Calling All Vulva Owners, by Rae Kennedy

Calling All Vulva Owners, by Rae Kennedy

I was about five years old when I pulled at a loose thread dangling from the edge of my underwear. It must have ended somewhere along my vulva because when I tugged to remove it, it tickled the whole way out and I felt a tingling sensation I’d never felt before. I’m not sure I would categorize it as a sexual feeling, but I did recognize then, that my genitals were capable of pleasure.

I never mentioned the incident to my parents, not because they would’ve felt uncomfortable, but likely because I didn’t have the vocabulary… I mean, what would I say? 

“Hey, mom, this string felt tingly on my privates…”

Then what? 

At five, it might’ve been a touch too early to have “the talk.” 

Despite the secret curiosity I held about my pleasure center, I’m inclined to categorize my childhood as “normal,” although I’m not sure normal really exists.  Either way, I’m confident in saying I was a very happy kid, with loving, caring parents.   

As affectionate as my parents were, though, I never really saw them doting on one another; the few times I did catch them being sweet or sensual really stick out vividly in my mind.

Talk about your childhood; what did you do after school and on weekends, Devon asked via email.  

I spent a lot of time outside with my family and friends – camping, hiking, riding bikes, or “helping” my grandfather out in the garden (I’ve always been a lousy gardener so I use the term helping, loosely).  I loved to draw, play school/teacher, and I’ve always had an affinity towards animals.  I realllllllllly wanted to be a veterinarian when I grew up… that was until my dad told me I’d have to put dogs to sleep – that was a definite deal breaker for me.

I had no idea I would end up as a nurse or an educator but even now as I type this, I suppose the signs were there all along.

Of course, way before deciding I would educate myself, and ultimately, others on sexual wellness, I was just a young girl trying to discover her desires. 

I am certain the feelings I had growing up were heavily influenced by the media I was exposed to, watching romance unfold on screen through lots, and lots of kissing.  You could say I became OBSESSED with kissing… seriously, ask any of the kids from elementary school.

The shows and movies I watched seemed to easily thrust their heteronormative agenda, which surely compounded my sexual feelings towards the cis-gendered male.  Looking back now, I can also recognize the role the media played in my thoughts that I must prioritize a male’s pleasure over my own. 

Even still, I started masturbating when I was about 11.  When I really discovered how my genitals could produce such satisfaction, it was pretty hard to keep my hands off, and let me tell you, my solo sessions became pretty… elaborate.  I was humping life-sized mounds of pillows, fashioning a vibrator out of an electric toothbrush and disposable glove, and of course, taking long baths so I could lay beneath the rushing water of the faucet. 

I was a masturbation MacGyver and I would have DIED if someone caught me.

I was never explicitly told that masturbation or sex was “bad” or “dirty” by my parents, but I did attend Catholic school for a wild 3 years (K-2nd). Luckily, I was never any good at paying attention during mass so none of that Catholic guilt seemed to stick; the only embarrassment or shame I felt was for using such weird, random objects I found around the house. 

Towards middle school, I remember talking to my mom about sex – she would always sprinkle in humor to keep the conversation light; I specifically remember her teaching me and my friends funny words like smegma, which was her way of being the “cool mom.” 

I even had some friends turn to her with questions they were too afraid to ask their parents, which I always really appreciated.

And then towards high school, when she suspected I started having sex (I had), she approached me without judgement, suggesting I see a gynecologist to get tested and talk about birth control. 

So, at 16, I went in for my first pap smear and from then on, I experienced the puritanical backlash from physicians and healthcare workers, as well misdiagnoses and false information.  

I suppose you could say there began my interest into sexual health and wellness, but specifically in 2016, when I was diagnosed with an STI and precancerous lesion on my vulva, I KNEW I wanted to better educate myself and others. 

Specifically, other vulva-owners. 

Courtesy of Natural Cycles

I felt this deep yearning to help teach people how to advocate for their health, which I felt confident in pursuing, partly due to my job as a nurse, and partly because I had such a sex-positive support system. 

I wanted to explain how to practice safer sex and advise what prevention tactics I’d installed in my personal life – something that wasn’t discussed in our abstinence-focused sex-ed curriculum. 

Who here has used a dental dam?  Remember learning about that in school?  I certainly don’t… so, I took it upon myself to explore; I actually have a highlight on my Instagram explaining how to use and MAKE a barrier method for safer oral sex. 

In addition to practicing safer sex and advocating for our health, I wanted to be of service in the unlearning of sexual stigmas and shame fed to us by authoritative figures, peers, and of course, the media.  I wanted to help normalize the curiosity we all have about our own bodies… so, I decided to formally educate myself. 

In May 2020, I received my certificate as a holistic sex educator through the Institute of Sexuality Education and Enlightenment which has allowed me to lead workshops and courses about sex and pleasure for people that feel ready to explore. 

Fully living my best life over here, y’all!

Okay, let’s jump into some audience questions, shall we?

What if my partner isn’t as sexual as I am?  Do I just masturbate, or do I try to consistently encourage him?

Desire discrepancy is pretty common among partnerships!  Read ‘Come As You Are’ by Emily Nagoski for more information on this. But in the meantime, sure!  Masturbate as much as you’d like, because remember, YOU are responsible for your own pleasure. If your partner isn’t as sexual as you are, that may just be what they’re comfortable with and it wouldn’t be fair to push them or consistently nudge them in your direction. However, if this is negatively impacting your relationship – talk about it! Collaboration is important – discuss what “sex” looks like for you. Is it always penetration? Could it look differently? Like mutual masturbation, watching porn together, or outercourse. Is there a way you and your partner could meet in the middle? Hopefully the two of you will come up with a creative solution you’re both happy with.

