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The Lady Is a Tramp: What isn’t feminism saying about masturbation?

I_Believe_in_Furdious_Masturbation.jpg

Looking at Bitch's archives, I know some people might have known—if not celebrated—National Masturbation Month, which was last month (and every May). But I has this nagging feeling that, as much as we talk about feminism freeing people from oppression's proverbial yokes to explore what turns them on, feminism isn't really discussing probably one of the first sexual acts that some of us have done beyond the basic, "We're doing it! An instant feminist move forward! Yay us!"

But I like to check my reality—especially concerning who "us" and "we" are--so I posed the question to my Facebook and Twitter crews: what do you think is missing in feminist conversations about masturbation? Some tweetizens said (and edited for clarity):

@snarkysmachine

[I]t's okay to sometimes view it as a crotch maintenance & find it satisfying, whole, but not necessarily empowering.

@msheathen

[F]eminist discussion of masturbation often excludes genderqueer & transpeople.

@krrryyyssstal

That people with disabilities do it too!

@blackstarmedia

[A] deep discussion of penetration. [S]eriously.

@PostmodSexgeek

I can't say that I've really seen many identified feminist convos about jilling off. [C]an only say in general I would say that one thing missing in a lot of convos is basic anatomy and how to's.

A couple of people to whom I reached out on Facebook echoed PostmodSexgeek's response regarding the feminism's general silence about this, be it in print or online. Cat Mungcal said the only times she read about it were "A Love Letter from an Anti-Rape Activist to Her Feminist Sex Toy Store" by Lee Jacobs Riggs in the anthology Yes, Means Yes and my old (and soon-to-be revived, I swear!) blog, The Cruel Secretary.

My other Facebook friends responded:

Twanna Hines—

I fucking love masturbation. Solo sex is absolutely a political issue because taking control of your own pleasure is liberating. Too often, when we talk about restricting women's pleasure, the topic turns to female genital cutting in other countries. However, our homegrown variety of no-whacking, abstinence-only education can be equally repressive. I want more of us-- women and men--to dialogue about access to healthy information about all forms of sex.

Mandy Van Deven had this answer--

Feminists who are reticent to or don't masturbate and/or use sex toys. I think there's an expectation for feminists to be all sexually liberated and uninhibited, but sex is complicated, even when it's solo. And masturbation isn't intuitive for everyone, particularly those of us who have been victims of sexual abuse. I wish the conversation about feminism and masturbation was broader and made more room for complex and uncomfortable truths about sexuality.

Thea Lim agreed with Mandy—

I guess I'll say what I always say when it comes to feminism and these things: I think it's vital for the conversation to be open to and supportive of all expressions of sexuality--as long as said expressions are not obstructing anyone else's right to their sexuality. That means including the entire spectrum women's ways of masturbating; from being full-on in love with masturbation, to not being particularly interested in it. That means respecting women's choices around masturbation, whatever they are, and whether or not they fit with conventional definitions of feminist or sex-positive attitudes towards masturbation…my belief is that it's important to remember that there isn't a "correct" relationship to masturbation, it's more about fostering healthy attitudes to masturbation, whatever the actual content of that attitude is. The way you do, not what you do!

Maegan La Mala Ortiz had this to say--

I don't think there is enough discussion about how to talk to young women of color about masturbation, sex toys, education and access. Alot of this comes from my own experiences growing up and now my experiences as a mami to a 12 year old.

Samhita Mukhopadhyay

I think building on what Maegan said there seems to be this divergence in talk of masturbation along lines of race where the assumption or focus for young white women is exploratory, sex-positive and nurturing that type of development verse young women of color who are considered a "problem," that needs a solution, generally not having sex and based on the assumption that they are too sexual so they must be first controlled, then "liberated."

I might be imagining that, but I do feel like there is this assumption that sexual self exploration is something relegated to "liberated" women, which are generally privileged and when women of color can reach the point at which they are no longer oppressed, they too can partake in this type of sexual self liberation whether it be through masturbation or other types of sex.

Hmmm….I could see Samhita's point. Here's what two other women of color said regarding it:

Tami Winfrey Harris--

From a black woman's perspective, I'm not sure that there is much positive conversation about our sexuality in feminism at all--certainly not in mainstream feminism and even in our own spaces, sexuality is a topic left on the shelf. There remains this women + sex = nasty and forbidden ethos in our culture, I think, in part, due to the strong influence of religion. Masturbation gets caught in that.

