I have something embarrassing to admit. I am 21 years old, sleep with women and regularly write about sex — but I didn’t find my clitoris until recently.
I am not sure how I missed this crucial piece of information for so long, but I did. About two months ago, I sat on my couch, curiously poking at my vulva because my pubic hair had grown slightly longer than I preferred. When I discovered that little red bump under the folds of skin, I freaked the fuck out. I legitimately thought I had a parasite on my genitals. I searched the Internet for detailed pictures of the clitoris, unable to find a diagram with enough intricacy to show what the clit specifically looked like by itself. I called my partner, asking if what I had found was my clit. He laughed and congratulated me on my discovery.
It’s not like I never messed around down there or was naive about my inner workings. I had paid attention to my sex education from fifth to ninth grades and to articles I’d read on my own. I had masturbated frequently through both vaginal and (what I assumed to be) clitoral stimulation. How could I be a self-proclaimed activist in the fight for better sex education if I couldn’t even locate my own clit?
Most female sex education focuses on preventing pregnancy — if it even does that — rather than teaching students how female anatomy works. A friend of mine told me a story about when she was learning sex education in the seventh grade: The teacher gave students the opportunity to ask anonymous questions using notecards. The question “How do girls masturbate?” flustered the teacher, who proceeded to respond, “Well, that is just too involved.”
Male-bodied masturbation is far more openly discussed in society. We all know the penis refuses to be ignored, while the vagina is neatly tucked away. “The Vagina Monologues” addresses this mysticism, collecting a diverse set of viewpoints on how the vagina is a magical entity. The vagina, which is an incredibly strong muscle, can expand to twice its normal size when aroused. The clitoris is visible externally, but it also comprises a complex internal system that, overall, contains 8,000 nerve endings. Vaginas can even ejaculate! I found this out through porn, which gives unrealistic — and, frankly, quite frightening — images of how squirting occurs.
My exposure to female-bodied anatomy had either been through porn or was nonexistent. I wish somebody had told me this information brashly when I was younger rather than trying to avoid awkwardness by using technical terms and vague language, which instead perpetuates the idea that sex is impolite and unclean.
My 13-year-old cousin is one of my favorite people in existence, and her intelligence and love of knowledge have cultivated our affectionately intimate relationship. Ever since she hit puberty, we have openly discussed sexual maturity and development. I try to explain things in an age-appropriate way, but I don’t shy away from the things I wished my sex educators had taught me. A couple of months ago, she texted me saying she had a weird question: whether it was normal to masturbate. This was one of my proudest moments in our sex-ed discussions.
When I was 13, I didn’t even know that girls could masturbate. No one discussed female pleasure systems with me, which led me to believe that sex was an act for the pleasure of the male partner. For the teenage girls of my middle school, sexual activity was a marker of status, maturity and desirability to boys, not an act of pleasure. I didn’t masturbate until I was 16, which was two years after my first (nonconsensual) sexual encounter. My cousin, on the other hand, is already aware that pleasure can exist without a partner. Our conversations have contributed to her comfort with self-exploration.
So I promptly told her it was great to masturbate but to make sure to wash her hands before and after and to do it in private.
I attribute most of my early, negative experiences with sex to the fact I didn’t understand it was also for me. Masturbation helped me understand myself as a sexual being. The discussion of genitalia in terms of anatomy rather than how we can attain pleasure mechanizes sex as a purely biological process for reproduction and ignores its complex nature.
This is a call to action to all vulva owners out there: Explore yourself. Look at your vagina in a mirror, figure out which pieces are which, and make sure you understand what the fuck is going on. If I, the infamous sinner and sexual deviant — the Sex on Tuesday columnist whose printed exploits weave Reddit threads longer than a fuckboy’s attention span — doesn’t know where her clitoris is, there might be a problem.
Taylor Romine writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected].