Destigmatizing society’s touchiest subject: female masturbation

This article is part of our sex edition, commemorating 45 years since we ran our first student sex survey. Related articles can be found by searching “sex issue,” and the PDF version of the printed paper can be found by going to About Us, then Archives.

Emily Sweet

So … masturbation.

That’s the text I’m sure a few of my friends were shocked to receive over the last week. I felt like a giddy kid sending those texts, eyes darting back and forth nervously hoping no one would glance at my phone. And, honestly, I expected them to have more extreme reactions. For me, there’s always been a huge stigma behind masturbation, especially as a young woman. However, that wasn’t the reflection I got from the people I talked to, male or female. Though there were a few awkward “hahas” at the start, I ended up having some very enlightening and interesting conversations I had never expected. Some of them mentioned health benefits, others focused on the fact it’s a natural stage of development at our age, but all were honest discussions of a taboo topic.

Once I broke down the barrier and got the initial “we’re going to talk about something uncomfortable now” out of the way, it felt great to be able to discuss our own views on the way society has stigmatized the different genders and their relationship with masturbation, which is a normal human activity that has existed for centuries. Yet, these conversations are rare. Even when I was typing out the word “masturbation” in my texts, I misspelled one letter and autocorrect had no suggestions for me, as if the word didn’t even exist.

When it comes to female masturbation, there are two things society needs to understand.

Let’s start with the first: masturbation is a totally natural part of life. Yeah, it’s good that we don’t discuss it all the time super openly because it is a sensitive topic, and there’s definitely a time and a place to have the discussion. But, it’s a necessary discussion.

I’ve had a very healthy and thorough sex education experience, being taught thoroughly about love and sexual relationships throughout middle school and again in Social Issues. In that sense, I’m extremely lucky. Yet the only mention of female masturbation that wasn’t completely taboo was when one of my female teachers in eighth grade confided in a small group of 10 or so girls that masturbation was a great trick to alleviate the pain of period cramps (in addition to that, masturbation can also reduce stress, improve sleep and improve your self-esteem, according to Planned Parenthood)—and even then, the advice was still awkwardly accepted with uncomfortable chuckles.

Illustration by Emily Sweet

Throughout the end of middle school and into high school, I have watched guys talking about jacking off plenty of times in TV and movies, and overheard tons of raunchy masturbation banter in person. And here I am, only weeks away from turning 18, and the number of conversations about female masturbation I’ve had (not counting the many I have instigated in the last two weeks) can be counted on one hand.

According to a recent self-reported Bark survey, 61 percent of girls have never masturbated. While this number already seems shockingly high, it is even more so compared to the 7 percent of boys that have never masturbated. Essentially, for every boy that has never masturbated, there are at least eight girls that haven’t. Furthermore, 5 percent of females reported masturbating on a daily basis, compared to 36 percent of males. While it’s hard to draw rigid conclusions from this alone, I believe the stigma around masturbation for females has heavily contributed to these numbers.

Part of this stigma stems from the fact that masturbation is so oversexualized for women. The way I usually see female masturbation in the media is as the object of a man’s pleasure or fantasy. You’re entitled to have whatever fantasies you want to have, but moving forward, our portrayal of women must be respectful rather than objectifying.

Secondly, it is important that society understands that masturbation is not an all-or-nothing issue. We need to find a balance between preaching a more modern view of women when it comes to masturbation while still being able to enjoy the humor that is frequently associated with sex-related topics.

No one likes to feel like a hypocrite, and I sometimes feel that people believe having a progressive view on masturbation means you can never laugh at an offensive sex joke or humor that oversexualizes women because it seems hypocritical. This shouldn’t be the case—there’s a way to find a balance of finding the humor in more dated media, but also acknowledging that moving forward, masturbation needs to be viewed differently.

Only in the last decade or so has the more female-sex-positive message started spreading through mainstream media. Shows like “Broad City” empower strong female leads who not only have sex frequently but discuss and engage in masturbation throughout the course of the show. Personally, I am inspired to see shows like “Broad City” and even “Big Mouth,” a Netflix animated comedy about puberty, spread the message about the normality of masturbation regardless of gender. More recently, one of Netflix’s new releases, “Sex Education,” also stresses how natural masturbation is in a comedic way. These shows are breaking barriers in a tangible way that makes me want to embrace my own sexuality and womanhood. They are shifting us towards a more progressive media and empowering all genders and all types of personalities. And, according to our data, males and females are masturbating more frequently at Redwood in comparison to previous years.

Sex positive shows send inspiring and reformist views, but I enjoy the raunchy classics too—whether it’s “Wet Hot American Summer,” “American Pie” or “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” just to name a few. These films are built on crude sexual humor that by no standards are politically correct. I would never try to claim that jokes about sex and masturbation aren’t funny, because I think they are. It’s unrealistic to ask people to denounce movies that—while they don’t have the most progressive views of women and sex—are fan favorites.

Undeniably, this risqué humor has contributed to the way society talks about masturbation and how sexualized the idea of women touching themselves has become. It has even contributed to my own feeling that talking about masturbation with guys can be really awkward, just because it seems overtly sexual. As I reflected upon the stigma surrounding masturbation, what I realized is that it is okay to make light of this stigma, as long as I can be mature enough to distinguish that this is not how society can or should view women in the future.

It’s a balancing act, and as a society I believe we can do it. The first step toward that is understanding that masturbation is normal, whatever the gender or age. Especially for young women and men moving through high school and beginning to dip into the sexual world, self-exploration is a natural step in that direction, and should not be treated as anything different.

It really is as simple as this: before we get turned on, it’s time to turn off the stigma surrounding masturbation.