How to Love Your Vulva in 4 Simple Steps

Vagina Books

I’ve never had a real close relationship with my vulva. I wouldn’t say that I ever really hated it, just that I haven’t appreciated it. Since puberty, I have annoyingly viewed it as just one more body part that needed to be shaved. I have unfairly compared it to those compact little vulvas of porn stars, mockingly referring to it as my “dangly bits.” In fact, my first reaction to labiaplasty was one of intrigue — not horror and sadness that I would actually consider paying someone to cosmetically cut off parts of my genitalia.

Investigating human sexuality and becoming part of the sex positive movement has forced me to question my attitude. Did you know that women who lack positive feelings about their genital appearance also report lower levels of sexual self-esteem and sexual satisfaction?Yeah, me neither. But that information convinced me that it was in my best interest to make friends with my vulva.

 Here’s what I’ve learned…

1. Educate Yourself

As Buzzfeed recently showed us, many adults of both genders cannot correctly identify the parts of male/female sex organs. Although the mislabeled diagrams were presented in a humorous way, the obvious lack of sex education is also cringeworthy. For those of us advocating for comprehensive sex ed, this failure isn’t exactly surprising — especially for external female genitalia. Focusing entirely on internal reproductive organs, many curricula omit anatomical details like the (purely pleasurable) clitoris.

Take responsibility for your own sex education. Learn the correct anatomical terms for the parts of your genitals, and be able to locate them. (Yes, even if that means looking at your vagina in a mirror.) Know how your vulva and vagina physically change when aroused. Understand the details of ovulation and menstruation, so that you know what’s going on inside your body. And of course, keep up to date on regular gynecological visits while educating yourself about basic vulvovaginal health.

Two really great educational resources are Read My Lips: A Complete Guide to the Vagina and Vulva by Debby Herbenick & Vanessa Schick and The V Book: A Doctor’s Guide to Complete Vulvovaginal Health by Elizabeth Stewart & Paula Spencer.

2. Challenge Your Concept of the “Ideal” Vulva

Women’s bodies are often distorted by the media and vulvas are no exception. The difference is we very rarely have the opportunity to see the real vulvas of real women. Porn is usually our only representation, and mainstream pornography falls into the same trap of airbrushed and surgical perfection as this month’s fashion magazine. Vanessa Schick has done some intriguing studies on porn star vaginas. Among her findings are that Playboy almost never includes images of longer inner labia and that the amount of centerfolds with “natural” pubic hair decreased from 99% in the 1980’s to only 9% in the 2000’s.2

Try searching out amateur or Feminist porn that focuses on real depictions of the female body. If you’re looking for something less hardcore, there are some beautiful photography books that celebrate vulva diversity. (Petals by Nick Karras even has a cheap Kindle version.) I also find the novelty of Tee Corinne’s Cunt Coloring Book simply irresistible. Exposing yourself to a variety of vulvas can help you to view yours as beautiful and unique, no matter the form, color, or pubic hair style.

3. Touch Yourself

Female masturbation is still taboo in our society despite the fact that only 11% of women claim to have never masturbated.For some women, touching themselves is not only sexually satisfying, but empowering. Others only experience a mental block of shame and emotional discomfort. If you’re part of the latter group, there are ways to overcome these obstacles. Making time for private relaxation, reading or watching erotic material, and slowing down to explore non-genital pleasure can all be helpful. If the emotional barriers are too much, but you are willing to talk about it, consider if assistance from a sex therapist may be beneficial.

4. Surround Yourself with “Vagina Pride”

Sometimes it’s easier to develop a positive body image with a little outside encouragement. Start small. Watch and read media that encourages sexual self-esteem in the privacy of your own home. (Buck Angel’s documentary, Mr. Angel, is one of the most inspiring films that I’ve ever seen.) Expect your gynecologist to provide a welcoming atmosphere where vulvovaginal knowledge is dispersed and questions are encouraged. Insist on having intimate partners who respect your genitalia and show enthusiasm for giving you pleasure. Attend events like The Vagina Monologues or other unique local performances with your friends. (On a recent vacation to Austin, TX I was introduced to Bedpost Confessions which I highly recommend. Click here for a hilarious podcast from that night— all about one female’s discovery of her vagina.)

Learning to love your vulva can take a lot of time and effort, but being proud of your body — all of it — is worth it. And let’s be honest, the process can be half the fun…I mean, look at #3.

1. V. Schick, S.K. Calabrese, B.N. Rima, and A.N. Zucker, “Genital Appearance Dissatisfaction: Implications for Women’s Genital Image Self-Conciousness, Sexual Esteem, Sexual Satisfaction, and Sexual Risk,” Psychology of Women Quarterly 34 (2010): 394-404.

