Category Archives: anatomy

I ♥ my…

On Valentine’s Day, the Peer Sex Educators had a “Love Your Body” table at the campus center. One of the fun things they did was have people write on a white board what they loved about their bodies.

Slide show here!

You should go look at it. It’s beautiful and hilarious and, if you need more incentive, I’m in it!

My favorite juxtaposition is that my “I love my uterus” is followed immediately by someone else’s “I love my butch cock.”

FAN. TASTIC.

(And yeah, my ode to my uterus is totally peacemaking following my adventures in birth control.)

break your hymen: re-redux

I am working on the first few lecture of my class for the spring semester. Lecture 2 is anatomy, and this year, in response to last year’s surprise interest, I have a whole PPT slide on the hymen. To write that slide I’ve been doing research.

And it turns out that everything culture teaches us about the hymen is wrong.

The closest thing to true is the idea that the hymen can be painful when it’s not used to being stretched – it’s one of a number of potential causes of pain with penetration, but it is by no means the most common.

However: the hymen doesn’t break and stay broken forever, like a freshness seal (with accompanying “use by” date). If a hymen tears or bruises, IT HEALS.

And the size of a hymen doesn’t vary depending on whether or not the vagina has been penetrated. It’s about 2.75mm. There, now you know roughly how big your hymen is.

And it usually doesn’t bleed. Any blood with first penetration is more likely due to general vaginal tearing from lack of lubrication.

What does change when a woman begins having the hymen stretched regularly is that it grows more flexible. Um, is it appropriate to say that, metaphorically, vaginal intercourse is like yoga for your hymen?

So. Pain with first penetration might be the hymen stretching, maybe. Or it might be a variety of other things. And chances are first penetration will just feel really complicated and novel and nothing like what you expect.

We know from research that a small amount of pain over a longer time span results in lower perceived pain than a large amount of pain over a short time span (in other words, tear the band-aid off slowly, don’t rip it off in one go). So if you want to break your own hymen, do it gradually and gently, teaching it to stretch, rather than forcing it to break.

Side note: this is my 400th post!

the monkey and the mind

I’m sure you’ve all heard of the “mind-body connection,” and you may even have heard me argue against it. “There is no such thing as a mind-body connection,” I say over and over again. “That implies that there are three things: a mind, a body, and a connection between the two, when in reality there is only ONE THING: there is only the embodied mind.” Which is true.

As a logical argument, it’s unassailable, and as a piece of motivational speaking it usually goes over pretty well, in the moment.

But then  the person who heard me talk about it goes and lives in the world and can’t shake it intractable illusion that there is a mind and there is a body and they may affect each other, but they sure do feel like separate things.

Indeed, often I can’t help but talk about it as though they’re separate. “If it comes down to you versus your body, your body wins every time,” I tell students.

I talk about The Monkey – the animal, the Earth-bound organism that so many of the highly intelligent, high-functioning students I work with would willingly trade for a robot’s casing, so they didn’t have to sleep, didn’t have to exercise, didn’t feel stress, didn’t have to make decisions about food, etc. “If you had a pet monkey,” I ask, “Would you feed it crap food and never let it exercise or play and tell it how stupid and ugly it was? No, you’d LOVE your pet monkey! So love Your Monkey!”

Which inherently plays on the perceived division of mind and body (monkey). It’s a problem, and indeed a hypocrisy, and at the same time, I can’t abandon the utility of The Monkey metaphor.

The fact is, our ridonkulous brains, capable of generating an all-but-impenetrable illusion of inorganic spirit/mind, are housed in the sticky, needy, reactive mess that is an animal’s body. It requires air, water, and food (in that order). It breathes, sweats, pees, and poops. It notices threats in the environment and responds with adrenaline. It creates velcro between you and your chair 10 minutes before you go to the gym; it tells you, “Meh. You don’t need to work out. Conserve your energy for when you REALLY need it (like when you or your loved ones are being chased by a lion).” Or, “Meh. You don’t need sex – sex is for people who aren’t worried about their survival. You’ve got STRESS, baby, and you gotta deal with the potential LIONS that are hunting you before you can think about sex!”

And you’re never aware – or almost never aware – of why you REALLY decided not to go to the gym or initiate sex; the truth is, your monkey has hijacked your reasoning self and persuaded it that you don’t have the energy to spare.

