Sex should be fun, but it can also be complicated. Welcome to Sexual Resolution, a biweekly column by sex therapist Vanessa Marin answering your most confidential questions to help you achieve a healthy, joyful sex life. Here, she answers a reader who is having a hard time receiving oral sex due to her body insecurities. Have your own question? Ask it here.
DEAR VANESSA: I like receiving oral sex, but I just can’t help but feel self-conscious about the way I smell and taste when my boyfriend is going down on me. I’m fine with him doing it when I’m right out of the shower, but anytime after that, I start to get self-conscious about it. Sometimes I know it’s just my anxiety speaking, but there have been times where he’s come up to kiss me afterward and I can taste myself on his breath and it’s a little… I dunno, musty? I know that I shouldn’t worry about it, but I do. Is there any way to put this self-consciousness away once and for all? - Trouble with Taste, 28
DEAR TWT: I want to address your question on two levels: First, I have some practical advice for you, but there are also some bigger thoughts I'd like to offer about why you’re even struggling with this question in the first place.
Practical Tips for a Clean Vagina
Let me start with the first layer. The vagina is awesome at keeping itself clean and PH-balanced, so while you didn’t mention doing so, I want to say that you don’t need to douche or try to wash it out with soap. (Doing so will actually disrupt your vagina’s work, and can lead to infection.)
However, the labia themselves can sometimes use a little extra TLC, especially the inner labia. You may notice a sticky white substance building up in the little folds right where your inner labia meet your clitoris. Dead cells tend to collect there, and they’re usually what’s responsible for a musty smell or taste. But the great news is that it’s super easy to get rid of this buildup.
From the time we even start becoming aware that we have vaginas, we’re taught to believe that they’re weird, gross, smelly, and icky.
In the shower, pull your outer labia apart so you can gently wash your inner labia with warm water. Use a fingertip to make sure the buildup is washed away. In between showers, you can refresh yourself by gently cleaning your inner labia with a damp washcloth or biodegradable wipe. If you take a moment to do this before you and your partner are intimate, it will probably go a long way towards helping you feel more comfortable receiving oral sex. You can keep a few wipes handy in your bathroom or purse, or even use some dampened tissue paper in a pinch. (Just make sure to be extra gentle, since the area in and around your labia can be quite delicate.)
Other ways to keep your vagina happy and healthy: try to wear cotton underwear, avoid thongs, sleep naked or in loose-fitting cotton, avoid smoking, and try to eat healthy foods as much as possible.
Of course, if you notice any significant changes to the color or smell of your discharge, it’s worth making an appointment with your OB/GYN to ensure you don’t have an infection or STI. It’s also important to realize that sex is a naturally “messy” act. I don’t use that word in a negative way, or to imply that your vagina itself is messy. I just mean that sex can involve sweating, saliva, semen, vaginal juices, menstrual fluid, anal residue, farting, queefing, and so much more. Sex doesn’t take place in a perfectly sanitized bubble.
Why We Worry So Much About How We Taste in the First Place
So, let’s get to the real heart of what this question is really about: the ways that we have been socialized to be ashamed of our bodies. From the time we even start becoming aware that we have vaginas, we’re taught to believe that they’re weird, gross, smelly, and icky. This socialization gets in early and deep, and it is profoundly harmful to our self-esteem and our sex lives. It makes us feel ashamed of our bodies, and it can make us feel unworthy of pleasure. It also often makes us feel undeserving of our partner’s focus and attention.
As a sex therapist, I teach other women how to feel more confident in the bedroom, and I still find myself hesitating to receive oral sex at times too. As soon as I notice my own self-consciousness surface, I get pissed off, because I know that’s not how I really feel about my body; that’s how I was taught to feel. I get fired up in the moment, and that anger, outrage, and sadness actually help me come back into my body and be more gentle with it.
Try thinking about that the next time you find yourself feeling self-conscious about your partner going down on you. Remember that you only feel worried about your smell and taste because society has programmed you to feel bad about your body. If you can’t get fired up on your own behalf, think about your best friend struggling with negative thoughts about her own body. Think about your current or future daughters or nieces, or other little girls being taught to feel ashamed about their own bodies. Tapping into that sense of collective pain and outrage can really help put things into perspective.
Finally, I just want to make a quick note that a lot of women have trouble receiving oral sex due to past experiences of sexual abuse. You didn’t say that you’ve been abused in your email, but I wanted to mention it since so many women don’t make the connection. Sexual abuse can deeply impact your body confidence and the sense of connection you have to your own body. If you’ve experienced abuse, I recommend working with a therapist to process your experiences.
In general, know that your body is deserving of pleasure, and that you taste just fine as you are — but if you'd like to try to make sure you're as clean as possible, the above tips should help put your mind at ease.
Catch up on Sexual Resolution's latest columns:
- What to Do If Your Partner's Sex Drive Is Lower Than Yours
- Uncircumcised Penises Are Totally Normal
- Why Is My Vagina Always So Dry During Sex?
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