Despite growing up in a very liberal family with self-identified feminist parents, female masturbation was never discussed. I knew boys masturbated, because everywhere you look in the media there’s some mention of it, either jokingly or seriously. But female masturbation just wasn’t a “thing,” or more specifically, a concept that was even on my radar. It wasn’t until I read about female masturbation in Sassy magazine circa 1993, when I was about 14, that I finally saw the light. And, to say my mind was blown by this revelation is an understatement.
Every night for months after this discovery, somewhere between midnight and 2 a.m., I “tried” to masturbate. I say “try” because I had no idea what I was doing. I had heard words like “vulva” and “clitoris,” but trying to find them and what purpose they served was something I wouldn’t understand until years down the road.
It was during those late-night fumbling sessions that I’d poke around and try to give myself an orgasm. At that point, I had never had an orgasm, so I wasn’t even sure I’d know if I had one. But that didn’t stop me from trying.
But with all this trying came a whole boatload of shame, too. It didn’t matter that Sassy helped to normalize female masturbation or the empowerment of it. Instead, I saw myself as a horny preteen looking for that thing that made people breathlessly moan in movies — but I’d be breathlessly moaning solo if I ever figured it out.
Then one night, it happened. As I fumbled, I came across what I’d later realize was my clitoris. I found that touching it felt really good. So I kept touching it, moving my index finger around in a circular motion, while applying different levels of pleasure. It felt so good, that I assumed it was definitely a bad thing; a wrong thing. As the feeling got more and more intense, I started to feel more and more guilty. When I finally had my very first orgasm — which I wasn’t even sure that’s what it was — I was conflicted. Was what I felt bad? Had anyone else experienced such a thing? Did I just invent something new? As a kid who came of age in the '90s, I didn’t have Google to turn to. All I had was my Sassy magazines and this new “dirty” secret. An amazing secret, but dirty nonetheless.
It wasn’t until I went to college when my friend Lyndsay made a comment, out of the blue, about how her wrist hurt from masturbating so much the night before that I realized I wasn't the only masturbator out there. I was floored. I couldn’t believe she had just said these words out loud. I responded with relief in my voice: “I masturbate too.” She looked at me, confused, and told me that almost everyone masturbates. Everyone, she repeated a couple of times. I knew I hadn't invented giving myself an orgasm, but it was life-altering to realize that most women were, in fact, masturbating.
I started to wonder who else of my female friends were masturbating. Was there a whole group of us? Could we start a club? Get matching t-shirts?
“Girls don’t masturbate,” I remember someone saying at some point during my teens.
I knew I wasn't alone in my shame. According to a 2016 survey of 1200 Americans by Tenga, although 81% of women have masturbated at some point in their life, the perception is that only 68% of women have masturbated. The same study found that 22% of women have lied about masturbation, with the majority of those lying, at 40%, being millennial women. And research shows that a lot of this shame comes from our community's views around sex growing up.
“I have always been hyper aware of how institutional conditioning shapes the ways in which we have sex, even as an adult,” Alicia Sinclair, founder and CEO of COTR, tells Bustle. “In my own experience, the shame associated with veering outside of the Mormon narrative I grew up with propelled me to reclaim my relationship with sex through my work.”
Maybe, because sex and masturbation were never discussed in my family until I started writing about these topics professionally, I was conditioned to think it was something I wasn't “allowed” to do. Especially because I was a girl. “Girls don’t masturbate,” I remember someone saying at some point during my teens. And while I don’t remember who said those words, they stuck with me for a long time.
Research also shows that having these perceptions of sex in mind can impact your ability to enjoy it. “Our brain is such a crucial tool when it comes to if/how you masturbate, so a positive perception of pleasure itself can help your body follow suit,” Sinclair says. “This is why I feel so passionately that sex toys made by women for women have a huge impact on how women internalize and validate their own pleasure.”
Now, over 20 years since I first tried to masturbate, a lot has changed. While I got over my shame long ago, it took a combination of talking to my friends about it and the narrative about female masturbation that changed. It's definitely a far cry from what it was when I was in my early teens.
“It’s so different now,” writer, Alicia Proton de la Chapelle, tells Bustle. Now 21, Proton de la Chapelle graduated from La Sorbonne with a degree in gender studies with a focus on feminism and sexuality. “I started masturbating around 16 and never felt shame. We didn’t talk about it in high school the way we talked about sex — the masturbation talk wouldn’t come until a little later. But still masturbation and shame were never in the same sentence.”
She’s right: it is different. Women in their 20s now are far more sex-positive and open than when I was in my 20s. What seemed taboo for me at 20 doesn’t hold the same “gasp” factor for a lot of women in that age bracket today.
While I may have overcome my shame, I still have friends in their late 30s and well into their 40s who still aren’t there. That shame of masturbating is still very much internalized and I’ve learned who I can talk to about masturbation and who I can’t even mention the word in front of.
Simply, experiencing pleasure is a human right. There is no shame in claiming that right by yourself.
Although I’d love to have an intimate conversation with those friends and tell them what Lyndsay told me when I was 20 — that there's no shame in masturbating — I feel to do that now seems out of line. Why should I be the one to tell adult women — some married with children — that they need to normalize female masturbation? So what do we do? Talk about it — at least to those people we know want to hear more. There’s no sense in making a friend uncomfortable and forcing our masturbation agenda on them, but we can also leave space for those friends in case they do come around and want to have a conversation about it.
"I think there are three main ways talking about [masturbation] can be beneficial," sexologist and author Dr. Nikki Goldstein tells Bustle. "First of all to normalize it, especially for woman. The more we talk about it, the more we start to understand that everyone does it or at least has the desire to. The other is swapping secret and tips. Masturbation shouldn't just be straightforward. There are so many ways to do it and to make it feel good. If we defined it as self-pleasuring instead of masturbation, we also might be able to help people expand the ways they experience it.”
Although my masturbation shame lasted for about five or six years, there are still those who struggle to make peace with not just the topic, but even the word, and have been struggling for decades. But you might be surprised to know how comfortable you can become with masturbation once you know that you’re absolutely, positively, not alone.
“Simply, experiencing pleasure is a human right,” Sinclair says. “There is no shame in claiming that right by yourself.”
So maybe it's time we consider getting out there, claiming that right, and not shying away from talking about it. Masturbation is a feminist act after all; there's no need to be ashamed about it.