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It has become a cliché among feminist sex educators and publications that women should masturbate to get to know their bodies.
“Masturbation can be very empowering for women, as it gives them increased control over their body and sexuality,” the female sexuality resource site The-Clitoris reads. “Masturbation is a great teaching tool, it teaches women about their body, how it responds to sexual stimulation.”
Similarly, a Jezebel article declares masturbation “the most important thing teen girls should do but don’t.” Jenny Block writes, “If a girl is feeling empowered by being able to pleasure herself; if she is feeling strong and confident and in control of her own body; if her stress level is low and her level of self-esteem is high; if her serotonin levels are soaring, she's going to be far less likely to give herself away sexually for acceptance or ‘love’ from a partner because she already accepts and love [sic] herself.”
Such statements ascribe a lot of power to masturbation — and depict women as ordinarily bereft of this power. In reality, 92% of women ages 18-30 masturbate already, and 75 percent have before age 18. (You may have read some lower numbers, but they’re based on face-to-face interviews, in which both men and women said they masturbated implausibly infrequently).
And those who haven’t hopped on the self-stimulation bandwagon often know it’s an option; they just didn’t choose it. That choice should be respected. The only thing we should worry about is when women feel like they shouldn’t masturbate, and even then, the problem isn’t their lack of self-pleasure but their shame around sexuality. Women shouldn’t feel pressure to touch themselves or to refrain, and more importantly, they shouldn’t be spoken down to about their sexuality in a way men are not.
Would we urge men to give masturbation a try so they can get to know their bodies and take control of their pleasure? We typically don’t, and if we did, they might respond with something like: A. Why would you assume I don’t already? B. I understand my basic sexual functioning. C. More masturbation is not necessarily better, and D. That’s none of your business. I have the same reaction when people urge women to touch themselves.
To address the first two points, most women already masturbate, most figured it out themselves, not through instructions and diagrams, and more probably would if they weren’t taught their genitals were gross and to be avoided. What bothers me most about the “women should masturbate” doctrine is that it assumes women are strangers to their own bodies and that sexual desire must be introduced to women while men possess it innately.
We all have things to learn about our anatomy, but self-touch comes organically to most of us, and denying that this is true for women contributes to the stereotype that women are less sexual than men.
Female desire may be more repressed in our society, and women may have been taught myths and denied information about sexuality, but so have people of all genders. Men, for example, have been taught their capacity for sexual pleasure lies entirely in their penis, that it is their duty to perform in the bedroom, and that penis size is paramount to this performance. They’ve been taught that sex should be emotionless and essentially entails getting on top of a woman, thrusting for a while, and rolling over and going to sleep.
Absolutely, let’s teach people about sexual pleasure and health, but let’s not treat women as part of a special category in need of additional education.
“But men get to know their penises when they’re peeing,” female masturbation advocates just love to say. Women are in the dark about their sexuality because penises are more visible than vulvas and their owners get intimate with them in the bathroom, the popular wisdom goes.
In reality, all kinds of genitals have visible and hidden parts, and both sexes touch their genitals when they go to the bathroom, but that’s besides the point. There’s nothing inherently sexual about peeing (unless you’re into that), and given the position of human hands, it’s hard for anyone not to touch between their legs at some point. If they don’t, it’s probably because they’ve been taught it’s wrong or simply don’t feel like it, not because they need someone to teach them how empowering it is.
It feels patronizing to be told I need to get acquainted with the body I’ve had my whole life and been masturbating with since I was in the single digits without any instruction. I felt spoken down to when sex educators came to my college for workshops explaining the very basics of female, but not male, anatomy, and when my school’s health services department created a website about the female, but not the male, orgasm.
My friends and I already knew everything these resources supposedly taught us even though none of us had particularly sex-positive upbringings. Some may not know them, but many don’t know about other types of bodies either, and the focus on the female obscures the need for information across the board.
To address my last two points, champions for female masturbation often lose sight of the “everything in moderation” mantra, assuming that more masturbation makes us happier. This belief seems rooted in the popular view of female masturbation as a sensual activity in which we light candles, take baths, have some sort of magical full-body orgasm, and emerge self-actualized.
In reality, it’s not particularly emotional or spiritual, at least for me. It’s a quick way to release tension so I can get back to whatever I was doing, or an excuse to not do that thing. Unfortunately, the cliché that female masturbation improves psychological well-being has helped me justify periods of my life when I masturbated excessively. I’d use it as a procrastination tool, sometimes several times a day. I didn’t become more empowered, self-loving, or independent; I just wasted some time.
While I am not ashamed of being a sexual being, I try to limit my masturbation time for the same reason I try to limit my Youtube-watching time: It’s a pleasurable distraction that doesn’t really add anything to my life. In addition, I prefer sex in a context that involves some form of human connection, and masturbation for me is purely physical. The “women should masturbate more” school of thought doesn’t leave room for people like me who decide it’s best for them to cut back.
Third-wave feminism is largely about trusting women’s decisions about their bodies, whether those decisions concern what they eat, who they have sex with, or how they exercise their reproductive rights. We should give them the same freedom regarding their decisions about masturbation.
Many feminists say that giving ourselves pleasure prevents us from relying on others, but what if we prefer to save sexual gratification for interactions with other people? What if we don’t find masturbation to be a productive or fulfilling use of our time? What if masturbation or porn viewing has become an unhealthy addiction we’re trying to free ourselves from? There are plenty of valid reasons women might choose to forgo masturbation, and we should trust that most women aren’t making this choice out of mere ignorance.
As psychologist and author Nancy Friday says, “When I write about masturbation, it's not because I think that everyone should lock themselves in a room and masturbate and do nothing else. That's not it at all. Masturbation is an exercise; an enjoyment that comes naturally… And unfortunately, we learn to stop arousing ourselves when we are told by our caretakers either with words or a look that it's bad.”
We shouldn’t be pushing women to masturbate; we should be removing the stigma that pushes them not to. Then, knowing they have the option, they can make their own decision — because they’re just as capable of making that choice as men are.