears, just notice that too, know that you can worry about all that some other time, release those thoughts, and return your attention to the sensations inside your body.

Again, there’s lots more to try than just this. This is just a beginning. Try it out, let me know what questions you stumble into.

For those of you who might be like, “Ew, why is a wellness blog posting something so explicit about (*gulp*) masturbation?” remember this:

Loving your own body, having the self-respect necessary to allow yourself to experience and enjoy pleasure, is an act of radically feminist social justice. One person at a time, it creates a world that celebrates women’s individual sexual autonomy and closes the gate on male control and “ownership.”

Loving your own body, having the emotional wherewithal to relax into sexual arousal, is an act of social transformation. It reshapes our culture to one where women are open to saying YES to the good things that come with living in an organic body. And that, in turn, opens up the opportunity to say YES or NO to partnered sex. It creates a world where women’s bodies are their own, where other people are expected to ask permission before they touch, and where pleasure is a right.

Loving your own body, having the personal power to experience sexual pleasure on your own terms, is an act of public health promotion. When women live joyfully inside their own skins, they are ready and willing to protect that skin. They will use contraception correctly and consistently, talk with their partners about STI risks, and show and tell their partners what they enjoy.

Loving your body is a wellness practice. No one HAS to masturbate – lots of women go their whole lives without trying it even once – but if you decide not to, be sure that that decision comes from authentic choice, rather than cultural shaming. Your body belongs to you. To YOU.

There is actual research I could cite about the relationship between masturbation and other health behaviors. I’ll dig those up when I finish the book.

EDIT: A student pointed me to Dodson and Ross’s First Time Orgasm page, which is more detailed and has some awesome tips, especially for folks who have struggled with orgasm in the past.