Hordes of girls dream of becoming glamour models, but are too embarrassed to even talk about masturbation. Sophie Platt rages against a taboo which only affects girls and women
One rainy day a couple of months ago, I sat down with my flatmate-and-partner-in-unemployment, Gem, for the great pursuit of the jobless that is The Jeremy Kyle Show. Flicking through the channels, we came across one of those Channel 4 programmes aimed at schools, this one tackling the tricky topic of masturbation. Intrigued, we settled down to watch. The aim of the show was to highlight masturbation as one of the last taboos in today’s society, and to shatter its reputation as being wrong and dirty – quite an ambitious mission statement for a half-hour programme! The presenter spoke to several (and very brave, I might add) same-sex groups of school kids, and asked them about their opinions and experiences.
Initially, the most striking thing was the difference in body language between the sexes. The boys were more than happy to talk about a subject close to their hearts. Cue much hearty bantering about who held the record for the most times in one day, who had discovered it the earliest, and so on.
The girls, on the other hand, looked like they were confessing to murder – lots of red faces, sideways glances, hushed voices and furrowing of brows, not to mention vicious shaking of heads. When this was commented on by the presenter, one girl hissed indignantly that: “Of course boys do it more, because that’s natural for them, but it’s just not a natural for a girl.”
Appallingly, throughout this conversation there was no reassurance from the presenter that this attitude is a gross misconception. The so-called fact of the unnatural nature of female masturbation was left to hang in the air, unchallenged.
The programme was extremely lazy, relying heavily on contribution from the boys, and the majority of the half-hour was dedicated to a rather ominously named ‘Masturbation Challenge’ (not a record-breaking contest before you ask).
The boys were asked to abstain from their favourite hobby for a month and to keep a video diary of their progress. This provoked many ill-thought out sentences about how the “it [the challenge] was getting hard”, etc. Predictably, they all failed, and the conclusion that masturbation was both healthy and necessary was thus happily reached.
Poor girls. Their initial declaration of denial was pretty much all the air time they got. No counter-challenge for them to actively try masturbation, no real effort to dispel myths of it being unnatural and dirty for a woman to pleasure herself. The programme featured only one, rather zealous girl who was willing to talk about it, much to the horror of her friends, but this just seemed like a grudging obligation to present a balanced argument. The female perspective was swiftly wrapped up by Mistress Frig receiving a giant dildo for her 18th birthday, which for all concerned was clearly the controversy of the year.
The narrator very briefly concluded that in order for masturbation to transcend its taboo status, we all just need to talk about it more. The end.
So, according to modern sex education, on the difficult subject of masturbation, the path to enlightenment goes thus: boys are fine with it, girls think itís unnatural, so let’s just talk about it more and that will take care of the rest.
Never mind talking, what about actively seeking to change cultural attitudes, which will ultimately provide girls with encouragement?!
Within general popular culture, male masturbation is either featured or generally eluded to as a mere fact of life, nothing earth shattering or even particularly erotic. In short, they are left to get on with it. In television and film, the viewer is often presented with the reality of male masturbation – much grunting and rapid hand movement!
But why is it that whenever female masturbation is examined, it’s always in this highly erotic, almost romantic way? It seems whenever a girl gets the urge, the camera tactfully shifts to one side so the viewer can lustily imagine the rest and it’s all soft lighting, silky nightgowns, candles and whale sounds. How many times have you seen a scene involving a girl wanking that wasn’t anything other than sensual? The only one that springs to my mind is in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, a director not known for his positive portrayal of women. I saw that film about seven years ago, yet that scene with Naomi Watts on the couch will remain with me forever, not because it was arousing, but because it was so unusual to see a woman actually going at it, and without the aid of a negligee, a meditation CD and some scented oils. It was gritty, brutal, but above all, real.
It’s a classic consensus of feminist sociology that from a young age, boys are encouraged to be more physical, in a rough-and-tumble-boys-will-be-boys-kinda-way. They are socialised into being more comfortable in engaging with their world through touch, through things like play fighting, doing more sports and even taking up more physical space. Look at the difference in the way men and women sit for example, men often sit with their legs splayed and their arms out, filling the space around them, whereas women tend to tuck themselves in neatly. This encouragement of male physicality extends to boys being much more comfortable with touching themselves. Because this socialisation is not applicable to young girls, they often grow into young women alienated from their own bodies, and this I find extremely upsetting.
It is these issues that cemented my personal commitment to feminism. When I look back on my early sexual experiences, more than seven years on, I still feel upset and very much cheated that these attitudes prevented me from expressing my sexuality and, as a consequence, restricted and repressed my early sex life.
Official sex education in school did and does encourage girls and boys to masturbate, but archaic attitudes towards female masturbation as a deviant and subversive act continue to dominate the playground.
I remember one girl in my high school who was revered with a mixture of fascination and horror – not because she was the only girl at the time who wore black lipstick and had dreadlocks, but because she would freely advertise the joy of self-love. In a social climate dominated by a sense of paranoia, I simply refrained from it, convinced people would somehow know and I would be ‘found out’. The upshot of all this is that I didn’t have an orgasm until I was 16 years’ old, after almost a year and a half of sexual activity with a boyfriend who was about as interested in my pleasure as he was in his maths coursework.
