At 27, I Only Just Stopped Feeling Ashamed That I Masturbate

My masturbation-blocking pillow fortress worked for about two months. But then "Free Willy 2" came out that summer, and I was a goner.
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October 27, 2014
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When I was eight years old, I stacked two layers of pillows across my bed to keep myself from masturbating. I figured that sleeping atop a pillow fortress would force me to sleep on my back, which would keep my fingers from wandering to my nether regions, which would prevent the soul-crushing shame that befell me every time I gave myself an orgasm.

I’m not sure how I learned to be ashamed of touching myself. I didn’t know what I was even doing, I just inherently knew that something that felt so good must somehow be disgraceful.

By second grade, I had already had more orgasms than some women experience in a lifetime. First grade had been especially eventful, as I’d stayed up many a school night quietly rubbing myself to thoughts of the sex scene from "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" (to this day I cannot hear “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” without feeling a flush of excitement and guilt) and the kiss from everyone’s favorite dog movie: "Beethoven’s 2nd" (in retrospect, I’m pretty sure I was getting off to an implied date rape).

But I could only enjoy my orgasm for a few seconds, and then I’d spend the next one to 20 hours wallowing in guilt and self-loathing. I would think about the cute Russian boy in my class and wonder what he would think if he knew about the dirty thing I’d just done. And being around my parents afterward was almost unbearable. Did they know? Could they somehow smell it on me?

My cat and stuffed animals alone knew my secret, and I made them swear they’d take it to the grave.

My masturbation-blocking pillow fortress worked for about two months. But then "Free Willy 2" came out that summer, and I was a goner. Was there anything hotter than two teenagers sharing a kiss while bonding over the magic of sea life?

So I kept touching myself, even on the nights I promised myself I absolutely would not. I did it at my grandparents’ house, on family vacations after everyone fell asleep, under my sleeping bag at sleepovers, and straight up into my adolescence when my mom bribed me with a Beanie Baby of my choosing (Claude the Crab) to watch a video about puberty.

I watched the video with Claude perched atop my knee, and learned that what I’d been doing to myself all those depraved years had a name. When the video ended, my mom came into the room. She didn’t say anything about sex, periods, or boys. What she said was, “I want you to know that masturbation is completely normal.”

In retrospect, that was pretty awesome of her. But I couldn’t believe her. If anything, I was more horrified than ever now that I knew I was having sex with myself, and that she probably knew it. My face turned red hot and I rushed out of the room before she could say another word.

In the 15 years that followed, I had exactly two conversations with other females about masturbation. One was with a stranger I met in a Nickelodeon chatroom, a girl my age who Instant Messaged me and asked if she could tell me a secret. “Sometimes I touch myself in certain places and it feels really good,” she typed to me. “Does that make me weird?”

“Not at all,” I typed back. “It’s normal.” And I meant it. Of course I didn’t think it made her weird. And yet, I still thought it made me a perverted freak, so there was no way I was going to admit to her that I did the same thing, even cloaked by the anonymity of the Internet.

The second time was in ninth grade, when the topic came up at a sleepover. “Have any of you ever masturbated?” one of my friends asked. Every girl quickly and adamantly denied having ever tried it, including myself and the girl who asked the question.

The only solace I had during my teen years was knowing that all the boys, at least, were pleasuring themselves constantly. They unashamedly talked about almost nothing else. I overheard many conversations in which they boasted about spurt range. But still, that was different. Boys were supposed to be gross. Plus, I’d clearly had an eight year head start on all of them, so what did that say about me?

Last year, at the age of 27, I was writing my memoir and decided to include a couple humorous references to my childhood secret. Partly because I figured nobody would read it for a very long time, and partly because in order to write anything, I’ve always had to cling to the belief that the validation of getting published one day will instantly eradicate the embarrassment of anything I’ve written.

About a year ago, I read an excerpt of my manuscript out loud at a group reading. I carefully crossed out all masturbation references before stepping up to the podium. I still hadn’t whispered a word of my secret to anybody, not even my boyfriend of five years who was in the audience.

But as I read, a little voice in my head urged me to just go for it. So I did. I read the masturbation references straight through my strike-throughs.

And an interesting thing happened when I did. The audience immediately became alive. Everybody laughed. Something had been lifted. I could feel the shift in the room as they all reacted, positively, to the thing that was unexpected, unspoken, and relatable. It was the moment when everybody started really paying attention.

Afterward, that’s what everybody wanted to talk to me about. “I loved the part about masturbating to Free Willy 2,” they all said. “You just reframed my entire girlhood,” one woman added.

A roomful of people officially knew that I’d been flicking the bean since before I could read, and the world hadn’t ended. It was the first time in my life that masturbation felt anything but shameful. For the first time ever, it actually made me feel bold and empowered. Liberated, even.

And why shouldn’t it have? Masturbation is a stress-reliever, a natural sleep aid, a way to experiment with sex without getting pregnant, and a good way to practice what feels good before finding a partner (probably why I did not become sexually active too young, and why I have never had trouble achieving an orgasm with anybody else).

“How old were you when you started masturbating?” I casually asked a female friend for the first time a couple months later.

“Good question,” she said, her eyes focused like she was trying to figure out a math problem. “What year did 'Pocahontas' come out?”

It was the perfect answer. I smiled brightly, wishing only that I’d dared to have this conversation 20 years ago.