2. V. Schick, B.N. Rima, and S.K. Calabrese, “Evulvalution: The Portrayal of Women’s External Genitalia and Physique across Time and the Current Barbie Doll Ideals,” The Journal of Sex Research 48 (2011): 74-81.

3. Janus, S., and Janus, C. The Janus Report on Sexual Behavior. 1993. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Sensation Play: Blindfolds, Hot Wax, and Feathers, Oh My!

You hear a high-pitched ping to your right, a sound that reminds you of glasses being clinked together at a party. Instinctively, you turn your head, but you can’t see through the blackness of the blindfold. You wait, straining to hear something more, but nothing more comes. The bed shifts under the weight of your partner. As more time passes, you can feel your muscles tense in apprehension. A splash of ice-cold liquid falls onto your nipple. You inhale quickly and jump in alarm as the liquid rolls off your side. More drops fall onto your chest, along your sternum, and onto your stomach. Suddenly something feels different. You realize that the last one stings — not from intense cold, but from heat. More drops land on your skin as you struggle to distinguish hot from cold, doubting yourself as the sensation from the next drop begs for your attention.

Sensation play refers to a cluster of sexual activities that are focused on the exploration of physical sensation. Most often, sensation play is thought of as a BDSM activity. However, while it certainly can include pain for the masochistically inclined, sensation play can also just be soft and sensual. It’s a way to slow down and enjoy the different effects that you and your partner can have on each other’s bodies. It can also lead to creative experimentation with household items that are not normally sexualized.

Perhaps the easiest way to begin a journey into sensation play is simply by exploring touch. Consider the range of pleasurable sensations that you have felt — not only those that were sexual. Maybe you have an obsession with cashmere or fur, or you love the way that a chain necklace feels when lightly moved against your skin. Of course, there are also several sex toys made for sensation play, like ticklers made from chain or rubber. But the great thing about sensation play is that common items can be incorporated into foreplay. Feathers, makeup brushes, loofahs…take a quick run through your home and you’ll see that the possibilities are endless!

For those that may want to experiment with combining pain and pleasure, there are even more options. You may want to consider abrasive materials, like sandpaper or hard-bristled brushes. Sex toys for this sort of play include a wide variety of pinwheels (the most common being the Wartenberg), and clawed gloves, like these impressive bear paws. Impact toys like paddles and whips can also fall into the realm of sensation play. (A separate post on impact play safety tips is soon to come.)

Another commonly explored sensation, as described in my opening paragraph, is extremes in temperature. (This is sometimes specifically referred to as temperature play.) Cold water, ice cubes, and metal objects chilled in ice water are common ways to provide your partner with cold sensations. For the hot side of the spectrum, many people turn to melted wax. Be sure to do plenty of research into wax play safety before beginning. (Nobody wants nasty burns.) White paraffin candles are generally a good choice for beginners — as they burn at lower temperatures. However, for an even lower melting point, you can use massage candles. If those are still too hot for your enjoyment, there are also warming massage oils that barely get above body temperature.

The reverse side of sensation play, sensory deprivation or the absence of sensation, can also be fun. Some individuals enjoy total deprivation of their senses, while others prefer the impairment of one sense in order to enhance the experience of others. Blindfolds, earplugs, and/or earphones with music playing can all be deprivation tools. This places a person in a sort of bubble where they are solely focused on sensations of touch. Because blindfolds are a very successful crossover from BDSM to vanilla sex, sensory deprivation can be a great way to break into sensation play without feeling too intimidated.

No matter the type or intensity of sensations that you are comfortable exploring, sensation play can be considered as one more tool in your sexual repertoire — and an opportunity to spend an hour or two figuring out how to make your partner tremble.

The Magic (Safe)word

I know that, according to the ever-popular Christian Grey, “Lovers don’t need safewords,” but I’m here to say that’s bullshit. Because, if understood and used responsibly, safewords can benefit any sexual relationship. Problems arise when communication about a couple’s safeword is lacking — or when the idea of a safeword is shrouded in societal misconceptions.

What is a “safeword?”

A safeword is a word that is designated and agreed upon prior to sexual activity. This word is to be used in the case of overwhelming amounts of physical, mental, or emotional discomfort/pain. If a person says the safeword, their partner(s) will immediately stop what they are doing — either completely or at least long enough to fix the problem. To make this distinction more clear, sometimes there will be two designated words: one to signal a pause or alleviation of current activity and the other to signal a complete stop to all activity.

