Welcome to Crushing On! Each month, a different writer sings the praises of a current fave: a new sex act, relationship strategy, wellness trick, sex toy…the possibilities are endless.
I’m 11 and my friends have just told me about a thing called fingering, where someone rubs a girl’s privates with their hand. My immediate thought is, Can’t you just do that to yourself? I lock myself in the bathroom to find out, remembering a pamphlet from a school puberty class saying you can look at your vulva with a hand mirror. This seems like a good time to do that. My hand feels drawn to the little nub at the top of my vulva, and as I rub it, I can see my labia swell up and deepen in color, then I see them rhythmically squeeze and open as all the tension builds up and releases. So that’s what an orgasm looks like, I think.
By the time I’m 13, I do this nearly every day, gradually noticing little hairs growing in, getting aroused as I watch how my vulva responds to touch. At 17, someone else is looking for the first time, and I feel proud to show them something that’s turned me on myself. Some of my friends feel self-conscious about their vulvas, but I don’t; perhaps I got to know and like mine before any negative messages had the chance to seep in.
That doesn’t mean everything is always hunky-dory between me and my privates. At 21, I notice something is itching between my legs, and everything looks raw and red when I take out that trusty mirror. “You poor thing,” my college nurse says when she examines me—I have a yeast infection. I put a tube full of medication inside it and it begins to look normal again.
At 25, I learn a new masturbation technique: lifting up the hood of my clitoris and stroking it directly with a lubed-up finger. I don’t have a hand mirror in my apartment, so I use my computer’s camera to see what I’m doing. I’d always thought the clitoris and the hood were basically attached, but lo and behold, it’s possible to see my clitoris itself and touch it, and it’s wonderfully responsive to an exquisitely light touch.
I don’t feel self-conscious about my vulva, because I got to know and like mine before any negative messages had the chance to seep in.
Now I’m 27 and I’m attending a women’s sexuality workshop with the late sex educator Betty Dodson, which includes a “genital show and tell” where Betty looks with us at our vulvas in the mirror and helps us name them. I feel embarrassed that a piece of toilet paper has gotten stuck in my pubic hair, but the other women laugh it off and compliment my bush. I name my vulva Storm after her ferocious passion.
That same year, I’m working with a sex coach who takes photos of my vulva while I masturbate, pointing out how my clitoris grows and peaks out from under the hood as I get more and more turned on. It’s amazing how the whole thing opens up, like a flower or a shell. I email four photos from different stages of the process to my boyfriend, telling him to imagine that I’m opening up for him.
A few weeks later, something suddenly feels irritated when I masturbate. In my phone camera, I notice a weird bump on my right labia. I point out to the doctor exactly where it is, and she tells me it’s a kind of pimple you can get in the hot weather. I take epsom salt baths and eventually it goes away.
I’m 29 and I’ve started talking to my vulva while I masturbate. “How do you want to be touched?” “Would you like me to put a finger in?” I look at it in the mirror and wait to feel a reply before I move forward. Narrating these actions, in this dynamic dance with my genitals, makes me feel each stroke more intensely. I realize how sensitive my vulva is, and how she doesn’t always want the firm, fast rubbing I provide when I’m not deliberate about it.
I’m 30 and I’ve discovered live camming. Now, my vulva is a star. One of my favorite tricks is moving it close to the camera when I climax to show my clients the pulsations. I also like to squirt with my vulva close to the camera — or as close as I can get without getting my computer all wet. Perhaps my adolescent vulva-gazing gave me exhibitionist tendencies. Perhaps — no, certainly — getting to know my genitals early on paid off not only monetarily, but also for my sex life and my health.
“By learning what your own vulva looks like, you can advocate for yourself.”
Many people enter adulthood without ever having seen their vulvas up close. In one 2016 survey of 1,000 women, only 44 percent could label the vagina on a diagram, and only 40 percent could label the vulva. How can these women show their partners where their clitorises are and what kind of touch feels best to them, when they don’t know what these partners are looking at? How can they know when something’s wrong down there if they don’t understand what’s normal?
Dr. Laura Laursen, OB/GYN for Nyssa Care, agrees that everyone with a vulva should look at it in the mirror. “It is important that every person educates themselves about their own body,” she says. “The only way to improve your health is to be knowledgeable about your own self. By learning what your own vulva looks like, you can advocate for yourself.”
If you’ve never done this before, don’t worry: It’s never too late to learn. When looking at your genitals for the first time, Laursen suggests looking first and foremost for your clitoris, the bump at the top of your vulva where the labia meet. If you desire, you can pull the hood back and touch the clit directly. It can also help to pull up a labeled drawing of vulva anatomy and identify the parts you see there on yourself.
Laursen also recommends examining your vulva in the mirror for health reasons: looking out for areas that are discolored, raised, or painful to the touch. “Some changes in color and bumps are completely normal, but it is important to look for changes over time,” she says. You can do this once so that you know how things normally look, then check again if you ever experience any symptoms.
A few more ideas that Laursen suggests: look at your vulva in the mirror before, during, and after your period to see if it looks different at different points in your cycle, and masturbate in front of the mirror to see how your vulva changes as you get aroused. Try rubbing your clitoris in different ways, like in circles and side to side, to find out what feels best to you.
Some people say that vulvas are mysterious, but you can dissolve any mystery around your own if you take the time to get to know it. Then again, you’ll probably never run out of things to learn about it. Vulva-gazing is a project that can last a lifetime, so I suggest you get started now.