Good Sex with Emily Jamea: The Benefits of Masturbation

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Emily Jamea, Ph.D., is a sex therapist, author and podcast host. You can find her here each month to share her latest thoughts about sex.

It was a chilly, gray January day when my new clients Amy and Noah came for their first appointment. I brewed us all some tea and lit a candle, and we got comfortable in my office.

“What brings you in today?” I asked.

“I’m going to get right to it,” Noah started. “We’re here because Amy has never had an orgasm.”

“It’s true,” she said. “I haven’t.”

I asked them some questions about their relationship. They’d married young, right out of college and had two children shortly thereafter. They said they didn’t have any relationship conflict or major stressors. Then I asked them what made them seek counseling now.

“Well,” Noah said, “I hope we have a long, happy life together. Her pleasure and fulfillment is a part of that. It’s not that she doesn’t enjoy our sex.” He glanced at her. She nodded in agreement. “I just think she could enjoy it significantly more if she were able to have orgasms.”

“It’s hard for me to know for sure since I’ve never had one, but if it’s anything like I see in the movies, he’s probably right. It looks amazing, but I’m just not sure how to get there.”

I asked them specific questions about their sex life and assessed what they’d tried so far. What I learned didn’t come as much of a surprise. They usually spent some time kissing and caressing, then started intercourse, which typically lasted for about five minutes before Noah climaxed. They both expected that Amy should be able to reach orgasm at some point during intercourse, ideally at the same time as Noah.

“Well,” I began. “The good news is that I love what I’m hearing in terms of your motivation for therapy. You clearly care about each other and want each other to be happy and sexually fulfilled. The bad news is your expectations about how Amy should reach orgasm are off.”

I explained that, while some women climax during penetration, the majority need external stimulation of the clitoris in order to get there. Furthermore, most need more than five minutes.

Then I turned to Amy and asked if it was OK if I asked her some questions about self-pleasure.

“Sure,” she said. “There’s not much to say.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

She cupped her hands around her tea and took a sip. “If you’re referring to masturbating, I don’t do it. It’s not something I ever felt compelled to do, and now that I’m married, I feel like I shouldn’t have to.”

“Let me ask you this question,” I started. “Let’s take the idea of sexuality out of the equation for a minute. What else do you routinely do that brings you pleasure? Do you take baths, do you go for hikes?”

“I do enjoy baths,” she said. “Noah spoiled me with a great soaking tub. I also love to bake and garden. All these things bring me a lot of pleasure.”

“Well,” I said, “those are all excellent ways of bringing pleasure to yourself. Yet it sounds like you draw a line when self-pleasure crosses into the sexual realm. Giving yourself time and space to explore your own body in a pleasurable way is one of the best ways to learn how to have an orgasm. How can you expect to have one with Noah if you haven’t learned how to have one yourself?”

“I always remind my clients that their orgasm is theirs to have or not to have. No one can ‘give’ it to them,” I said. “Most women have to learn how to have an orgasm. It’s frustrating, but orgasms don’t happen as easily or automatically for women as they do for men. The reason is that men have to have an orgasm in order to ejaculate and therefore procreate, but this isn’t true for women.”

“If you’re open to it, I’d like to give you the homework assignment of masturbation. And I’d like for the goal not to be about reaching orgasm, but about surrendering to sexual pleasure and getting to know your body, because that’s really what this is about.”

“I’m open to it,” she said. “But honestly, I’m not even sure where to start or how to do it.”

I told Amy that most women reach orgasm through external clitoral stimulation. In fact, more than 95% of women focus on external stimulation during masturbation. “You can begin by spending some time relaxing, maybe in the bath since you know you enjoy that,” I said “Then start touching different parts of your body. Don’t go to the vulva straight away. Focus on and find pleasure in the different sensations. You may or may not find your mind drawing on a sexual fantasy. Every woman is different, and this is your opportunity to discover what happens naturally for you. When you feel ready, you can begin massaging your vulva. Experiment with different kinds of touch to see what feels good and notice your arousal build. Then, see what happens and be sure to report back. Don’t feel discouraged if you don’t orgasm the first time or even the second or third time. Remember that most women have to learn how to get there.”

Amy and Noah left my office cautiously optimistic. They returned a few weeks later, and I immediately noticed some pep in Amy’s step.

“It happened!” Amy burst out before I could even ask how things had been. I excitedly clapped my hands.

“I can’t believe I’ve been missing that my whole life,” she said.

Noah looked happy, but I could tell something was on his mind. “How have things been for you, Noah?”

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “I am over-the-moon for Amy. But it hasn’t happened with me.”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “This is a learning process. I want Amy to use this as an opportunity to build her confidence and expand her notion of self-pleasure. In time, she can show you how she pleasures herself and then you can try to mimic the technique.”

Self-pleasure, masturbation, solo play — whatever you want to call it — is a wonderful way of practicing self-love. It can help you relax, relieve tension (sexual or other), and be an incredible way to quietly explore your own fantasies and desires. Studies consistently show that women who masturbate are more sexually satisfied in their relationships than women who don’t. So in the season of love this year, give yourself the gift of self-pleasure and fulfillment.

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