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HTHGS: Comfort 

Ask Erica,
I am a 21 year old woman. I am extremely self-conscious and I think this having an effect on my sex life. I've had sex once before and I wasn't anywhere close to reaching an orgasm yet I masturbate on a regular basis and successfully reach orgasm that way. If I'm giving a blow-job I'm worried that I'm not doing it well enough. If I'm having intercourse I'm worried about not reaching an orgasm fast enough. I don't even want to think about letting a guy give me oral sex because I'm so uptight that I probably will never cum. I know that communication is important in a relationship but I think that this problem goes way beyond that. It's not that I can't tell my partner what I want. Long story short, as soon as I get close to someone (physically) I stop being horny.

I'm also extremely self-conscious about the smell of my vagina. I don't think it's that bad but when I ask my guy friends what they think (from their experiences with girls) they tell me that it smells like fish. I can't help but feel bad when I hear stuff like this. I also have lots of pubic hair. It's so bad that it grows all the way up into my bum. I don't know if this is common or not but it makes me feel gross to look at it or think about it. This is another reason that I stay away from oral sex; I don't want my partner to be disgusted with my private parts.

Why aren't I comfortable with my naked self? And how can I get comfortable? I know I am an attractive person. I am satisfied with my body shape and size. I just can't be comfortable when I'm naked. Thank you so much for your time. Sincerely, Amy

Dear Amy,
Thank you for your question and for being so honest about your concerns. First, let me say that it is quite normal to have concerns about your body image.  In a culture that celebrates surgically-enhanced, made-up, digitally-retouched images of women, it's no wonder many women are self-conscious!  In addition, most people (particularly women) learn to feel some degree of shame or guilt about their genitals--the way they smell, look, feel, etc.  I tell you all this so that you know that you are definitely not the only way that feels this way!

From what you write, it sounds like you are engaging in what sex educators and therapists call "spectatoring."  This is when a person monitors and critiques him or herself during sexual activity.  It's almost like you've stepped out of your body--and out of the moment--and are floating above watching yourself.  In addition to watching, it's sounds like you've got your Siskel and Ebert hat on, evaluating and critiquing what you see going on.  And by the way, many people find themselves doing this, too!

 There are several ways this can interfere with sexual response. First, orgasm involves two body responses that seem to contradict one another--relaxation and tension build-up at the same time.  Leading up to orgasm, blood flows into the genitals and muscle tension builds.  At the same time, to allow these processes to build and ultimately result in orgasm (a release of the tension) a person really has to relax, let go, and surrender control.  If a person is spectatoring--watching and critiquing everything going on—this doesn't really lend itself to being in the moment.   

 Second, many people enter into sex play very goal oriented; that is, the main reason they are "doing it" is to get off, or "achieve" the "goal" of orgasm.  In becoming so focused on the goal, sometimes people lose site of the process and therefore have trouble experiencing orgasm. 

Finally, as for some of your specific body image concerns, all women's vaginas have natural odors that can change depending on the time in their menstrual cycles.  Anything out of the ordinary--ie., particularly stronger than usual for you and accompanied by an unusual or heavy discharge--may indicate an infection.  But it sounds like what you (and many women) have is just natural.  It's not a good idea to use douches or harsh chemicals to try to change the smell of your vagina because this can disrupt the natural and healthy chemical balance in your vagina and can actually lead to infection.  You may want to talk to your partner about this if you are really concerned rather than going off of what your male friends have told you (in what sounds like a rather insensitive manner).  As for pubic hair, it is quite normal for women to have hair around their anuses and on their inner thighs, as well as around their labia and on the mons pubis.  Some people shave or wax varying degrees of their pubic hair and some people leave it just the way it is.  What you choose to do is up to you and what you find attractive, comfortable, affordable, etc.  In the end, remember, EVERY person--man or woman--has body parts and processes that produce smells, fluids, hair, etc. and most people have concerns about them at some point in their lives.  It's part of being human. 

So, what does all this mean in terms of you?  Well, there are several things you can try when you are with a partner.  First, you may want to get a copy of Lonnie Barbach's book, For Yourself (you can order it over  It's a book for women that describes various techniques you can use to get to know yourself better sexually and to help you experience pleasure and orgasm.  It sounds like you have done some of this exploration on your own through masturbation, which is great.  This is a wonderful way to start.  The book can help you transfer some of these skills to times when you are with a partner.  You say that you are good at communicating about what you want, which is also great.  Overall, one of the biggest things I'd say will help you out is to try to stop spectatoring during sexual activity.  This can be hard to do, especially if you've become accustomed to it!  But try to just focus on the sensations your body is experiencing.  Every time you feel your mind start to take over, force yourself to just focus on your body's sensations.  Sometimes things like using a blindfold can help you stay in the moment and absorb all the feelings.  You and your partner may want to engage in some sex play that isn't focused on "achieving" orgasm; rather, focus on all body feelings through nongenital massage, for example, as an end in and of themselves. For Yourself will go into these techniques in more detail.   I hope this has been helpful.  Thanks again for sharing and best of luck! Sincerely, Erika



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The Founder: "Alex" Caroline Robboy, LCSW, QSW, CAS

Ms. Robboy is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Center for Growth Inc and How To Have Good Sex Inc.  Alex practices marriage and family therapy and sex therapy, and also conducts periodic seminars about human sexuality throughout the northeastern United States.

Ms. Robboy graduated from the University of Pennsylvania where she earned a Masters degree in Social Work, a Certificate of Advanced Studies in Human Sexuality Education and a Post-Masters Certificate in Marriage Counseling & Sex Therapy. Through the American Board of Sexology, she is a board certified sexologist and through the American Association of Sex Educators Counselors and Therapists a certified sex therapist.  Additionally, she is a licensed clinical social worker and a member of the American Board of Marriage and Family Therapy.


  Our Philosophy sex is like dancing, it changes every time. It depends on culture, atmosphere and mood. Sometimes it is done alone, with a partner or in a group. It can be fast and hard or slow and soft. Sex is a combination of non-verbal negotiation and verbal cues: a scream, a twitch of the toes, or a flush of the face. There is no one 'right' way to move, only what feels good to all those involved. 
     The purpose of this site is to share information. Thus, if you have any ideas, thoughts or information that you believe others might benefit from, please e-mail your tip to and I  will be sure to include it on either our weekly newsletter or here on the actual website. 

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September 6, 2006