Robin Mandell replies:
I'm 16 years old and a virgin and I'm not exactly sure how to masturbate? That might sound weird but I'm just not sure how I'm supposed to do it. I've tried fingering myself but it always kind of freaks me out and I stop and it never felt that good anyway. The thought of my fingers being inside myself just weirds me out, even though I know it's not weird but it is for me. I guess what I'm wondering is, is this normal? And how am I "supposed" to masturbate if it all seems weird to me?
This doesn’t sound weird to me at all.
Many of us have grown up getting a lot of direct and indirect messages that our own sexuality is the one thing we’re all just supposed to know how to do. We see variants of this question a lot, and I’d venture to say that there are many, many more people who wonder this but are afraid to ask, so good on you for asking!
There’s no one way to masturbate. Some people do it with hands. Some people do it with toys. Some people do it with pillows, shower heads, or the corners of furniture. How someone masturbates is about as individual as what they choose to eat, or what clothes they choose to wear.
Masturbation has usually been defined as sexually stimulating oneself through touching one's own genitals, but I like to expand that definition and say that masturbation is really just the practice of interacting with oneself sexually. For many people, that will involve touching their own genitals. For some, it won't. For some, it can involve fantasy, for others, it won't. For some, it will involve reading erotica or romance books, while other people don't do that.
Our sexualities really are beautifully complex, with many, many factors affecting both the current expression of sexuality and how it will change over time. Often what affects and forms our unique sexuality isn't just one thing, but a set of things and circumstances that will vary in significance as we go through our lives. So for you, the way you interact with your body in a sexual way now isn't necessarily the way you'll interact with it a year, a month, or perhaps even a week from now. I think you might find it informative to learn about the circles of sexuality. One of the primary messages in this article is that anyone can have a sexuality, and I think that's something worth holding onto as you explore your body and learn what your sexuality means for you.
With the negative messages many of us have been given as children about our bodies “down there”, it’s really not surprising that you, and many other young people, feel weird about touching their genitals. I don't know what kinds of messages you've gotten about sex, and about your body, over the years, so if what I'm about to say doesn't resonate with you at all, please just bear with me.
Some people learn, from a very young age, that they should be ashamed of their bodies, either through families, religious leaders, educators and others telling them that their bodies are shameful, or more subtly through the refusal of these same folks to talk about sex and bodies when a child asks questions. Some of us have been taught that sex should be saved for marriage. If not that, then we've absorbed this prevailing notion that sex is something we do with partners, not with ourselves.
The difficulty and problem with these messages lies in the reality that each person's sexuality lies within them, and not solely within their interaction with another person and that person's sexuality. In other words, other people don't give us a sexuality, and it doesn't only exist when someone else is around to share it with: it's not only there when we're alone, it's also something that people can -- and most do -- explore and experience alone, not just with partners.
In addition, many of the messages we get about sexualities, and about our bodies as related to our sexualities, are related to practicalities of sex -- to things like having children, getting regular pap smears, even the mechanics of engaging in sex with a partner. All of these things are important, but they tend to separate us from finding pleasure in our own bodies, and from the playfulness inherent in sexual exploration, whether with ourselves or with a partner. Related to pleasure, sometimes we learn -- often more from our peers or the media than from more credible, educated sources without an agenda -- that experiencing sex is something that will always be explosive and amazing. We get the impression that sex or sexual comfort is automatic -- it's not -- and if our experience is anything different than what those stories say, we tend to feel embarrassed, or like there's something not quite right about us or broken.
There's also this hyper-valuing of sex with partners. This message is pretty pervasive, but is particularly apparently if we think about the terminology young people often use for intercourse with a partner; such as "going all the way" or "home run".
The really solid truth is, though, that masturbation is sex; it's sex with oneself. It's something that allows people to learn some things about their bodies, about their sexuality and how they feel about both.
It can, however, be intimidating. It can feel daunting or scary. Even if you didn't receive any of the negative or limiting messages about sex or your body that I discussed above, chances are very good that you didn't grow up in a masturbation-positive environment, since very few people have grown up that way. Furthermore, you may not have gotten a solid education on the anatomy involved in masturbation.
One thing to consider is taking the time to learn exactly what is going on down there. Learn more about your anatomy. Perhaps even take some time, when you are assured of privacy, and use a mirror to look at your vulva. You can think of this as a science experiment. We do lots of experiments in school to learn how things work, but we don’t learn a lot about our own bodies and how they work.
Become an explorer. No pressure to feel sexual feelings, you're just seeing what you see, and feeling what you feel. I think a big part of it is to just get more used to yourself. The way you look, the way it feels to touch yourself, the way the rest of your body feels when you do. The idea here is that your genitals are a normal part of your body, just like your arms or your hair, both of which you probably touch all the time.
Understanding the anatomy can give us a nudge in the right direction of understanding what will be pleasurable, though that will vary with each individual body. Sometimes it even varies based on where we are in our menstrual cycle, or on external things like stress. There are some basics though that are pretty common.
I'm not sure, for example, what you mean by "fingering". What people often mean by that is that they insert their fingers into their vagina. For many people, that’s not going to be the most exciting or interesting part of masturbation. The vagina doesn't have a lot in the way of nerve endings. Nerve endings are the pleasure receptors that respond to touch and they are much more plentiful in the external and internal parts of the clitoris. I know we're talking about masturbation here, and not partnered sex, but I think you'll be able to identify with the great no-orgasm-from-intercourse conundrum.
Let's get back to that idea of things feeling "weird."
Do they feel good weird or bad weird? Sometimes when we feel something we've never felt before, it feels weird or uncomfortable just because it's new and unfamiliar. Sexual pleasure doesn't get talked about very much, and even if it was a frequent topic of conversation, it's pretty hard to categorize what is a wide range of feelings and experiences for all sorts of different people. So, when we start to explore our bodies, we don't know what to expect to feel. Sometimes we're so focused on what we think it's supposed to feel like (the belief that sexual pleasure is explosively pleasurable for all people is just as harmful as the belief that it's hard to attain) that it's tough to relax and just get in touch with what we're feeling.
So, when we masturbate, it can help to say to ourselves: "I know this feels weird, but is it a good weird, a bad weird, or a neutral weird?" In other words: "Do I want this to continue, do I want it to stop, or am I still undecided?" Being undecided is okay. It's okay to stop and try again some other time. It's also okay to decide that masturbation just isn't for you right now. Our sexuality and how we want to express it is constantly evolving, so making a decision around it for right now doesn't mean making that decision forever.
I have a few more links for you to look at, but I wanted to close with a thought that popped out at me as I was rereading this answer to you. Above I referred to genitals as "down there", a term a lot of us grew up with as children, and one which I personally still find myself using if I'm feeling shy or embarrassed.
But what I realized is that "down there" is really "right here". As much as the messages many of us have received about our genitals have endeavoured to separate us from them, they haven't gone anywhere and aren't going to. They are, as I've already said, just as much a part of us as our hair or other body parts. We can make friends with them and let them know that they're a part of us, and we get to feel however we feel about them, just like we get to feel however we feel about our noses, elbows or legs.
So whether you discover that masturbation is wonderful, or maybe that it's nice sometimes but doesn't rock your world, or that it's not for you right now, I think one really positive thing you can do for your sexuality, whatever that sexuality ends up looking like, is to claim your genitals as part of you and part of your personhood, even if they're not part of your sexuality right now.