And, according to various female friends I have discussed this with, I am far from alone. A friend of mine did not have her first orgasm until the ripe old age of 19, and that was after being sexually active for four years, with a partner of almost two years. And the most depressing thing is that neither of us had thought much of it, up until that moment.
When I had finally discovered a rather literal lust for life, and had spent my days like a 13-year-old boy for several weeks (well, maybe months), I was amazed to find, over two years later, that many of my friends were still stuck in the same predicament I had been.
When I tried to offer them some of the encouragement and reassurance that I would have benefitted from, I was met with chorus of “no way, that’s disgusting”. Again, when I pointed out that their male peers had been doing it for years, the old “it’s different for boys” was their mantra.
And it would seem that some ladies can never overcome the fear of playing solo. While steadily working my way through the back catalogue of trashy magazines at work, I have regularly come across women in problem pages who are over 60 and have never had an orgasm; how many retired men do you think are yet to get their rocks off?
This is a sad state of affairs. What does good sex mean to these women? I would love for them to turn the tables round one night and end a sexual encounter before their partners had come. A friend of mine tried this once, and reported that the incensed rage and sulking that followed could only be likened to that of a three-year-old who has been told Christmas had been cancelled.
Paradoxically, it seems that this policing of sexuality from a young age not only negatively affects teenage girls’ sexual experiences, it has become about appearing to be sexual available simply to please men and not to fulfil their own desires or fantasies.
The rise of so-called ‘raunch culture’ means that for many girls, merely looking ‘pretty’ has taken a back seat for looking ‘sexy’: supermarkets stock pole dancing kits as children’s toys, glamour modelling is in the top five career choices for pre-teen girls and hundreds of girls all over the country are counting the days until they are 18 and are legally allowed breast enhancements. Girls are being sexualised at an increasingly younger age, and it seems to be more about self-esteem than sexual satisfaction. The pleasure that comes from sexual experiences at this age is often the feeling of being thought attractive and being desired by a male than actually getting off.
It just seems very bleak, not to mention futile, to summon up so much effort to create the illusion of oozing sexuality, when actual sexual satisfaction, not to mention experience, barely enters into it.
Furthermore, if girls are not properly socialised and encouraged to find out what pleases them, how are they to become confident and comfortable with their own bodies, and moreover, how are their partners supposed to know how to please them? When one partner has little or no knowledge about what pleases them sexually, then the control of the situation almost always shifts to the other. This leads to couples falling into bizarre mating rituals, like that of girl I lived with for a year at university. She once confessed that her boyfriend didn’t like her to move at all during sex, as it “distracted him”.
I knew this particular girl had never been one for masturbation, and couldn’t help but feel that one good solo achievement would increase her sexual awareness and put paid to such ridiculous demands from her man. However, the most outrageous part of this story had to be when she consoled me and my flatmate, because we weren’t having regular sex!
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that teenage boys on the whole are more concerned with their own satisfaction than that of their partners and, indeed, although most learn that this is not the way to behave in bed, some will never get to grips with the fact that sexual enjoyment is increased when both partners have regular orgasms. But, when it comes to straight teenagers, I can’t help thinking that the internalisation of guilt and shame many young girls feel in connection with masturbation is a huge part of the problem. Most of the hetero-male population get extremely hot and bothered by watching women masturbate, so what’s with the relentless punishing of any young girl who is comfortable and confident enough to hold her head up high and not be shamed?
Many would argue that female masturbation is no longer a taboo because of the ‘revelation’ that is Ann Summers/Rampant Rabbits/Sex And The City. I’m sorry, but this is not the liberation it’s cracked up to be. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for sex toy experimentation. As my good friend Rachel so eloquently put it: “You’ve not lived until you’ve had something vibrating on your clit.”
It’s just that so many are made to look like a penis, some disturbingly realistic, that they seem rather sinister as a tool for us to become better acquainted with our own bodies. We don’t necessarily need a tool. God forbid a woman should actually enjoy and often prefer exploring her own body using her own fingers! I just don’t buy the whole “we’re liberated because we use a sparkly pink phallus to get our kicks” argument. Of course, not all sex toys are phallic, and a sex toy can enhance what we already enjoy, but it seems like this fine line exists between using an instrument and using your hand, one is sexy and adventurous and the other is just a bit wrong.
Of course, the stigma attached to female masturbation doesn’t affect all girls in actually abstaining from masturbation, but the fact that this is the effect it has on at least one is tragedy enough in my eyes. It’s estimated that the female orgasm is thrice the intensity of its male equivalent. They bang on about it so much, I think it’s high time it was our turn! Masturbation, along with an affinity with one’s own body, is not a male prerogative. The sooner all women reclaim these things as applicable and enjoyable for themselves is the start of a happier and healthier time for all. It is a scientific fact that the more you experience an orgasm, the more you are likely to climax each time… So go on, what are you waiting for?!