The body, the monkey,  has multiple holograms of itself contained within your brain – the somatosensory homunculus, the motor homunculus, etc – and the world itself has multiple holograms in your brain – the various functions of visual cortex, the various functions of auditory cortex, the different streams of tactile sensation, smell and taste. The thing we call “the mind” is really just this illusion that emerges when all those different streams of information mix together. Or rather, “the mind,” the stuff you’re consciously aware of, is like a precis, an abstract of all that information.

And like anyone who just reads the abstracts, it’s missing out on pretty much ALL the important stuff.

The monkey read the whole paper, the monkey knows all. Unfortunately, the monkey thinks it’s about, oh, 1million BC today and also she can’t talk. She doesn’t know about, like, agriculture and cola and treadmills and self-help. She knows about survival – her own and that of her family.

I’ll write another post sometime soon about what the monkey needs – care and feeding of your monkey, if you will, to maximize sexual satisfaction. For now, as is seasonally appropriate, I’m giving thanks for my monkey, the physical body that engages sensually with the world, notices potential threats and responds appropriately, notices beauty and responds appropriately. The mind is all well and good – I make my living with my mind – but without the monkey, there would be no mind at all! So this year, I give thanks to the monkey.

the fornix

I started about 5 posts about social issues or relationship dynamics or whatever, before I finally gave up and realized that what I want to write about today is the fornix of the vagina. Good old sexual anatomy.

The fornix (Latin for “arch”) is a neglected aspect of female sexual anatomy that deserve a bit of a spotlight. Actually you have two of them, anterior and posterior. So, your vagina is this potential space, these folds of tissue that form a channel up to the uterus, which is planted at the top like the cork in a wine bottle. Only it’s an organic wine bottle. When you’re highly aroused, your vagina, in addition to lubricating and lengthening, “tents” around the uterus, creating space both in front of and behind the uterus.

If you’re in missionary position, your partner can actually penetrate up, deeper, into the anterior fornix. From behind, at the appropriate angle, they can penetrate into the posterior fornix. The two experiences may feel totally different.

Not all women like it – for some women, it may actually hurt, and for others it doesn’t feel much different from any other vaginal penetration. And let’s take a moment to remember that the majority of women are not reliably orgasmic from penetration, so if you want to create orgasm, add clitoral stimulation and leave fornix stimulation for added bonus pleasure, not necessarily for orgasm.

Also, bear in mind that it’s a space to explore primarily when she is ALREADY quite aroused, not as foreplay or early on in stimulation.

Here’s an anatomical drawing:

vaginal fornix

And here’s as close to a photo of it as I could find:

fornix

everybody poops

For the first time in YEARS someone has asked me about poop, in more than just a curious-about-the-fetish way.

So this person who emailed me has a friend who pooped during penetration – not anal penetration, vaginal penetration – and they’re worried it might happen to them. How common is it? How does it happen? How can it be prevented?

Here is what I said:

There aren’t any actual data (that I know of) about how frequently this happens, but I can tell you that in 15 years as a sex educator, you’re the first person I’ve heard from who actually KNOWS someone whom this happened to. It’s pretty rare.

It’s also simple to prevent. Most of the time you have no feces at all in your rectum – it only moves through when you have a bowel movement. But if your diet isn’t great and you have hard little pieces of poop instead of the big soft ones of a person who eats enough fiber, those little pieces can hang out in the rectum until the next bowel movement. So, prevention? Eat plenty of fiber and yet yourself some big soft poop!

But it’s almost never necessary to prevent it. The sphincter muscle at the mouth of the anus is connected to the sphincter muscles of the vagina and urethra. With high levels of arousal, the muscle that connects (the pelvic diphragm) them LIFTS (this is part of the reason you hold your breath near orgasm); at orgasm, they all pulse together, which, under ordinary circumstances, I would say would make it MORE difficult to poop, because the sphincter muscle is closing off really intensely.

But sometimes, rarely, the flux of the muscles of sphincters and the internal muscles, in combination with the mechanics of penetration, may (again, rarely), result in the expulsion of feces.

To sum up: very rare, mechanically difficult to do, and easy to prevent.

