Pleasure: Sexual Anatomy For Every Body

Image from Liverpool HLS

Image from Liverpool HLS

No two bodies are exactly alike- even those of the same sex or gender. This may be stating the obvious. However, the meaning and variation of gender and biological sex becomes even more significant after reading the following article by Heather Corinna of Scarleteen. She explains in an inclusive way the biological components of pleasure and why there is no one body part that releases pleasure or orgasm for everyone, or even for the same person every day. It is perhaps one of the greatest myths of our cultural understanding of sexuality to say that everyone likes “this” or “that”; women like “this thing”; men don’t like “that thing”; gay people do “this thing”, etc.

If you want to understand sexual anatomy from a holistic perspective that’s inclusive of people’s diversity, Corinna’s article is a must-read. The main point:

Sexual pleasure is never about just one part of the body and should not be isolated to reproductive organs. Instead, it is a complex mix of different interactions and embodiment. The brain is at the core of pleasure.

This article was originally published at Scarleteen.

BY HEATHER CORINNA | Scarleteen

ILLUSTRATIONS BY ISABELLA ROTMAN | thismighthurt.tumblr.com

Usually, when we’re looking at a layout of sexual anatomy it’s through the lens of reproduction, so it’s all about penises and vaginas, testes and uteri. But from a standpoint of pleasure and sexual response, sexual anatomy is about far more than genitals and is far less about reproductive organs. Ultimately, all the parts of the body are potential or actual sexual organs in the context of pleasure, though some body parts or areas, overall, tend to play a bigger role for most people than other parts do.

Our most important sexual organs when it comes to pleasure are not only usually different than we think, but operate far less independently than we assume or have been told.

We’re not saying the genitals aren’t important or a big deal with sexual pleasure and experience: for most people, most of the time, they are. That’s hardly surprising. There are a lot of densely packed nerve endings in our genitals, and if and when we stimulate them ourselves, wantedly have them stimulated by others, or rub two sets together, it does tend to often result in a sexual kapowie. But the kapowie experience is a lot more complicated than the stimulating of the genitals part.

Sexual anatomy is also often presented as only about genitals because sexual anatomy presentations tend to privilege reproduction above pleasure and cultural thinking about sexuality often isn’t very holistic or sophisticated. Let’s face it: we also live in a world where it’s considered a lot more socially acceptable to frame sexual anatomy as reproductive than as the parts that can bring us sexual pleasure. We can talk about cute babies-to-be at the dinner table with Grandma: we can rarely say the same about knee-knocking orgasms or dizzy arousal.

Reproductive function tells us little about pleasure. Seeing our sexual anatomy through the lens of pleasure can dismantle myths about sexual response, gender binaries or sexual orientation stereotypes; can let us discover parts of our bodies or ways they functioned we didn’t even know we could cultivate a tangible awareness of. It can tell the truth that for most people, most of the time, the pursuit of solo or partnered sex is often about the pursuit of emotional and physical pleasure, not about a desire to breed, and that the form of that pursuit is as diverse as we are. Pleasure is a big and vital part of most of our lives, including sexual pleasure, and the anatomical basics of sexual pleasure need be no more a mystery than where babies come from. (Of course, not everyone wants to or can have babies by using their genitals to do it, so the focus on reproduction leaves a lot of us out of the pleasure part, even when we don’t need to be left out.)

We’re used to sexual anatomy being framed as male or female, but we’re not going to do it that way this time. We don’t need to, we’d rather not, and in the context of pleasure, it makes more sense not to go that route. With reproduction, biological sex is pretty relevant. With pleasure-based anatomy? Not so much. You know if what you’ve got is a penis or most like a penis; if you’ve got a vulva or what is most like a vulva. They look different enough most of the time: you don’t need us to dictate your sex or gender to you to know that stuff.

We’re going to start not just with the parts every one of us has, but also with the part of everyone’s body that influences sexuality the most.

Sex is Mostly Between Your Ears, Not Your Legs

Brain

(This is where size really does matter).

The largest, most important and most active sexual organ of the body isn’t a penis or vagina. It’s the brain and its structures.

The brain is responsible for our emotions, our perceptions (including of pain and of pleasure), our memories; for regulating and controlling our central nervous system, our cardiovascular system, our endocrine system and our senses. The hypothalamus of the brain is responsible for the secretion of hormones that influence sexual feelings and response, like oxytocin, vasopressin, serotonin and dopamine. The brain receives and processes messages from your sensory organs, giving you and other parts of your body information about how something (or someone, including yourself) looks, sounds, tastes, smells and feels to you. It’s also the brain that sends and receives signals regarding blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature and how we breathe: all huge parts of sexual function, experience and response.

Not everyone’s brain works the same way, and sometimes wires can get crossed. Also, if you have any kind of paralysis the signals from parts of your body to your brain may not move as fast as someone else’s or they may be silent altogether. This doesn’t mean you can’t feel things, mind: even with paralysis there are few absolutes. You may have been told one thing by a doctor, but we think the best way to find out what’s possible is to explore on your own.

It’s the pleasure center of your brain that sends signals back to you that what’s happening feels good (or doesn’t), and it’s your brain and nervous system that transmits the feelings and sensations we have with orgasm. Not only is sex about communication between people, it’s about the systems of your brain and the rest of your body communicating, too. The beauty of bodies and brains is that they don’t all communicate the same way. It may take time to figure out how your personal communication works, but it’s definitely worth the effort.

Without your brain, you wouldn’t feel pain or pleasure, even if you were touched in a way or in a place which many people find pleasurable. The brain is primarily responsible for orgasm: during sexual pleasure, all the nerve endings of your body (including your genitals, all linked to your nervous system) are in concert and communication with your brain, and vice-versa. Without everything going on in our brains, we wouldn’t have any interest in sex at all, nor find sex anything of interest.

condom ad condoms too loose

This — and the fact that orgasm is more about the brain and nervous system than body parts where physical stimulation that might be part of why we have an orgasm occurs — is one reason why classifying orgasms like “vaginal orgasm” or “clitoral orgasm” is problematic. Ultimately, when it comes to orgasm (as well as most of sexual pleasure), if we want to attach it to one body part, the only correct term would be “brain orgasm,” since that’s where orgasm, like so much of sexuality, happens most.

Sexuality is physical and sensory, but also chemical, emotional (yes, even for anyone who says sex isn’t at all emotional for them), psychological, intellectual, social, cultural and multi-sensory. That’s all brain stuff. It’s not just what we feel if we touch ourselves or someone else touches us a certain way and how the brain influences those sensations, but all we think and feel about it, including messages others have given us, all our previous sexual experiences and experiences which may have influenced our sexuality, our hopes and fears, our sexual fantasies or expectations, how we feel about who we’re with if and when we have sexual partners, how we feel about our sexual selves as a whole and everything going on with us hormonally and physically when we are sexually stimulated – whether we’re aroused without any kind of touch, or if touch is also involved — in any way. No matter what other parts of our bodies are part of what’s going on with us sexually our brain is our biggest, most important and most active sexual organ.

Once you understand how the brain – what it is, what it does, all the systems it controls and responds to – is our largest and most important sexual organ, it’s a lot easier to see why we, as a people, can be so sexually diverse and experience any kind of sex so differently. After all, if sex was only or mostly about our genitals, even with genital diversity, it would be sound to expect that those of us with the same basic parts would have the same experiences with a given kind of touch. But we don’t, not by a serious long shot, and that’s primarily because of our brains. Once you understand how the brain is our largest and most important sex organ you can also begin to see how thinking differently isn’t necessarily a negative when it comes to sexual pleasure.

Tingly Bits

You might have heard someone use the term “erogenous zones” at some point. That’s a term popularized in sexology in the 60’s and 70’s to describe areas of the body of high sensitivity which people often (but not always) find particularly sexually stimulating.

When we say high sensitivity, we mean that some areas of the body have more sensory nerve receptors (a nerve that passes impulses from receptors to the central nervous system: that engages more of a hey-how’s-it-going-good-how-about-you running conversation between those parts of your body and your brain) than other areas. They’re places where we’re generally more sensitive to both pain and pleasure. When it comes to sensory nerves, not all parts of the body are created equal. That’s why, for instance, we can find a lot of people who feel highly stimulated by someone rubbing their nipples, and fewer people who feel highly stimulated by someone rubbing their elbows.

Lists of erogenous zones can sometimes be arbitrary – when someone lists them, sometimes they’re just making a list of what they personally like best — but for many people, typical erogenous zones include the lips, tongue, palms and fingers, the soles of the feet, the inner thighs, nipples, neck, ears, armpits and the genitals. Our skin, as a whole, is really an erogenous zone. Mucocutaneous regions of the body (made of both mucosa and cutaneous skin) are also often particularly sensitive: parts like the foreskin, penis, the external clitoris, the inner labia, the perineum, mouth or nipples. Just so it’s clear, there is no absolute relationship between gender and where on your body you feel sexually sensitive: people who are or who identify as male can and do enjoy nipple stimulation, while some people who are female or female-identified do not, for instance.

