At its very best, finger-banging is incredibly hot. Like, really hot.

But at its worst, it can be more painful/annoying/irritating than your (now ex) partner getting too high and forcing you to sit through 2 hours of cartoons on date night…

That’s where this handy guide to hand sex comes in. Read it now, and your partner will be thanking you (read: experiencing pleasure) later.

“If someone feels self-conscious about how their vulva smells, tastes, or looks, they’re not going to be able to enjoy it,” says Sarah Melancon, PhD, sociologist and clinical sexologist with The Sex Toy Collective.

So, before you comment on your partner’s bits, keep these following things in mind.

Labia vary in color, shape, and size

“Labia are like snowflakes,” Melancon says. (Reminder: The labia are the lip-like folds of skin around the vaginal opening.) Sounds cheesy, but it’s true.

Some are short, some are long, some are short on one side and long on the other. Some are wrinkly, others are smooth. Some are puffy and voluptuous, others are thin or sag.

For a sense of just how different labia can look from person to person, check out The Great Wall of Vaginas or The Labia Library.

So does pubic hair

Just like head, body, and facial hair, pubic hair can vary in color, thickness, and density.

Plus, everyone chooses to style their pubes differently. No one pube-do is better, any more “sanitary,” or more beautiful than any other. Got it?

There might even be a smell

“Everyone has their own distinct scent that generally falls within a certain range,” Melancon says.

And that scent is not that of freakin’ flowers! Rather, most vulvas smell musky, earthy, musty, sour, or coppery.

“So long as it doesn’t smell like rotten meat or decaying fish — two scents that can indicate infection — chances are that vulva is totally healthy,” Melancon says.

And if you take things further… know that there’s a taste, too

Manual sex can be pretty freaking fantastic on its own. But if your partner consents, combining it with a tongue tornado? Pure bliss!

Just know: Vulvas are not taste-less! A healthy vulva might taste:

  • salty
  • sour
  • metallic-y
  • bitter
  • sharp
  • tangy

Again, your only concern should be if it tastes foul or fishy.

“That’s when it’s time for someone to go to the doctor, because there could be an infection,” Melancon says.

Remember: Hand sex still has risks (and so does oral)

“In terms of STIs, hand sex is low-risk activity,” Melancon says. “However, STI transmission is possible.”

If, for instance, someone has a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that’s spread through bodily fluids — such as gonorrhea or chlamydia — and they touch themselves and then touch you, transmission is possible.

Research also shows that if they have HPV and touch you after touching themselves, HPV can be transmitted to you.

Reduce the risk of transmission by wearing a finger cot, or a nitrile or latex glove, if you or your partner have an STI or don’t know your status.

Remember: STIs can be transmitted if there’s any pantie-free humping and grinding that takes before or after the hand play, or through oral sex.

Before we get to the meat of manual play, let’s answer some fingering FAQs.

What if I have longer fingernails?

Long and sharp nails can injure the delicate vulvar skin or vaginal tissue, which is why Melancon says, “It’s good practice to make sure your nails are short and well manicured before fingering someone.”

If you love your long nails, round the edges. Then put cotton balls under the nail and wear a glove.

Should I stay on the outside?

When it comes to hand play, outside-in should be your motto.

Meaning, start on the inner thighs, labia, pubic mound, and clitoris before (with your partner’s enthusiastic consent) moving toward the vaginal canal.

“The more aroused your partner is before penetration takes place, the better it will feel,” Melancon says.

What if I can’t find the clit?

“The clitoris is the North Star of the vulva,” Melancon says. “It’s located at the intersection of the inner labia.”

Some clits are really prominent, while others are buried beneath the hood.

“If you can’t see anything, just play around and see how your partner reacts,” she says. “Most folks will have more of a response to being touched in that area as opposed to the other parts of their vulva.”

Another option: Ask your partner to show you.

What do I do if my hand gets tired?

Whether you’re giving or receiving, manual play should be enjoyable for the both of you! So, if your hand gets tired or cramps up, it’s OK to take a break.

You might say:

  • “I’m loving fingering you, but I have a cramp. I’d love to watch you touch yourself and join back in a bit.”
  • “How would you feel about using a vibrator?”
  • “Babe, my hand is getting a little tired, but I’d love to keep playing. How would you feel about me going down on you?”

Why is my partner so quiet? Am I doing OK?

Porn may have given you the illusion that pleasure is always accompanied by animal noises, but that isn’t the case!

Some folks mew and moan, others scream, pant, or roar, and some make no noise at all.

But regardless of how loud or quiet your partner is, the best way to find out how they’re doing is to ask!

What does a vagina feel like?

It depends on whose vagina it is, whether or not you’re wearing a glove, where they are in their menstrual cycle, how aroused they are, and so much more.

Don’t be surprised if the canal feels:

  • hot or warm
  • bumpy or textured
  • tight or narrow, loose or wide

When do I stop?

Whenever you or your partner want to stop — or switch to something different.

To be very clear: An orgasm isn’t the “end goal” of fingering. Pleasure is!

And an orgasm doesn’t necessarily mean your partner wants you to stop. Multiple orgasms, anyone?

If you’re eye-balling this guide, odds are you see fingering in your future. Here are some tips that’ll help you from start to end.

How do I get things going?

If you remember one thing from this article, make it this: Besides consent, how aroused your partner is before the actual fingering is the most important part of fingering. (Not technique.)

