Two years ago, in my first year of University, I went to see a talk by Caitlin Moran. I settled down in my seat, still slightly damp from the drizzle of an October night with her new book, ‘Moranifesto’ perched on my lap. My head tilted to the stage as the lights centred on the silhouette of Moran strolling into the spotlight. Her opening line, although I may not remember this word for word, was something along the lines of: ‘I remember when I was 15 years old, frantically masturbating on the sofa…’.
Well, I could barely believe my ears. The rest of her anecdote faded to the abyss as my head was sent into a spin. What was this? A WOMAN brazenly announcing to a crowd of around 200 people that she…*said in hushed tones*… masturbates?! Oh, the shock. Oh, the awkwardness. Oh, the social discomfort. Maybe a few readers are now having the same reaction, hesitantly deciding whether to continue reading, questioning as you do, ‘she’s not actually going to write about this, is she? In a student magazine, connected to her own Facebook?!’ Well, yes - yes kind reader, I'm afraid I am. Welcome to an article on female masturbation. (There will even be a bit about porn later).
It’s more or less taken for granted that men masturbate. If you’ve been to a secondary school, it’s almost impossible to escape the fact that, yes, in general, teenage boys masturbate, and yes, they do it a lot, and yes they like it too. This seeps into popular culture, with shows like The Inbetweeners constantly addressing the fact. In fact, you can barely go one scene without a joke about it coming up. (Yes, that was a pun.) I ask, therefore, where are all the women in this? Does our sexuality develop much later then our male counterparts? Or are we simply unaware of sexuality? Is the conclusion to take from this that no woman has EVER masturbated?
The facts and statistics (as well as common sense) would argue not. Obviously, with the nature of topics like this - with the subject being shaped by nuances and complexities - it’s unwise to generalise. However, to state that women masturbate is not a bold declaration. To even state that women masturbate as much as men, even starting at similar ages, is not a bold statement either. And this isn’t an argument resting on conversations with my female friends who are either drunk or especially sexually liberated, the data equally supports the claim. In fact, when a group of 18-24 year olds were asked how many people admitted to masturbating ‘a few times per week to monthly’, there was only 0.5 difference in the data collected with 24.5% of women and 25% of men bolstering the statement.
So then, if both men and women do it - why is the attitude towards it so divided depending on who is discussing it? Men and comedy sketches and pub chat and even subtle sniggers during Sex Education PSHE lessons constantly alert us to the male tendency, whereas female masturbation, even now, is still a taboo topic, deemed improper to acknowledge. This anachronistic, Freud-like emphasis on male sexuality is incredibly frustrating given the disparity of attitudes between female and male sexuality. For example, consider the fact that our vernacular has swollen to include an assortment of terms for male masturbation (Urban Dictionary offers 20 different synonyms as a mere selection of the variety out there - what a wonderful time to be alive), whilst meanwhile society today still battles the compulsion to call women ‘sluts’ for having a healthy sex life.
This attitude can be traced back through history; from scatological Literature of the 18th Century furiously berating women for being a little bit too human with human urges and (even more shockingly) human bodily fluids, to criticisms of women with too passionate a sexual appetite - male heteronormativity has always been the primary focus in regards to sexuality. Whilst, in general, society now upholds less of a dogmatic view, it is not difficult to see the image that this historical strand of thought has ingrained into culture. Women have a reputation to uphold - we are prim and proper, we are discreet, we are the sexual object exclusively. This past mentality has its impact; even now when we do discuss our sexuality in serious terms - sexual preferences, porn, masturbation - the tendency is still to objectify, making it just another porn category for men. Sexuality, we are told, is not something to be explored whilst alone if you are a woman, there must always be an audience. And so, in this Catch 22 situation - the realities of female desire are one of two things - improper or sexualised.
To aggravate the situation, often in the media’s discussion on female desire our sexuality is persistently orientated towards its relationship to male sexuality. In one illuminating article on female masturbation in FHM (a men’s lifestyle magazine that was suspended in 2017) the text is accompanied by a photo of women in cropped, tight pyjamas seductively, yet shyly, throwing popcorn at each other (Just imagine the director’s notes). The intention is emphatically not to crack open a taboo, in fact, I’m confident that the pitch for the article went probably something like this: ‘yeah so, female masturbation is hot and sex sells.’ Can you imagine a Q&A article quizzing men about their masturbation habits alongside a photo of these men topless, all winking at the camera, maybe even, if we're really lucky, coyly throwing popcorn into each other's mouths? Probably not. We don’t need the article because we’ve already heard about it all, whether we want to or not. The conversation about female desire is not casual, never in the same context in which male masturbation would be discussed. Just as watching porn is never discussed in the same light - despite the fact women often do. Again - if you need some proof - Marie Claire found, in a poll of 3000 women, that 1 in 3 women watch porn every week.
This attitude is not one that can continue to go unquestioned. A cultural shift is building momentum, with influential and empowering women such as Caitlin Moran, Lena Dunham and even Sarah Millican slowly helping chip down the ‘controversy’ of female sexuality when put into practise, discussing masturbation and desire in a realistic way and not in a sexualised manner, not because it’s ‘hot’ to think about, but because it is part of reality. We are living in a patriarchal society, our ideology is still largely filtered through a male perspective, however this will not alter if people do not dare to call out the stupidity of unspoken rules such as this. Of course, there is a line to be drawn - no one wants to know excessive details about your sex life. However, we are not to let other people silence our sexuality or decide the terms in which we can discuss it. Never be afraid to enter a discussion that concerns you, no matter how many people you make uncomfortable.
And after all, why should we let the straight male have all the fun? It's time to reclaim the wank. And not just because we should, but because we can. It's worth talking about. Not only is it fun, it's biologically proven to help you drift to sleep, to relieve stress AND to ease menstrual pain. And, as my best friend liberally reminds me, if you can't explore what your body likes by itself, how are you meant to know what it likes with someone else? So, ladies, you know where I'm going with this; now it's up to you not to be afraid of those chats. Make those jokes, discuss, be free. And most of all, go have a bit of a fun, have a bit of you-time, indulge in a bit of self-love, or, dare I say it? Just go have a damn wank.