Bear in mind, not only is individual sensitivity different – what feels great for one person may feel ticklish or like too much to someone else – but what we carry in our brains about a given part of our body and what’s happening there influences our sexual response with those parts.

If we had violent or negative experiences or ideas about a given part, even if it’s packed densely with sensory nerve receptors, it can feel unpleasant instead of pleasant. If someone we aren’t into touches one of those areas unwantedly, it tends to feel a lot different than when they’re touched by someone who we very much want to have touching us. When a relationship is really great, a partner touching us in this place, in this way, might have felt amazing. But that same person touching us in the same place in the exact same way can feel lousy or even like nothing at all if that relationship has later gone straight to hell. One day, a given kind of stimulation might result in orgasm, while the very next day, it won’t.

There goes the brain at work, yet again, showing us how we can’t segregate physical sensations from it and how what’s going on with us up between our ears has a whole lot to do with what goes on between our legs.

Where are your tingly bits? Most of us can find out about where your erogenous zones are with your own two hands: masturbation doesn’t have to just be about genitals, after all. If touching yourself with your hands doesn’t work, you might be able to use other body parts, or even notice how parts of your body feel when sheets, clothing, the rain, or the wind touch it. With partners, take the time to find out about areas on both of your bodies you each tend to find sensitive and sexually arousing, really focusing on exploring ALL of your body, and communicating to each other where those sensitive areas are. This is one reason it makes a lot of sense not to rush into genital sex: you can miss finding out about all the parts of each other’s bodies which are sexually responsive and which can be exciting either all by themselves, or can add pleasure to genital sex. Genital sex doesn’t work for all of us, and for most people sex that’s only genital tends to get old really fast.

In the Deep South

Before we go there, know that just like with all the parts of our bodies, genital variation is diverse and genitals are not always as dimorphic (looking only one of two ways) as they are presented or as we may assume them to be, especially when we’re young or haven’t had an earnestly wide diversity of sexual partners, as many people won’t in their lives.

We don’t say that noses only come in this shape or that one, or that faces only look this way or that: it’s no more accurate to say that genitals only look one of two ways. The genitals of some people — like some intersex people, people who have had sexual reassignment or other genital surgery, people who have had genital injuries, mutilations or who just had major variances at birth — may not match ideas of what genitals “should” look like or fit any one diagram or description well. Some people who identify as male have a vagina; some people who identify as female have a penis. As well, some people who have a penis may call it a vagina or something else: we don’t all use the same language for our body parts, and some people are comfortable with terms for their genitals that others are not.

Genital variation is also important to keep in mind when anyone talks about “normal” sexual function or an experience of sexuality/anatomy which we gender and/or attribute as normal for a given sex or gender. For instance, when we talk about penises, we can’t say that only a penis with a foreskin or one without one is normal since both types exist and many men have one or the other. A vulva of someone with a large clitoral hood and small labia can look massively different from the vulva of someone with larger labia and a smaller hood. Color differences between different people can also be substantial: while some genitals are peach or pink, others are dark brown or purple. And what feels really great to one person genitally may feel either really uncomfortable or completely boring to someone else.

Let’s start with something that not only can everyone have, but that everyone can also be.

The anus, rectum and perianal region

Everyone has an asshole (and everyone can also be an asshole). The nerves and muscles within and around the perianal area play a part in the genital sensations of sex even if no one is engaging in any kind of anal or perianal sexual stimulation or sex whatsoever.

The-Anus-and-Prostate

(Your anus is in the same place if you don’t have a penis.)

The anus — the external opening to the rectum, visible between your butt cheeks — is surrounded by two concentric rings of muscle: the internal and external sphincter. The external can be voluntarily controlled (in other words, you can think about squeezing it open or closed and make that happen); the internal can’t. The anus is rich with sensory nerve endings: it has half the nerve endings in the whole pelvic region and those are interconnected with other pelvic muscles. Like the vagina, most of those nerve endings are concentrated around the opening and just inside the rectum. The anus is unlike the vagina in that it does not self-lubricate.

The anus and its surrounding areas can be a site of sexual pleasure for any gender or sexual orientation: notions that only gay men can or do enjoy anal stimulation, for instance, are false and based in homophobia, even though plenty of gay men do enjoy anal stimulation (so do plenty of bi or straight men). Ideas that the only reason women would engage in any kind of anal sex would be to please male partners are false, even if that’s why some women do. Sexual anal stimulation may be more stimulating for people who have a prostate gland than for those who are don’t. The prostate gland can only be directly accessed via the rectum and is only present in people who also have a penis. For those who do have a penis, a lower portion of it is inside the body and stimulus to that person’s rectum or perineum can stimulate that area.

Pudendal-NervesThe pudendal nerve – something else we all have — is located in the perianal region at the bottom of the spinal cord, and for folks whose nerve pathways aren’t being disrupted in some way, it’s quite the powerhouse. It supplies nerves to the bladder, anus, perineum, penis, areas around the scrotum and the clitoris. It divides into two terminal branches: the perineal nerve, and the dorsal nerve of the penis or the dorsal nerve of the clitoris. A lot of the feelings people have in their genitals and pelvis during orgasm – including the spasms people can feel with orgasm or ejaculations — are because of the pudendal nerve as well as the pelvic nerve.

The pubococcygeus muscle (PC) muscle (which some people call Kegel muscles) is also in the perianal region. It stretches from the pubic bone to the tail bone, and forms the floor of the pelvic cavity and supports the pelvic organs. If you’ve ever squeezed out the last drops of urine when you urinated, you did that by squeezing that muscle. The PC muscle also usually contracts during orgasm.

The perineal sponge is also in this region in people born with a vulva. Internal to the body, it’s between the bottom of the vaginal opening and the rectum, and is part of the clitoral system, and is made of nerve endings, erectile tissue and blood vessels. A person may feel sensations of this sponge from stimulation to the vagina, clitoris or anus or the areas around them. During sexual arousal, it becomes swollen with blood and compresses the outer third of the vagina along with the vestibular bulbs (which house the Bartholin’s glands) and urethral sponge. (Levine S. et al. “Handbook of Clinical Sexuality”, page 180 Brunner-Routledge 2003) While sometimes, a vagina may feel “tight” because of nervousness, fear or lack of arousal, this is a reason people feel or experience a vaginal “tightness” because of arousal.

Try it for yourself: You can squeeze and flare those sphincter and PC muscles just like you do when squeezing out a drop of urine or pushing out a bowel movement. If you do, you’ll notice that you feel sensations from those muscles and all the nerves there in other areas, like in your clitoris or penis, in your lower back or your abdominals: you may even be able to feel sensations from just moving things a little in that area as far away as in your neck.

The Prostate Gland

We weren’t kidding when we said there was a whole lot going on in the perianal region: the prostate gland is there, too. The prostate is a sensory, walnut-sized gland in the body. It’s below the bladder between the rectum and urethra at the base of the penis: if you were born with a penis, you were born with a prostate.

The prostate is highly sensitive to pressure and touch, and can be most acutely felt during receptive anal sex (in other words, when something is in the person’s anus who’s got the prostate) or massage to the perineum. Some people can reach orgasm with prostate stimulation all by itself. Others need other additional stimulation – like to the penis — and find that prostate stimulus enhances sensations with other areas or enhances orgasm: in other words, makes orgasm feel more intense. Sometimes people call the prostate the P-spot.

Unpack your baggage: Anyone should only ever engage in the sexual activities they and their partners want to, and any kind of receptive anal sex is always just one option of many. Whether you ever want to explore that or not, if you’re holding unto homophobic or body-hating baggage about your bottom, let it go. The prostate gland and other parts of the perianal region ARE part of everyone’s sexual body. When any of us have ideas that a given part of our body is icky or shameful, it tends to have a negative influence on our sex lives and our sexualities, and can also impact how partners feel about their bodies. Nothing on the body is gross or unacceptable, and no part of the body or anything you do with it says anything at all about your sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is between our ears, not in our bottoms or between our legs.

The Penis

The penis is primarily composed of three columns of tissue: two corpora cavernosa that lie next to each other on the dorsal (top) side and one corpus spongiosum between them. Sexual sensation of the penis is primarily fueled by the dorsal nerves and the pudendal nerve.

The-PenisAny and all portions of the penis may be enjoyable – or not! — when sexually stimulated. Like anything else, all people are a little different, and just because one person likes it a lot when one part of their penis is touched or touched a certain way doesn’t mean someone else will like those same things. The most highly sensitive areas of the penis are usually the glans, the coronal ridge, the frenulum, the raphe, the shaft, and for uncircumcised men, the foreskin and ridged band. The glans has a higher number of sensory nerves than the shaft of the penis. The whole of the penis (not accounting for the foreskin when it’s present) is usually estimated to have around 4,000 sensory nerve endings.

  • If you don’t know what we’re talking about with those parts, or want some other diagrams, you can have a look at our larger piece on the penis here.

As we mentioned earlier, the base of the penis is inside the body, but can still play a part in pleasure especially with perineal massage or receptive (as in, inside that person’s bottom, not putting the penis in someone else’s) anal sex.