Patrice Elizabeth Grell Yursik

Agreed with Tami.

I've tried in the past to include more adult topics on my blog, even hosting a giveaway for a popular sex toy company...I got the smallest response I've ever had for a giveaway before. Compared to my other friends of varied ethnicities who will discuss their fave toys and masturbation habits with just about anyone who'll listen (sometimes with anyone within earshot), I've had to learn the hard way that unfortunately, many black women are uncomfortable discussing their sexual interests, much less masturbation.

Sexologist Bianca Laureano looked at the question this way—

[I] think topics of body image, accessibility of having a space private or not to masturbate, disability, fantasy (and how fantasy does not always mean an ism is going to be present) so disassociating the pleasure from the theories on oppression (does that make sense?). [T]hen of course the issues of social location (im/migration status, race, class, ethnicity, age, primary language) and how the information we in the US provide is very much anglophone, heterosexist (or only [lesbian or gay] rarely bi, trans, or pansexual), geared towards late adolescents (what about when children masturbate because they do since infancy?) [W]hat about the youth who live in group homes? [A]re in kinship care? [A]re pregnant?

[I also think] access to toys, access to understanding the body (touching only the vulva when really any part of our body may bring us to a level of pleasure and/or orgasm); assuming that orgasm means the end of sex and masturbation; that orgasm is the end result of masturbation; of course this conversation around female sexual dysfunction and how biomedicine has constructed this ideology/diagnosis that many women of all gender expressions seem too often buy into [as well as] ritual and rites of passage for women who live in the US but are not of the US.

The floor is yours, Bitch readers/commentariat: what is feminism saying—or not saying—about masturbation?

Thanks to everyone who was gracious enough to respond to my question!

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Comments

16 comments have been made. Post a comment.

this is great!

Thanks Andrea! You have amazing Facebook friends by the way.

I've been kinda thinking about this recently, and since you've invited us to discuss via the anonymous platform of the internet, and since no one's commented yet, why not, I'll divulge in full. I was in a manipulative relationship with a man who was 8 years older than me from the ages of 17 - almost 22, in which we had basically the most extreme heteronormative chauvinist pornographic kind of sexist sex. While my own feminist education and understanding of kyriarchy has helped me get myself back in so many ways-- I'm even in a healthy, happy partnership now-- I still find that whenever I masturbate I still gravitate towards thoughts of that degrading kind of sex... then I feel guilty about being a "bad feminist," even though I know that's a silly concept. Mandy and Bianca both touched on this in their comments, especially when Bianca talks about "disassociating the pleasure from the theories on oppression." I wonder if other feminists have experienced this, or how they've navigated themselves through it, or to what extent all of us have to untangle the oppression out of our personal sexual kinks.

I loved what Tami said (hee)

I loved what Tami said (hee) as it relates to black female sexuality. I suspect my tweet in some ways echoes her more thoughtful commentary. I do believe before I can frame masturbation as something other than crotch maintenance, I would first need to have my sexuality framed as 'neutral'. Given that marginalized women find their sexuality erased at best or framed as deviant at worst, trying to recover a sense of sexual self is another journey where we are not all starting from the same position.

Wonderful post, Andrea!

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Feminism & Masturbation go hand in hand ;-)

One thing I am surprised no one brought up is how masturbation can be empowering in the sense that through practice, you learn what gets you off, and are much more likely to translate that in the bedroom and take more control over your own pleasure. Men are encouraged to do this and for some reason, women are less comfortable in this culture with taking that control over personal pleasure. I remember seeing an Oprah episode where a sex therapist came on and suggested that moms get vibrators for their teenage girls and the audience freaked out. However, when they were discussing boys, moms were more comfortable talking about issues such as finding porn in their sons' rooms etc- they looked at masturbation as a boys will be boys issue, but the thought of their daughters doing it scared them to death. My mom got me a vibrator on my 18th birthday. While I was mortified at first, I soon came to use it, and was happy to have multiple orgasms before my first penetrative sexual experience at 21. It was great to be in control of my pleasure and know what to ask for and expect later, rather than relying on a guy to figure (or usually not) it out.

Finally!

