It turns out, my irrational fear of self-penetration is somewhat common.

By Morgan Mandriota
December 19, 2019
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Out of all my irrational fears, I'd have to say that my fear of fingering myself ranks within the top five. I enjoy penetrative sex with a partner, but I've never once in my life successfully penetrated myself—and whenever I try, I immediately freak out, get turned off, and stop. TBH, I'm not sure what goes through my head, but I get an overwhelming sense of "I need stop this right now because I can't insert my fingers any deeper/I don't like how this feels." Penetrative toys don't feel pleasurable either, so I don't even try to use them anymore.

I can't help but wonder: What's wrong with me?! I like when someone else's fingers penetrate me, so why can't I finger myself or use a dildo while masturbating?

In an effort to find out what's going on once and for all, I asked sex educators and therapists about my irrational fear, what the potential root problem may be, and if there's a way to overcome it. And rest assured: If you're anything like me or the 27,000+ people typing "how to finger yourself" and "scared to finger myself" into Google every month, you are NOT alone. These experts can confirm they've worked with plenty of folks in the same boat, too. Here's their take.

Where the Fear Comes from

Like any deep-rooted fear, it seems hard to pinpoint exactly who, what, or where it stems from. Everyone's personal history is different, but there are a few factors that might play a vital role in perpetuating this feeling.

For starters, I used to fear tampons when I was younger. Something about sticking a plastic tube full of cotton into my vagina creeped me out, so I preferred using pads until I finally mustered up enough courage to insert a tampon. Now, I use menstrual cups, so I guess you could say I got over whatever menstruation-related fears I had. However, this could still be related to my fear of self-penetration. "Clinically, I've seen that for some women, education about their anatomy (or lack thereof) and experience with menstruation can lead to this," says clinical psychotherapist Rachel Hercman, L.C.S.W. "Perhaps they were discouraged from using tampons and were told it's safer and preferable to use pads."

Sexual shame can hold weight as well, according to sex educator Erica L. Smith, M.Ed., who frequently works with people who are uncomfortable penetrating themselves, including folks raised in extreme purity culture (think purity rings, some religions, misinformed scare tactics, and abstinent-focused sex ed). "Since sex is seen as sinful and people with vaginas are thought of as 'dirty temptresses who can lure men to sin,' you can imagine that this can deeply affect the comfort one has with their own body, especially the genitals." Personally, I can rule this one out; I wasn't raised in a religious household, so I never experienced this, but it's certainly a plausible root of the fear for those who did.

There's also a general sense of shame around our bodies, which can be attributed to a lack of quality sex ed, says Sophie McGrath, head of customer satisfaction at Adult Toy Megastore. "Sexual education is quite limited for a lot of people, so if you don't know your vulva or vagina well, you can feel uncomfortable or ashamed for not understanding your body," she says. What was my experience with sex ed like, you ask? Well, I remember my teacher giving a room full of awkward eighth graders the option to skip talking about sex if we were uncomfortable. Guess what? We moved onto the next lesson. I basically had zero "professional" sex ed whatsoever. And although I have a solid relationship with my parents, our "birds and the bees" talk didn't really exist. I practically taught myself everything I know through self-touch, reading, chats with friends, sexual experiences, and porn. The end.

Trauma can definitely contribute to a disinterest in finger play with your own body as well. "If you've experienced unwanted sexual touch or assault, even your own fingers might feel triggering," says August McLaughlin, sex educator and author of Girl Boner. "Statistically speaking, many women encounter sexual experiences that can register as trauma in their nervous system," adds Kiana Reeves, doula, somatic sex educator, and chief brand educator at Foria Wellness. She notes that trauma is not a specific event, but rather how your body responds to an event, meaning that "two people can experience the same event and walk away with very different nervous system responses."

All of these factors are valid, but perhaps it's something much simpler. Reeves suggests that I just might not be turned on enough for self-penetration. "But if you do find that you're very aroused, meaning you're noticing your labia and clitoris swell up with blood, your vulva feels full, and you're feeling more lubrication, then you can explore more of the emotional and subconscious aspects of this." (Related: How to Masturbate If You've Never Done It Before)

How to Overcome the Fear of Fingering Yourself

Are folks like me doomed with a life-long aversion to self penetration? Nope! Fortunately, there are various ways to mentally, emotionally, and physically work through this fear.

Try somatic awareness: Reeves recommends using somatic awareness (aka working with sensation) tools for folks who have experienced trauma or undigested emotional experiences. To avoid shutting down when exploring self-penetration, she says it can be useful to focus on your breath and keep your attention on what's happening in your body instead of feeling taken over by those emotions. She encourages you to ask yourself questions like: Is my stomach clenched? Do I feel warmth anywhere? (Think of it as a mindfulness exercise.)

"Paying attention to sensation, which is the language of the body, brings us into the present moment and out of our head, while simultaneously allowing the body to respond and digest emotions," says Reeves. "Using tools that allow you to really explore your sensations and stay present in your body's experience can help expand your capacity for pleasure, which ultimately will make your solo and partnered experiences that much more enjoyable." (Related: 13 Tips for a Mind-Blowing Masturbation Session)

Self-pleasure (without penetration). Self-pleasure is another great way to overcome penetration-related fear, guilt, or trauma, and ease yourself into healing, take back control, and feel safe in your body, says McGrath. Although self-pleasure (obviously) encompasses fingering yourself for some folks, try to focus only on external stimulation until you feel ready to progress toward self-penetration. (See: 4 Reasons Masturbation Is Good for You)

"Masturbation is a human and normal part of our sexuality, which is why talking about it more can help with feelings of shame that can contribute to guilt," she says. Sex toys can also help bridge the gap between your fingers and your body. "Simply lay a vibrator onto your vulva and go from there," she says. "Begin with non-penetrative toys like clitoral stimulators, magic wands, or bullets, to help you become aroused enough to try penetration."

Focus on self-reflection. To do away with shame, McLaughlin suggests self-analysis through journaling (you can even start a sex journal) or talking things out with a trusted loved one. She says it's absolutely possible to enjoy sexual pleasure after traumatic events. If penetration feels like too much, look to other activities, like external stimulation, or experiment with touching other erogenous zones on your body for pleasure. "Ease back in gradually, as you feel ready," she says.

Can't get rid of the guilt or shame that pops up? Don't worry. Simply keep those feelings company, and don't try to get too in your head about it. "Just being present with the sensations in your body while you're feeling those emotions can lessen the intensity of the emotions and create new pathways for you to experience your own body with less shame or internalized judgment," says Reeves. If you do want to get to the bottom of why you feel the way you do, Smith says that better sex education may help combat a lack of sexual or anatomical knowledge.

Consider therapy. That said, some folks might need therapy to unpack the deep-seated shame they carry. Hercman agrees that having a therapeutic space that feels safe to explore one's background, sexual experiences, fears, traumas, and anxieties can be a big help. "I find that when a woman with this challenge comes to therapy and is given a place where she can be vulnerable and [given] a language for her experience, there is capacity for creating new associations with her body and more empowerment in her sex life, both as an individual and with a partner," says Smith. Just be sure to find a trauma-informed sex therapist, if that's an avenue you'd consider exploring. (See: How to Find the Right Therapist for You)

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