Psssst: If you’re a person with a penis who is all hung up (as it were) on how long your penis is, by the time you get to the end of this piece I’m hoping you’ll see why that’s silly. In case you need it made more clear: the opening, or front, of the anus and rectum is what is most sensitive: the back isn’t. The opening, or front, of the vagina is what’s most sensitive: the back isn’t. The sensations you feel in your penis are about your whole body, including your brain and nervous system, your cardiovascular system, and nerves that don’t even start in your penis in the first place. How long your penis is really doesn’t make a difference to anybody in terms of pleasure, even if someone claims it does (which they usually do either because they think that’s what they’re supposed to say, or because they’re trying to put you down). For more on shape and size of the penis, take a click here.

The Foreskin

Circumcised-vs-UncircumcisedUncircumcised penises have a prepuce, or foreskin. Everyone born with a penis was born with a foreskin, too.

Some penises are without them because they were removed, either for cultural reasons, because parents asked for a circumcision per what they understood as health reasons or because a parent made that decision based on their aesthetic preferences. While for many years now, medical organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics have made clear there are not compelling health reasons to remove an infant’s foreskin, some people who have been circumcised were because parents or doctors simply didn’t have the most current information.

The foreskin is a loose tube of skin that totally or mostly covers the penis when it isn’t erect. It grows out from the shaft of the penis just below the glans. With erection, the foreskin will usually (but not always!) retract over the head of the penis: to what degree it retracts varies. It’s full of nerve endings and can supply extra sexual sensation for people with penises because of those nerve endings and its gliding movement. The foreskin also produces and distributes its own lubrication, smegma, an accumulation of shed skin cells, skin oils and other moisture.

Both those with circumcised and with uncircumcised penises can and do experience sexual pleasure. While there are differences in how that feels to each person – kind of like things feel different with or without a condom — most circumcised people were circumcised in infancy, so they have “learned” and experienced their sexuality without a foreskin, just like those of us who have certain disabilities which mean we may sexually function differently have learned or can learn to experience sexual pleasure, even with those differences.

In other words, it is a genital variance/difference and one that most often does not seem to result in people with circumcised penises being unable to experience sexual pleasure, even if the foreskin, and the additional sensory nerves within it can result in higher sensitivity of the penis overall for those who are uncircumcised. Interestingly, one study found that scarring from circumcision created the most sensitive area for fine touch on the circumcised penis, an area uncircumcised men will not have. (Fine-touch pressure thresholds in the adult penis : Morris L. Sorrells, James L. Snyder, Mark D. Reiss, Christopher Eden, Marilyn F. Milos, Norma Wilcox and Robert S. Van Howe, 22 October 2006)

This seems like as good a time as any to talk about “fine touch.” When we say that, we mean that we can usually feel something distinctly if someone is even just gently brushing their fingers lightly over a place. With areas sensitive to fine touch (most of which will send signals to the spinal nerves), we can feel different sensations easily even on areas of our body that are very close together. Some areas of the body – like those erogenous zones we talked about before, are very receptive to that kind of touch. Others, not so much. For example, the glans of the penis is often sensitive to fine touch, while the base often isn’t. The clitoris is very receptive to fine touch, while much of the vagina isn’t. In the vagina, touch or pressure to one part of it can often be indistinguishable to touch or pressure to another very close by. That doesn’t mean no one feels anything in those kinds of areas. Rather, what we mean is that an area like that is usually more receptive to strong pressure or temperature changes than it is to fine touch, unless touch to it also engages parts that are more densely packed with more receptive and sensitive nerve endings.

Before we leave the discussion of penis-having folks, the testes and scrotum are primarily reproductive in function (in other words, they’re mostly about babymaking), but as anyone who has had a testicular injury can attest, they also have many sensory nerve endings. Plenty of people with testicles find sexual enjoyment in having their scrotum or testicles sexually stimulated.

Did you get the part where… we said that your penis is okay and normal whether you have a foreskin or not? Circumcised penises are normal and lots of people have them. Uncircumcised penises are normal and lots of people have them. Both kinds of penises can be pleasureable for the people who have them, and any sexual partners who they’re shared with. Most people with either didn’t get a say in what kind of penis they have now, so it’s important we treat this difference as just that: a difference. Got it? Just checking.

The Clitoris

Clitoris-V2

(It’s so much more than just the glands).

If you have a vulva, unless you had a clitoral mutilation or circumcision, you have a clitoris. Even for those who have had an external part of their clitoris excised or injured there are still going to be internal portions of the clitoris present. The clitoris is the only part on the human body whose sole purpose is pleasure: while we can receive pleasure to many parts, all the rest of them serve at least one other function. But pleasure is the clitoris’ full-time gig: what a sweet deal!

A lot of people don’t know that the clitoris is bigger than anyone can see (unless they’ve got X-ray eyes). The clitoral shaft is what most people call the clitoris, but that’s only one part of a much larger system that is both internal and external.

The whole of the clitoris is not just the clitoral glans and hood we can see on the outside, but the clitoral shaft, the crura, the corpus carvernosum, the urethral sponge and the vestibular bulbs on the inside. Like the penis, the clitoris is an organ composed of both corpus cavernosum and spogiosum erectile tissue. Like the penis, all the portions of the clitoris can become erect during sexual arousal. When the clitoris — as a whole, not just the shaft — becomes erect, the vulva is often best described as looking and feeling puffier: that’s really obvious by looking sometimes, while at other times it isn’t so easy to see. You also can often see that when someone is very sexually aroused, their clitoris will often look a bit bigger, and can feel that it’s harder than in its resting state.

While we more often hear folks with penises talking about “getting hard,” people with clitorises get hard, too. It’s a bit more obvious by looking when a penis is and isn’t erect, but when you become familiar with a vulva, be it yours or someone else’s, you’ll usually be able to get to know the differences in time if you pay attention. That can also differ both from person to person, but also by how aroused a person is at a given time.

The clitoris is understood to contain around 8,000 nerve endings. The clitoral glans and shaft is usually more sensitive than the whole of the penis because the density of nerve endings is greater. The clitoris is also a serious social butterfly: it interacts with over 15,000 additional nerve endings throughout the pelvis, which is yet another reason clitoral stimulus can feel so intense.

Can’t find it? The clitoris can be harder to find, especially for those with a smaller clitoris, without being sexually excited first. If you’re just feeling or looking around at a time when you or a partner aren’t sexually excited, it can be harder to find. When a person is aroused, the clitoral hood will retract a bit more, and the clitoral glans (both external portions) will increase in size at least somewhat, and usually in sensitivity pretty profoundly. If you just feel your way around with your fingers during times like that — right between the top of the outer labia, and the hood is what connects the inner labia — it’s usually tough to miss because a pretty notable zing is to be felt. Some people find that the glans is so sensitive, it feels even like too much to touch directly, and find it feels better to stimulate it through the hood. Pressing unto the outer labia in different ways can also result in sensations of the vestibular bulbs and crura. And if no matter how hard you try, you just cannot find your clitoris, ask your gynecologist to show you: there’s nothing wrong with asking a doctor where any of your body parts are.

That Darned G-spot/ Urethral Sponge

There’s probably not another part of the vulva or vagina that has been argued about as much as the G-spot. There’s some sound reason for that: often enough, the reason people want to put so much focus on it seems to be about wanting to deny the importance of the clitoris and make it seem like vaginal intercourse should be enough for both partners to feel satisfied with and reach orgasm through, even though we know, from decades of study — and goodness known how many folks driving themselves up a tree to desperately try and make that happen — that isn’t true. Most people with vulvas don’t reach orgasm just from intercourse or other kinds of vaginal entry alone. When it all comes down to it, on the whole, the vagina is more of a reproductive organ than one that’s about pleasure.

Where-is-That-G-Spot

(I know I left it somewhere around here).

Here’s the funny part, though: based on everything we know to date, it’s clear that the G-spot is PART of the internal clitoris, making argument about them as two separate parts moot. The G-spot and urethral sponge have been linked, it’s just that research is still sparse to determine if they are the same, different, related or unrelated. Feminist healthcare and female-centered sexologists do most frequently recognize the urethral sponge as what is typically called the G-spot, and do most frequently recognize it as yet one more part of the clitoris as a whole.

Given all the argument around the G-spot, I’m going to lean on some words from others for this one: “The G-spot (named for Dr. Grafenberg who originally wrote about it) refers to an area inside our bodies (it surrounds the urethra but we can feel it when we press up against the front wall of our vagina). Stimulating this area may lead to orgasm and/or ejaculation. To feel your G-spot, try to touch the front wall of your vagina, below your belly button. You may feel it about 1/3 to half the way up your vagina, not as high up as your cervix.”

