Note: This story uses gender-inclusive language (“non-male”) to refer to any individual who does not identify as male. This includes cisgender female, nonbinary, intersex, agender and genderqueer identifying people. Please note that this is not a comprehensive list, and individuals may prefer multiple of these terms or different terms altogether.
“Mom, what is sex?”
Sarah Longacre and her nine-year-old daughter sit at the dinner table. Longacre is a doula and founder of Blooma yoga in Minneapolis. Over a bowl of broccoli and peas, Longacre’s daughter asks her mother questions about sex and about her own anatomy.
“That’s a clitoris,” Longacre tells her daughter. “It’s a really beautiful part of being a woman. It’s something that when I was little, I would look at and play with and wonder, ‘what is this thing?’ And I didn’t know how powerful it was because I was never taught.”
At nine years old, Longacre’s daughter wants to understand her own body. But children aren’t the only ones who have questions about their sexual organs — many non-male students feel the same. Inadequate, inconsistent sex education across America paired with social stigma leaves many non-male young adults sexually ill-equipped. As a result, some have begun to lean into the benefits of masturbation and pleasure.
A 2016 Archives of Sexual Behavior study found that heterosexual men reported orgasming during 95% of their sexual encounters while heterosexual women reported orgasming 65% of the time. Gay men (89%,) bisexual men (88%,) bisexual women (66%) and lesbian women (86%) follow behind heterosexual men.
This “orgasm gap,” or disparity between the amount heterosexual men and heterosexual women reach orgasm during sexual interaction, is often falsely attributed to the idea that non-male individuals are not physically able to orgasm as much as men.
Doulas like Longacre, many sex therapists, students and other individuals believe that people with vaginas deserve to understand and empower their own sexuality. To do this, it is necessary to refocus sex education, including prioritizing early conversations about sex, safety and pleasure.
“I think that there is empowerment in really knowing what feels good and then really what feels safe,” Longacre said.
Claire, a junior at UW who wished to only be identified by her first name for fear of mistreatment from classmates, said she started masturbating when she was in ninth grade but didn’t feel comfortable talking about it with friends until recently.
“I was really ashamed about it, and I thought it was weird,” Claire said. “I would only talk about it with my boyfriend at the time. Then some people that I met in college started talking about having a vibrator, and I would add to those conversations. Once I realized a lot of other girls do this and it’s totally normal, I was more comfortable talking about it or telling people about it.”
Teaching assistant in the Gender and Women’s Studies department Samantha Miller said male pleasure is viewed differently than non-male pleasure. Miller said that while men are often encouraged at a young age to masturbate because it is a part of healthy development, non-males generally are not.
“I’m glad that [men] are told that, but when you don’t say the same thing for girls, that reinforces all these ideas that sex ends when the guy comes and that female orgasms are not as necessary as male orgasms,” Miller said. “Then it’s easier for you to dismiss it when you don’t have one, think that it’s normal when you don’t have one. Or some people think that they just can’t have them.”
The stigma around non-male masturbation is consequential, leading to less dialogue in the social settings, media and peer groups that non-males occupy, Sex Out Loud Chair Lissy Kettleson said.
Kettleson said this stigma results in a lack of participation in masturbation or feelings of shame around it from non-male people, preventing them from exploring themselves, discovering what they like and experiencing body positivity.
To help combat this narrative, Sex Out Loud is a student group at UW that provides students with “comprehensive, accessible, and pleasure-based sexuality education.” According to Kettleson, Sex Out Loud offers students programs about pleasure, discussions of masturbation, information about sex toys, events, free safer-sex supplies and an anonymous Q & A that is easily accessible.
Experts like Licensed Clinical Social Worker, author and community activist Julia Schiffman, also suggest masturbation as a method to uplift and educate.
Schiffman said masturbation can be important, especially for people with vaginas, to learn about their bodies, experience pleasure and explore what type of touch works for them. This requires a basic understanding of anatomy and terminology.
The female orgasm can be defined as a “variable, transient peak sensation of intense pleasure” that is generally coupled with involuntary tensing of the muscles in the vaginal area, according to the Kinsey Institute. It is possible for non-male individuals to orgasm in many different ways including from vaginal, clitoral, nipple, blended (both clitorial and vaginal at the same time) and anal stimulation.
The clitoris, the nerve-dense center located at the top of the vulva, is the only part of the human body made solely for pleasure, according to Schiffman. It has more than 8,000 nerve endings, according to Oregon Health & Science University. Clitorial stimulation is a common way for people with vaginas to achieve orgasm.
Longacre said she spent most of her life thinking, incorrectly, she knew what an orgasm was.
“I didn’t know until I actually bought a vibrator and gave myself permission to feel pleasure,” Longacre said. “I was in my late twenties. People need to learn – we have to talk about this.”
With the ability to increase hormone levels, orgasms not only provide pleasure, but proven mental and physical health benefits, according to U.S. News Health.
Claire said she masturbates at night to destress from the day and get better sleep.
“It clears my mind,” Claire said. “It feels good and gets rid of tension. My brain gets a shock and then relaxes and it feels like after I just went for a run with all the endorphins.”
They also offer a myriad of physical benefits ranging from pain alleviation and fertility boosts to heart health and a strong immune system, according to a study in the National Library of Medicine. Orgasms help strengthen the pelvic floor, a group of muscles that support the pelvic organs. It is also likely, according to Edited, that orgasming can benefit the skin by releasing estrogen which helps maintain collagen, a protein that is essential in maintaining healthy tissue, skin, tendon, bone and cartilage.
