Note: This post originally appeared on In Our Words.
My first memory is of masturbating. The first one that’s really mine, I mean. The one I know isn’t just a home movie or family photograph, but is really and truly made up of just an experience in my head. I’m maybe 3 or 4, old enough to be potty trained, too young for kindergarten or even preschool. My parents have this couch, one of those late 80s brown plaid monstrosities with the different textured threads in the weaves so it’s a little bumpy. I think I only remember what the couch looks like from photos. But this couch is in our living room, and sometime before this memory, I learned that, when I hoist myself up on its arm and grind my crotch into the place where you can feel the wood frame through the cushion, it feels amazing. So in this memory, that’s what I’m doing. I’m alone in the room, confident that no one will discover me–even at this age, I know this is a private activity. And maybe that’s why this memory has stuck so well, because of how much I had to protect it from anyone else knowing.
I remember plenty more masturbation as I got older. My parents had this rocking chair. I can’t remember the names of most of my elementary school teachers. I’ve been known to stare blankly when my mom tells a story about a family vacation we took when I was in high school. I remember this chair, though. I remember exactly how its wood felt under my fingers, how my hand wrapped around the end of the arm, and especially how it was exactly right to prop a toy catalog in and hoist myself up into the curve of the arm and grind away. Forget your Penthouses and Playboys. When I was pre-pubescent, nothing could provide better fodder than a Toys R Us catalog opened to the Barbie section. It wasn’t even their bodies, so much, it was the characters, docile creatures I could control in my mind, send into torture chambers that would surely do the Marquis de Sade proud. How I became such a vanilla adult, with such kinky childhood fantasies, I’ll never know.
When puberty approached, I found that the hard edge of the rocking chair’s arm suddenly became too much. I started draping a pillow over it, finding soft edges much more effective at bringing that same burst of pleasure I was so used to. And then my parents got rid of that rocking chair, and I spent a few weeks lost, unsure how to ever again achieve what I’d done for years. Our couches were all the wrong height, and besides, it would be nice to have an option in a room with a door, for that whole privacy thing. And so I discovered that the corner of my loft bed could hold a pillow pretty well, and, dangling four and a half feet in the air, with a bit more maneuvering to support myself at the difficult angle, I could still get where I wanted, out of breath and a bit red in the face and feeling something like an urge to pee, no matter how empty my bladder.
It wasn’t just toy catalogs that provided me something to look at while humping my furniture. Indeed, I didn’t connect the activity with sex at all; I was too innocent to know that BDSM was sexual, and I was just as happy to rub my crotch while reading anything at all–historical novels, my science textbook, the TV Guide. Specific material didn’t turn me on, I just liked the way it felt when I pressed my body up against that pillow, and I might as well also be reading, right?
In high school, I learned the word masturbation. And I learned that it was a thing women could do, too, and I started to wonder. I’d never even touched myself down there, at least not intentionally. What was I missing? I was reading all kinds of sex advice, for some reason or another, and I definitely knew that women who wanted to have good sex needed to masturbate and find out what they liked. Nothing I read told me what to do, though. I’d seen enough movies to know how it worked for boys, more or less, and what a male orgasm looked like, but whatever light little things I was reading focused more on the “draw a bath, light some candles, do what feels right” kind of advice. Not helpful when you’re 16 and afraid to use tampons ’cause you aren’t entirely sure where the hole even is (it’s not like you can see down there!).
And that is why I am telling this story today. Because even when we talk about women masturbating, we don’t really talk about it. We sort of mention vibrators, and bubble baths, and romance novels. But think about depictions you’ve seen on tv, in movies. There’s a storyline in Scrubs where Carla tells Elliot to sit on top of her washing machine in order to orgasm. I tried that once, in college or something, when I was still trying to figure out what an orgasm actually was. I couldn’t even get my clit to touch the washer while sitting on it, much less experience anything more interesting than a bumpy car ride. Maybe some women get off simply being near something that jiggles, but I’m not one of them.
The other classic is the showerhead method. We had a great massaging showerhead at my house, and I got around to trying that some time after I had managed to locate my own clitoris. Turns out, no stream of water is ever going to be strong enough to make me feel anything more than warm and wet, and not in the way where those words are synonyms for “turned on.” Just in the shower, covered in water, feeling mildly disappointed.
I kept trying to learn how to masturbate with my hand around this time, too. I was pretty sure that was the right way to do it, and if I just stroked my clit enough, it would feel awesome. It felt kind of good. I understood some of the appeal. But usually I got bored, or frustrated, and resorted to the tried-and-true pillow-on-the-bedframe. By now, I was convinced that I’d ruined my clit forever with too-hard stimulus and, since humping a pillow has no human analog, would probably always have terrible sex.
Fortunately, I shortly thereafter started having actual sex. With inexperienced college boys at first, which helped nothing, but once I got me some real partners, I finally started to sort out this orgasm and masturbation business. It took a little while for me to get comfortable with how sex works for two people to quite figure it out, and it turns out that I’m a kind of subtle orgasm-er anyway. But over time, I came to recognize and feel those peaks when I’m pretty sure I can’t take anymore and then suddenly something breaks and I kind of shudder and release and then want to curl up in a ball for a second and then go back for more (although not necessarily more orgasms).
What I had to learn, though, is that my orgasms with other people are nothing like the ones I give myself. I spent a little while convinced that I couldn’t come on my own, that a lifetime of masturbation had given me pleasure, sure, but not whatever key the sex advice columnists seem to think exists when you’re all alone. When I’m with someone else, my orgasms are expansive, with long build-ups and I can’t help but make all kinds of noise, and then breathe deeply and settle back into my skin for a while. Alone, it’s more like what I imagine men experience. I can get there fairly quick, and it’s less a release than a peak, a sense that I’ve reached the most I can have, and I hold my breath to make it last as many seconds as I can, and then collapse, spent with the effort. One orgasm isn’t better than the other, they’re just different.
Since I’ve gone and figured this out, I’ve found other ways to masturbate, too. I still like the classic pillow-on-furniture (also convenient when sleeping in the same room as someone else- get your pillow under your body and you can hump it very subtly in the dark!), but I do have some vibrators I like now, and sometimes I even use my hands. I’ve learned that kegels are great, and make me feel like a stallion slapping his boner on his belly. I found out that my forearms are highly erogenous, which is great for when you get horny at the office but can’t really do anything about it, ’cause they don’t put any hump-friendly furniture in bathroom stalls.
Consider this my call to action. Masturbation isn’t all about penises. The things that make lady parts feel good are varied, and don’t always involve household appliances. Everyone start telling your real masturbation stories, so that more people can have more orgasms.