The urethral sponge is a very significant part of the clitoral system. Embedded in its spongy erectile tissue are up to 30 or more tiny prostatic-like glands that produce an alkaline fluid similar in constitution to the male prostatic fluid. Two of the largest, called the Skene’s glands, are near the urethral opening, where the urine comes out, but numerous others are buried in the spongy tissue surrounding the urethra. All of these glands together are referred to as paraurethral glands, meaning “around the urethra” and they are the source of female ejaculation.” (The Clitoral Truth, Rebecca Chalker, pp. 43)

Again, research on the G-spot and female ejaculation is limited: both have a lot of academic and medical disagreement around them. Whether or not Skene’s glands are the source of female ejaculation is also not agreed-upon: further research is needed for that one, too. But enough people report G-spot enjoyment and female ejaculation that neither can be be discounted: “An anonymous questionnaire was distributed to 2350 professional women in the United States and Canada with a subsequent 55% return rate. Of these respondents, 40% reported having a fluid release (ejaculation) at the moment of orgasm. Further, 82% of the women who reported the sensitive area (Grafenberg spot) also reported ejaculation with their orgasms. [sometimes]” (Darling, CA; Davidson, JK; Conway-Welch, C. (1990). “Female ejaculation: perceived origins, the Grafenberg spot/area, and sexual responsiveness.” Arch Sex Behav 19: 29–47)

And in case you’re wondering if female ejaculation is just urine in disguise, it’s clear by now that it’s not. Analysis carried out by Whipple and Perry in the early 1980s established substantially higher levels of antigen and glucose, and substantially lower levels of creatinine and urea in samples of ejaculatory fluid than in samples of urine from the same women. In other words, they found the chemical makeup of ejaculate to be substantially different than that of urine.

There are no “magic buttons.” Just like in The Matrix there is no spoon. There are no “magic buttons” on every body that if someone just touches them, or does in a certain way, then BLAMMO! the receiver of that touch has an instant orgasm or automatically feels massive pleasure. The G-spot isn’t a magic button, the clitoris isn’t a magic button, the penis isn’t a magic button, the prostate gland isn’t a magic button. Any of these areas of the body have the potential to be pleasurable for people, but if they are, how sensitive they are, what that touch results in, and how a given person does or doesn’t like them to be stimulated varies. And most people, full-stop, will tend to want and need more than one part of their body touched in order to feel sexually satisfied.

The Vagina

Our cultural understanding of the vagina as THE sexual organ of women is deeply flawed, most likely due to male sexual experience and male desire and fantasy writing the female genital script through most of history. We’ve said it before here, and we’ll likely need to say it fifty million times more: most studies and most self-reporting reflects that the majority of people with vaginas both do not reach orgasm from intercourse all by itself (as in, with nothing else going on sexually, or without stimulation to other more highly sensitive areas) and also don’t find vagina-only stimulation, especially with something like vaginal intercourse, to be all-that when it comes to physical pleasure.

The vulva is often incorrectly called the vagina. The vagina is an internal organ, a highly elastic fibromuscular tube with an external opening on the vulva, and which, at the end inside the body, leads to the cervix (the opening of the uterus). The vagina isn’t a straight line: it’s angled — curved upwards towards the belly, not the back — and it conforms to the shape of anything which is inside of it.

The back ⅔ of the vagina has essentially no sensitivity, which is why sometimes someone can put a tampon in and hours later, realize they completely forgot about it. The lower ⅓ of the vagina and the vaginal opening are quite sensitive, though: the outer one-third of the vagina contains nearly 90 percent of the vaginal nerve endings. But the vagina, as a whole is not that sensitive to that fine touch we were talking about earlier: it tends to be more sensitive to pain than pleasure (which is not to say intercourse will or must hurt or should hurt), temperature changes or pressure.

We get asked a lot around here when we talk about the realities of the vagina why, then, any vagina-owning folks at all might enjoy intercourse or other vaginal entry or why some do or can reach orgasm that way. So, let’s review.

Remember all those parts that came before this: all those nerve endings in the perianal region? The internal clitoris? The perineal sponge? The urethral sponge or G-spot? When there is pressure inside the vagina – in more a wide way than longways – be it with a penis, with fingers, with a sex toy, that can put pressure on all those other parts. Same goes for pressure on the mons or outer labia. And that’s all the more likely when a person is very aroused and all that erectile tissue of the clitoris is puffed up. Depending on the position someone is in for sexual activity that involves vaginal entry, too, that can put additional pressure or friction on the external clitoris. Just like you’re (hopefully) thinking now of the brain, the genitals and other body parts as pretty impossible to consider as totally separate places when it comes to sex, so it goes for the vagina and all of the other parts that are around it.

So, understanding what we do about the internal clitoris, the vaginal opening and the first 1/3rd of the vagina, the labia, the perineal sponge, the urethral sponge and the PC muscles, the pudendal nerve, the G-spot — AND everything going on in our brains emotionally, psychologically, socially, the works, just like with every other kind of sex — you can see how, even if vaginal sex alone does not result in orgasm for a majority, many people with vaginas aren’t just trying to stroke someone else’s ego when they say they enjoy vaginal intercourse or other stimulation of the vagina.

The Mons, Labia Majora and Labia Minora

The mons of the vulva (where most of the pubic hair is) is rich with nerve endings, and stimulation of the mons can indirectly stimulate portions of the internal and external clitoris. Both sets of labia contain sensory nerve endings, and the labia majora also house both the crura and the vestibular bulbs. Thus, stimulus of the labia stimulates portions of the clitoris.

  • If you don’t know what we’re talking about with those parts, or want some other diagrams, you can have a look at our larger piece on the vulva and vagina here.

Don’t forget that just like our brains, and what’s in them full-stop and from minute-to-minute, day-to-day, varies wildly from person-to-person, and just like our whole bodies all can look very different, our genitals and other body parts can also all look and BE very different. In other words, not everyone with a vulva has Skene’s glands the same size, or the same proportions of all the parts of their vulva. Not everyone with a penis shares the exact same most-sensitive areas. And when we take a partner into the equation, we have to remember that no two (or more) bodies all fit together the same way, either. Differences between partners when it comes to body and genital proportions, shape, size, strength and weight, as well as differences in how a partner engages in this sexual activity or that one, and the different dynamics of sexual relationships can all make any given kind of touch or sexual activity feel pretty different from one partnership to another.

Are you lovin’ on labia? In case you have issues with the appearance of your labia — or don’t have labia yourself, but you’ve got issues with other people’s labia — take a spin over here so you can let that go. Not only do labia look a whole bunch of different ways — more than you’ll probably ever know unless you have many sex partners with labia or work in sexual health — all variances with labia are just as okay as all variances of penises, hands or noses. If you get too caught up on what they look like, you’ll miss out on the good feelings they can bring you or your sexual partners. If you or a potential partner are totally freaked about seeing labia or having them seen (or other body parts), that can be a good hint you’re just moving too fast. When the time is right for sex with others, even if we’re a little nervous, we’ll feel okay about having our body parts seen and seeing the bodies of partners.

At the Bottom of Everything

To sum up: no two bodies are built exactly alike, genitally or otherwise, even those of the same sex or where people identify as the same gender. Hopefully, that’s obvious now if it wasn’t already.

There is also no one way everyone — male, female or otherwise, of any given sexual orientation or with partners of any given gender or embodiment — experiences sexual pleasure or orgasm. There’s not any one body part or way of engaging a given body part that equals pleasure or orgasm for everyone, or even for the same person every day. Not only can we never say “everybody likes [whatever]” or “everyone gets off on [whatever]” we also can’t say “women like [this thing]” men don’t like [that thing]” “gay people do [this other thing]” or “straight people do [that one].”

Well, we could say those things — many people do all the freaking time — they just will never be factual things to say, and will tend to limit how people frame, explore and experience sexuality. Hopefully all of that’s obvious now, too.

Sexual pleasure is never about just one part of the body. Not ever. We can’t segregate our genitals from our brains and everything else they’re connected to and influenced by, just like we can’t segregate our experience of any one thing in life from the whole of our lives, or any one part of a person’s personality from the whole of who they are. Any part of your body that can be part of pleasure is connected to and influenced by other parts.

People who talk about secondary virginity may be on to something even if they don’t realize it (or don’t like what I’m about to say they’re on to). Because all of our bodies and brains are so different and so multifaceted, in a lot of ways both every new sexual partner and every sexual experience with even the same partner is its own “first time.” If we’re not treating it that way, we, and our partners, are probably not having a sexual life that’s as good as it could be.

We often hear people who are worried about sex with partners because they’re “inexperienced” (and also hear enough from people bragging that they know everything there is to know about sex because they’ve had a few sexual partners), but the thing is, even if you manage to get to know one person’s body and sexual responses and how your sexuality works with one partner, that doesn’t mean you know all there is to know about that person’s sexuality and body or yours. If we could find out all of that in just a few months or years, sex would get hella boring very fast, which it usually doesn’t for most people, and we’d not hear older people expressing, as many of us do, that sex has held new discoveries for us for decades.

Not only can (and do) people’s sexual responses often shift and change over time, but just because you or anyone else has had sex with one or two people doesn’t mean you’re going to walk into sex with the next partner knowing all there is to know, and knowing exactly what to do with that person.

The value of sexual “experience” isn’t really about “getting good in bed” or becoming some sort of sexual expert in the way a lot of people think. What experience can offer us is things like increased sexual communication skills, a better degree of comfort with sexual partnership and our bodies in general, and the tangible understanding that we really can’t ever know all there is to know about sex for everyone, or even for ourselves: that there are often surprises, changes and new discoveries to be had, and that we should be open to those at any time.

