express yourself: why don’t we discuss female masturbation?
I can’t remember how young I* was when I first discovered masturbation. Too young to know what it was that I was doing, certainly, and even to what end. But old enough – or engrained enough – to know that it was something I should be doing in private, and something I shouldn’t ever be caught in the act of.
I was ecstatic to have secured a ticket to the most recent instalment of Melbourne Talks Sex, a series of talks over the course of August which have sought to discuss all things sexy and sex-related. This particular event, taking place earlier this week, featured guest speaker Clementine Ford – journalist, social commentator and feminist. (If you’re not yet acquainted with her and her work, you should seek to amend that immediately. Like, right now.) The topic of the night centred on the politics of masturbation. Ford’s talk was – as was to be expected – thoroughly engaging, bursting with witticism, relatability and a brutally refreshing honesty.
Hearing Ford discuss her experiences prompted some reflection on my own. I remember in Year 5 or 6 of primary school, when I was about eleven, being subjected to the standard ‘sex ed.’ I put that in quotations because it comprised one class, and it was mind-bogglingly technical, anatomical, and not at all relatable. Obviously education of that nature can only go into so much detail when those being taught are pre-pubescent and incredibly naïve. Still, even as early as primary school, there should be some semblance of nurture and self-love, right? And when the topic of masturbation was briefly addressed, I remember feeling incredibly, overwhelmingly embarrassed. As hysterical giggling and groans of disgust echoed around the room, I joined in, making sure to proclaim louder than anyone how ‘gross’ such an act was, and how anyone who did engage in it was equally as ‘gross’. I see now that I was wildly overcompensating for my own shame and embarrassment, and I see now, retrospectively, that for an 11 year-old to feel such self-disgust and discomfort is an abomination.
Yet society willingly perpetuates it. Every time girls are told to close their legs, every time they are reprimanded for touching themselves because it’s ‘naughty’ or ‘not right’. Of course there must be lessons in appropriate public behaviour, for those who know no better yet. But it does become a problem when girls are made to feel ashamed in private for what is a completely normal and healthy act of exploration.
And even now, despite being almost out of my teens – and having subsequently already undergone years of sexual frustration, confusion and self-discovery – and despite identifying as a raging and unapologetic feminist, the topic of masturbation still makes me uncomfortable. Even more so when I’m using my own experiences as a means of publically discussing it. But hey, it’s too late to regret disclosing now. And the point I’m trying to make is that disclosure shouldn’t be seen as a cause for regret. In a utopic world, myself – and women and girls everywhere – would be encouraged to embrace our bodies.
Fundamentally, all the feelings of guilt and ‘grossness’ that are so often tied to female masturbation – both self-reflexive and imposed upon us by others – is representative of a society that at large still views women’s bodies as shameful things. Things that should be covered up. Things that should be either idealised or mythologised, but apparently never ever under any circumstances, allowed any place in real functioning and realistic situations. The topic of female masturbation doesn’t just make individuals uncomfortable; society at large avoids addressing it at all costs. And why is this so?
Ford made an interesting observation. She noted that when boys first discover masturbation, they are almost praised for it – seen to be maturing into curious and healthy young men. People often have no trouble discussing it publically, almost with joviality, a ‘wink wink, nudge nudge’ kind of attitude, and amongst the boys themselves, with a sense of camaraderie and pride. But the idea of girls masturbating sends society into panic. Immediately, one is seen as having entered into very politically-incorrect territory, or at least, territory that is very morally touchy (excuse the awful pun, if you will). People fear it will lead to a sexualisation, fetishisation; that it borders on the paedophilic to ever imagine or discuss the subject of underage girls engaging in masturbation.
Masturbation is not a voyeuristic act, least of all for girls who are in the first integral stages of discovering the many facets of their own bodies, and learning what gives them pleasure. To think otherwise is disturbing, and blatantly creepy.
Ford also highlighted another alarming phenomenon; too many women claiming that because they are in a relationship, or are having sex with someone, that they don’t need – and shouldn’t need – to masturbate. Sex and masturbation are two completely different acts. Acts that of course can be combined, and often are. But acts that are fundamentally – in and of themselves – different.
This article from VICE provides a refreshingly honest, first-hand female perspective on the topic, but such journalistic coverage is not the norm. In mainstream media overall there is an alarming lack of public feminist discourse on the topic of masturbation. Where are the women writing about their own bodies? Where are the women celebrating their own bodies?
For women, especially, whose sexual satisfaction has a long (or rather, not) and disappointing history (see ‘female hysteria’, ‘glorified psychoanalyst’ and / or ‘inflated male ego’), masturbation is an act that can aid us in learning what gives us pleasure, and subsequently, enabling us to pass on this information to sexual partners. It’s saddening to think that, in 2015, a woman’s pleasure is seen to originate from sources outside of herself, rather than sensations which very much can be – and should be – realised autonomously.
In order for society to feel more comfortable talking openly about female masturbation, there needs to be serious discourse around body image, for a start. Our bodies are not shameful. Our bodies, in all their diversity and in their myriad of complex functions, are beautiful and are capable of doing and feeling great things. In order to erase stigmatisation, sexual education needs to be less about just our reproductive system, and more about our sexuality. Because let’s face it – what turns women on is not a ‘mystery’. Perhaps you’ve just been too lazy to ask us.
*Disclaimer: The experiences discussed in this article are based off my own experiences as a cis-woman. There is no intention of being trans-exclusionary, though obviously I can only speak from my own experiences, and felt unentitled to comment hypothetically on those of others.