When was the first time you learned about masturbation? On the playground? During an awkward discussion with a parent? On TV? Was it pretty clear to you what it was and how to do it? Did you understand what it meant to climax or ejaculate? If you are male-bodied, it is likely that by the time you were a full grown adolescent, you had a pretty good understanding of masturbation and a wide variety of descriptive euphemisms – “jacking off,” “stroking the sausage,” “whacking it,” and a particularly eloquent one that I recently heard, “attacking the one-eyed, purple-headed warrior.” If you are female-bodied, the path to your understanding of masturbation and how to do it was likely much more covert and maybe even to this day is not fully developed or clear.
But why? Most women will explain that masturbation was not talked about when they were young. Touching yourself or admitting to any type of physical, sexual desire as a young girl was thought of as shameful, dirty, embarrassing or at the very least something not to be discussed with parents or peers. But with boys, these “tendencies” were considered natural, normal – something to be both expected and tolerated. A basic understanding of why this is so, points to our society’s general acceptance of men as sexual creatures with natural, physical urges and our view of women as passive objects of those sexual desires, rather than independent beings with their own natural sexual desires and urges. And while the movement towards a more sex-positive, pro-feminist view of sexuality has taken foot in many circles, this deeply engrained, double standard view of sexuality undeniably still exists. And if we aren’t conscious of its presence and effect, it is easy to make false assumptions about sexuality – like the assumption that girls and women do not masturbate. And if they do, they are more sexually active or promiscuous than most girls or women – a practice known as “slut-shaming,” a neologism used to describe the act of making any person (usually women) feel guilty or inferior for certain sexual behaviors or desires that deviate from traditional (i.e. conservative) gender expectations.
While the assumption is that all men masturbate, several studies have sought to find out what percentage of women masturbate (because, again, a common assumption is that only a minority of women masturbate). These studies have yielded results varying from 38% to 92% – an extremely large spread. Clearly, there is something going on that would cause these studies to find such varying results on a regular basis. I would speculate that the studies reporting larger percentages were administered anonymously and through a medium that did not require face to face questioning, such as via an online survey. The studies reporting lower percentages were probably done in person or required some elaboration on the part of the participant. Essentially, I believe that these results illustrate the issue of women feeling uncomfortable or ashamed on talking about their masturbation habits or even admitting that they do it from time to time.
So what is to be done? It’s difficult because the fear of slut shaming extends beyond attitudes from men. Women are just as likely (if not more so) to perpetuate shame when it comes to masturbation. The thing about shame is that it is often projected onto those around us – especially those (i.e. other women) we identify with. And if you can’t share stories, tips, and thoughts about masturbation with your fellow vagina owners, how do you learn? It’s possible to learn from TV and movies, which perpetuate the myth that women don’t masturbate or when they do, it creates confusion, distress, and embarrassment in the women performing the act. You can try to learn from porn, and if you are able to find some of the new wave pro-feminist and female-produced contents, it can be a good source for viewing women enjoying their bodies and the pleasure that comes from masturbating. But if you aren’t able to find these contents, good luck finding any images that you can actually relate to.
I believe a good first step for all women is to seek out sex-positive, feminist literature and media in order to see evidence that other women do masturbate and do so without shame, embarrassment, or negative repercussions. A book I recommend to clients and friends alike is “Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving,” by Betty Dodson, a woman who personifies the acceptance and embracing of female sexuality and expression. For the more adventurous or advanced, I recommend visiting your local sex toy shop (preferably one marketed towards women) and asking for information on different toys or movies that might interest you. I also strongly believe in the power of being curious and taking the risk of being vulnerable in conversations with friends. I have had many different kinds of conversations about masturbation with other women – some were wrought with embarrassment, some were really funny, some were tinged with shame, and many resulted in immense relief at the recognition that they aren’t the only one who doesn’t have it all figured out or has what they thought was a “weird” habit. But in all these instances, masturbation was discussed. And I believe that sometimes a conversation is all it takes to begin changing our false assumptions about sexuality.