Making the Beast With One Back

Image: Orin Zebest.
Image: Orin Zebest.

Buckle up gang. This one might be a little uncomfortable for some of you, but bear with me- it’s a fairly important point.

Women masturbate. We do – at least the majority of us anyway (71% in a 2007 survey into British bedroom antics). Your Mother has, your sister has, and that quiet flatmate from first year has too. But why does it matter? Why is this such a revelation? Men do it – they’re expected to, and it’s almost celebrated as a landmark of puberty within society. So why does the taboo over female masturbation still exist?

It’s an act which was depicted as early as four million years B.C.E., it’s perfectly natural – and actually pretty healthy, but more on that later. Masturbation (for both genders) was accepted and was discussed throughout the documented history of humans up until the 1700s when it began to be frowned upon. It was only here that literature began to circulate, starting the rumour mill about the dangers of self abuse citing it as the cause of impotence, gonorrhoea and even epilepsy.

Then in the 20th century there was something of a revolution when it came to sex – for men at least. Havelock Ellis began debunking myths about the dangers of masturbation which had become wide-ranging and frankly ridiculous. This was followed by the work of Kinsey in the 1940s and 1950s which showed how common the activity was among the American public, reinforcing that this was a natural instinct and that we shouldn’t be shaming people about it. Then came the work of Masters and Johnson from the 1950s onwards who investigated not only the stages of human arousal (both during intercourse and masturbation), but through this discovered the refractory period and the multiple orgasm (sorry boys).

However, despite this and the long and healthy history of the vibrator (they’ve been around since the mid-19th century, although they were much less discreet back then), women are still unlikely to admit to masturbating when asked in public, or by male investigators. Why? Because as far as society moves on in the light of the sexual revolution, there is still the ideal of women as ‘traditional sex objects’ and they are expected to appear as passive sex objects in public and then, if the writers over at Cosmopolitan are to be believed, wow men with our prowess and techniques in the bedroom like a porn star.

A line has to be drawn somewhere, in a society where there is supposed equality between the genders (untrue), we should both be able to revel in the benefits without having to feel ashamed or embarrassed. Masturbation has been shown to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, increase self-esteem and reduce the risks of cervical infections in women and prostate cancer in men.  Not to mention that you can’t get pregnant or get an STI.

In a 21st century world, where over 50% of the female population are estimated to own a sexual aid, and where the exploration of one’s body is only okay if you don’t have two X chromosomes, something has to give. Either we shame and we penalise everyone for giving in to basic instincts, or we lighten up and let everyone enjoy something that is designed to be pleasurable. My vote goes to the latter.

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