All of this is assuming that what your friend experienced was basically just a little bit of poop, just what was left in the rectum. If you’re talking about a full-blown bowel movement, I can only suggest that there might be something more serious happening and she should talk to a doctor.

Bodies are strange, sticky, things, and all the parts are really astonishingly adjacent to each other. I was pleased to read in the questioner’s email that the partner of the person who pooped was TOTALLY CHILL about it, laughing and saying, “I guess I fucked the shit out of you!” Which is awesome and exactly what I would hope for.

(Secretly hoping this will generate a flurry of comments about times when it happened to readers or friends of readers or friends of friends of readers…)

they found the clitoris in your brain

Well, friends! It’s time to hit the way back time machine and think about a post I wrote more than a year ago, about the clitoris in your head – that is, the representation of the clitoris in your somatosensory cortex. I wondered at the time whether the cortical representation of the female phallus had an equivalent degree of hyper-innervation compared to male phallus as the actual peripheral nervous system had.

Well, now we have brain magnet evidence (paging Andrew Wilson for a rant about why fMRI isn’t anything like as useful as journalists think) that the clitoris is in the same place as the penis.

Hurray! (But no surprise!)

Yet I still haven’t found the answer to my question. Being a nerd, I went and tried to read the actual paper, but my academic affiliation doesn’t gives me access to the journal. I’ll have to ILL it.

Disappointment. (But no surprise.)

So the question we want to answer is: is the neural representation of the clitoris equivalent to the size or the innervation (or both or neither) as that of the penis? I don’t even know if it’s POSSIBLE to determine whether or not the itty bitty clit is represented more in the brain than the big wacky penis. But even if it’s the SAME in the brain, that’s still about 8 times more brain per cubic centimeter of tissue.

Which seems to me to be question worth answering.

…but thinking makes it so

One edge of the touchscreen on my smartphone is non-responsive. The phone is about a year and a half old.

These things happen, I suppose.*

(*This is BULLSHIT! A year and a half and it just stops WORKING? Fuck that!)

Which made me think about sex and aging.

Bodies change over time, folks. In some ways they get unambiguously better and in some ways they kind of deteriorate and in some ways they change in ways that are good or not-so-good, depending on how we think about them. (Hamlet said something similar, I believe, only in iambic pentameter.)

Some things everyone can expect, to varying degrees, as they age:

A decrease in the concordance between physiology and experience. What you feel may not match what you body does; erections, lubrication, and orgasm will probably become less reliable and a bit more effortful. This is due largely to hormonal changes.

A change in the color of your desire. Globally, people tend to report lower frequency of desire for sex (or possibly for orgasm), but that doesn’t take into account variability in sexual life arc – some people experience a liberation from sexual expectations as they age – nor changes in what you want when you want sex.

Sundry changes to your body. In women, fat moves north from the hips and thighs to the abdomen; gravity has its wicked way with your breasts; the skin of your face, chest, and neck in particular lose elasticity, and tissue of the vagina becomes fragile as estrogen levels change. In men, muscles shrink; hair moves south from your head to your ears and back; erections fly at half mast; your post-ejaculatory refractory period lengthens.

Now. What do you do about these things. Do you:

Accept the changes as the inevitable, progressive failure of the organism? (“These things happen,” as above.)

Rage against the dying of the light? Do everything you can to keep your sex as “the same” as you can? (“This is BULLSHIT!” as above.)

I’m inclined to say neither.

Either option seems to assume that younger sex – younger desire, younger arousal, younger orgasm – is somehow the standard, normal sex against which all other sex should be measured.

The attitude I recommend is curiosity. Bodies are these life-long science experiments that we can observe with affectionate but detached curiosity. “Oh, that’s new!” is all you need to think when things change.

I know we’ve been trained by mainstream culture to view the changes that time commits as degradations, and christ knows we’ve been trained to worry that our sexuality is somehow broken; I know that we’ve all been taught that there’s a kind of sexual pinnacle that we achieve and then pass, never to regain.

But will you believe me if I tell you that that’s all just a lie?

We like it when it’s easy. We like it when things meet our expectations. But that doesn’t mean that it’s SUPPOSED to be easy or that our expectations are anything other than socially constructed, unreflective myths we’ve swallowed and integrated, undigested, into our psychologies.