According to Schiffman, we need to accept that pleasure and arousal do not always equate to an orgasm. The most important key to great sex is knowing what you want, she said.
“We also need to get orgasm-centered sex out of our heads,” Schiffman said. “I love talking about how amazing orgasms are, but they do not have to be the final destination. Arousal does not need to be linear, and neither does the sex model we have where orgasm is the end all be all.”
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“I thought that sex was about pleasing him,” Longacre said. “I didn’t realize what was in it for me.”
From the day she first had sex until her 20s, Longacre was under the impression that she should prioritize male pleasure over her own.
This idea that male pleasure is more important than female pleasure is pervasive and perpetuated by a variety of factors, according to Miller. This includes things like an incomplete sex education that incorrectly teaches that sex ends with male ejaculation, Miller said.
According to Schiffman, self-exploration can help teach self empowerment. Schiffman said learning about one’s body can help communicate desires, wants and needs with existing or potential partners.
There are many different types of self-exploration and masturbation practices that vary from person to person, especially depending on where one is in their gender journey, according to Schiffman. Some ways to engage in these practices may include solo play with toys, setting the mood with candles, a bath, playing music, mutual masturbation with a partner and watching porn.
While it is not always the case that non-male people feel encouraged by their male partners to masturbate, Claire said feels lucky that she had a boyfriend in high school who encouraged her to pleasure herself. In fact, she said, he bought her first vibrator.
Many different types of toys have come out on the market to aid in comfortable self-pleasure among different bodies, according to Schiffman. Clitorial vibrators, clit suction sex toys, dildos and harnesses, penis rings, butt plugs and nipple clamps are a few of these options, according to Let’s Eat Cake.
Self-exploration practices look different for everyone. Claire found that listening to the podcast “Call Her Daddy” helped her not only learn about sex, but also feel comfortable talking openly about sex and pleasure.
Miller, who identifies as gay, recounts a lack of guidance and information. She said nobody talked to her about what gay sex looked like until much later in her life.
According to Schiffman, LGBTQ+ individuals can be more accepting of sex, masturbation and focusing on their partner’s pleasure because of the “heavy lifting” they have to do early in their sexuality or gender journey that heteronormative individuals do not have to. Often this means asking themselves questions about sex, sexuality and gender.
Schiffman said societal expectations are unfortunately communicated through a binary and heteronormative lens. Through this lens, she said, society provides expectations of the masses through gendered male and female roles but does not provide any further recommendations.
“This leaves those who fall outside the binary with an amazing opportunity to shape their societal roles,” Schiffman said. “This experience can feel refreshing and freeing, or it can feel anxious and confusing. This is where I see a difference in confidence, understanding where one fits in society, their own sense of their sexuality and how they relate to others.”
Smashing the Stigma
Historically, sex education curriculum has centered largely on abstinence from sex. Recently, there has been controversy around how to educate students on birth control and about LGBTQ+ experiences, according to Planned Parenthood. Female pleasure, however, is often absent from the conversation altogether.
Schiffman said that the absence of the pillar of pleasure from sex education leads to an internalized stigma from societal messages, as well as messages from parents, partners and religion.
“Female pleasure is an important concept that is often left out of sex education, and I believe sexual pleasure needs to be taught as soon as possible,” Schiffman said. “There is a need for pleasure to be taught in sex education because pleasure is a pillar of sexual health [that] we are missing for constructing a healthy view of sex.”
Stigma and a lack of education can lead to even more obstacles. Often, the inability for non-male people to orgasm with a sexual partner is an issue of safety and comfort, according to Longacre. It begins, she said, with giving yourself permission to feel pleasure.
One example of this is oral aversion, the inability to orgasm from oral sex, particularly because of past sexual trauma or other insecurities and anxieties, according to Miller.
“[People who struggle with oral aversion] are focused on ‘what if it tastes weird?’ or ‘I just want this over with,’ or ‘I feel embarrassed,’” Miller said. “Then that mental block prevents them from finishing. I’ve dealt with it. I know a lot of people who have dealt with it. People can’t finish for a whole ton of reasons like SRIs (serotonin reuptake inhibitors) or past trauma and that’s super valid, but a lot of the time it’s just in their head or their partners [are] just not satisfying them.”
Miller said a step in the right direction at UW includes improving the conversation surrounding hookup culture — a significant part of the college sexual experience.
Defined by an American Psychological Study study as “brief uncommitted sexual encounters between individuals who are not romantic partners or dating each other,” hookups are often the circumstances under which many college students have sex.
For Claire, participation in hookup culture has its pros and cons. She used to orgasm with her ex-boyfriend every time they had sex, and with hookups she does not. It feels, she said, like she and the people she hooks up with are trying to “perform for each other.”
But Claire has also learned a lot about herself from hookups, like the fact she is able to orgasm from both clitoral stimulation and penetration. To figure this out, she prioritized advocating for herself in the bedroom by using the knowledge she gained from masturbating.
Ultimately, self exploration and masturbation is a personal, individual experience. Empowering conversation and opening up discourse is crucial to the expansion of female pleasure.
Miller ends all her classes by telling her students that there is more work to be done to help non-male people affirm themselves and advocate for themselves in the bedroom.
“[We need to teach non-male people] to be able to recognize when sex isn’t fun for them anymore with that particular partner and being free to say no, even if it’s in the middle of sex,” Miller said. “It can just mean being comfortable to push through the awkwardness and stop something when you don’t want it to happen.”