Suffice it to say, all of that discovery should be the fun part and the deepest part (play and depth aren’t oxymorons, I swear), whether it’s discovery about yourself, by yourself, about yourself with a partner, or about a partner. What I hope to offer you with a piece like this isn’t some sort of road map where you can try and touch every point and feel like you covered all the bases, but an idea of how much there really is to explore, how complex, multifaceted and individual that exploration and discovery can be, and how much bigger all of our sexual bodies are than we often tend to think about them as, and than they often are presented as in our world.

It’s unsurprising if we come to sexually thinking it’s only six or seven inches in scope that our sexual experiences may feel that limited, too: and unfortunately, that tends to be the case for a whole lot of people. So when we say “think bigger,” in regards to sex and your body, hopefully you understand now that what we’re talking about isn’t the penis size spam you see in your inbox, but about seeing the sexual body as the whole, extensive system that it is, in all its diversity and depth and all its staggering, and seriously cool, complexity.

* Thanks to Rebecca Bak, Shannon O’Hern and/of the American Medical Student Association for giving me the impetus to construct this presentation for their Sexual Health Scholars Program, and a thanks to Cory Silverberg for his editorial eye!

heatherHEATHER CORINNA is an activist, artist, author and the director of Scarleteen, the inclusive online resource for teen and young adult sex education and information. She is also the author of S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College and was a contributor to the 2011 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves. She’s received the The Champions of Sexual Literacy Award for Grassroots Activism (2007), The Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, Western Region’s, Public Service Award (2009), the Our Bodies, Ourselves’ Women’s Health Heroes Award (2009), The Joan Helmich Educator of the Year Award (2012), and The Woodhull Foundation’s Vicki Award(2013).

ISABELLA ROTMAN is a Chicago cartoonist and illustrator from Maine who truly cares about your genital well being. She is the author of the queer and quirky sexual health book You’re So Sexy When You Aren’t Transmitting STDs and a recent graduate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Other than educational comics, Isabella’s art is usually about the ocean, mermaids, crushing loneliness, people in the woods, or sex. If any of the above interests you then you may enjoy her self published comics or blog ThisMightHurt.Tumblr.com.

25 Ways to Build Intimacy and Why You Should

93- How to build intimacyThere are many definitions of intimacy and ways of being intimate. When it comes to sexual health, the degree of intimacy we willingly express impacts how we accept ourselves and how we share our bodies, minds and lives with others. In this article, Heather Corinna of Scarleteen breaks down what “building intimacy” means and looks like. In short, “building intimacy” is explained here as sharing more and more of ourselves and our lives, but also learning together how to do that in ways that are healthy and feel beneficial to everyone involved.

Here are key points to take away from the article:

  • Sex is a way to express intimacy, but it is not the only way. A better metric of a relationship’s integrity is how able we are to really be, or start being ourselves with someone else, and they us, even in ways we are different.
  • No one thing or activity feels intimate for everyone, or for any one person all the time or in every situation. But healthy intimacy always involves actively willing and safely sharing private, vulnerable parts of our lives, minds and bodies with each other, and having others share with us in ways we feel comfortable with. True intimacy must be reciprocal.
  • Healthy intimacy gives you and others self-acceptance and the opportunity to accept others. It offers a sense of freedom for personal growth and increases the capacity to be empathetic to others.
  • Codependency is not healthy intimacy because it lacks boundaries. Hallmarks of healthy intimacy are things like establishing boundaries, having choice, safety and care in our vulnerability, shared trust and open, honest communication. Those things are the opposite of what’s going on and intended within abuse or assault.
  •  Healthy intimacy teaches us to be both fearless and careful in all the best ways. Seeking out and taking part in intimacy is about choosing to take a positive risk to open up.

This article was originally published on Scarleteen.

BY HEATHER CORINNA | Scarleteen

ILLUSTRATIONS BY ISABELLA ROTMAN | thismighthurt.tumblr.com

intimacyAs a verb, to be intimate means to make known. Intimacy is about seeking or having closeness of some kind with someone. When we’re being intimate with another person, we’re letting them — or they’re letting us — get closer by inviting and allowing each other into places beneath the visible surfaces of ourselves; places we don’t show to just anyone, or places people can only really come into if we invite them.

Healthy intimacy involves intentionally, willingly and safely sharing more private, vulnerable parts of our hearts, minds, bodies or lives with each other, and having others share with us in ways we want and feel comfortable with. Intimacy asks for transparency (being open and honest), vulnerability (letting our guard down), trust, and a means of communicating or connecting. When we’re experiencing healthy intimacy, we’ll tend to feel accepted or accepting, known or more knowing, valued just as the people we are, not because we did something important or something that someone wanted, and, since so many of us keep so much of our inner selves reigned in tightly so much of the time, we’ll tend to feel a certain sense of peace or release by loosening those reins.

Intimacy is something that can happen in a brief period of time and can be built over time, so it becomes deeper, there’s more of it, or it’s something we experience more often. A truly shared intimacy involves both or all people involved sharing and being shared with. Shared intimacy requires all people involved be open and receptive, vulnerable, trusting and trustworthy, sharing and communicating together, not just one person.

One way to conceptualize intimacy is to think about it like the place you live. There are people you won’t even let in the front door. There are others you let in, but only in the living room or lobby. Others, still, you may let into your bedroom or another place that’s more private. Then there are people let into all those rooms and who you may let stay and even make spaces with you. You might also show some people where you keep things that are secret or of value to you and give them permission to access those things. Which people those are, and for which spaces, is something we should ideally have a choice about. When we do, those choices are rarely random.

Intimacy-Examples-1We’re usually selective about who we’re intimate with and in what ways. If and when someone lets us into some part of their private space, or we them, that’s an extension of trust. To honor that, take part in it in a healthy way, and have intimacy be something that’s beneficial for everyone, everyone involved has to be open to it, respect everyone’s boundaries, and treat each other with care. Trashing the proverbial bedroom, stealing food, or even just going into a room anyone hasn’t expressly invited us into in would disrespect all of that, and most often result in doors, validly, being shut and staying shut to whoever didn’t treat a house — be that house a heart, mind, body or an actual house — with care.

When some people say someone was intimate, they mean they engaged in sex. Sex is one way to be intimate and develop intimacy, but that’s not all there is to it, and sex isn’t the only way to be intimate. To say sex is all there is to intimacy is like saying eating only one thing at a restaurant with a thirty-page menu is knowing is all there is to the place. To say someone was intimate doesn’t tell us if they were sexual or not: maybe they engaged in sex, or maybe they were intimate in other ways. And to say someone engaged in sex doesn’t tell us if that even involved intimacy: often sex is an intimate experience for everyone involved, but not always. Doing or sharing any one things never means intimacy is a given: intimacy is something we experience (or don’t) through things we do or share, but no given share or way of sharing means we can be sure intimacy is what everyone involved has experienced or will experience.

Whether we’re talking about sex, or any of the many other ways we can be intimate, intimacy is a seriously subjective thing. No one thing or activity feels intimate for everyone, or for any one person all the time or in every situation. We all have different personalities, life experiences, opportunities, relationships, ways of expressing ourselves and boundaries, so it’d be impossible for us to all experience intimacy the same ways, or want to explore it in the same ways. We’re also not the same person through all of our lives, so will experience intimacy differently throughout a lifetime.

If and when we want to be intimate with someone else that means saying, doing or otherwise expressing something more hidden or private to or with someone else (or more than one someone else). How? In millions, probably billions, of ways.

What are some ways of being intimate or building intimacy?

Intimacy-Examples-3-Sharing our feelings with our words: our fears, joys, struggles; the good stuff, the bad stuff, the easier stuff and the hard stuff (intimacy more often develops from sharing the things that aren’t so easy).

-Sharing our thoughts, dreams, goals or ideas.

-Sharing touch or other ways of physically connecting, be that touch we and others consider and experience as sex, or touch we and others don’t consider or experience as sexual. Just letting someone into our physical space bubble is often an intimacy.

-Showing someone a part of ourselves — be it a body part, or a part of our life history — we do not feel proud of or think is awesome, so they can know more of us, not just “the good parts” that impress them.

-Letting someone into something we consider a more private or sacred experience, like taking a hike in our own secretly-discovered place, practicing an instrument the way we would alone with someone else in the room, meditating or praying together, or letting someone see us in our Yummy Sushi pajamas.

Intimacy-Examples-2-Sharing things we consider very meaningful and valuable: like a song that makes us weep because it really hits home, a childhood toy, a journal or lending out our prized lucky socks that seem to assure we pass every test.

-Delegating or sharing responsibility, especially with something greatly cherished and valued, like letting someone care for your child or pet, or doing a joint project with someone about something you really care about.

-Doing something in front of someone else we usually only do alone because we feel embarrassed about it otherwise, like going to the bathroom, dancing like a fool in our underpants in a way no one in their right mind would find hot.

-Telling someone things about ourselves or our lives we don’t feel so secure in; showing someone our fumbles, faults or flaws.