It’s not supposed to be easy all the time – easy isn’t a measure of anything in particular. And isn’t supposed to meet our expectations – the things that violate our expectations, that surprise us, are often the most fun, as long as we can view the surprise with affectionate curiosity.

trust your nervous system.

Recently I watched “Ram Dass: Fierce Grace,” the documentary about Ram Dass post-stroke. He talked about his first time taking mushrooms with Timothy Leary, who assured him, when Ram Dass felt himself disintegrating and panicked with the certainty of his own death, “Trust your nervous system.”

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between the nervous system and experience – or what I might loosely call “consciousness” or “awareness.” And I must say that while the idea of trusting your nervous system resonates deeply with me, there are ways in which the structure of the nervous system actually makes life difficult for people in C21st America. The nervous system isn’t all that trustworthy for telling us about the nature of the world or the universe; it’s only good at interpreting that world in terms of survival in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. Which is not where we live.

A handful of examples:

The nervous system can only accommodate a limited amount of stimulation before it simply overloads. Women often experience this just before or just after orgasm and they wonder if they’re broken. Not at all, they just have ordinary, human, limited nervous systems.

It can only communicate a limited amount of information, and can only generate awareness of a small subset of that limited amount of information. Of all the things you are sensing right now, and right now, and right now, you are aware of almost none of it. The feel of the chair under you, your clothes on your body, the muscles in your pelvis, the tension in your feet. How much were you aware of before I drew your attention to them?

The nervous system can only pick up a narrow band of sensations, and much of the potential information in the world and in the universe is utterly unavailable to it. Infrared: invisible to us. Things as small as a cell: invisible to us. Smells: “The world of smell is now virtually closed to modern man,” quoth Douglas Adams.

The nervous system can only understand sensory experience in the context of its past and its present, never outside that context; no matter how much you practice, you will never quite get to know the world unmediated by the history of your nervous system.

And trauma to the nervous system changes it profoundly, channeling new sensations into tide pool of experience, a miniature ecosystem of your own consciousness, shut off from the larger ocean of your life until you begin to heal the trauma and return to your full (but still limited) experience.

Just a few examples.

No, the nervous system is not good at telling us about the nature of the world or the universe.

But the worst thing is that your nervous system will, for its own good reasons, lie to you. It will tell you that things are alarming or unsafe when in fact they are safe. And yet it will tell you to stay with someone who hurts you, even if you’re actually safer if you leave.

Your nervous system has its own mathematics, its own way of calculating odds, and it is biased in favor of safety for most people. For high SES, low SIS people (maybe 5% of the population? 10%?) it’s biased in favor of risk.

I wonder what it would take to help people tune their nervous systems as you tune a piano, periodically undoing the inevitable souring of harmony. It’s not too complicated, actually. All you have to do is grab the reins of your awareness and choose what to pay attention to. Where your nervous system would have you pay attention to risk and fear and pain, shift your focus to safety and joy and pleasure. Where your nervous system would have you tuned to your thoughts, shift your focus to your body’s sensations. All it takes is practice.

It’s one of those things that’s simple but not easy. And people get frustrated because their brains will wander away and over and over; they have to take their attention by the hand and gently return it to what they want to attend to, like a distractable child, wandering in a meadow after butterflies, when she’s supposed to be learning about the flowers.

Sex is, in my view, the ultimate expression of being human. It is the nervous system playing its game, full blown. But that includes the ways it is incompatible with modern life. To overcome the games your nervous system would play, you have to take deliberate, slow steps, recognizing the ways in which your nervous system lies to you in order to keep you safe and training yourself to be in control of your brain, so that your brain isn’t in control of you.

top hat: kissing

I stuck my hand in the top hat and pulled out this question:

What is an arousing kissing technique?

Just one arousing kissing technique?

To begin with, remember that the perception of sensation is context dependent, so that a sensation that’s sexy in one context will be annoying or even painful in another. What qualifies as a sexy context varies from individual to individual and couple to couple, but in general they involve trust, respect, a fair degree of privacy, a lack of stress, depression, and anxiety, plus a sense that your partner desires you.

So step 1: create a sexy context, whatever that means for you and your partner.

Step 2: Soft and slow.

No, slower than that, and softer than that. Just barely touch your lips to whatever part of your partner you’re kissing; kiss them more with your breath than with your lips.

