A Touchy Subject
I’m not going to play this cool – I had no clue what I was doing. I’d only recently learnt about procreation and this thing called “sex” that adults did “when a man and a woman love each other very much”, and even though I could sing along to all the songs in the read-and-play book my mom bought me about how babies are made (I must have started somewhere / I really want to know / Tell me someone who I am / Where did I start to grow?), I had no concept of pleasure and lust and orgasm as anything other than a sperm slippery slide, let alone of the female orgasm being a thing that exists at all.
So, naturally, I became a prolific secret masturbator and I’m sure my parents were thrilled that I was suddenly so into taking baths and less-than-thrilled every month when the water bill arrived. If I was feeling especially bold, I’d steal one of my mom’s issues of Cosmo – I’d outgrown the thrill of fertilization in that well-thumbed How Did I Begin? – and furtively devour the bawdy ‘15 Sex Moves To Drive Him Wild’ style features (yeah, that’s right, him) before aiming that practised steady stream of water right at my clit. My orgasms were convulsing silent tsunamis but all the same, I’d started locking the door.
Naturally too, when my first period started – not the joyous bright red droplets my school life skills textbooks illustrated as the proud colours of new womanhood but a steady brown sludge that punctuated each urgent attempt to wipe it away accusingly, as if to say, “I know what you’ve been doing” – I thought what any logical child would think... Cool, I’ve done this secret dirty thing so much that I’ve ruptured something internally and I can’t tell anyone because they’ll know I’m disgusting. And then I did the next logical thing and much like a cat crawling under the house to be alone when its time has come, I retired to my room – with its stuffed toys and posters of Leonardo diCaprio – to die.
Guess what though? I fucking survived, bitches! However, it wasn’t to be the only time I thought being a wanker had fucked me. Every new body change was an exercise in anxiety. Wow, look at my uneven inner labia – I must have disfigured myself crushing that showerhead between my thighs too many times. Later in life, every time I couldn’t reach orgasm with a partner? I did this. I’ve ruined myself for sex because. I was ashamed. I was uncomfortable. I was totally normal and had no idea.
So why the fuck am I telling you about the first time I masturbated? I’m doing it because no one told me about the first time they masturbated. Or any time they masturbated. No one teaching me the facts of life told me that women get to experience sexual pleasure too or, if they did, it was rarely treated it as anything more significant than a by-product of male pleasure.
My earliest exposure to porn drove home the fact that the women playing with themselves were insatiable sluts, the raunchy anomalies too horny to control their urges. Self- pleasure was an act of “desperation”, something you only turned to out of frustration and when you weren’t “getting any”. Confession time: I only bought my first vibrator because my then boyfriend thought it might be something fun we could use together.
What I’ve been trying to put my finger on for the entire time that I’ve been writing this article are the still persistent problems in our narratives around masturbation and female pleasure, in particular. It’s not even that women getting off is stigmatised anymore – I mean, are people still out there telling you that you can’t hold hands with Jesus if they’re shoved down your panties? I don’t know. It’s that there’s still a lack of real conversations about real masturbation.
Mainstream representations of female masturbation seem to be either intended to titillate, rendering the act and pleasure derived once again a cog in the machine of someone else’s gratification, or they pick apart the vagina’d experience with science and statistics. I’ve read a million times that “eighty percent of all women report that they need clitoral stimulation to reach climax” but I only learnt about two years ago that some (and by “some”, I mean “a lot of”) clit owners learnt to masturbate by grinding against a pillow.
Of course now, the glossy magazine articles insist that you get yours and, in many ways, female pleasure is finally being given the attention it deserves but in rushing it to the pedestal, we’ve skipped some hands-on basics. We’ve gone from zero to a hundred without really liberating masturbation from the realms of the raunchy – or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, the academic – at all.
The conversations to normalise masturbation are endless and there isn’t nearly room enough in this article for them all. How about the one about how masturbation isn’t always sexual and sometimes it’s a comfort thing and sometimes it’s a self-care thing and sometimes it’s just a thing because there’s nothing else to do? The one about how masturbation doesn’t always end in an orgasm, and that doesn’t mean you’re broken. The one about how sometimes – often! – fingers aren’t enough and that there’s no shame if the only way you can cum is with a vibrator... Or a detachable showerhead... Or a pillow!
The one about how almost everyone with a clit has secretly pressed their vulva against a counter or table corner because it was at just the right height and it feels delicious. The one about your favourite sex toys. Definitely the one about your favourite porn! The one about how if you’re old enough to know about sex, you’re old enough to know about masturbation and how it’s about time every body’s pleasure carried the same significance.
The one about how totally, completely, positively normal your genitals are. The one where you’re worried you’re doing it wrong. The one where you tell your lover how you do it, what works for you, so that they can know how to do it too. To be honest, the one place getting it increasingly right and giving these issues the platform they need is porn. Shout-out, Lustery!
I’m not into cutesy euphemisms but in the lexicon of that kid sitting in the bath figuring myself out, to rub something out meant to erase it. I don’t want this article to be about rubbing one out, I want it to be about rubbing it in. I’m not locking the door anymore.