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I want to try masturbating, but I'm afraid it will hurt.

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insanity98 asks:

I'm 15 years old. The only sexual things I've done are kiss and give a handjob. I want to start masturbating but I'm very scared. I have an EXTREME fear of pain: I can't even get shots without hysterics. Pain scares me more than the average person, and it's getting in the way of my sexual pleasure.

I've never fingered myself and I don't know how. I've looked at diagrams and at myself but I'm just not sure where my vagina opening is. I've never used a tampon, due to pain fears. When I tried fingering, I was very tight. I've read some answers here that said that a reason for vaginal discomfort when trying to insert objects could be that you're anticipating pain. So, how do I finger myself? What do I do since I'm so tight? Will my fear of pain get in the way of masturbation and, in the future, sex? How can I calm myself down enough so I won't be so scared and insertion will be easier? Please help me. I'm very scared. Thank you.

Robin Mandell replies:

Generally, fear serves a very important and useful function. It helps us recognize things to validly be afraid of and allows us to defend or put ourselves on guard against or around those things; to do what we need to to keep ourselves safe and sound.

Fear of pain is particularly adaptive. It often serves us well when it comes to taking care of ourselves, like eliciting caution when near a hot stove, or wariness when we're up high on something; it helps us be more observant of our surroundings and protective of our bodies in ways we need to be. When fear starts to control our lives, though, it can become a hindrance rather than a help, as you know.

It can hold us back from trying new things, can affect our enjoyment of new and different experiences, can make us feel crappy, and can just generally be really limiting to the way we want to live our lives; it can wind up keeping us from really living our lives, period.

When we're locked in any sort of fear pattern, it's especially important to take care of our mental and physical selves since that can be the first thing that goes when we're feeling stressed or worried. Self-care can teach our bodies and minds to feel more relaxed and chill, and to recover more quickly when we do experience stress or fear. It's a lot easier to stay scared, rather than let irrational fear go, when we're not taking good care of ourselves and honoring that when we're having rough feelings, we need some care.

Sometimes fear is based on misinformation. Sometimes it's based on bad previous experiences. Sometimes it's based on what others have told us we should or shouldn't do, or what we should or shouldn't feel. Sometimes it seems to have no basis whatsoever, but is still very real. I don't know if you have any sense of where these fears, or the extreme fear you have about any kind of physical discomfort or pain is coming from, but if not, it'll probably help to try and get to the bottom of that.

Is your fear holding you back from other things you want to do? Has it interrupted your life in any big ways? It sounds like it may have. When fears do interrupt our lives like that, and that's a pattern we find ourselves deeply stuck in, it can mean we need help to overcome them. Sometimes it means we have an anxiety disorder, which, like any physical medical condition, usually needs to be treated by a qualified professional for people to start experiencing some relief. Sometimes it means we don't have something that is technically diagnosable but that we could still use help with from a pro.

If you have a trusted adult in your life -- a parent or guardian, other family member, teacher, or someone else, and a friend will also do just fine -- you can first talk to them to try to get some support. I'm talking here about your general fear of pain, not necessarily what you've asked here about sex. Even though you'd probably benefit from being able to talk about the fears you have around sex, specifically, this trusted person doesn't necessarily have to be someone that you feel comfortable talking about sex and sexuality with. Anyone supportive you can get started talking to about the general fear you're experiencing would be a great start. To get actual practical help with the fear, you'd likely need to talk to a healthcare or mental healthcare provider. This could be a doctor, school nurse, school counselor, a counselor or therapist outside of school, or any other healthcare provider you feel comfortable with. Given that you seem to be expressing a long pattern of fear of pain, and to a degree you find to be far higher than most people, a mental healthcare provider is probably your best bet.

Here are some resources about anxiety, and about counseling, so you can decide if that's something you need or want to explore more. You should be able to find the books I'm suggesting in a public or school library. If you feel like these are fears you want to try to or can manage on your own, I think you'll find the list of self-care activities I linked above to be useful as well as the tools and exercises in these books.

You've asked whether this fear of pain will get in the way of future sexual relationships. I can't predict that, especially since it depends a lot on what progress you make working to understand and overcome it. But it doesn't have to, even with where you're at with it right this very second.

Next, I'd like to correct some misconceptions about vaginas, masturbation and partnered sex, pleasure and pain that you've brought to the table here. My aim is to give you a start towards easing your fears around this stuff and to help you to feel more free to explore your own body and your sexuality, and I think ditching some of the things you are thinking that just aren't sound or realistic is likely to help with that a whole lot.

A lot of folks think masturbation is about using fingers inside the vagina, and that partnered sexual activities are also mainly focused around vaginal entry. In actuality, entry with fingers, a penis or a toy, all by themselves, without any other mental or physical stimulus, typically isn't all that exciting or arousing for most people with vaginas. It's also not what most will typically do, or only do, all by itself, when masturbating. For some people, it's not all that exciting even with other kinds of sexual activity. So, just know that inserting anything into your vagina isn't a requirement for any sort of sex, whether with yourself or with a partner, and that when that all alone isn't working out for you, that's not unusual, and may have little to nothing to do with your fears about pain in the first place.