-Voicing something in the interest of getting closer, better understanding each other, or repairing something broken in our relationship, but which we know will be hard for that person to hear, and be something we will need to put in effort to work through for a while.

-Helping someone, being helped ourselves or asking for help.

Intimacy-Examples-4_0Intimacy isn’t only for pairs: two people can experience intimacy together, but so can three, four, five, ten, twenty or two hundred. People in support groups like AA or abuse survivor forums, jam sessions, families, poly relationships, intentional communities or in large events often experience or build intimacy. Certain kinds of relationships also don’t mean people are necessarily more or less intimate. Someone in a romantic or sexual relationship is not automatically more intimate in that relationship than they are in their best non-sexual, non-romantic friendship. How much intimacy has to do with how long we have known someone, or in what capacity, varies. We can experience intimacy with romantic or sexual partners, but also with friends, family, neighbors, caregivers or someone sitting next to us on the bus. We can experience intimacy with someone we’ve known for all our lives, or with someone we just met.

When I worked in abortion counseling, people often shared very personal, vulnerable things about themselves and their lives with me, even though we’d just met and were unlikely to ever see one another again. In big things that deeply impact many people, like natural disasters or cultural revolutions, once-strangers helping each other often experience intimacy. I had one of the most intimate conversations of my life with a stranger I was seated next to on a long flight. That’s important to bear in mind especially when you’re young. There are a lot of messages that suggest only time gives relationships value, and that real intimacy can only happen over time, so it can feel like many of your interactions or relationships aren’t as valuable because you haven’t often even had the chance yet for them to last over time, and a lot of our intimate relationships growing up are shorter, rather than longer.

Unsure what size

Intimacy that only happens briefly with someone, in only one way, and isn’t mutually built and deepened over time, is different than the long-term kind. When people intentionally build intimacy over time, it usually has more layers and depth, since people are also building trust, becoming more comfortable being themselves, bringing more accumulated life experiences, feelings and reflection to the table, and learning, together, to be intimate. But there are people who know each other — including within close relationships like families or marriages — for years, even a lifetime, yet never share much intimacy of any kind, so time alone doesn’t mean a relationship is more intimate (or valuable), or that intimacy will occur just because people stick around a long time. Intimacy isn’t only “real” when it’s the kind built over months, years or decades. Intimacy can occur and be something of real depth in a relationship that’s gone on for forty years or one that’s only four weeks old.

What’s So Great About Intimacy, Anyway?

Intimacy-Examples-8We get to experience really being ourselves with others, not just showing or sharing the stuff everyone will applaud or approve of, the easy stuff or the ways we can comfortably be ourselves just anywhere, or with just anyone. What does that give us and others? Self-acceptance, and the opportunity to be accepting. More room to be more of who we are in the world; places, relationships and interactions where we feel more free to just be, rather than presenting or performing, or keeping certain parts of ourselves hidden or protected. A feeling of freedom: it’s freeing to be able to just be ourselves, rather than being at work all the time to please people, or to be the person someone wants us to be, especially when that’s not the person we are. It can feel less scary to make mistakes, because we know we have people who accept us no matter what, and who’ll have our backs if things get rough. That also makes us feel more able to take positive risks that can net us what we want in life. We get room to grow: when we have relationships and interactions where we start going deep, we get opportunities for personal and interpersonal growth. Over time, in relationships where we’ve built and keep building healthy intimacy, those relationships start feeling like a home: a place where we feel safe, warm and able to be at ease in ourselves.

Intimacy-Examples-6Being intimate with others can increase our ability to be compassionate, sympathetic and empathic with others, and when we get better at extending compassion to others, we also tend to get better at doing it for ourselves. Being intimate helps us learn how to be more patient and forgiving with and of ourselves and others. Healthy intimacy makes us all a lot better at coexisting with kindness, understanding and care.

In ongoing relationships, intimacy is what creates real bonds between us: we can only get truly close, after all, if we let each other get to know who really we are, not just the shiny bits or what we see just by looking. While a lot of people talk about the quality or integrity of relationships being about things like how long people are together, what level of commitment people make, or exclusivity, intimacy, how healthy it is, and how invested people are in it, is a better metric. How able are we, and do we feel, to really be, or start being, ourselves with someone else, and they us, even in ways we are different? How much room do we make for each other to have and respect the boundaries we need for intimacy to develop? How emotionally safe is it for us and those involved with us to be vulnerable; how much trust have we built and kept together? Things like this tell us a lot more about the quality of a relationship or interaction than if people are married or not, sexual together or not, or how long they’ve been together.

Reciprocity and Building Intimacy

Intimacy-Examples-7When we talk about depth with intimacy, or building intimacy, what we’re talking about is both sharing more and more of ourselves and our lives, but also learning together how to do that in ways that are healthy and feel beneficial to everyone involved.

Building intimacy — rather than more singular experiences of it — can’t happen all at once or fast: it takes opportunity, time and practice. Generally, we’re going to build intimacy with someone else by sharing smaller things first, seeing how that goes and how we, and they, feel about it, and then seeing if they, too, want to open up to us.

If we have the opportunity and choose to keep getting closer we’ll share more and more, or things that, to us, are bigger and bigger. We’ll make a commitment to each other, spoken or not, to keep working on getting closer, and to learning to get better at it. To build intimacy together, everyone involved has to actively participate, each making their own efforts, alone and together, to get closer, and go deeper, in ways that feel right for everyone.

If you’ve ever done some kind of stretching to help your body become more flexible, you know what it’s like to do something again and again, but to try to go a little deeper into those stretches, and open your muscles up a bit more, each time. If you’ve ever done stretches with a friend or partner, you know you’re both working together to help yourselves and each other to go a little deeper and more open. When you stretch together, you have to pay attention to you and the other person, being sure what feels like a good stretch for you also feels good for them. Building a healthy intimacy with someone else is like that: a shared effort to gradually go a little deeper, to become more open, all while staying aware we’re doing this with someone else, so we need to pay attention to each other, and learn how to emotionally stretch together in ways that feel comfortable for all of us.

How deep intimacy is or gets has a lot to do with how reciprocal it is, and the dynamics of how we’re intimate with someone else. If we share a secret with someone, we are seeking intimacy with them. If they react with indifference, are not really paying attention or engaging with us, or don’t actually want us to be sharing secrets with them, that’s a very different thing than when we have their full attention, when they’re invested in and value the way we are opening up with them, and they maybe share something big and secret back, or offer us acceptance and support.

Building intimacy has an awful lot to do with how we behave when someone is being intimate with us. Being accepting, compassionate, sensitive, respectful, holding and honoring everyone’s lines, and showing ourselves to be trustworthy and patient usually all play huge parts in how intimate people can be together, how healthy that intimacy is, and how positively everyone feels. The building process of intimacy is never just about one person, and isn’t a one-way, static transmission: it’s something circular, always moving and growing, and always about how everyone involved is behaving, not just one person. We can’t create or build intimacy with someone all by ourselves.

When It’s Not Happening (and Why Not)

Sometime things can get in the way of intimacy occurring, being shared or becoming deeper. Some common reasons intimacy doesn’t happen, isn’t reciprocated or doesn’t get built are things like:

Because it’s not wanted: If intimacy, or a certain kind of intimacy, just is not something we want at a given time, in a given situation, or with a given person, at best, it’s just not going to happen. If there’s pushing or other attempts to force intimacy, people can be truly harmed. Healthy intimacy is about people getting close because they want to, and by choice: it can’t happen or be healthy if anyone is forced, coerced, pushed or pulled. Healthy intimacy requires an invitation or request of some kind, and someone else accepting that invitation or saying yes to that request. Consent and consenting is just as important with other kinds of intimacy as it is with sexual intimacy.

A lack of communication: We have to communicate and share in some way to experience and develop intimacy, be that through language, touch, or some other way of expressing and showing our deeper selves. We, or whoever we’re sharing with, also have to pick up the other part of communication, so we’re really taking it in, holding that space, and otherwise playing our part being willingly receptive to sharing. If one person is doing all the sharing and the other person isn’t doing the same — or, when they are, they are not opening up more emotionally — we can’t really share, build or sustain intimacy with someone else. When you hear people expressing, or have experienced yourself, a partner, friend or family member has “shut down,” often what they mean is that that person is not longer doing the communication to build or nurture intimacy: they’ve shut the door on being close. We also may have barriers with communication because we don’t communicate in the same ways: maybe we speak a different language than someone else, maybe we’re sighted and they’re not, maybe we like to communicate through touch while someone else is averse to touch. In order to communicate with someone else, we have to find ways of communicating we share and all feel comfortable with.

Game-playing or posturing: Intimacy is about being real with someone else or with each other. So, if we’re not sharing how we really feel, what we really think, or just aren’t really being ourselves, we can’t be intimate. If we just go through the motions of things that can be intimate — like sex — but aren’t really being open, showing and sharing ourselves and who we are, or really taking in what the other person is sharing, that’s not intimacy.

