Celebratory. A male rite of passage; a dart landing on that tenuous board of masculinity. White male sexuality is revered, the stuff of literature and legend, mythologized, made holy. We spend our high school lives deconstructing Lolita, finding unspeakable spots of empathy with a child rapist. The material of our canon is overstuffed with white cis male sexuality rampant, indulgent, and inexcusable, but wrestled through beautiful language into allegory.
I read Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Men Explain Lolita to Me” after I’d read the novel and quite unscrupulously marveled at its brilliance. She brought me back to myself: “The omnipresence of men raping female children as a literary subject, from Tess of the d’Urbervilles to Less Than Zero, along with real-life accounts like that of Jaycee Dugard (kidnapped at 11 in 1991 and used as a sex slave for 18 years by a Bay Area man), can have the cumulative effect of reminding women that we spend a lot of our lives quietly, strategically trying not to get raped, which takes a huge toll on our lives and affects our sense of self. Sometimes art reminds us of life.”
We use “masturbation” metaphorically, typically when discussing a work of art we view as simply an act of self-indulgence, like Woody Allen’s Manhattan or Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. We use it, almost always, when talking about men. Perhaps women have not held the societal and political power necessary to “masturbate” artistically; we have not been afforded that kind of self-engagement. Masturbation has a particular, inherent maleness about it in our culture. But contrary to what our sex education teaches in this country, it is most definitely not a gender-specific act.
Here’s a shocker: girls masturbate. Even though we’re not culturally encouraged to. We cannot speak the word “vagina” publicly (or sometimes even privately) without palpable discomfort in the air, let alone “clitoris.” We approach our first periods with unease, unsure of how to use a tampon when we’ve never allowed our fingers to roam below waistbands, warned of its inherent dirtiness. Sex, as patriarchy so creatively defines it, is penetration and penetration only: we lose some apparently essential, irreplaceable part of ourselves; it is taken from us. We expect it to hurt. We expect that we won’t feel anything resembling pleasure our first time around (or our second, or millionth). Our bodies are our temples that can and will be broken into, but not by our own undoing.
Not all people who menstruate are girls or women. Not all people with vaginas are girls or women, and I want to acknowledge this—because of our binaries, we associate certain anatomy with dirtiness and the traditionally “male” anatomy with health. I remember the early stages of sex ed, that torrid, photos-of-infected-genitals nightmare, and here’s what I ask now: what were the boys learning? What was it like for them? I know that the dichotomy of patriarchy hurts everyone and demands boys to be hyper-sexual, dominant, aggressive beings. Those expectations constitute a hell of their own, of course, but were they instructed to reject their own bodily curiosity? Did they discuss consent, as it often seems boys are not taught what it is and isn't?
Why are you splitting us up? Shouldn’t we learn about all anatomy, not simply our own? Shouldn’t men planning to have sex with anyone with a clitoris know what it is? Shouldn’t we saw through decades upon decades of gender binary and find some path to inclusivity, to nuance? Shouldn’t we be past girls have vaginas and boys have penises? Shouldn’t I want to know my body, want to know that sex can be something far different than just pain and fear?
There is nothing dirty about masturbation. There is nothing sinful, or wrong, or gross about it. We should know ourselves. We should know what we like and don’t so that we can refuse to settle for discomfort and displeasure. We should want better sex for our partners, for ourselves.
As Suzannah Weiss from Everyday Feminism puts it, “We’re taught that women’s sexuality only exists for other people.” The radical concept of self-pleasure is not considered healthy or essential as breathing as it is in men, but instead hedonistic in women.
The mythology that lingers still around masturbation emerges from a belief in men’s hypersexuality, equating “male” anatomy with sex drive. All boys masturbate. It’s healthy. Normal. Men are the more sexual creatures. Women aren’t. Women can and should have sex, but only with a certain number of people, only with men, and they shouldn’t be selfish, expecting to enjoy it. These rules completely neglect the reality we live in, in which gender transcends male/female, in which asexuality is recognized, in which women like sex too, thank you very much. In which men can no longer wield the “boys will be boys” bullshit as a shield against accountability.
Women are entitled to pleasure, too. So is anyone, of any gender, who wants to engage in sexual activity. Let me be clear: no one is entitled to pleasure at the risk of someone else’s well-being. No one is entitled to another person’s body. But even in fully consensual sex, too often does pleasure elude women. Pleasure is trickier for us, for anyone with a vagina, we are told. In the heterosexual, binary doctrine of patriarchy, the men don’t have time to make sure sex is good for the women. Perhaps what unsettles the very foundation of that patriarchy is the fact that women do not need men for sexual pleasure. Women are capable of finding that on their own.
One study shows that 92% of women age 18-22 masturbate regularly. It’s not only about the pleasure in it; masturbation is excellent for one’s mental and physical well-being. Orgasms release oxytocin and dopamine. They release endorphins, which flood your brain and help you sleep quicker and more deeply. Overall, in its release of these chemicals, masturbating can alleviate stress and depression. Several studies even suggest that women “who experience more orgasms, alone or with a partner, are less susceptible to heart disease and type-2 diabetes.” The contraction of the muscles involved in orgasm can ease menstrual cramps and strengthen your pelvic floor, promoting overall sexual health and reducing the risk of urinary tract infections. We never talk about this in sex ed.
If you are taught throughout your entire childhood that your body is a treacherous, dirty, untouchable place, you begin to believe it. Unlearning that kind of self-disgust takes a lot of time. We come to resent our bodies, and we must undo that resentment. For survivors of sexual abuse in particular, masturbation can be a reclamation of one’s sexuality and, at the same time, a difficult, reflective experience. The misogyny that coats every layer of our society comes to coat too many layers of ourselves, and so in women masturbating, there exists a kind of resistance. A kind of power.
Here’s the truth from which parents often avert their eyes, that we cannot quite comfortably discuss: according to Medical Daily, by age 15, around 100% of children have already masturbated to the point of orgasm. And that is not a bad thing. There is curiosity about our bodies. There is then the slow buildup of shame about that curiosity, when we should be learning the importance of sexual health, consent, and, especially in girls, that we are not “disgusting.” I see this shame as a reflection of our societal discomfort for women’s comfort as a whole. When young women call for accessible birth control, we are called “sluts” by “respectable, well-known” (almost always male) politicians (who may also happen to have a bestselling children’s book series) that, presumably, thinking adults listen to. Accessible contraception is too much to ask, because such healthcare would be an acknowledgement that women have sex and might not be doing so simply to produce children.
The mere fact that reproductive rights are even a public, political issue should tell us something about what we, as a country, think of women’s self-agency. Our reproductive rights are often inextricable from our sexual freedom, to most male, almost exclusively Republican, politicians, and that freedom is an unruly, strange beast they fear more than dislike.
So, yes: women do masturbate. Most people masturbate. Not only cisgender white boys. But obligation to hypersexualization, to hypermasculinity, is what we teach boys as a result of gender roles. Girls should know that they are entitled to enjoy whatever consensual sexual activity they choose to engage in, not merely grin and bear it. I mean this not to be heteronormative, but boys should be taught that their sexual enjoyment is not the only one that matters.
Deconstructing the stigma and taboo around female masturbation may seem a trivial issue to some, but in fact I believe it to be of utmost importance. Gender equity, feminism, means dismantling not only the overtly political issues but the intimate, personal structures of misogyny we all carry around, too. What a world we could live in if female masturbation wasn’t a political issue. I wish we lived in that world, but we don’t. We need to redesign the one we live in now; we must construct a sex-positive, gender-inclusive, liberating one for everyone.
Art by Amelia Giller