I have been preaching in this vein for years! I mean, I don't necessarily know if I'd expect many mothers to buy vibrators for their daughters (props to yorus for being that comfortable), but they should be teaching their daughters that sex should never be shaming, or disgusting, and often is is enjoyed alone and that's great too. Anatomy lessons are necessary- women do not have the benefit of external organs on display to learn- which makes them seem secretive from day one. Never do we want teenage girls feeling as if their pleasure is at the whim or control of a man, thought here is nothing wrong with that either. Put women in charge of their goods. The novel Cunt address this in part.

What's missing

from feminist conversations about masturbation? First of all, the fact that it's not always just a solo activity. Partnered/parallel masturbation is a wonderful, and very arousing, thing!

Concerning the lack of conversation, though...while it's obviously still a conversational taboo in most circles, I think the reason that the feminist convos don't tend to go further than, "We do it! Yay!" is that masturbation isn't easy, or sometimes appealing, to analyze. Sexual fantasies tap into the id to an extent that stream-of-consciousness often doesn't, and the images or scenarios that appear may not be as crafted and self-revealing as a scene in a movie or book. We don't necessarily want to actualize everything we envision, a lot of it might not even make sense, and what's in our minds isn't always indicative of who we are as sexual beings. On a more physical level, what works in private may be totally different from what we'd bring into a partnered situation. I hope that makes sense...

Yes! In addition it seems

Yes! In addition it seems inevitable where there's exploration/examination there is also policing. When it comes to desires, I don't figure many folks would actively submit to having the sexual desires living solely in their heads revealed for fear of repercussions and/or judgment. Or even their lack of fantasy as a component of masturbation. There seems a notion that fantasy and masturbation are inextricably linked, when for some people it's simply not the case.

When I did Sex Health Peer Education I spent a lot of time talking about masturbation and fantasy, because i was curious as to what the relationship between sexual fantasy and masturbation looked like for folks on the margins. I was also interested in hear from those for who didn't link fantasy to their masturbation since it was a perspective that doesn't always have a voice.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Yes, yes and quadruple yes.

From an older woman, here:

1. Enjoy yourself.
2. Sexual pleasure doesn't always have to have a meaning or a reason or make sense.
3. Fantasies don't have to be things you would ever want to try in real life. The content of the fantasy doesn't "say" something about you or your morals/ethics/status as a feminist.
4. Politics (including racial/gender politics) and sex don't *have* to be lumped together. Sometimes they are connected, sometimes they aren't.
5. Your clit knows what it wants. Maybe it doesn't. Listen to it, treat it nicely and it will tell you.
6. Just because lots of other people out there may have some conception of how you should be or what you should feel or respond to something doesn't mean you have to be that way, feel that way, or respond that way. It's bad enough others try to dictate our public lives. Do we have to let them dictate our personal playtime, too? Sheesh.
7. Honestly, even as feminists, we spend way too much time obsessing deciphering the coding and not enough time getting off.
7. Sometimes, I don't care - it's just hot. No, that doesn't mean I've internalized the oppression, I just happen to have a great opportunity and the inclination to get off, and would rather take advantage of it now and kick some ass later.

Thanks.

self abuse

I'd love to see a change in the language or really just an expansion. Masturbation is great for explicit clinical discussion but there really isn't that much slang about it that's not cagey, timid, and/or vague. The euphemisms for male masturbation are numerous, possibly informative, often funny, and a few are almost a standard part of the vocabulary; there's a positive vibe around the subject. My first acquired euphemism for purely female masturbation was from the negative "girl's don't fap, they schlick."

I like the term "fap"

I like the term "fap" because it's funny. Yes, it's straight cisgender male framing, but it's a funny word and the first time I heard someone say, "fap fap fap" I laughed so hard. Female identified folks definitely need something as catchy and funny. nothing too wordy though.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

How about...

"Buffin' the muffin" is a good one. (Wish I'd made it up, but I don't know its origins.) There's always "double-clicking the mouse," which feels a bit dry or clinical, but cracks me up with its image of a computer window opening at the moment of orgasm.

since it's anonymous

(because I'd feel weird publicly identifying myself in relation to this, and I shouldn't have to feel that way!)