To get a broader picture of what is more common for people when it comes to masturbation, you can read more here. You'll see that people masturbate in all sorts of ways, just based on what they've figured out feels good to them. There's no one way, and the point is to just go with whatever feels good, not to try and make yourself do anything that doesn't. Masturbation is something that's expressly for you, and expressly for you to enjoy. No need to try and push yourself to do anything that isn't enjoyable.

It sounds like you have the idea that sex, whether with a partner or with oneself, equals pain: know for most people, most of the time, that's just not so. Anyone who says sex involves pain, or that if there is pain during anything sexual, that's to be expected and we need to just go on with the sex is, in my opinion, selling you a huge bill of goods. They may also just be repeating some of the age-old scripts that are still floating around about sex and pain. I'm always distressed to read anyone framing sexual pleasure as something which they think must or will involve pain.

Sex and sexuality, alone or with partners, can be complex, for sure, but ultimately they are -- or should be, anyway -- about pleasure, discovery, fun, joy, and all the other things that make life rich and rewarding. If it's something you are deeply afraid of, I think that means it's a time to take a step back away from it, and dig into, then work to unpack, what exactly is making you afraid first. If you're not feeling, with your whole heart, mind and body, that any kind of sex is a terrific idea, that usually means that sex isn't a good idea right then and there.

I think some of what is making you afraid are these misconceptions you have had that are underlying your ideas about sex and about genital anatomy. First-time vaginal entry, whether with oneself or with a partner, has been, for lack of a better word, marketed as painful since the beginning of recorded history.

We've spent a lot of time, and written a lot of words, to try to put this pervasive belief in context for people here on the site. Vaginal entry doesn't have to hurt, and usually when it does, it means something needs to be done differently; when it does, it usually means something is wrong, be that physically, emotionally, intellectually, interpersonally, culturally, or all of the above. Some common reasons why vaginal entry hurts, when it does, are that the person hurting isn't sufficiently comfortable, aroused or lubricated, is nervous or stressed, is being assaulted, or has a partner not showing caring and consideration for the fact that they're entering another person's body, or some or all of these.

If you've had the idea that first-time vaginal sex with a partner is, must be, or will be painful and scary, I think you'll find it helpful to read these stories to get some different perspectives. Personal stories like these can help balance out those negative, misleading messages with something more nuanced and more realistic. What these stories have in common is their focus on what can make sex fun and pleasurable, including desire, arousal, emotional comfort and plenty of exploration and communication. As you'll see, the vaginal entry ends up being a pretty small part of the whole sexual experience in each narrative.

Sex is about so much more than insertion. Often it isn't about insertion at all, even for people who do find that enjoyable sometimes and don't feel afraid of it. You may also have heard that guys -- folks with penises -- are always all about the intercourse. As you can see here, that isn't the case across the board. Just as not all women have the same needs or sexual interests, nor enjoy all the same things, men also don't have universal sexual desires, likes and interests.

Regarding vaginal tightness, it's not so much about being "tight" or "loose" as it is about being tense or relaxed. The vagina is a muscle (and a muscle surrounded by other muscles, no less). If that muscle and those around it are tense -- as it often will be when people feel scared or nervous -- that constricts the opening into the vagina. If those muscles are, instead, relaxed, that makes the vaginal opening and canal more flexible. If one is sexually aroused, the vagina also expands and lubricates, making entry, if that's what the person with the vagina wants, easier, more pleasurable, and often both. Once someone is no longer aroused, the vagina pretty quickly goes back to its resting state, with the vaginal walls touching each other. So, while things might feel tighter or looser at any given time, it's really not about being tight, or about loosening things up on a permanent basis.

There's a lot more I could say about all of that, but rather than reinventing the wheel, here are some links to great content we already have here where we explain vaginal and other sexual anatomy, and the deal with fingering and pain, in detail. You'll see that you're very much not alone in your fears about painful sex, and your ideas about the centrality of fingering in masturbation.

What does all this mean for you if you want to start to explore masturbation?

You've said that you've looked at diagrams, and done some exploring, but that you can't find your vaginal opening. When you've looked or felt around, were you feeling very aroused, using extra lubricant, and really taking your time? If not, that's a good place to start. I'm presuming you want to explore masturbation because you're hoping to feel good, and would like to get to know your body better, not because you think masturbation is something you're supposed to do at this point in your sexual life. If it is the latter, know that there are no rules about when or if you masturbate and no rules, if you masturbate once, that say you have to continue doing so.

I'd suggest you put the idea of vaginal entry on the back burner for now. It may be something you find you enjoy in future, but for now the idea is clearly just causing you fear and stress. Fear and stress are typically not friends of sexual desire or sexual enjoyment. As you yourself said, they can make sexual exploration more difficult.

