While our society is coming to embrace women’s free sexual expression with a partner, we still tend to keep mum about self-pleasure. In our Play issue, we shared the history of the vibrator and the woman-oriented sex shop; for the Body issue, we thought masturbation warranted its own exploration.
Masturbation: a word whose social connotations have undergone many changes over the centuries. Gone are the 18th-century days when doctors preached that women and men who “self-polluted” would suffer from digestive distress, loss of memory, back pain, or epilepsy. And our culture has certainly benefited from sexologist Alfred Kinsey’s insistence in the 1940s and 50s that masturbation is an instinctive behavior for both sexes and should be accepted as a part of human sexuality. More recently, a 2015 Huffington Post article detailed a handful of the advantages of regular masturbation, from improving your sex life to helping you sleep to simply making you happier.
Yet despite these undeniably happy endings, female masturbation remains a relatively taboo topic of discussion. In a 2002 Penn State study, women reported speaking more openly on nearly all topics concerning sex—STIs, sexual feelings, contraception, rape, menstruation, and pregnancy—except for masturbation. Inversely, men reported feeling more comfortable discussing masturbation than any other subject related to their sexuality and sexual activity. Put another way, women are more comfortable talking about sexual activities that indicate the presence of a partner or biological realities like periods, while men seem to prefer to avoid these associations entirely, sticking to their solo sexual pleasure and its related health benefits. Why this difference? And more importantly, why does the men’s narrative center on that which they control, while the women’s narrative focuses on everything they do not?
A 2015 piece from The Daily Beast examines this study and the then-latest data from the 2009 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, both of which reveal a huge disparity in masturbation practices between the sexes. Almost 20 percent of women in their 30s said they had never masturbated, compared to less than 7 percent of men. Frequency of masturbation is also much lower among women of all age groups. And while we can’t know if the stigma surrounding female masturbation influenced women’s answers in the study’s anonymous questionnaire, it’s clearly a complex topic with little broad social discussion. Even the title of the article, “C’mon, Ladies, Masturbation Isn’t Just for Bad Girls,” implies that the writer and audience share in the belief that masturbation is “bad” (and for “girls”).
This is not to say that women’s sexuality stays out of public discourse. Women’s reproductive health remains an incredibly politicized topic covering multiple issues, ranging from the accessibility of birth control to the necessity of abortion clinics. This conversation, which begins for many at the beginning of puberty in sex ed class, primarily focuses on preventing pregnancy—again, the consequences of another’s actions, rather than one’s own sexual well-being.
By contrast, masturbation is widely accepted as an essential part of men’s health and hygiene. The necessity of “cleaning the pipes” for men’s overall well-being is so accepted that society has even come up with a name for a widely known “medical” condition afflicting men who don’t ejaculate frequently enough: “blue balls.” For women, there is absolutely no equivalent. When it comes to nomenclature, terms for female masturbation (“petting the kitty”; “flicking the bean”) are condescendingly cutesey, in contrast to the forceful verbs (“jacking”; “jerking”; “choking”) used in common slang terms for male masturbation.
The fact that masturbation means agency, health, and vigor for men while it’s shrouded in silence for women falls in line with the mythology that women are passive vessels waiting to be acted upon by a man. Betty Dodson, author of “Sex for One,” regards sex as an act built around power: “Female masturbation via the clitoris undermines this universal male fantasy, which allows men to think we are having orgasms from a penis thrusting in our vaginas.” Women who masturbate, therefore, are a threat to this power hierarchy. They are the sole provider of their sexual pleasure and are in total control of their bodies.
By ignoring the very real health benefits of female masturbation and allowing the conversation about women’s health to focus solely on protection, we are helping to strengthen the stigma surrounding female masturbation and perpetuate the idea of woman as receiver. If we can bring female masturbation into the broader discourse around women’s health—and finally acknowledge its importance to a healthy routine—perhaps we can effect an even larger change in society’s expectations of women.
Emma Kohlmann is a Western Massachusetts-based artist who has exhibited work throughout the United States and in Berlin, Copenhagen, and Tokyo. Primarily working in watercolor and sumi ink, Kohlmann publishes her own artist’s books and ephemera such as records, zines, and t-shirts.