With decades of experience as a certified nurse-midwife and holistic sexuality teacher, Sheri Winston has encountered hundreds of women looking to increase their sexual pleasure. She often offers a similar remedy: Masturbation (or as she prefers to call it, solo sex). Ideally, three times a week.
“If you want to learn to have an orgasm, better orgasms, or more orgasms, learn to play your own instrument,” Winston says. One key is understanding what she calls the female erectile network, which she describes in an (instructive) essay below.
Exploring Your Erectile Network
By Sheri Winston, CNM, RN
Erectile tissue is specialized bodily tissue that is designed to become engorged with blood during sexual arousal. Believe it or not, women have the same amount of erectile tissue as men. And just like men’s erectile tissue, women’s erectile tissue can get bigger and firmer and can change in sensitivity depending upon the level of arousal and stimulation.
When the entire female erectile network is stimulated and engorged, everything is amplified: arousal, pleasure, and orgasms. As you become more aroused, your body can tolerate more sensation. In other words, sensitivity changes with varying levels of arousal. So what might have been painful or irritating prior to arousal can become pleasurable as you get aroused. When you practice solo sex, you learn how to play your instrument. You explore your pleasure potential and expand your erotic capacity. Nothing encourages confidence and personal empowerment like having access to your own ecstasy. But don’t take my word for it—explore for yourself.
To be able to find all the parts of the network, you will need to go through the different stages of arousal. So the right setting, tools, and attitude are key: The environment should be warm, comfortable, and private. Give yourself the tools of time, toys, and lube. Be exploratory, lighthearted, and playful. And since it’s important to feel and look at the same time, grab a mirror or set your phone on a tripod.
Start by looking at your erectile tissue when you’re not aroused. Pleasure yourself and check again when you’re at midlevel arousal. And then check a final time when you’re completely aroused (which often takes thirty to forty-five minutes). It’s best to begin with the least sensitive parts, which generally means starting from the outside and working your way in. Stimulating the most sensitive parts first can lead to irritation instead of pleasure.
LABIA MAJORA AND LABIA MINORA
The labia are the most familiar and visible parts of the vulva. “Labia majora” means “large lips” in Latin. I call them the outer lips, which describes their location, not their size, which varies—some females have very small outer lips and others have very large ones. “Labia minora” means “small lips” in Latin. And like the outer lips, they vary in size, so I refer to them as the inner lips.
We’re generally familiar with the clitoris, but not necessarily all of its parts. It has three: the head, shaft, and legs. The head of the clitoris is what we usually imagine when we think of the clitoris. It’s relatively easy to find with your eyes and fingers. It can be tiny or big, but size has nothing to do with pleasure. Sometimes it’s covered by the hood. If so, you can find it by gently sliding the hood up with your fingers.
Pleasure Tip: There are more nerve endings packed into the head of the clitoris than any other structure in the male or female body! This means it’s also the most sensitive part of the body. So it can give lots of pleasure when you’re aroused, but it’s easily overstimulated if you’re not.
The shaft (also known as the body or corpus) is under the skin of the hood. It’s about the diameter of a pencil or chopstick and anywhere from a half inch to an inch and half long. You can find it by placing two fingers slightly above the head of the clitoris and rolling your fingers back and forth—you’ll feel it move a little.
Pleasure Tip: The shaft is a highly erogenous erectile tissue—rubbing it in small circles is very pleasurable.
At the top of the shaft, the clitoris splits into two legs, kind of like a wishbone. The legs are about three to four inches long, but you’re likely to feel them only at high levels of arousal. You can find them by feeling through the tissue on either side by the top of the shaft. You’ll feel the tops of the legs—they angle back into the body, so you’re not able to feel their entire length. Most women can feel them only when they’re at high-level arousal.
The vestibular bulbs, or bulbs, get their name from their anatomical location—they wrap around the vestibule, which is the entrance of the vagina. You can find them by feeling under the skin of the outer lips; the bulbs are underneath. When they’re not engorged, you won’t feel much, but when aroused, they become quite pronounced, easy to feel, and very visible.
Pleasure Tip: The vestibular bulbs are one of the best places to start pleasuring yourself. When they’re fully engorged, it makes penetration feel awesome. The best way to play with the bulbs is by using a firm, diffused stimulation, like rubbing them with your entire hand (or grinding during penetration). You’ll be able to feel them engorge—you can see how the labia become distended, plump, and firm. Once engorged, you can slide a finger or two slightly inside your vagina and, with your thumb on the outside, squeeze or rub the bulbs.
Named after Dr. Ernst Gräfenberg, the G-spot is traditionally described as a round dime-size spot that, when pressed, can magically produce an orgasm. But it’s really a tube of erectile tissue that wraps around the urethra just above the roof of the vagina (embryologically, it’s the tissue that develops into the prostate in male bodies). So what people call the G-spot is actually the bottom side of the urethral sponge.
Pleasure Tip: It’s best to stimulate the the urethral sponge only after you’re highly aroused. If not, it can feel irritating or give the sensation that you need to urinate. You can play with it by using your fingers: Gently slide your finger (or fingers) into the vagina and upward. Use a “come here” gesture or a windshield-wiper motion to stimulate it. Or start at the back and rubb along the entire length. You can use two fingers to stimulate it on each side or use a toy that curves to hit the spot. With continued stimulation, the urethral sponge increasingly fills with fluid, gets larger, and feels squishy. If fluid dribbles or squirts out from your urethra, then you’re experiencing female ejaculation. The squirting sensations can be intensely pleasurable when accompanied by orgasm! And like most sexual skills, it can be learned.
The last of the erectile tissue is the perineal sponge. This wad of erectile tissue can be found under the perineum, in the floor of the vagina, between the vaginal and anal canals.
Pleasure Tip: When you’re highly aroused, you can stimulate it by inserting a finger or thumb into the vagina and pushing down. You can also feel it from the anal canal.
When the entire female erectile network is engorged, it creates multiple connecting circuits—a full on “her-ection.” This leads to expanded arousal, easier access to orgasms, and a lot more fun for yourself and welcomed partners.
Sheri Winston, CNM, RN, BSN, LMT, is a holistic sexuality teacher, an author, a medical professional, and the founder of the Intimate Arts Center. Her first book, Women’s Anatomy of Arousal: Secret Maps to Buried Pleasure, won the 2010 Book Award from AASECT (The American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists). Winston is also the author of Succulent SexCraft: Your Hands-On Guide to Erotic Play and Practice.
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.
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