For now, I'd drop the worries about, and focus on, where your vaginal opening is, and also ditch any sense of what you're "supposed" to do during masturbation, including which parts of your body you think you're supposed to touch or which are supposed to feel good to you. Instead, I'd suggest you just explore way more freely. If you just follow what feels good, and stick with that as your guide, you won't hurt yourself. If anything you do or start to do hurts or feels uncomfortable, all you need to do is stop whatever that is and move on to something that feels more pleasurable, comfortable, or both. That's one of the awesome things about masturbation: we get to do whatever we want to do, however we like, based on nothing but what feels good to us.

In general, I think the more information someone has about their body, the better. But for you, for now, I think the information and misinformation, you already have is tripping you up and causing you to overthink this, rather than just feeling your way through it without putting any pressures on yourself. It sounds like your exploration so far has been stymied by the stress of figuring out where that opening is, and the idea that finding that opening and fingering yourself is something you have to do. But you don't. Making that a goal -- instead of just exploring what feels good more organically -- isn't likely to give you the pleasure and enjoyment you're probably looking for, and may be part of what's holding you back from feeling good and more confident about your body and your sexuality.

That doesn't mean that you can't still learn more about it if you'd like. A healthcare provider can help you learn about your genital anatomy by explaining it to you and even, with the aid of a mirror, giving you a guided tour. You may also find these illustrations helpful.

Masturbation really isn't so much about what you do with your body as about how you're feeling. A lot of people think that masturbating is just about touching genitals. Technically, that's how it's usually defined in the dictionary, but when we think of it more broadly, as self-pleasuring, the possibilities increase exponentially. Self-pleasuring can include reading erotica, looking at sexy pictures, enjoying fantasies, and touching one's own body (not just the genitals) in ways that one finds sexy and pleasurable. I'd suggest you approach masturbation from a place of true want and desire: whatever your own really feels and looks like for you. It can help also with relaxation and arousal to be sure that you're in a space where you are pretty certain you won't be interrupted, and when you can devote as much time to yourself as you need and want without feeling anxious or hurried.

What about sex with partners? The number one thing you'll always want to consider when deciding whether to engage in sexual activity with another person, fears or no fears, is whether you're comfortable communicating your needs to them, and whether you feel as certain as we can feel that they'll listen and be responsive to your expressed needs. You won't ever have to do anything in a healthy, consensual sexual relationship that you're afraid of or that you know doesn't feel good to you. Sex with a partner is usually about a lot more than intercourse, even for people who engage in intercourse together, and is also usually about a lot more than just physical sexual activities. Sex between partners involves emotions, wants, likes and dislikes, as well as bodies. It's also exactly about, or should be, the people involved, who are going to be individuals with the kinds of varied and individual likes and dislikes, wants and not-wants, about sex in the same way we vary with just about everything else.

If you were to try intercourse, and find it painful, or find it not-painful but just not your thing, you could decide that it wasn't going to be part of your sexual life if you didn't want it to be.

The thing is, you get to be you in a healthy relationship, and that includes whoever you turn out to be with what you want sexually, and what you find does and doesn't feel good to you.

That also means you get to be you in a relationship, or any kind of sexual interaction, with wherever you are at a given time in your life and anything about you. That includes wherever you're at at a given time when it comes to working with, managing and experiencing these fears of pain. If and when you get into a sexual relationship with someone else soon, and where you're at means you don't want or feel ready to try any kind of sex that involves vaginal entry or feels scary to you -- even if those fears aren't reasonable -- you get to be that person. That won't be a fit for every potential partner, both in terms of what they want it might not be a fit with, or how willing and able they feel to handle a partner with big anxiety in this area, but that's okay. No matter who we are or what our issues are, we're not going to fit with everybody.

To wrap all this up, masturbation doesn't have to be about vaginal fingering, and isn't only or primarily about that for most people; for some it isn't ever about that. Sex, of any kind, also isn't supposed to be painful. It's supposed to be about pleasure. But because it often involves our bodies, and very sensitive parts of them, sometimes things can or might hurt for a host of reasons. If and when that happens for you, you always get to stop, and to do so immediately. Any partner who cares about you, and cares as much about you feeling good as they do themselves? They'll also want to stop, and instead find things for you two to do together that feel good for you both, instead of hurting one of you. In addition, you even get to take anything that you just fear will be painful off the table of sexual exploration with a partner or with yourself if you want and that makes you feel best.

Given the strong fear you express currently feeling about this, I'd say that partnered sex that involves vaginal entry probably isn't the right choice for you right now, and won't be until you find ways to manage or dump that fear. Learning how to deal with and dial down these fears seems like the better place to put your time and energy first, and a better place for you to take risks around this, now than leaping into any kind of sex that scares you, alone or with a partner.

This doesn't mean that you can't explore masturbation, though. In fact, spending some time exploring it in ways that do not feel scary, and that do feel good might help you out a whole lot here on top of being a healthy, low-pressure way to explore and enjoy sexuality.

I hope the information I've provided here has made you feel more confident and at least a little less freaked out. I'm going to leave you with some more links to help you out with all of this.

written 30 Oct 2013 . updated 13 Jan 2014

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