When 16-year-old me first learned that my classmates used vibrators, I was not only terrified but grossed out. As the daughter of a Catholic Latina, I internalized the idea that masturbation was disgusting and wrong. Add a vibrator to the mix and that seemed like asking for double trouble. The only thing my vagina was “allowed” to do was menstruate, and even menstruation was discussed in hushed tones. What I knew about my body mostly came from my mother's no-frills sex talk, health class, and Gurl.com. I occasionally read Dan Savage's "Savage Love" or Bust's “One-Handed Read,” but only when I was completely alone. Afterwards I always felt dirty. Intellectually, I knew I shouldn't feel ashamed of my body, but emotionally I had no idea how to overcome that shame.
Instead of challenging the idea that my body was not mine to explore, I accepted it and busied myself with school. That approach may have worked out for my grades and career, but I went through years of being the last to the gynecology party on seemingly everything: Pap smears, the pill, HPV vaccines. I played catch-up all throughout college by finally having candid sexual conversations with friends and reading about sexual health without any qualms. It was high time I gave body shame a kick in the pants. Still, at age 27, I know I don't know everything there is to know about my body.
Leah Millheiser, M.D., director of the Female Sexual Medicine Program at Stanford Health Care in Palo Alto, California, says it's normal and healthy to want to stay informed. Here are seven things this gynecologist wishes every woman knew about her body by age 30:
1. Clitoral stimulation is a must. “Most women don't really know it's clitoral stimulation that's necessary to achieve orgasm,” she says. “Only 20 percent of women have vaginal intercourse without any clitoral stimulation.” This requires a little self-discovery. Find your clitoris and start touching yourself to figure out what you like. If you've never masturbated before, Millheiser recommends that you start with your hands before picking up a vibrator, which may be too intense for masturbating newbies.
2. Be mindful during sex. If you can't achieve orgasm during partner sex, the problem might not be physical but mental. Sex is supposed to be pleasurable, but treating it like another item on your to-do list and obsessing over your performance guarantee that it won't be. “If you're a Type A person and all you're thinking is 'Am I going to have an orgasm? What do I look like?,' then refocus,” Millheiser says. “Focus on your breathing.”
3. The pill is not #flawless. Though the pill prevents pregnancy and may also help regulate your period or your skin, it's not perfect. “Birth control pills are still the most popular form of contraception, even more than condoms,” Millheiser says. “But pills can cause vaginal dryness, pain, and low libido.” If you're experiencing any of these symptoms, it may be time to talk to your doctor about other options.
4. Needing lube is normal. Never feel weird or embarrassed about needing lube during sex. Most women find sex more comfortable with it, whether the lube is water-based, silicon-based, or made from natural oils. “You can even use olive oil or coconut oil as long as you're not using latex condoms,” says Millheiser.
5. Everybody's got discharge. “A certain amount of vaginal discharge is completely normal,” says Millheiser. “Some women get very little, while others have to change their underwear mid-day.” Do beware if your discharge causes you to itch, has a strong odor, is green in color, or has the texture of cottage cheese. Your discharge should always be clear or milky like an egg white closer to your period.
6. Your period will change. “As we age, our periods change,” says Millheiser. “It's normal for it to go down.” If as you approach 30 you find yourself going from a five-day period to a four-day period, not to worry. Do worry if your periods last 10 or more days, have suddenly become much heavier than normal, come more than every three weeks, or only happen every few months. In any of these cases, see your doctor.
7. Your sex drive will also change. Not feeling as randy as often as you once did? Age will do that to you. “As our testosterone levels decrease, so does our sex drive,” says Millheiser. Those levels start dropping in your 20s. “It's not that you get to menopause and your libido just drops off, but it's been dropping periodically over the years.”