There are a few ways that people may choose their safewords. Most importantly, the safeword should not be something that would normally be said during sex. Some choose words that hint at discomfort like “mercy.” Others choose a random word like “salad.” And still others stick with the standard traffic light code:  “yellow”  for caution/slow down and “red” for stop. (Some people also use “green” as a way to communicate that everything is fine and that the activity should continue.) But a safeword doesn’t have to be a spoken word. For example, in the BDSM community, it’s common to have a nonverbal signal in case a gag is being used. This opens up a lot of possibilities, like snapping of the fingers or tapping on a nearby surface. Whatever the method of communication, it should be quick and unmistakable. 

“No!” and “Stop!”: Universal safewords? 

A lot of people don’t get the point of safewords. They argue that words like “no” and “stop” should be enough to make any partner stop in their tracks. For the most part, I agree with this. But I also recognize that there may be some situations where these words are part of a larger role-play scenario. A lot of people (while not turned on by the actual act of rape) may want to experiment with consensual “forced” sex. As part of the performance, one partner may pretend to fight back or say “stop.” Another consideration is that, in the case of intense physical sensation (ex: spanking or even tickling), it may be a reflex for some people to say “stop!” long before they actually hit their limit. In both of these cases, a separate word could be used to signal the actual desire to stop the scene.

There’s also some unfortunate societal reasons for individuals to avoid using these words. Even during sex, people will keep quiet because they fear hurting someone else’s feelings. They don’t want their partner(s) to feel like they aren’t skilled at giving sexual pleasure. And, as horrible as it is, a lot of people simply accept that sex “is supposed to be” painful, uncomfortable, or at the very least unpleasurable. Words like “stop” may even feel too final for some, insinuating panic when all they really want to do is pause while they find a more comfortable position. Bringing in a unique safeword can actually seem less intimidating, and lead to greater communication.

Safewords for everyone! 

I encourage everyone to forget the idea that safewords are only for dangerous BDSM play. They are a great way for all sexual couples to keep an open line of communication. They promote consensual sexual activity by giving everyone a voice. Even if you choose to rely on “no” or “stop,” you and your partner(s) should still have the safeword conversation. (Do you feel comfortable speaking up during sex? What are things that would cause you to say stop? How do you plan to communicate ‘stop’ vs. ‘wait?’ etc.) This will provide you with a clear, verbal plan for communication during sex, in addition to body language. Then, if something doesn’t feel good or if one of you simply wants to stop — for whatever reason, both of you will be on the same page immediately.

Getting Handsy: Female Genitalia

Think back to all the times you have heard guys complain about how hard it is to find the clitoris or the G-spot. A woman’s vulva and vagina are viewed as a very precision-oriented combination lock, with an all-powerful sequence that magically unlocks orgasm. Touch here, rub gently, poke there, and repeat. But that’s simply not true.

Every woman is different in what she finds arousing or pleasurable. And just like the majority of my other posts, my first bit of advice here is to communicate. Ask your partner how she likes to be touched. If she has difficulty describing it, see if she feels comfortable giving you a visual demonstration. If there are specifics that you are still unsure about (like pressure), you can ask her to give you feedback while you’re pleasuring her or to physically guide your hand with hers.

If this is something that you are freshly exploring together, then some basic anatomy may be helpful. Although every vulva is unique in details of color, shape, and size, the individual parts are still easy to recognize.


When discussing vulvar (external) stimulation, the clitoris generally receives the most attention. Specifically the clitoral glans, as much of the actual clitoris lies hidden within a woman’s body. This tiny button-like structure contains thousands of nerve endings (upwards of 8000, double that of the penile glans) and is naturally covered by the clitoral hood to prevent over-stimulation. However, during arousal, the clitoris will swell, making itself more accessible.

Still, the clitoris is super sensitive and many women may not feel comfortable being touched there. Massaging the clitoris by rubbing the clitoral hood overtop of it is a good alternative to direct contact. Experiment with what speed & pressure feel best (start slow & gentle, so as to avoid causing pain) and what motion is preferred (circular, back and forth, etc). It’s also a good idea to stay lubricated, so that your hand glides smoothly over her genitals.

Remember that, even though the clitoris gets the spotlight, many women enjoy stimulation on other parts of their external genitalia too. Some like their labia being gently stroked or tugged on. Some enjoy their mons being rubbed or their pubic hair played with. Some may like their perineum or anus to be touched as well. Ask what your partner is comfortable with and spend some time exploring to see what feels nice.

Although the term “fingering” brings to mind vaginal (internal) stimulation, this actually isn’t something that all women want. Some women may consider insertion distracting or uncomfortable. Desires can also change depending on one’s mood. Having a conversation about this can lead to a more pleasurable experience. If your partner is into vaginal stimulation, ask how many fingers feel comfortable. This can range from one finger to a whole hand. (Of course, fisting has its own safety measures.) You may also want to ask about speed or technique.

