Where do you keep your sex toy, if you own one? Probably deep down in a drawer of your night stand, with the rest of your secret stash. The shame we feel for making ourselves come without a partner involved is something most of us will relate to. Why? Because of the huge taboo around masturbation, one that is pretty gendered too.
In 1994, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the first African American Surgeon General of the United States, was fired when she proposed including masturbation in sexual health classes. Whether in the past or in many places to this day, sex that isn’t reproductive is often portrayed as immoral or unhealthy by religious, cultural, and/or medical norms. As French philosopher Michel Foucault states, medicine in the 18th and 19th century claimed that touching yourself would lead to “sterility, impotence, frigidity, the inability to experience pleasure, or deadening of the senses”. With masturbation being less accepted and less common amongst women, the taboo around women’s masturbation is arguably bigger than men’s. This probably has to do with the tenacious association between masculinity and an insatiable sex drive whilst femininity is tied to innocence and purity. Together, these norms give rise to the idea that masturbation is impure, unsafe, lewd, and uninhibited.
Did anyone call bullshit? Masturbation is great fun and, importantly, it can play a positive role in our sexual development. For some, it’s a way to feel empowered or sexy, for others to relax or ease menstrual pain. Solo sex means zero risk to get pregnant or get an STD. From a political point of view, masturbation can be seen as a direct challenge to patriarchy since it is a manifestation of sexual independence. So, high time to ditch the taboo on flying solo. But first, let’s unpack the gendered and heteronormative sides of the straight-laced convention that masturbation is a no-no.
Black queer feminist writer Audre Lorde helps understand why masturbation can be such a liberating experience and it can be seen as a confrontation to the heteronormative framework dictating how we usually view, learn, and talk about sex. Lorde presents masturbation as a form of having sex that transcends the binary homo-/heterosexual paradigm. It invites us to find sexual satisfaction in ourselves, to have autoerotic experiences that cultivate self-love and -acceptance. And masturbation opens up a whole array of sexual experiences. It allows us to let our imagination run wild and fantasise about other forms of sex, scenarios, persons than those we usually engage in. Here, I would even add that masturbation allows us to detach from our gender identity. Our preferences and behaviours in regards to partnered sex and intimacy often prompt certain gender performances. For instance, I behave more womanly around my boyfriend than around my friends. These social pressures largely fall away when we have sex alone, enabling sex without gendered roles and attitudes.
Looking at the satisfaction we find in sex, self-sex proves helpful too. In other words, masturbation helps us cum, also when we have partnered sex. As one study amongst queer women shows, masturbation can be a great way to learn how to satisfy your partner. Some of the research participants reported that exploring their own bodies through masturbation helps them give their partners pleasure. The same may be true for men who like to have sex with men. In heterosexual couples, it’s mostly women who like to touch themselves every now and then, in addition to having partnered sex. Whilst men report to masturbate less as soon as they have satisfactory sex with a partner, women with and without partner tend to masturbate just as much. Why? Maybe because masturbating makes women feel more comfortable in their own skin and know better what they like, therefore enhancing the sex they have with a partner too. Maybe because women who have more sex with a partner simply desire more sex, and thus like to do it on their own too. And maybe it’s because of the orgasm gap; only 65% of heterosexual women orgasm when having partnered sex, versus 95% of heterosexual men (gay men 89%, bisexual men 88%, lesbian women 86%, bisexual women 66%). Based on these numbers, it isn’t unthinkable that heterosexual women opt for some alone time in bed.
The taboo around masturbation, especially women’s masturbation, remains cardinal. Next to the traditional objections that masturbation would be unsafe or unhealthy, more contemporary norms present self-sex as pathetic; the sad alternative for those unable to find a partner. Now, taboos only have one reason for existing and that is to be overthrown. With masturbation being an integral part of a healthy and enjoyable sex life, its absence in sex education curricula is just bewildering. Everybody does it, so let’s talk about it – in school and in our adult lives. There’s only winners if we start exchanging tips with our friends and how-to’s with our partners.
So next time don’t feel ashamed, but thank yourself for another body shaking orgasm!