I don't know how to have an orgasm, and, like Bianco Laureano says, it's an issue that people persist with the assumption that orgasm is the end result of masturbation. I think there is more acknowledgement nowadays that sex - especially heteronormative sex - isn't going to guarantee female orgasm, but there's still the assumption that if you can't have an orgasm with your partner, you at least know how to climax by yourself. Well, I don't. And not for lack of trying! I experience sexual pleasure, anyway, and I know that it's counterproductive to focus on it as a goal - it's definitely not going to happen for me that way. But I would appreciate not being made to feel like the only freak in the room when people make those offhand comments as if everybody experiences it the same way.

Orgasemless

I also do not orgasm. That does not mean I do not have fun- and trust me, I have lots of fun. But I have to agree that it feels demeaning and narowmined to have people assume that sexual experiences end in orgasm and that if you do not orgasm that it is bad/unproductive because you or your partner failed to bring pleasure. That's simply not true! Pleashure, just like sex, gender and orintation, is on a spectrum. I love sex, solo, parallel or partnered. Nether my partners or myself have done anything wrong because I lack orgasm.

I like, and I'm thinking as a POC, its not just a POC issue

I like and agree with much of what was said. However, to be honest, I don't necessarily think that the treatment of white v.s POC female sexuality is really so vastly different. I mean, as a person of color I am ever vigilant to differing attitudes and treatment in regards to the subtext of race in identity politics. It's just, i don't think that in contemporary society there is a great divide in feminist discourse when it comes to realizing and accepting our bodies and desires, to me its a universal issue that is addressed in all communities. To say that the issue of addressing sex positive attitudes with young women in order to foster healthy relationships to sex and the body is an issue specific to POC denies the larger picture, which is that this is still very much an issue for all women regardless of race or ethnicity. That's just my thought.

Part of what Bianca Laureano

Part of what Bianca Laureano said strikes with me.

I don't think that (at least in U.S. culture, since I can not speak to other cultures) we do enough to normalize masturbation, which sounds odd perhaps, but hear me out, because it is part of healthy sex ed, and can even be part of making sure your body is healthy (if you know what your body is like you know when it is going wrong, in theory).

Children do it as soon as they figure out that it feels good to stick their hands in their diapers, and often times parents react with mortification instead of understanding and a quick discussion about modesty (such as where and when is appropriate to enjoy yourself). Instead of giving first lessons in sex ed when they arise so many parents miss the opportunity altogether. So, I think that parents, especially parents of young children, are missing from the conversation. Adults are not the only ones who have figured out how to get themselves off (albeit for different reasons), but this creates a unique opportunity to open doors for discussions on sexual education as children grow older.

People don't talk to children about sex enough. Any form of it. There is age appropriate sex ed talk that can happen starting when kids begin playing with themselves.

Usually, waiting until children reach puberty or adolescence is a little too late. Chances are teens are already experimenting with sex and/or masturbation, and if you as a parent have shamed a kid at four years old for playing w/ zirself because ZOMCC IT IS SO DIRTY TO PLAY WITH YOURSELF YOU HEDONISTIC SINNAH! then zie probably isn't going to talk to you about how to dabble in sex safely as the bigger issues arise. Then I guess it is up to the school to give the kiddos the good sex talks. I hope that goes well.

You can do one of two things; just shut up, which is something I don't find easy, or learn an awful lot very fast, which is what I tried to do. ~ Jane Fonda

What about if fantasies do

What about if fantasies do play into a sexist outlook? I like to be controlled in the bedroom and a least half of my fantasy life is about that, is focused on being under someone else's control and as I identify as straight-leaning on the Kinsey scale, most (not all, but most) of these fantasies involve being controlled by a man. I think discussion of this kind of alternative preference seems to be missing; am I still feminist if I enjoy this kind of alternative sexual lifestyle, if giving up control plays a serious role in my fantasies?

Forgive me if this has, in fact, been discussed to death elsewhere; I didn't see anything else in the comments about it and I'm new to feminist thinking.

Yes

Welcome to the feminist community, Isidore! I think (and I think many would agree) that yes, you ARE still feminist if you're submissive sexually, including in a male/female context. Consent is key, so as long you've communicated your desire to your partners, along with any limits it might have, your loss of control is healthily orchestrated and you still have your autonomy in its set-up. As for fantasies, they are completely up to your own mind, and direction is totally yours; there's no such thing as a "wrong" one. I don't have many references to offer on the subject, but I know that the book Yes Means Yes, edited by Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman, has an essay related to this topic by Stacey May Fowles.
Hope this helps!