Is having an orgasm beneficial to our health?

1000%! Orgasms and physical pleasure have been linked to elevated moods, lowered stress levels, and even a stronger immune system. Orgasms can help with insomnia (my vibrator acts as my sleep aid), reduce pain (goodbye, menstrual cramps) and some may claim they can extend the length of your life… all I know is, if you’re experiencing more pleasure, it can’t be a bad thing.  

What if my partner wants to dirty talk but I feel too shy?

Omg, relatable! This was something I wanted to work on this year too. My head is full of filthy thoughts but HOW do I say them to my partner without feeling embarrassed??

Here’s what we tried…

1) Sit down with your partner and discuss what this might look like. Sounds like it could take away from the spontaneity of the experience but if you’re feeling shy, this is a great way to establish safety and lay down some boundaries. My partner and I ran a few things by each other like:

 “Can I call you a ‘fucking asshole’?”

 “How would you feel if I called you a whore?”

 “I’d rather you say ‘slut’, actually.”

 “Would you prefer I call your genitals ‘pussy’ or ‘cunt’?”

 “Would you prefer I call your genitals ‘cock’ or ‘dick’?”

 “Is there anything you absolutely do not want me to say?”

 “Is there something you’d really, really like me say?”

2) Don’t try to mimic anything you’ve seen or heard in porn or the media. I’ve found that taking the breathy, performative whine out of my voice and replacing it with my unedited voice felt so much more natural and fluid.

3) Try sexting first!! Find your voice from behind the safety of your screen. Sometimes this is a good way to get your foot in the dirty-talking door. I think it’s still a good idea to go over your boundaries, so start the conversation via text if you’re not ready to have that conversation face to face.

4) Attend a workshop! The pandemic came with one silver lining – access to more virtual learning! One of my favorite Portland sex shops, She Bop, leads loads of online workshops that explore things like oral sex, spanking, and even learning how to talk dirty!

I never orgasm during sex.  Am I doing something wrong?

Hell no! Lots of folks don’t come from penetrative sex alone. (Especially vulva owners, the latest I read was that only 18% of vulva-owners orgasm from penis-in-vagina penetration alone!)

Listen to The Science of Sex podcast episodes: Orgasms for Dummies and Unlocking the Secrets of the Female Orgasm for more information!

But in the meantime, please know that you’re not doing anything wrong. There are a lot of factors that play into lack of orgasms during partnered sex. For instance, you know exactly how to please yourself! If you’re not communicating those needs or preferences to your partners, they’re figuring it out on their own (or at least trying to). We also have our guard up more during partnered-sex than when we’re alone with ourselves; thoughts of how we look, what our partner might be thinking, how we have to get up super fucking early the next morning … naturally, this can all cloud our minds and force us to be less present during partnered-sex, making it more difficult to orgasm!

Don’t be too hard on yourself. It took me 10 years, 20ish partners, and hundreds of hours of exploring my own body to get to a point where I’m having orgasms during partnered sex 50-60% of the time! And I’m getting better at it every day; as with anything, keep practicing and keep learning!

Another tip** try to unlearn the orgasm imperative! If we all made sex less goal-oriented, orgasms wouldn’t hold so much importance. Learn to appreciate the pleasure of the sexual experience, with or without the explosive ending! Can’t sex still be enjoyable without orgasm?

Any brands recommended for sex toys / lubes?

My favorite shops to explore include:

She Bop , Nox, & LELO

My life changing toys and lubricants include:

ONNA Pleasure Wand

The one and only Magic Wand

Ohnut (more of a tool than a toy!)

Uberlube (silicone lubricant is my fave but be sure to cover your silicone toys with a condom if using silicone lube- it can break down your toys over time!)

FORIA Awaken Arousal Oil with CBD (oh yeah, it’s as extra as it sounds! It’s coconut oil based so NOT safe with the use of barrier methods. Highly recommend for solo sex!)

Okay, here we go… last question:  If you could share anything with your younger self, what would it be?

Well, I certainly wish younger Rae knew that the purpose of sex was not to feed the male ego; that her worth was not dependent on her body or her sexuality, and that her pleasure was just as important as her partner’s pleasure (if not more so). I wish younger folks everywhere knew that bodies are weird and that “normal” doesn’t actually exist. That gender and sexuality are a spectrum which cannot be neatly placed in a box of binaries. That “sex” is theirs for defining. That consent and boundaries are important AND sexy. Oh my goodness, how much room do I have? I could go on forever.

On a grander scale, I would of course love to see the sex education curriculum rebuilt from the ground up, though I’m not sure I’ll get to see that happen in my lifetime (hopefully). Until then, I encourage people to learn what they can on their own. As adults, it’s our responsibility to examine our beliefs around sex and pleasure, keeping what is helpful and unlearning what is harmful.

It is also our responsibility to educate those around us, especially the generations that follow ours. My hope is that I can share the resources and education that cracked me wide open and hopefully I’ll make a difference, cultivating sex-positivity one day at a time.

I’ve got a million more recommendations and lots of resources to share so please feel free to add me on social media (@rayeanne_ on Instagram) and/or send me a message.

Editor’s Note* remember to get consent before asking questions or unloading personal details and don’t forget to pay your online creators and educators if you value their time, energy, and content. 

Rae’s Venmo: iamraekennedy

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