Each week, The CSPH answers questions that have been submitted anonymously through Formspring. This week’s question is:
Is it “normal” to not masturbate? I’ve been told that because I don’t masturbate, that’s why I can’t recognize (or have, who knows) orgasms. I’ve never really been concerned with pleasuring myself or found it to be something I desired. On the same note, I’m uncomfortable receiving oral sex. Maybe [I’m] just really scared of actually developing a healthy relationship with my vagina?
Yes, not masturbating is normal– and so is masturbating! You were correct in putting quotation marks around the word “normal;” normality in many ways is a useless, undefinable gauge of well-being. To be specific, when people refer to what is “normal,” they can be referencing a number of ideas, such as “good,” “natural,” and “common,” all of which have distinctly different implications. For this reason, rather than think in terms of what is “normal,” it’s more beneficial to frame one’s sexual behaviors through a lens of health risk and personal desires.
Considering your lack of concern and desire in self-pleasure, you may initially find masturbation to be uneventful, strange, and even uncomfortable. This is natural, not everyone can jump right into masturbating and find themselves climaxing. Rather, self-love can take time and care in exploring one’s body, and potentially extra stimulation. In this sense, you may find it helpful to start attempting to physically pleasure yourself only after you are already turned on. You can do this by reading erotica, watching porn, or as I discuss in my Q&A: How Can I Have a Fulfilling Solo Sex Experience?, fantasizing. You may also want to look into buying a sex toy, such as a dildo or vibrator, to aid you in your masturbation. For more information, visit my Q&A: Vibrators.
It’s also important to understand that people masturbate for a number of reasons, only one of which is the goal of achieving climax. For some people, masturbation is out of sexual desire and/or a desire for self-pleasure. It can also be more of a reflexive habit, meaning, it’s something like scratching an itch. Others still use masturbation as preparation for partnered sex. Moreover, self-pleasure is a great way for people to stay in touch with what’s going on in their genitals. Because of how varied people’s intentions and goals are in masturbating, there is no one way masturbation should be or feel. Some people even find it boring! Nonetheless, it’s still important to stay in touch of what’s going on in one’s genitals, and to pay attention to what gives them pleasure, be it with a partner or otherwise.
With that said, one of my primary recommendations to individuals who cannot orgasm or recognize orgasms is to masturbate. The reason for this is because, as I discuss in my Q&A: Difficulty Orgasming (Vulva-Owners), the person best equipped to make you orgasm is, in fact, yourself. Only you can know what you like and what gets you off, and without that knowledge it’s understandable that you have yet to orgasm or recognize your orgasms. This is one of the benefits of masturbating– once you start understanding your body’s responses to arousal and climax, you can more easily seek to replicate the experience, be it with a partner or alone. For an extensive explanation of the human sexual response cycle, I recommend Scarleteen’s article, “Sexual Response and Orgasm: A User’s Guide.”
Your discomfort with receiving oral sex is noteworthy, but not common, especially in the context of your lack of desire to masturbate. Many of us are reared in a society where, despite overt sexualization in the media and entertainment, little attention is paid to the pleasure felt by vulva-owners. Whereas penis-owners receiving oral sex is normalized, people with vulvas experiencing the same is often flat out ignored or, in the case of the film Blue Valentine, initially given an NC-17 rating for depicting oral sex on a woman.
In addition to this silence about vulva-owners receiving and enjoying oral sex, society is rife with negative stereotypes and perspectives about vulvas and vaginas. Many vulva-owners are anxious about their labia and scent in particular, since these aspects tend to be the focus of harmful jokes. The result of this negativity, in addition to silence about vulva-owners’ pleasure and many people’s lack of sexual education, often results in feelings of shame, which then affects people in their day-to-day lives as well as in their sexual relationships.
In light of this, I would like to stress a couple of things: first, vulvas come in all different sizes, shapes, and colors, and second, vulvas and vaginas have a natural scent that varies from person to person, and each person’s smell differs depending on where they are in their menstrual cycle. Vulva-owners should therefore steer clear of vaginal douches and scented vaginal products, both of which upset the pH balance of the vagina and can result in yeast infections. Additionally, vulva-owners should take care to not use soap inside of their labia and vagina; water alone is enough, although it’s fine to use soap on the outside of one’s labia majora and to lather one’s pubic hair. Should vulva-owners find themselves concerned about their vulva’s scent, a visit to one’s health-care provider will help dispel any worries about the smell or, if there are any issues (such as an infection), help address them.
To get a greater understanding of the vast variety of vulvas, I recommend that you take a peek at a few books: Femalia, by Joani Blank; Vulva 101, by Hylton Coxwell; and I’ll Show You Mine, by Wrenna Robertson, which gives personal accounts by vulva-owners on their complicated relationships with their genitalia. (If you ever have the chance to visit The Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health’s physical location, you can peruse these books from our library!) If you’d rather not purchase such a book, you can also check out blogs such as VaginasoftheWorld, where users submit photos of their vulvas, and Vulva-Love, which depicts vulvas in a vast variety of mediums, including photos and art.
In addition to understanding the scent and variety of appearances of vulvas, I suggest that you do a little exploring of your vulva, if you’re comfortable enough to do so. By this, I do not mean masturbate, but rather, that you take the time to sit in front of a mirror and examine your genitalia. You can refer to this guided tour, which discusses the anatomy of the vulva, as you examine and touch the parts of your genitals. Scarleteen also hosts an extensive guide to sexual anatomy, titled, “With Pleasure: A View of Whole Sexual Anatomy for Every Body.”
Finally, should you find that you are in fact afraid of developing a healthy relationship with your vulva and vagina, I would suggest that you take the time to self-reflect on the reasons behind this. People’s relationships with their bodies can be incredibly complicated and understanding the roots of these feelings can be a difficult task. For this reason, you may find it helpful to visit a sex therapist or consult with a sex educator who can then help you navigate your emotions and experiences with your genitalia.