Female masturbation is perhaps the “last sexual taboo,” according to Globe writer Zosia Bielski. Whereas male masturbation is often the butt of jokes, is part of a coming-of-age process in movies and literature, and even has its own physical hand signal, many consider self-stimulation of the female genitals to be shocking and sickening. Society has created excuses for the male's need to ejaculate, as demonstrated in Bielski's research, whether for biological reasons or due to the claimed "superior male sex drive." Oppositely, many works of literature and film such as Goobie's Hello Groin and Apatow's The 40 Year Old Virgin that actually do include a female protagonist masturbating give these characters a marginalized identity so their sexual behavior is considered abnormal and freakish. Studies such as those in Michael Gordon's Women and Language even show that the language we use is systematically more inclusive of male autoeroticism, with both sexes more familiar with its informal language than with that of the female counterpart. So why is this biologically normal, sexually safe, and immensely self-pleasurable act so stigmatized for women? Due to its liberating qualities that imply that women can be sexually satisfied without any part of the male, let alone his penis, female masturbation is a powerful and self-determining act, addressing the woman's needs and only the woman's needs. Women who masturbate rebel against the patriarchal system, rejecting the phallic penis in exchange for their own sexual self-exploration on a healthy quest to connect body and mind by establishing and fulfilling their own sexual needs.
Although masturbation in general is very stigmatized, feminists are aware of and challenge the fact that sexual self-exploration for men is more socially accepted. This social acceptance is proven in studies that show that males masturbate more than females, and there are several different hypotheses as to why. According to Zosia Bielski, scholar of sex research within social media and pop culture, in her article “The Last Remaining Sexual Taboo,” where she interviews many other scholars on this topic, she claims that women are not taught to enjoy and control their own bodies or methods to experience sexual pleasure (Bielski 1). In her article she links this to an Australian study that shows that women’s sexual desire was often “responsive” instead of “spontaneous,” like that of men (2). In other words, many women feel that they need a man (or a partner) to whom they react and by whom they are excited. Alex McKay, the associate editor of the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, implies in Bielski’s article that men have a superior sex drive and a biological need to “maintain sperm quality” by masturbating regularly (2). Another idea is the difference of biology between the sexes; it is much easier to find the penis than the clitoris. Bielski also provides evidence for women’s hesitation to practice self-penetration. Socially, women are taught to rely on their partners and avoid the “messiness” that embodies the female genitals (2). Squeamishness intrudes on some women’s comfortableness with touching themselves, and this is often propelled by images and messages from the media. Ads for Summer’s Eve, a vaginal wash, as well as the offensive rumors that vaginas smell like certain foods, or even simply the stigma that menstruation carries, all promote this taboo of exploring a woman's own genitals.
Female genital exploration is taboo in many works of adolescent literature, as well. ""My Slippery Place": Female Masturbation in Young Adult Literature," by Katy Stein, a scholar of young adult literature, introduces the ideas of institutionalized masturbation versus individualized masturbation within books (420-427). The former is the more basic, traditional understanding of masturbation, where all of the details are not fully disclosed and it is simply implied that the character touches him or her self, and the act is described on a very generic basis or for the sole purpose of preparation for vaginal sex. In contrast, individualized masturbation is more specific in nature, with details or consciousness about its purpose to serve one's own body, and therefore is seldom utilized within young adult literature. In other words, it is what feminists hope for when they promote female autoeroticism due to its higher level of liberation.
