Staying up until three in the morning, jacked on Mountain Dew Code Red and pizza rolls, my girlfriends and I would talk until we were unable to get through a sentence without nodding off. We would talk about crushes, teachers we loved and hated, our families, and once we started having it- sex.
It felt like with the right group of girlfriends, you could talk about anything. But that wasn't entirely true. There was one thing that we never talked about: masturbation. The contrast was bizarre. We could be so open and vulnerable with each other and yet so closed when it came to this one topic. In school, boys would talk about masturbation as casually as they talked about what they'd had for breakfast. If any of the girls, on the other hand, were asked if they masturbated, there was only one acceptable answer:
“Ew, no. That’s gross.”
Thinking that masturbation was gross led to me thinking that my genitals were gross. That feeling snowballed into a complex web of shame and negative feelings about sexuality that took me years to untangle and start to eliminate. How much of that could I have skipped over if only someone told me that masturbation was OK? What would have happened if someone told me that actually, masturbating is normal and healthy? (Considering how long it took me to figure out how to masturbate, a manual probably would have been helpful, too.)
Masturbation Isn’t Gendered
For years, I never heard a girl talk about - or admit to - masturbating. For years I assumed that women just didn’t masturbate. I suspected there were maybe a few particularly horny outliers, but I thought surely they were a minority. Even worse, I assumed that there was probably something slightly wrong with them. Maybe they just masturbated because they couldn’t find a partner. (Side note: masturbation is healthy and normal, regardless of relationship status.)
It wasn’t until I started a research project looking at sexual education and development that I found out that this isn’t true at all. Not only do most women masturbate, but many do so from a young age. Our desire to explore and learn about our bodies is not gendered. The way that we talk about it (or don't), however, is definitely a gendered experience.
There are probably countless 9-year-old girls out there rubbing against pillows or their favorite stuffed animal. It will take them years to figure out that what they did is, in fact, masturbating. People just aren't that open about masturbation, especially female masturbation. You don’t learn it in school. You almost never see it in media (although that's changing!). Because of this silence, girls are put at a disadvantage, because they must wait to get information that most boys get years in advance.
Why are women so open to talking about so many aspects of our lives and not about our own pleasure? There are so many women out there for whom orgasms aren’t so simple or straightforward. I can’t help but wonder if at least some of that problem would be solved if only women were more open to talking about masturbation and their pleasure in general.
While most women were left to figure it out on their own, almost every man I interviewed on the topic said that growing up, they talked about masturbation with a bunch of their friends. While I am guessing that most of the conversation probably focused on immature bragging and jokes, many men say they gained some very important tips from having these open conversations. They learned not only about different techniques and ideas, but also that what they were doing was normal. In fact, most saw masturbating and knowing their own bodies as a point of pride.
So, Let’s Talk About It
While there is nothing that we can do to go back and change the past, we can remedy the present. Talking openly about sexuality and pleasure not only reduces the perceived stigma of something that almost everyone does, but it also provides new ideas to explore. Crowdsourcing is an amazing way to get new ideas of what might work for you: new toys, new positions, new techniques. Not everything will float your boat or tickle your bean, but you never know what kind of surprising things you'll come across.
Most importantly, though, talking about masturbation and pleasure reminds us that our pleasure matters, both in partnered and in solo sex. It also provides a toolbox for how to talk about sex and pleasure. Talking with friends provides a safe space where we can get used to talking about sex in general. Talking openly and without shame about sex and pleasure is hard (or at least awkward AF) for most people. Learning how to have these conversations in a risk-free setting can prepare you to be more confident when it comes time to talk to your partners about sex and what you want. Which is something we could all be a little bit better at doing.
Also just a note: Although masturbation is normal and healthy, choosing not to masturbate is OK, healthy and normal for some people too. The key is that there's no shame attached to the decision either way. You do you!