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I'm scared to touch my own vagina: why?

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birthdaycake123 asks:

Hey. I'm 14 and I've never fingered myself. I've done other things, but the thought of fingering myself just seems gross. A couple times, I've tried to, but then I get to thinking about how gross vaginas are, and I chicken out. I know this is irrational, but do you have any advice on getting over this? Thanks.

Heather Corinna replies:

Well, I don't think vaginas or vulvas (or penises or anuses or mouths or ears or eyes or fingers or kidneys: any body parts) are gross. I think they're really freaking cool and totally fascinating, whether I'm talking or thinking about my own, or all vulvas or vaginas. But you're making quite clear that you feel this way, and I wish I knew more about why.

No matter what, you don't have to ever masturbate or touch yourself in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable. Masturbation is about seeking our own pleasure and comfort with our own bodies, which means that if there's anything that doesn't feel pleasurable or comfortable, we don't have to do it, just like we don't have to do anything that doesn't feel physically and emotionally good with a sexual partner. There aren't right or wrong ways to masturbate or have sex in this regard: just what feels right to the person or people involved. If you don't want to put your fingers inside your vagina, you don't have to, just like if you don't want to touch your elbow, you don't have to, and like you don't have to stick your finger in your nose if you don't want to do that.

For the record, inserting fingers into the vagina as masturbation all by itself isn't that common, even though that's usually not about a sense the vagina is gross, but about that sensation not feeling like much to write home about all by itself, or your own fingers not offering the kind of angle or leverage for that to feel as good as it can. "Fingering" by a partner, when people choose to do that with partnered sex, too, is something that, when all that's going on is fingers inside a vagina? It often doesn't feel like anything for anyone to go super-bananas about either, mostly just because the vagina, all by itself, isn't as rich with sensory nerve endings as other areas of the genitals, like the clitoral glans. If you have the idea that if you or someone else doesn't now or ever put fingers into your vagina that means you're not fully sexual, know that just isn't true. Our sexuality is a lot bigger than what we do or don't do when it comes to sexual activities, and isn't defined by what, if any, tab goes into what, if any, slot.

If you don't want to touch any part of your vulva at all, you don't have to do that, either, though that's going to make things like using the toilet and dealing with menstrual periods more than a little tricky.

But feeling really grossed out by our own bodies is a very emotionally uncomfortable thing that doesn't tend to make us feel at all good about ourselves. So, whatever you choose to do or avoid when it comes to masturbation for the time being, or even forever, I think that trying to work through the way you're feeling around this is going to be of benefit to you. I don't think you're going to feel very good now or through life feeling fearful about or grossed out by your vagina.

Like I said, I don't know your reasons for thinking and feeling the way you do. But you're nothing close to the first person I've heard from who's felt like this, and I've talked in depth with others feeling like you are, so I've a good grasp of some of the common roots of or reasons for feeling this way.

Does your vagina seem gross because it's a canal into your body? If so, how about your mouth and throat? Your ears? Your rectum? These, too are all canals into the body from the outside. If they're not gross, or even one of them isn't gross, then why would the vagina be gross? Or maybe you just have a had time so far when it comes to thinking about you or anyone else's insides? If either of these things feel like an issue, it might help to do some thinking about how your bodies are both insides and outsides; one is no more or less gross than the other, even though they tend to look different. Plus, without our insides, our outsides would look pretty darn weird, not at all what they look like now. Our insides have a lot to do with our outsides. If you're just feeling funny about insides, period, have you yet taken a health or biology class at school? If you haven't, I'd see if you can. Some impersonal, academic exposure might help you. You might still feel like bodies are weird (and they kind of are, but that doesn't mean they're gross), but you probably won't single out your vagina so much afterward.

Does it seem gross because you don't know or understand it? Not knowing the deal with a body part can feel pretty weird or scary sometimes. What's mysterious can sometimes feel exciting, but other times can freak us right the heck out. So, if that's part of this, how about finding out what's in there and how it all works? You can read about that here or here. Your vagina doesn't have to be a mystery to you.

Does your vagina seem gross because all genitals seem gross? If so, why? What makes genitals, when it comes to being gross or not, different from other body parts for you? Is it about them having fluids? If so, our eyes have fluids, our mouths and noses have fluids. In fact, we're all mostly fluids: our bodies are made up of around 60% water. Is it because fluids can have something to do with reproduction? Or menstruation? Or because of messages you've gotten growing up about them being way different? With this one, I think it just pays to spend some time thinking about why genitals would be gross, but, for instance, squishy gray brain matter isn't or the bottoms of our feet aren't.

Does it seem gross because it doesn't quite feel like yours yet? Even though, if you were born with a vagina, you've had one your whole life, during and around puberty, your vulva -- much more so than your vagina -- changes a lot. Those changes can happen in a way that feels fast enough that it can sometimes take a little while for the vulva or vagina you have now to really feel like yours; to feel like a part of you that you know and identify with. With something like that, it may just be that you need some more time to get used to these parts of your body, and that's okay: you get to take all the time you need. As our bodies change, as they will throughout our lives, we'll find that sometimes we need some time to adjust to them, time that can be minutes or time that can be years or even decades.

How about your feelings about your gender? Sometimes extreme discomfort with genitals is about gender identity: for instance, if someone very strongly feels like one gender when they have body parts that are "supposed" to be those of a different gender or sex, they can feel very uncomfortable. Sometimes even when someone feels like the gender that "matches" the body they have, if they have strong negative feelings about that gender, or things people say about that gender, or ways they feel pushed to be that gender, they can have these kinds of feelings. Some body parts, like our genitals, mean we can get gendered by others in ways we may not be comfortable with, or at a pace that doesn't feel comfortable. That too, can be a reason for feeling like you have been. Anything like this is something a qualified counselor can help you with.