However, some literature that explores individualized masturbation often fails the liberation test; many female protagonists have a marginalized identity, making their sexual behavior an effect of their "otherness," of their difference, of their abnormality. For example, the protagonist Dylan in Beth Goobie's 2006 novel Hello, Groin practices individualized masturbation after realizing that thoughts about her boyfriend do not excite her:
Not once had I made myself come while thinking about him . . . [I] made myself think about Cam. And just like that I lost it . . . it all vanished and the whole thing became mechanical, as if I’d lost the me of it, the soul. Suddenly I thought, Why am I stopping myself? . . . And so for the first time, I actually let myself do it—let go of the rule, the law of Cam . . . With another groan I stopped fighting the pictures in my head . . . Immediately I felt myself flat up against it, the raw pleading need of myself. I’d never felt this way before—brilliant . . . I cried out then, almost shouted at the fierce wave of longing that swept through me—I hadn’t known it could be like this, so intense, such a deep opening within myself. Lying on my bed . . . I came again and again. (63–65)
This excellently feminist representation of masturbation occurs while Dylan is on a quest to face her homosexuality, thus making her unrepresentative of the "normal" teenage girls and possibly shaming female masturbation even further. This book among others tells readers that normal people do not masturbate, therefore reinforcing the stigma that discourages us from self-exploration. Several films with female masturbation scenes also depict them in such a way that the woman is afterward conspired abnormal. For example, in Megan Tomei's study "Doing it for Themselves: Sexual Subjectivity in Cinematic Depictions of Female Autoeroticism," she writes that in The 40 Year Old Virgin, a character named Beth is "subsequently labeled a "freak" by Andy soon after she masturbates in front of him" (50). Both in books and movies, as well as in most portrayals in the media, women who masturbate are often given a marginalized identity due to their "forbidden" actions.
Counter examples of this marginalization do exist, of course; Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Alice books portray a young girl who is white, attractive, middle class, smart, and in every way normal. In a briefly described masturbation scene in Dangerously Alice (2006), Alice narrates her self-exploration:
My own fingers caressed my breasts under the blanket. Then my stomach, then between my legs, and finally I finished what Tony had begun in the car. As my breathing returned to normal, I gradually opened my eyes to the darkness of my room . . . It had been exciting being in the car with Tony, letting unfamiliar hands explore me. I shivered again just thinking about it. Next time. . . . (Naylor 147)
In this depiction, Naylor achieves the normalization of this sexual practice for her readers, even though she creates this scene with the more censored style of institutionalized masturbation. However, by portraying her in this bland, generic formula of an ordinary girl, Naylor allows readers to relate to Alice and consider the possibility that her act of masturbation is normal instead of instantly castigating it for her differences. These authors' work in regard to the depiction of female masturbation caters to a young, easily influenced category of readers who are vital in their development. Therefore since these are the narratives from which young readers will learn of autoeroticism, it is extremely probable that they will believe it to be an act that causes isolation and marginalization, causing them to avoid the topic entirely for fear of being different.
Similar to literature, movies rarely show women masturbating, despite the fact that boys play with their penises or talk about doing so in several coming-of-age films. Feminist scholar Mary Vause explores the difference between sexes in the quantity of movies that show self-stimulation in her essay "Doing IT Ourselves; Female Masturbation Past and Present." She writes about a movie named Coming Soon where three girls go on a quest to have good orgasms (60). There is no nudity, but it received a NC-17 rating. Vause criticizes this rating due to the fact that other movies that explore male masturbation and actually do contain nudity receive lower age ratings. American Pie, for example, contains female nudity, male orgasms, and masturbating into a pie, and Eight Millimeter, a movie where females are "killed in pornographic snuff films" (Vause 60) are both rated R. Vause scoffs at the idea that "apparently male sexuality and violence against women are deemed appropriate topics for mass consumption, but an honest film about female sexuality remains unthinkable" (60). This skewed rating system gives way to an unequal pattern, deeming violence (as an inherently patriarchal institution) as content more appropriate than female masturbation for people of younger ages, and thus proving societal disapproval of dissent of the patriarchy. A woman cannot explore, practice, or even discuss autoeroticism, for it rejects male superiority and penetration by allowing for stimulation and orgasms—even more and better orgasms than are often achieved with men, as woman's own prerogative.
Female pleasure does not depend on a man when she masturbates; her pleasure is in her own control, literally in her own hands, and by claiming it as such, she goes against male hegemony and resists male dominance. Furthermore, according to Megan Tomei in her thesis "Doing it for Themselves: Sexual Subjectivity in Cinematic Depictions of Female Autoeroticism," "Autoeroticism also allows women to focus on pleasure beyond vaginal-penile intercourse, or more specifically pleasure that exists outside of the heteronormative and androcentric model of sexuality" (2). This notion is related to the patriarchal norm of sex, where any sexual acts lead up to the finale of penile penetration of the vagina and finally, male ejaculation. Because this sexist narrative is socially accepted as a norm, many feminists dispute it and instead advocate the regularity of narratives where the woman's pleasure is a focus, as it is within the practice of masturbation.