Social anxiety, shyness, introversion or issues with trust: How quickly and in what situations a person feels comfortable or able to be intimate varies, and those who are shy, have social anxiety, are introverted or have had their trust betrayed will tend to need more time. There’s no one right pace when it comes to intimacy, nor any given situation or kind of relationship where everyone will feel equally comfortable. So, if any of these things are part of who we are, we need to be patient with ourselves, and ask others to be the same. If they’re part of anyone you’re interacting with, you’ll need to make a little extra room, and probably be more patient. That payoff is that when intimacy does start to happen and be built, people with these issues or personality types tend to open up one-on-one to a degree more extroverted, gregarious or more easily trusting people often don’t.

A lack of self-awareness: To share who we are, we have to have some sense of who we are, and do our own work in getting to know ourselves by ourselves. Much like it’s really hard to love someone else well if we don’t already love ourselves, it’s difficult to be intimate with someone else if we’re not intimate with ourselves.

A lack of time or opportunity: Sometimes we can experience intimacy in situations or circumstances where our time is limited, but it takes time for intimacy to become deeper, and we need to be afforded opportunities for intimacy. Again, intimacy is something most people will often need to do in baby steps, opening up gradually, not all at once.
Too much too soon, too fast, or without boundaries: Sometimes we or others might put ourselves alllllll the way out there without paying real attention to the other people involved and making sure they’re even open to that; that the ways we want to share are ways they feel comfortable with and want. Rather than a healthy, mutually wanted intimacy, what’s really happening there is an overshare, because we haven’t given the other person any real choice, space or time to digest our shares, or bring who they are to the table. An initial share-er with any intimacy is putting more out there at first, but the share-ee also has to be a big part of the picture.

Busted trust: If we extended trust of some kind to someone, and they broke or betrayed it in some way (or vice-versa), we may have been intimate with them before, but probably won’t be again, because they’re demonstrated it’s not safe for us to be so with them. In order to keep being intimate with someone else, or they with us, everyone needs to be and stay trustworthy.
It’s so important that when someone is making themselves vulnerable with us, we treat them with extra care.

There’s a readiness factor to intimacy, and not just when the shares are yours or only when the intimacy is sexual. We have to want to share and be shared with in the first place, and be able to handle our own, or someone else’s vulnerability. If and when we know or suspect there are certain things, or ways of being intimate, we don’t feel we can handle or react to well or with care, it’s best to set and hold limits with those things for everyone’s sake. It’s always okay to have limits, and to let someone know that we appreciate the way they want to be intimate with us, but it’s not something we want, feel ready for, or feel able to handle well. If someone doesn’t want or feel ready for a certain kind of intimacy, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have “trust issues,” or don’t like or care for someone else: but even when either or both of those things are so, they still get to set limits around intimacy, and those limits still should be respected. No one learns to trust or like someone by being pushed into a closeness they don’t want or feel ready for.

Some intimacies can be hard to react to well. We may feel shocked, disappointed, sad, scared, angry or freaked out in some major way based on what someone has told us, how someone is asking us to be intimate, or with how intimacy goes between us. We may wind up feeling more vulnerable, insecure and less accepting than we thought we would, and have emotional reactions we just were not prepared to deal with.

At least once in your life, and probably more than once, you’re going to louse this up and react poorly: everyone does. When we have very strong feelings or reactions, or our own big stuff gets triggered by someone else’s, it can be a sort of temporary blindness, where we’re just not seeing the other person and their feelings because our own stuff’s blocked them out. When we have big feelings, we can have big reactions, especially if we haven’t ever learned how to handle big feelings with someone else well.

When that happens, all we can do is what we can when we’ve been crummy or inconsiderate to someone else. We can first apologize, and do whatever we can to make sure the other person is okay; asking if there is anything we can do for them. Then we can each give ourselves a breather, be it for a five-minute walk alone or a week of our own processing, or going to other people in our lives for support. When we feel ready to come back to the other person or people calmly, a good start can be to take responsibility for our reaction, acknowledge it wasn’t okay, and make and honor a commitment to doing much better. After we check in with them about what, if anything, they want from us, we can fill them in on what we were feeling or experiencing and what we may need. We can talk together about how to do things differently, so that intimacy really works for all of us, feels safe, and so we can build some more. Sometimes, someone won’t want us to commit to doing better or talk to us more, because they just don’t want to be intimate with us again. If that happens, all there is to do with that is to respect it, wish them well, and move on.

condom ad condoms too loose

It’s a risk to put ourselves out there in an intimate way. When it pays off, and we get the benefits intimacy can offer us, it’s great. When it doesn’t, we or others can get hurt, and in some of our deepest places, where wounds can take a long time to heal. So, when we’re being intimate, we do want to choose with care: about who we’re sharing with, how and why we’re sharing, what we need for it to be safe for us and others, what we’re all open to and what we’re not, and if we feel we have the resilience to share, even if we might not get the reaction we want. If any kind of intimacy feels like it’s happening too soon, too fast, or we’re not sure it’s right for everyone, it’s a good idea to step back and slow down, only sharing as the pace feels right, and everyone is up to handling it and really wants to be part of it. There’s a good reason we don’t share certain things with just anyone, anywhere and in any given way: it’s just not always safe to do so.

Unhealthy or Not-Really Intimacy

Being close, or seeking closeness, is not automatically beneficial or healthy. There are ways to go about or experience it we know are healthy for most people, and ways we know usually aren’t. The first place most of us learn about intimacy is in our families: some family relationships are unhealthy or dysfunctional. Plenty of us grew up learning ways of being intimate or seeking intimacy that aren’t healthy. Interacting with each other isn’t something we’re born knowing how to do, but something we learn over a lifetime, so a lot of our earliest relationships — family, friends, boyfriend or girlfriends — may have or have had unhealthy dynamics when it comes to intimacy. Many cultural ideals about love or relationships have a lot of unhealthy stuff all tangled up in them, too. Any of that can make figuring out what is and isn’t healthy tricky, especially if what isn’t healthy has been our normal or seems ideal.

Healthy intimacy isn’t enmeshment, a term used to describe people or groups who can’t, don’t or won’t see themselves as separate or let others be separate from the pair or group. It’s closeness, for sure, but the kind that suffocates, rather than feels good: a kind of closeness we feel we’re mushed into a too-tightly-packed subway car. There’s just no real space between people, so we don’t feel a real choice in intimacy and don’t really a get a separate self to share — especially any parts of us that don’t fit with the group. When people are enmeshed, they can have a hard time even figuring out what their own feelings are separate from the other person or people’s feelings, or who they would be as a person if they were not part of the relationship or group.

In enmeshment, there are few to no boundaries, or only some people get to have them while others don’t. Privacy is often a serious no-no or cause for suspicion; relationships outside the pair or group, especially close ones, are usually unsupported. You may have experienced something like this in peer groups. If you were in or observed a group where you literally felt like everything about you had to be approved by the group, and experienced fear or anxiety about not conforming in any way because you knew or felt you’d be abandoned or rejected if you didn’t, you were probably experiencing enmeshment. (This is some people’s experience of all of middle school and high school.) Often, romantic love is presented as something where the ideal is to be enmeshed. But when it’s happening in reality — not in a novel, film, or for more than a few days or weeks — people in it will find it anything but ideal.

Because enmeshment is so all-engulfing, it often feels like connection, since we literally feel inseparable or like we can’t be disconnected in any way. Closeness is certainly happening. But it’s not a healthy closeness. When we’re intimate in healthy ways, we get to be ourselves with someone else, even when who those selves are, what they feel, or what they think or want to express doesn’t meet someone else’s needs or isn’t approved of. Healthy intimacy needs healthy boundaries, and healthy intimacy means people are sharing who they are, not only who others want them to be.

Codependency — which enmeshment is a type of — is also sometimes confused for intimacy. That’s a term used to describe people who become so dependent on someone else, they make their own selves and lives about that other person. Often, this happens because someone very much wants to avoid themselves, or being by themselves, rather than really getting closer to anyone, including themselves. Codependence is usually based in big fears of being abandoned or alone.

Codependent people need to feel indispensable, including with things other people really should be doing, and supported in doing, for themselves. People in codependent relationships often suffer from low self-esteem: they try and find esteem by taking care of the other person or people rather than themselves; by taking on the role of the rescuer. “They couldn’t live without me,” is something people in codependence tend to say or want. In reality, the person whose existence really hinges on others is the one working so hard to have others be dependent on them. The “help” people in codependence are often giving, whether intended or not, usually isn’t help at all, but is more often a kind of control or enabling. Someone codependent “helping” needs others to be or stay in crisis, because otherwise, they wouldn’t get to be needed: wanting to help is motivated more by their own needs than someone else’s.

When someone is codependent they will often feel a deep need to please others, rather than allowing themselves room to sometimes disappoint. Intimacy in codependence is often very one-sided. Poor boundaries, or a real lack of boundaries, are a hallmark of codependency. Getting closer to someone in healthy ways isn’t about making them feel like they can’t be separate or go away from us, or making them be dependent on us. Intimacy also is something we do not tend to do out of fear: quite the opposite, it requires everyone be at least somewhat fearless.