A lot of men seem to worry about technique. There are several lists online of specific ways to please your special lady. Personally, reading through many of those makes me cringe. The “Twist and Shout” will only make me shout “Stop!” but it may make your partner squeal with delight. If you find a technique that seems interesting, get her opinion on it first.

The most popular technique is probably the “come hither” motion. This stimulates the G-spot on the front wall of the vagina. Some women will not enjoy this because it can feel like the need to urinate. For others, it creates a whole new level of sexual pleasure. Whatever your partner finds pleasing on the inside, remember to stay lubricated, keep those hands clean, and the fingernails neatly trimmed. The vagina can easily get tiny tears, leading to pain and increased risk of infection. And that just isn’t fun for anybody.

As I mentioned in my post about handjobs, “fingering” is low on the sexual totem pole. Many men may bypass this method of stimulation because, even though they experimented with “heavy petting” as a teenager, they moved onto other activities before mastering it. But spending some time on improving your manual skills can be an intimate and rewarding experience.

6 BDSM Principles That Vanilla Couples Should Follow

The luxury sex toy company, Lelo, recently published an infographic about the decline in “kinky” sex toy sales. It seems that the Fifty Shades of Grey fad may finally be coming to a close within the vanilla mainstream. However, even if these individuals didn’t find what they were looking for in whips and handcuffs, there’s still plenty of good sex advice to be taken from the kink community (the real, healthy sort — not E.L. James’ abusive misrepresentation). When BDSM gets mentioned, its basic tenets often get overlooked, crowded out of one’s mind by more risqué imagery. But those basics are exactly what every couple could benefit from.

1. Communication

While it may be a relationship flaw that you associate more with your grandparents, the sad fact is that many couples still engage in a lifetime of sex without ever having a discussion about it. They don’t tell their partner what feels good — or what would feel even better. They don’t communicate their fantasies or desires. In stark contrast are BDSM checklists (like this one), which bring all sorts of sexual acts out into the open. Discussions about one’s sexual history, desires, and limits are encouraged so that the people involved know how best to please one another. Most importantly, sex is seen as a fun and pleasurable experience to be shared, not something to be ashamed of.

2. Consent

Establishing this open line of communication takes the guessing game out of sexual activity. Each person knows what the other is comfortable with before they ever enter the bedroom (or dungeon). They know what limits can safely be pushed and what should be avoided entirely. Healthy BDSM relationships also recognize the importance of consent given freely and uninfluenced by mind-altering substances or circumstances.

3. Safewords

Even with the issue of consent discussed beforehand, sometimes sexual activity doesn’t go as planned. In BDSM play, there are usually 2 levels of safewords: a yellow word that means ‘slow down’ or ‘I need a break’ and a red word that means ‘stop everything now.’ Knowing that these words are available during sex keeps communication flowing. Of course there are always ‘no’ and ‘stop,’ but many people do not use those words except in extreme cases. Maybe they fear offending their partner, or maybe they are too embarassed to stop the action and say, “This really isn’t working for me right now. Could we try ___ instead?”

4. Safety

BDSM is big on safety, and for good reason. When you are exploring the fine line between pleasure and pain, you need to be sure not to do any lasting damage. But there are other ways of being safe that apply to vanilla couples as well. All couples need to be able to discuss their STI status and their preferred methods of protection from both STIs and pregnancy. Every individual should feel entitled to use protection. If a sexual partner will not agree to it, s/he obviously does not respect you or your body. That is a perfectly good reason to refuse sexual activity.

5. Foreplay

One way for vanilla folks to think of BDSM is that it involves a lot of foreplay. In fact, for professional Dominants, that’s basically all it is. A lot of time (sometimes several hours) is spent focusing on a partner’s body in ways that are not always explicitly sexual. Foreplay is good. It can increase intimacy, as well as make eventual intercourse more pleasurable. (If a female is aroused, her vagina will expand to create more insertable space.) Kink also seems to encourage people to get more creative with their foreplay methods, which can be good advice for everyone. For example, you can try using a feather duster in a more erotic way.

6. Aftercare

Aftercare is a time for reassurance, comfort, and debriefing at the end of a BDSM scene. All of the “he fell right asleep” jokes make it obvious that the vanilla world is aware of the importance of post-coital intimacy. However, debriefing is almost unheard of. Most people are probably afraid of hurting their partner’s feelings. But a simple, respectful discussion of “What did you enjoy the most? What were you not so keen on?” can be a really easy way to improve future sexual activity. Your partner cannot read your mind.

The important part of sex is not always what you’re doing in the bedroom — but how you’re doing it. Although we often separate the worlds of vanilla and kink, these principles can be universally applied to all healthy sexual relationships.