This disparity among the idea of self-pleasure within gendered sexual narratives is even apparent in the language associated with each. A study on informal language by Michael Gordon used to describe female versus male masturbatory practices further proves this point. In "Sexual Slang and Gender" published in the journal Women and Language, studies show that 60% of women and 34% of men do not know any slang terms for female masturbation (17), whereas only 7% of women and 5% of men failed to list any for male masturbation (18). The statistics also illustrate that "male masturbation would appear then to be an area in which women share more language with men than was the case for female masturbation" (Gordon 17). Clearly, while there is much ignorance of terms for female masturbation, male masturbation is quite commonly discussed. This statistical difference proves that male autoeroticism is accepted in society on a much higher level than is female autoeroticism. Similarly, in "The Last Remaining Sexual Taboo," Bielski utilized a study by the Kinsey Institute and the Indiana University School of Medicine that showed that 74% of young men ages 14 to 17 masturbated, in contrast to just 48% of women (1). This discrepancy is due to women's feelings of not being complete without a man, and that feeling pleasure without a male role is an illegitimate feeling. The hegemonic patriarch has enforced this norm through tradition and stigmatization of these acts, and therefore many women have been taught that they cannot be sexually excited without a man.
Due to this stigmatization, several individuals find the topic of female masturbation unnerving, uncomfortable, and plainly gross. This is proved in a specific case documented by journalist Robin Wilson in the newspaper article "Lecture on Female Masturbation Harassed Him, Male Student Says." Wilson describes a case where California State University student Craig Rogers wanted to sue the school for sexual harassment against a professor who lectured on women and masturbation. The professor showed slides of female genitalia, told a story of her first experience with her own genitalia, and presented sex toys and their use for women so they could learn to have better orgasm and so men could improve in their role as a sexual partner (Wilson). The male student apparently began to feel very sick during the lecture and felt violated afterward, as if the information was forced on him and was completely innappropriate. As her lawyer stated, “She is trying to argue that sexuality should not be guilt-ridden and shameful and should be openly and freely discussed, and he fundamentally disagrees with that . . . He didn’t like it and therefore wants it to be illegal.” This type of reaction to female autoeroticism is very common for both males and females. Rogers felt uncomfortable and violated because he, like most people, most likely did not receive a truly well-rounded sex education that openly teaches and explores both male and female genitalia, the uses of the parts (including those that do not have to do with vaginal sex--the vagina and the penis), and the completely safe and developmentally enhacing practice of masturbation.
Feminists embrace autoerotocism and self exploration as a way to understand one's self and body better, to be a self-determining human being, and to learn to be comfortable with one's own body and learn what one finds pleasurable. Laci Green, a feminist sex expert, has a Youtube channel called Sex Plus where she posts extremely progressive videos that speak truth instead of perpetuate stereotypes, such as "You Can't POP Your Cherry!," "Boob Power!!!," and "Laci's Guide to Orgasm." Her video "Sex Toy Histeria" shows different types of sex toys and includes the history of vibrators beginning in the 19th century, when they were used to treat a condition in women called "female hysteria" (sexual repression). During the 1920's when doctors realized the vibrating medical device was actually giving pleasure to women, vibrators nearly disappeared from existence until the sexual revolution of the 1970's. Green says, "There's still a lot of stigma and shame surrounding sex toys, even though they're perfectly safe, fun to use, a healthy form of sexual exploration, great for spicing up your sex life, helpful in learning how to orgasm" ("Sex Toy Hysteria"). She continues with certain myths surrounding sex toys, including that only "freaky people" use them, when in reality over half of women have used them and slightly under half of men. After making the connection of the stigma of sex toys to pleasure to the idea of being "dirty," Laci displays a parade of toys and goes on to explain how sex toys can be excellent supplements to one's sex life while even in a relationship, followed by illustration of, instructions for use of, and tips when buying different types of sex toys.
Laci Green sets the example that feminism promotes as its message: exploring one's own sexuality is a healthy, rewarding process that allows oneself to be more conscious and comfortable with one's body and sexual desires. There is no shame in self-exporation; women should learn about their own bodies and genitals, not be ashamed of them. In order for society to change judgement on female masturbation, sex education programs need to be inclusive of it, and it needs to become a part of educational dialogue for young women learning about their bodies.
By: Chloe Vraney