People’s motives in sharing intimacy aren’t always good. Sometimes people want others to be intimate with them so that they can exploit the vulnerability that person is showing them. This is a core part of what makes anything abusive or dysfunctional: when someone uses intimacy or vulnerability in a one-sided, predatory way, where their goal in getting closer isn’t to better understand, care for or deeply connect with someone, but to try to gain power or control.

Some people try and force intimacy or push through someone else’s boundaries for it. Intimacy isn’t healthy or beneficial when it’s forced, whether we’re talking about sex, reading a personal journal, disclosing trauma or insisting on knowing what genitals someone has in their pants. Healthy intimacy is choosing to open up, or have someone else open up with you in some way, because we want to. In healthy relationships or interactions, we always get to say no to sharing private parts of ourselves, or having others share with us, if we don’t want to or feel good about it.

Sometimes intimacy occurs in abuse or assault, or abuse or assault can feel like intimacy. Big secrets are often kept between people. People can feel or present control as help or trust. Some forms of abuse or assault, or abusive relationships, also involve things, like sex, voicing conflict or crying, that people consider or experience as intimate. And for sure, often someone being abusive is showing us a usually-secret part of themselves they most often will do anything to keep other people from seeing.

Abuse or assault are not healthy intimacy. Hallmarks of healthy intimacy are things like boundaries, choice, safety and care in our vulnerability, shared trust and open, honest communication. Those things are the opposite of what’s going on and intended within abuse or assault.

Healthy intimacy just can’t happen or be built in the context of something that isn’t inter-personally healthy, just like we can’t reach into a loaf of bread utterly covered with mold and get a piece that magically hasn’t been touched by any of it. As a simple rule of thumb, figure healthy intimacy is something we can only share or experience when it’s something everyone involved is freely and gladly willing to be part of, and when the interaction or relationship it’s part of is healthy.

Intimacy-Examples-4.5Sharing some parts of ourselves and getting close to other people can be scary. Sometimes it’s scary because we know or suspect it isn’t safe, or just don’t know yet it is safe. It might be that we don’t know if we can trust someone else (or that we know we can’t), or it might be that we aren’t sure we’re in the right space, or have all we need, for intimacy to be something that feels safe, and right, for us. What we want to share, or the way we want to share it can also be something where we are particularly vulnerable, or something where it feels like how it goes carries a lot of weight. Sometimes it’s scary just because sharing protected parts of who we are or what we can do is scary: but we want to try and do it sometimes because this is how we really bond with each other, and experience a part of life that’s often one of the richest things life has to offer.

Healthy intimacy teaches us to be both fearless and careful in all the best ways. Seeking out and taking part in intimacy is, ideally, about choosing to take a positive risk to open up in some way, because for all the unwanted or negative things we may risk when we do that, there are huge positives intimacy can offer us and others. We all benefit by deeply connecting to each other in healthy ways. Learning to be more and more of who we really are with each other, even in our most tender or loaded places; to be more accepting, compassionate, open-minded and caring. These are some of the very best things life has to offer, things that are usually some of the biggest parts of our growth and lives as people, both within our relationships and interactions and outside them.

heatherHEATHER CORINNA is an activist, artist, author and the director of Scarleteen, the inclusive online resource for teen and young adult sex education and information. She is also the author of S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College and was a contributor to the 2011 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves. She’s received the The Champions of Sexual Literacy Award for Grassroots Activism (2007), The Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, Western Region’s, Public Service Award (2009), the Our Bodies, Ourselves’ Women’s Health Heroes Award (2009), The Joan Helmich Educator of the Year Award (2012), and The Woodhull Foundation’s Vicki Award (2013).

ISABELLA ROTMAN is a Chicago cartoonist and illustrator from Maine who truly cares about your genital well being. She is the author of the queer and quirky sexual health book You’re So Sexy When You Aren’t Transmitting STDs and a recent graduate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Other than educational comics, Isabella’s art is usually about the ocean, mermaids, crushing loneliness, people in the woods, or sex. If any of the above interests you then you may enjoy her self published comics or blog ThisMightHurt.Tumblr.com.

National Coming Out Day: Tell Me Who You Really Are

Credit: Tojosan

Photo credit: Tojosan

Dr. Karen Rayne writes, “We all have something we can come out about, and we will be the better for it.” National Coming Out Day is an opportunity for observance that begun 26 years ago on the anniversary of National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. It’s a day to celebrate coming out and raise awareness of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) and ally communities. However you identify, National Coming Out Day offers guides to help you meet the challenges and opportunities of living “out-of-the-closet”.

In celebration, Dr. Rayne facilitates a self-reflective exercise in which students share anonymously with the class what it is about themselves that they hide from others. Read the list of student responses below.

This is an exercise that all people should practice, especially during this day of awareness raising.

This article was originally published at unhushed.net 

BY DR. KAREN RAYNE | KarenRayne.com

National Coming Out Day stands as a reminder to the LGBTQ communities every October 11 th that it is important to come out. For people who discriminate against or do not accept people who identify as LGBTQ, learning that someone they love falls into this community is often the first step towards openness.

In my college class last year I wanted to do something to honor National Coming Out Day that would make this experience of coming out very personal to my students. I wanted them to have at least a little sense of what it means to come out as LGBTQ. I started by asking them why people come out and they came up with a great list of reasons. The students were clearly in favor of coming out – they thought it had all sorts of benefits for the individual, their community, and society at large. Then I asked the students why, given all of these good things, people still don’t come out. Again, they indicated a deep understanding of the issues, the shame, the fear of rejection, the judgment.

I pointed out to my students that most of us, probably every one of us, either has something to come out about currently or has had something to come out about in the past. Something that we feel ashamed of, that we fear rejection about. Most people hide aspects of themselves in certain times and places. The students grasped the connection quickly and were nodding in agreement. I asked them to pull out a piece of paper and write down the thing that they have not come out about and you could hear a pin drop. Eyes were narrowed, a few students started pulling out paper and pen, many did not.

One student voiced the majority concern: “Where are these pieces of paper going?”

I answered: “To me. There were many reasons you listed for why coming out is beneficial. I’m asking you to start that process for yourself here and now. Do not write your name on your paper – this is an entirely anonymous process.”

Almost everyone settled down to write. One young man kept staring at his paper and said, “I’m having a hard time even writing this down anonymously.” Then he took a deep breath and started writing. Coming out is an indication of true bravery.

Some people filled a page, others wrote one terse sentence. I collected the papers, mixed them up, and started reading. Here is what they said (I have shortened the three very long ones):

• I lost my virginity in high school and have not told my mama till this day.

• I was raped and that was how I lost my virginity.

• I don’t identify as a part of the gender dichotomy.

• I was “technically” date raped when I was 17.

• I’ve had bisexual curiosity before and experimented before, when I was 13.

• I get excited about having sex with guys with girlfriends.

• I feel like I am unlovable. I feel like no man will ever want to truly be my person I can rely on.

• I’m a virgin.

• I have HPV and have spread it to 4 different guys.

• I’m a heroin addict. Haven’t used (anything) in two years.

• I’ve had an STI before…

• Though I didn’t do this, I’m ashamed that I was once accused of sexually assaulting a girl who was my ex-girlfriend.

• I was abused by a family member as a child.

• In high school I hung out with a lot of guys. One of them was trying to sexually harass me. I was really scared.

• A lot of people think I’m tougher than I really am. In actuality I’m pretty sensitive.

• When I was in 6th grade, I engaged in mutual sexual activities with someone of the same gender. I’m reluctant to admit this to people out of fear of judgment.

• I told an intricate lie to a significant other in order to keep a relationship going.

• At one time I didn’t want my mother to know that I had been promiscuous.

• I had a miscarriage before.

• When I was eight years old, my sister’s husband molested me in my bedroom. I never told my parents.

I often ask students to write or contribute anonymously to class because it allows everyone to offer their perspective. As we look over anonymous offerings there are usually a few people who claim theirs. No one claimed any of these.

Coming out can be extraordinarily difficult. I wish that there were a greater understanding that we all have something that makes us hide, that society or culture tells us we should be ashamed of. The benefits of coming out are substantial, for ourselves, our society, and our culture.

When I asked if anyone had a reaction they would like to share in response to hearing what their peers have not come out about yet, one student said, “I just didn’t know. I didn’t know that all of these people who have had all those experiences were here in class with me. It makes you think and realize that you don’t know people or why they do the things they do and maybe you shouldn’t judge them.” The other students nodded.

Then I took a deep breath did something that was very scary for me. I said, “Turn around is fair play. So now I am coming out to you. I am gay.”

During the rest of the semester students referred back to this activity many times. In the final course evaluations, about a third of the class said that this activity was the most impactful of anything they had ever done in a college classroom. Coming out is powerful and political and personal.

We all have something we can come out about, and we will be the better for it. What do you have to come out about?

rayne2sm DR. KAREN RAYNE  With a doctoral degree is in Educational Psychology, Karen provides advice and support to parents on how to educate their children and teenagers about sex and sexuality. Karen’s knowledge about adolescent development and education provides her with a solid background for guiding parents through these tricky conversations. And, as a college professor, helping young adults grapple with sexuality, she is known to change student’s lives. On twitter @KarenRayne