It’s a Friday night. You’re sitting around a table in someone’s kitchen, drinking vodka out of a Deloitte promo mug. To disguise the uncomfortable atmosphere, you play ‘Never Have I Ever.’ It gets to one of the women, and they proudly announce ‘Never have I ever…masturbated.’
You look at the men, who scoff at the mere idea of never having masturbated, and drink their beer (grr man steak etc) in conformation that they’ve all familiar with the wanking. Your eyes meet the other women at the table, sharing a questioning, pleading glance. Are you going to drink? Will you finally, publically, approach the subject that yes, women wank and it’s no big deal?
Nope. You all leave your drinks sitting there, in silent shame. “What? You must have wanked before?!” the men cry, met with choruses of “Oh no I er just don’t know how um and also gross, but mostly weird right? Anyone want to call a cab?” And thus, the night ends, each woman feeling slightly more unsettled about the reality of their top secret self lovin’.
Being sexual, as a woman, can be a minefield. Try navigating the fine line that society expects you to walk, somehow trying to decode your sexual desires in a world that is constantly attempting to have its own say on it. The overarching narrative is: men get to be openly sexual, women don’t. If women are sexual beyond the control of a man (because of course, sexist narratives deal mainly in the heteronormative), then they’re a slut. Religions and cultures are imbued with a sense of shame towards female sexuality, and sex education rarely approaches discussing sex for pleasure; it’s mostly just how to avoid getting Chlamydia and dying. In our sexist, heteronormative world, we’re constantly told that our sexuality, our bodies, our pleasure, should be for the gratification of men. To do something so transgressive as to give yourself an orgasm without a man, is considered disgusting.
Try navigating the fine line that society expects you to walk, somehow trying to decode your sexual desires in a world that is constantly attempting to have its own say on it.
After talking to different people, it became clear boys and girls at a young age have widely varying experiences. “At school people would hand around hard drives with a mixture of TV series, films, and porn on them,” a male friend told me. “The idea of wanking and watching porn was completely normal.” He estimates that masturbation became a regular part of the conversation around 13, and that “there wasn’t any shame in not wanking – it’s just that everyone did, and was very open about it.” Others have told me that admitting you didn’t wank as a young guy would lead to ridicule. Compare that to the all-girls school I went to – mention masturbation and you would have been considered weird, disgusting, and probably a lesbian (ew). One anonymous survey respondent commented, “I remember being 16 and feeling like it’d be the worst thing in the world if anyone found out I masturbated. Seemed at that time we all knew guys did, but girls just didn’t (I thought I was one of the only ones). It’s only really been in the last few years I’ve talked about it with girl friends (at 30 y/o).”
I talked to a friend who attended the same Church of England all-girls school as me: “Among the students masturbation was certainly not a suitable topic of conversation.” She explained how it all tied into the “slut/good girl” dichotomy that was imbued into us from a young age. “If you did anything sexual without a loving partner then you could get called a slut for it. That fed into the stigma around wanking, and that doing something for the pleasure of it was not a good thing to do.” She talked about her few friends who, as adults, are open about not having masturbated, noting that it could make them “very aware of being alone,” and that “I think that’s really sad, and perhaps symptomatic of the fact that sexual desire in women is always viewed as something for someone else – a viewer, a partner… I wonder if guys feel more alone after they’ve wanked, perhaps they do too, but I’ve never heard that expressed. Girls are bombarded with the message that sexual desire is emotional; it’s hardly surprising that wanking can end up feeling depressing.” For men, sex is no big deal, for women, it’s political.
Popular culture does nothing to eschew these ideas. Think about the recurrent image of men masturbating in films (this was a dangerous Googling experience) – Kick-Ass, The 40 Year Old Virgin, The Inbetweeners, We Need to talk about Kevin, American Beauty, American Pie, American Pie 2, other films beginning with ‘American’, Jarhead, the music video to Stacy’s Mom, and so on. It’s everywhere, and it’s completely normalised. Not only does the media rarely deal with female masturbation, but when it does, it’s often ‘dark and edgy’ (Black Swan), from the male gaze (Blue is the Warmest Colour), really creepy (Skins) or with a guy (Misfits). Female pleasure in any form is rarely shown in films, let alone masturbation – Rachel Evan Woods famously hit out at the MPAA for cutting a cunnilingus scene in her film Charlie Countryman, saying that “this is a symptom of a society that wants to shame women and put them down for enjoying sex, especially when (gasp) the man isn’t getting off as well! It’s hard for me to believe that had the roles been reversed it still would have been cut.” Film and television just reinforces the shameful silence: the unspeakable reality of female pleasure.
Considering all this, you’d be surprised how normal it actually is. A survey of 800 respondents conducted by The Gryphon concluded that of those self-identifying as women, over 98% had masturbated before. And we’re not even talking about ‘I did it once and never again’ – the most popular frequency was ‘a few times a week’. Anonymously, people were supportive – “Masturbating is FAB”, “Masturbation is beyond the best activity ever” and “It’s the shiz”. And yet 39% of people said they would find it “easy to talk to certain friends about it” and 14% of people said they would “probably never ever broach the subject.”
A survey of 800 respondents conducted by The Gryphon concluded that of those self-identifying as women, over 98% had masturbated before.
If, then, we can consider the Wanking Woman as the status quo, what about those women who don’t masturbate? I spoke to Sophia*, who, as a sexually active person, has never masturbated. “I didn’t really feel the need too. I never felt that horny when I was alone. I also started having sex almost daily at quite a young age and so would always be satisfied through that. I think I’ve always separated my sexual life as being a time when I was with someone else and then my time alone would naturally not be sexual.” Like a good restaurant or musician, I feel inclined to recommend masturbation to her. “I want to want to masturbate. I want to want to start. But I think to myself, when the hell do people have the time to masturbate, I look at my diary and honestly I don’t see when’s a good day to start.”
It’s clear that as time passes, and feminism becomes more normalised, discussions of female masturbation and female sexual pleasure as a whole are becoming less taboo. Indeed, Sophia stated that, “I actually feel more ashamed saying I don’t masturbate than saying I do, because it feels like I’m going against this new tide of people publicly talking about female masturbation (which is excellent).” However, until you hit about 18, it can seem like the most disgusting, shameful thing to do. Talking about masturbation openly has obvious benefits – the act itself is the perfect way to feel comfortable about your sexuality, and detach yourself from the widely disseminated myth that female sexuality is either shameful, or only there to satisfy men. Educating about masturbation from a young ages ties into an important message about autonomy. Instead of teaching young women about the pitfalls of sex, how about we teach them that our sexuality is their own, and no one else’s.
Apart from all the clear benefits, the stress-relief, the autonomy, the power, we shouldn’t forget that masturbating can just, in the end, be friggin’ enjoyable. Make sure to explore deep within your opinions on the matter. Try and get a good feel for the idea. If you need a hand, there are some great online resources. And if you broach the subject with your friends, and it still feel awkward, don’t get too down about it. Masturbation can be a touchy subject, and you’ve gotta hand it to yourself for at least trying.
Photographs: jacquelineluxe.com, telegraph.co.uk, Tracy Emin