Before you even think about driving south, get your partner fired up with:

Does the position matter?

“When we think of fingering, we often have the mental image of the receiving partner on their back and their legs spread open,” Melancon says.

This, known as missionary fingering, is a great position to start because you can see your partners face and use their facial expressions as feedback.

That said, different positions can offer different sensations and angles.

“If your partner likes it really deep, you might try doggy style, which will open them up,” Melancon says. Doggy style is also a good option if your partner enjoys simultaneous anal and vaginal stimulation.

“If your partner enjoys more shallow penetration or external stimulation only, the spooning position is great,” she adds.

If your partner enjoys feeling dominant, you might kneel while they stand.

Regardless of the position, “make sure you’re both comfortable,” says Caitlin V, MPH, clinical sexologist for Royal, a vegan-friendly condom and lubricant company.

Clothes or no clothes?

Start over the clothes to ramp up anticipation.

“Cupping the vulva over clothes and doing some light circles or undulations can get a lot of people’s motor started,” says Searah Deysach, longtime sex educator and owner of Early to Bed, a pleasure-product company based in Chicago.

If your partner seems to like a lot of pressure, you can use your knuckles.

Next, remove their bottoms and spend some time teasing them through the fabric of their panties. Finally, ask them if you can remove their underwear, or if they’d like to remove their own underwear.

How many fingers do I use?

Start with one.

“If you use too many too quickly, it can really kill the vibe and be painful,” Melancon says.

Only add another if your partner requests it.

Every vulva owner has different preferences, so while these tips can guide you in the right general direction, your boo will be able to guide you even better.

Wash your hands

Hopefully you did this before now, but if not, tell your partner you need to use the bathroom really quick and wash your hands with warm water.

Set the pace

“Ease in one knuckle at a time, then slowly begin to move your finger in and out at a steady motion,” Deysach says.

“Many people try to recreate the movement of a penis during P-in-V intercourse with their fingers, and thrust really fast,” she says. “However, this actually isn’t usually the best way to stimulate your partner’s internal hot spots.”

Her recommendation: Slide your finger(s) in 1 or 2 inches, then make a come-here motion to stimulate their urethral sponge (aka the G-spot).

Or if your partner prefers deeper stimulation, do this a few inches further back to stimulate their A-spot or cervix.

Pay attention to their body language

“Nonverbal cues can tell you a lot,” Deysach says. Pay attention to whether your partner is shifting their hips toward your hands, how their breathing is, and what their hands are doing.

Lock eyes

One word: intimate.

Even more intimate, says Caitlin V, is to maintain eye contact while breathing in sync.

Add lube

Lube is an amazing addition to almost any activity, including hand play,” Deysach says. “It will allow you to glide your fingers all over without pulling or tugging in an uncomfortable way. Slippery feels good!”

Pay attention to the clit

“The clitoris is the epicenter of pleasure for vulva owners,” Caitlin V says.

In fact, most vulva owners need clitoral stimulation to climax.

But don’t ~ just ~ focus there

…unless your partner indicates that they want you to direct all your attention to their love nub!

Otherwise, Caitlin V says, “Make sure to give ample attention to the G-spot, the perineum (located between the vaginal opening and the anus), and anal opening or anal canal.”

Just remember: You can’t go back to the vagina after dipping a finger in the back hole. Wash up first.

Switch things up

Doing the exact same thing the entire time isn’t ideal unless that’s what your partner wants.

Try:

  • stroking around the clitoris (not directly on it)
  • tapping on the clitoral hood
  • applying pressure on the pubic mound
  • stroking in large circles around the whole vulva
  • swiping back and forth along the perineum

Don’t take it too seriously!

“Many people are so focused on figuring out the right stroke and pressure that they forget to enjoy the process,” says Caitlin V. “Incorporate silliness! Smile! Laugh! Enjoy yourself.”

Maybe add in a toy

“Toys (especially finger vibrators) are an excellent addition to fingering,” says Caitlin V.

“If you use a vibrator, try teasing your partner by running it all over their vulva, and maybe even their inner thighs and nipples,” she says.

Depends on your partner.

“For many people, a good hand sex session is a worthy activity all on its own, but for some it’s just one course in a five-course meal,” Deysach says.

How do I know if I should keep going?

Communicate! “Check in with your partner and see how they are feeling,” Deysach says.

You might ask:

  • “How are you feeling? Are you craving something else?”
  • “Do you want to take a breather and then come back to bed?”
  • “I think it might be hot to [X], how do you feel about that?”

What if I want to be stimulated?

No doubt, turning your partner on can be stimulating in its own right! Still, you might be craving more stimulation. You might:

  • Ask your partner to use a stroker or vibrator on you.
  • Wear a butt plug or pantie vibrator.
  • Grind against the mattress.
  • Masturbate.

What about when it’s all done?

Tell them how much you loved fingering them or how good they felt wrapped around your fingers.

Also hot (if STIs aren’t a risk): Either suck your fingers clean, or let your partner do it.

Manual sex may be underrated, but when done right can be seriously hot. Go on, use these tips and go see for yourself.


Gabrielle Kassel is a New York–based sex and wellness writer and CrossFit Level 1 Trainer. She’s become a morning person, tested over 200 vibrators, and eaten, drunk, and brushed with charcoal — all in the name of journalism. In her free time, she can be found reading self-help books and romance novels, bench-pressing, or pole dancing. Follow her on Instagram.