I was 14 years old the first time I lied about sex. I was on the phone with a girlfriend murmuring in hushed tones so my mother wouldn’t overhear. As a mere freshman in high school, I knew that even the details of our PG-13 conversation would sound Notre-Damian gongs of alarm in her head, launching her into attack mode.
Yet, here I was on a Tuesday night, talking on the phone about something I knew nothing about besides what I had seen in movies. Without warning, my girlfriend launched into a pompous tirade about how female masturbation was gross and desperate, and then dissolved into hyena-like cackles. I was silent. After a moment, she was too.
“Do you do that?” She breathed the question as if she were toeing a trapeze line.
“What?” I snapped, indignation rising up in my throat. “Of course not!”
“Oh, OK. I was just wondering. You didn’t say anything.”
I scoffed as if it went without saying and moved on, hiding my embarrassment behind sarcasm. I will never forget that shame and the questions that followed: What’s wrong with masturbation? Am I weird for enjoying it? Am I... dirty? The resounding answer until I got to university? Yes.
For some reason, college brings out the sexual honesty in everyone. It was no longer a question of Do you? but more When, where, how? I had never been in such a candid environment. Dildos abounded! (Okay, not really, but I did have the awkward moment of rolling back my suitemates' comforter to find one.)
And it’s not just that university was a melting sexpot (although that’s true, too). According to New York magazine, an overwhelming 92 percent of women admit they have touched themselves. Vibrators are now mass-marketed by condom companies, leading to a boom in sales. Hell, there's even an app available for female masturbation. The app, called HappyPlayTime, features a floating vagina that gives anatomy lessons and techniques—a real play on the old Vagina Monologues.
Yet, in the wake of our heralded sexual revolution, there is still a stigma attached to female masturbation. Have we really come as far as we believe? I don’t think so. And I would counter that the reasons behind this are more systemic than personal aversions or unfamiliarity with our lady bits.
It’s about societal pressure. Socialization informs our perception on acceptable and repugnant practices and can either promote or demonize behavior. From fanatical religious groups to social conservatives, female masturbation is denigrated as a filthy practice. It is for pornstars and sex-crazed sluts. “The notion that women enjoy sex has not yet achieved scientific or cultural acceptance,” Ann Friedman says in a meditation on female masturbation at New York magazine. “To social conservatives, it seems downright dangerous,” and there is “no purer example of this than a woman enjoying the pleasure of her own company.”
What is more threatening to the male ego than a woman who is sexually liberated enough to please herself? This is why the practice is taboo. It threatens to undo the thread that binds our patriarchal society together: the notion that women's sexuality is something to be repressed. It is dirty, dangerous even, unless it is being neatly packaged for the entertainment of men. It explains the paradox of why prostitution is illegal but pornography is not: Men (not all, but a great many) desire to control the female body and channel it for their own purposes. And we have internalized their misogyny as evidenced by the cultural tendency to deride female masturbation....as if it were something to be ashamed of. Key words: "As if".
My take? Giving yourself a hand when you need some lovin' is no more perverse than fixing yourself a sandwich when you are hungry. It is a biological need and sometimes a man isn’t around (or desired or competent) to do the job. I say, happy play time, ladies.
Image: Maximo Hernandez on Flickr