We'll talk to our closest friends about almost anything, but one topic that always veers into TMI territory is self-love (the physical kind). "Yes, there is often shame around a woman pleasuring herself, and many women feel that their partner(s) will naturally give them sexual pleasure and orgasm—they don't realize [it] is a skillset that is a learned response," says L.A.-based sex therapist Bryce Britton. As a result, she says we're taught to feel embarrassed. "We are a sex-negative, patriarchal culture, and there is little accurate information about female sexuality, masturbation, and the amazing anatomy of the clitoris—the only organ designed solely for pleasure."
The issue isn't just that women won't talk about masturbation—the associated shame might be the reason we're also deterred from doing it. A study by the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior reveals a gender gap: Only 8 percent of men aged 20 to 24 have never masturbated, while 23 percent of women in the same bracket avoid touching themselves. So what gives?
"Culturally, we must close this gender gap when it comes to masturbation and empower women to take matters into their own hands," says Sherry Ross, MD, award-winning OBGYN and author of She-ology. The first step is realizing that sexual relationships don't have to involve other people—in fact, the primary one is with yourself. "Women must first embrace masturbation and understand it's an important part of a normal sexual relationship with yourself," she says. Fortunately, this is one gender gap that isn't too difficult to close.
Let's Talk About Sex
The benefits of getting physical go beyond feeling good—according to Ross, as it's one of the best ways to overcome sexual dysfunction, which is surprisingly common. "For some women, finding and/or enjoying sexual intimacy and sex is difficult, if not impossible. Research suggests that 43 percent of women report some degree of difficulty, and 12 percent attribute their sexual difficulties to personal distress," she says. Sexual problems worsen with age and peak in woman aged 45 to 64—but it's not all bad news.
"For many of these women, the problems of sexual dysfunction are treatable, which is why (again) it is so important for women to share their feelings and concerns with a healthcare provider."
The first step: Talking about it. "It's time to frame masturbation as healthy and normal," says Britton. "It is through masturbation that we learn about our unique sexual response pattern and learn how to give ourselves an orgasm and ride the wave of arousal/ecstasy with or without a partner." Far from a dirty word, it can help us better know ourselves and "it is through mindful masturbation that women deepen their body-mind connection and create healthy, integrated sexual well-being."
Choosing a Sex Toy
Search "sex toy" on Amazon, and you'll be met with page after page of products, spanning multiple categories. Don't let that deter you though, says Britton. "The first question is the level of sensitivity of your clitoris. What intensity of vibration is right for you? Do you want internal stimulation as well as clitoral?" she says.
Ross says it comes down to personal preferences and understanding your likes and dislikes. "If you enjoy having an orgasm with clitoral stimulation, then there are a variety of excellent sex toys available. If vaginal fullness is your preference, then you can use a variety of dildos in different shapes and sizes with G-spot stimulators." If you're unsure, she recommends asking yourself these five questions:
1. What are your best sexual turn-ons?
2. Do you like clitoral stimulation? Soft and slow or fast and furious or strong and hard?
3. Do you like your G-spot stimulated?
4. Do you need help finding your G-spot?
5. Do you like to have something inside the vagina during a clitoral orgasm?
Check what the product is made from before you purchase. "It's always best to use sex toys made of silicone since they are not porous and are easier to clean. Avoid toys that are absorbent, spongy, or permeable [as] this increases the risk of bacteria buildup in the toy itself."
Involving Your S.O
If you have a significant other, involve them in the purchasing process, says Britton. "Exploring the world of sex toys can add novelty and boost erotic arousal for couples, deepening their bond and adding a sense of adventure and excitement."
Ross recommends a few top-performing sex toys for couples who are new to the field. "If you are in a relationship, some women want to have the clitoris stimulated during penetration with a penis. The We-Vibe Sync can be used by couples since it's hands-free, as it hugs the clit and G-spot during penetration. It also has a remote control, which is an added benefit," she says.
Her other top pick for heterosexual couples? "The Duet Cock Ring is a vibrating cock ring that can also be used by couples comfortably. Many cock rings such as the Iconic Ring, Je Joue Mio, and rechargeable Tor 2 can be strategically placed to hit the clitoris during penetration," she explains. For lesbian couples, she suggests the Magic Wand "for mutual direct clitoral stimulation or using a strap-on with a dildo for vaginal penetration and G-spot stimulation."
The bottom line? Let's ditch the sense of embarrassment and admit that it's a great way to better your sexual relationship—whether that's with yourself or another person. In Ross's words: It's time to take matters into your own hands.
Next up: A sex therapist reveals the questions they are asked the most (and the answers).