Does it seem REALLY gross, and have you feeling severely uncomfortable, and not just with masturbation? Some folks have what's called body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), a term used to describe when someone has an extremely pervasive and negative body image when it comes to a perceived defect of their physical features or body parts; when something seems to them, to be very, very wrong with one or more than one part of their body, so wrong that they experience profound emotional distress about it. The Mayo Clinic sums it up by describing it as "imagined ugliness," and says, "When you have body dysmorphic disorder, you intensely obsess over your appearance and body image, often for many hours a day. You may seek out numerous cosmetic procedures to try to "fix" your perceived flaws, but never will be satisfied. Body dysmorphic disorder is also known as dysmorphophobia, the fear of having a deformity." If that sounds like you, your best bet, again, is to talk to a qualified counselor who can help.

Does your vulva or vagina seem gross because there are parts of your sexuality you're not comfortable with? If so, this is something that you might just need to give yourself some more time with. Feeling at home in our sexuality is often a process, and in a lot of ways, a lifelong process. Being all the way there at 14 -- especially in a world where there are so many messages that support feeling bad or freaked about your sexuality or your body -- would be pretty unusual. It's okay not to feel totally comfortable just yet, and it's okay for getting there to be a process that takes time. You don't need to try and push yourself to do anything that doesn't feel right to you.

Or is this really about the idea that entry into vaginas is gross, rather than the idea vaginas themselves are? Vaginal, anal or oral entry can be loaded for plenty of people, with or without a partner, and it can also seem like a very different thing than external genital stimulation (probably in part because in some ways, it really is different). For more on that, reading this might help: Let's Get Metaphysical: The Etiquette of Entry.

Too, the idea of inserting something into our bodies can sometimes get paired in our heads with thoughts of other kinds of sex we might not want or want yet, feel comfortable with, or feel like have anything to do with our sexuality. Just know that if you do ever have the desire to explore your vaginal canal yourself, that doesn't mean you have to want or choose to engage in any other kinds of sex with vaginal entry if that's not something you want, now, soon or later. Or, maybe your sense is that the other things you do don't "count" as masturbation, but putting fingers in your vagina would, so it's masturbation you're not comfortable with entry, and that's not how most people masturbate most often. So, if you're externally rubbing your genitals for pleasure, for instance, that's just as much masturbation as putting fingers inside your body would be.

Those are some of the most common things I tend to hear come up around this. One or all of them might be true for you, or maybe your feelings are about something else entirely. But if even after reading all of this, you're not sure what's going on, then I'd say the first thing you'll want to do is to just think more about this over time so you can start by having a handle on the why of these feelings. It's hard to move forward with something like this when we don't have a sense of what we're trying to move forward from. And sometimes just getting at the why gets us most of the way past something negative all by itself.

If you've got a library nearby, I have some books to suggest you look at that I think will help you out. One I'd strongly suggest is Natalie Angier's Woman: An Intimate Geography. I think that'd be a great one for you. It talks about your whole body and body parts with a whole bunch of cool facts you might not know, and perspectives you may have never heard. But the best thing about that book, I think, especially for you, is that Angier basically totally geeks out about bodies in a really joyful way. She's someone who clearly finds the vagina and other parts really interesting and neat, not at all gross, and her enthusiasm comes across in her writing: it's quite contagious, and I think you could those good vibes right now.

In fact, she says a few things about vaginas I think you could stand to hear right this very second:

The vagina, now there's a Rorschach with legs. You can make of it practically anything you want, need or dread. A vagina in its most simple-minded rendering is an opening, an absence of form, an inert receptacle. It is a four- to five-inch-long tunnel that extends at a forty-five degree angle from the labia to the doughnut-shaped cervix. It is a pause between the declarative sentence of the outside world and the mutterings of the viscera. Built of skin, muscle and fibrous tissue, it is the most obliging of passageways, one that will stretch to accommodate travelers of any conceivable dimension, whether they are coming (penises, speculums) or going (infants)... The vagina is a balloon, a turtleneck sweater, a model for the universe itself, which, after all, is expanding in all directions even as we sit here and weep.

...The vagina is its own ecosystem, a land of unsung symbiosis and tart vigor. Sure, the traditional concept of the vagina is, "It's a swamp down there!" but "tidal pool" would be more accurate: aqueous, stable, yet in perpetual flux.

See how someone like myself or Angier, thinking and viewing this body part in these kinds of ways can pretty much only think, "Whoa, awesome!" or "Wow, that is COOL!" instead of, "Eeeew, gross?" especially when all of that and more is part of your own body? I mean, seriously, how cool is it that that's a part of you? If you ask me, very.

I'd also suggest checking out Nancy Redd's Body Drama and Our Bodies, Ourselves. If you've never read it, The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler is a great thing to read when it comes to feeling in good company with some of the feelings you've having and getting some messages that help explore and counter feeling crummy about your vagina. If you like the way I've talked about this with you and what you've seen at Scarleteen so far, you might also find my book helpful. It has a whole chapter about body image, including with genitals.

One big thing that runs through all the possibilities I brought up in that list up there is that we really can get a LOT of negative messages about vulvas and vaginas, some so sneaky we don't even realize that we've gotten them and internalized them. If you can figure out where you might have gotten or might still be getting messages that make you feel gross about your body, one big helpful thing you can do is to learn to change the channel. In other words, you've had the negative, so you switch to some more positive messages, like I've been talking about here and like the books I've suggested contain. Doing that can also make it a lot easier to just tune our or turn off the negative messages, and when we hear them -- even just inside our own heads -- they tend to sound a lot more silly and a lot less powerful.

Volunteer editors and advisors: Ray and Robin

written 05 Apr 2012 . updated 10 Apr 2012

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