Then bite that part. Not too gently.

Travel to a nearby spot and repeat, incorporating judicious use of tongue (wet skin + breath = good) as desired.

The focused attention required is, in and of itself, good technique. What you do matters less than that you are paying attention to your partner and enjoying shared sensations.

Whatever you do, do not wipe your tongue like a paintbrush over your partner’s gums, inner cheeks, or the roof of their mouth. Your tongue goes between their lips in pursuit of their teeth or their tongue and for nothing else.

And don’t, for the love of mike, press your open mouth into theirs so that both of you bash you lips against your teeth. Pressure does not equal passion.

And finally, don’t CHEW on your partner’s lips. Nip and suck, absolutely. But gnawing on your partner like a dog on a bunny just does not cut it, friends.

how to break your hymen – sincerely this time

To my utter astonishment, my tongue-in-cheek post about how to break a hymen without a penis has become one of the most read on the blog, due to people actually SEARCHING THE INTERNET for the phrase “how to break a hymen.”

And I feel terribly guilty that there are all these women out there who want to break their hymens and the advice they get from me is slightly facetious.

I still don’t know why people are so worried about it, but clearly they are, so here’s the ACTUAL advice:

Option 1: Have a medical professional do it. If your hymen is imperforate, microperforate, or septate, definitely take this option. If you don’t know whether or not your hymen is any of these things, get a medical professional to check. If you’re thinking, “But I don’t have access to a medical professional” or “I don’t want to talk to my doctor about this,” then there’s something else wrong that’s more important than your hymen.

Option 2: Have intercourse. It’s how women have been breaking their hymens for ages. There will probably be a little bit of pain and a possibly (but not usually) little bit of blood, but it’s totally no big deal, from a physiological/medical perspective. If your partner doesn’t have a biological penis, use a non-biological one.

Option 3: Break it yourself. Which means you need to know both how to manage the pain and how to successfully break it.

(Actually it’s not really breaking, it’s stretching.)

To minimize pain, use either (or both) a numbing agent (you can use oral numbing agents they sell at the drugstore for canker sores and stuff) or a counter-irritant. A counter-irritant is some intense stimulation elsewhere that more or less distracts your central nervous system from the sensation happening at your vagina. The best counter-irritants will be sensations to the other highly sensitive parts of your body, like your face, feet, and hands. Deep touch sensations – pressure, massage, vibration – will be most effective. So, for example, hold a Hitachi Magic Wand between your feet.

Drinking a couple of glasses of wine – more than one glass, but LESS THAN A BOTTLE – can also help. Do not, whatever you do, exceed 4 drinks, and no more than 2 or 3 in a single hour. Don’t be stupid about alcohol.

And to stretch the hymen, you mostly need girth. Gradually increasing the girth of the thing you penetrate with will make things easier; contrary to popular belief, pulling off a band-aid slowly results in less pain than ripping it off all at once, so don’t try to put a mango in there all at once.

Another thing to remember is that the hymen is just one of several potential sources of pain with penetration – indeed it’s just about the least common source of pain. The most common source of pain is friction. LUBRICATION is absolutely, positively, unambiguously CRUCIAL. DO NOT attempt to penetrate your vagina without LOTS of lubrication. If you really can’t get lube anywhere else, some oil from the kitchen will do.

Another potential source of pain is muscle tension. Yes there is a vaginal sphincter muscle, and you must relax it in order to penetrate the vagina. You can find it by stopping yourself mid-stream while you pee – it’s the same muscle (different sphincter. don’t worry about the details.)

And finally, pull out a little mirror and LOOK at your vagina and your hymen before you start any of this. LOOK at it. See where it is, what it’s made of. Think patiently and non-judgmentally about your feelings about what you see. It’s a part of your body, just like your elbow and your toes. Be as kind and gentle with it as you would with, say, clipping an infant’s toenails. Be nice to your body.

I can’t even begin to write about the psychological noise that must be happening inside a person’s head if they’re searching the internet for information on how to break their hymen. What advise can I give for that?

Take a deep breath. Relax. Pay attention to your body and its sensations. Pay attention to your feelings about your body, and know that you are allowed – indeed, you are WELCOME – to love all the parts of you. Okee dokee?