Nov 212012

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.

emily nagoski

  5 Responses to “nuts and bolts of masturbation”

Comments (5)
  1. First, I want to thank you for writing this post. I think more “nuts and bolts” information about this is never a bad thing.

    Secondly, I’m not sure if this is the right venue exactly but it’s relevant and I need to say it. I’m not sure if the social landscape has changed in the past 15 years or so. I sure hope that it has. Because when I was in junior high school, the topic of masturbation came up at a sleepover. The girls there were chatting (as you do) and one of them asked me whether I’d ever tried masturbating. I had, and I told her that I did. She claimed that she hadn’t, all of the girls present said that they hadn’t (and in fact, wouldn’t).

    What happened next was a nightmare that only junior high could create. She told a friend, who told a friend, who told… everyone. They came up with a nickname for me, “Fingers.” Girls I didn’t even know who were in the grade above us took it upon themselves to call me it at every opportunity. In the bathroom, if they passed me in the hallway – anywhere in the school. They hissed it at me like an epithet. “Fingers, Fingers,” and then they’d laugh. I spent every day for months feeling sick and ashamed, wishing I’d never said anything about it. It still brings tears to my eyes when I think about it. It eventually escalated to the point where I was missing school. Finally, a concerned teacher deliberately followed me and saw what was going on. I had to tell the principal what these girls had been saying to and about me. Even that in itself was shameful – “They are saying that I masturbate.”

    He told them that what they were doing was sexual harassment and they could be expelled for it. The bullying stopped, and fortunately when I went to high school this abuse didn’t follow me, but as far as I’m concerned I had been damaged. Formerly outgoing and confident, I was just a shadow of myself. I dreaded answering questions in class and just hoped no one would notice me, ever, either in a good or a bad way. I’m nearly thirty years old and I still have the scars from those days. I’ve mended much on my own but some of it stays with you.

    Because of my experiences I find myself at a loss – I worry sometimes what I would teach a daughter of mine about masturbation. Because like you, I think it’s perfectly normal and healthy but I can’t imagine her going through what I did. Should I teach her “It’s normal and healthy and many women do it but don’t talk about it to other people because it’s private”? If no one ever talks about it, attitudes don’t change. At the same time, memories of the results of my own candor are still vivid enough for me that I’m not sure.

    • Wow. I would teach your kid that slut shaming is wrong in addition to masturbation.

    • I’m sorry you went through this S. I went through something very similar at university. Seeing a therapist helped me get over it. I also started looking at a lot of sex-positive websites such as It made me realise that I wasn’t such a freak and the problem was with society, not with me. If I had a daughter, I would want to make sure that she knew masturbation was an ok thing to do, but also warn her that a lot of people are judgmental about it. I don’t want any children though so that’s not something I have to think about.

  2. In my experience, the social landscape over thirty years ago (at least where I lived and in my social circles) was much more open to the idea of girls masturbating — indeed, it seemed as if there were pundits all over the place (Judy Blume and Norma Klein and so forth) telling us it was okay, to an almost embarrassing extent. Most of the girls I ever talked to about it took the idea for granted — in one discussion in high school (unofficial, NOT in class, no teachers involved), where we went around a circle asking questions like “how old were you when you first had an orgasm,” the girls averaged earlier than the boys (latest was twelve, IIRC). We were very much a self-selected lot, but even so. It still shocks me that things have gone so far backward, and what happened to you in middle school was horrific (though good for that principal for calling it by the right name).

    My kids seem to have imbibed pretty progressive attitudes at school (as well as, I hope, at home) — we live in an area where by middle and high school there are a lot of openly gay and lesbian teens, which helps.

    I don’t think there’s any way to circumvent bullying like that — there is always something else they could bully you about, so it’s not worth trying to predict exactly what will be a target.

  3. Thank you. There is something about the nuts and bolts way that you describe it which makes it seem less intimidating and scary than the way I normally see it. Perhaps it’s the part where you talk about simply noticing things that the body is doing, rather than “here is what *will* happen”.

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