“I don’t want my mom telling me about all the time she masturbates,” said Adeline French, a senior at Berkeley High School (BHS). “But it would have been nice to have a conversation with her.”
French, like many women and femme identifying people, was never told that masturbating is normal, healthy, or a way to get to know herself. However, women masturbate like everyone else. So why don’t people talk about it?
According to Dr. Shannon Connolly, M.D., who specializes in reproductive health, “We live in a society that seeks to control female sexuality, and in particular, female sexual pleasure. From a young age, women and girls are taught that their pleasure is not important, or not valid, and that talking about these things is dirty and inappropriate.”
“In order to be a powerful woman in this day and age, you have to kind of shut down your sexuality,” French said. “Because if you’re oversexualized, you may be seen as stupid, or an object.”
Women who are open about their sex lives or who have a lot of sex tend to not be taken very seriously, and are given less respect than women who don’t. Furthermore, when women are allowed to express their sexuality, it is expected to be directed at men. “Women are meant to be consumed and looked at but not exist by themselves,” said Raquel Matthews, a BHS senior.
One aspect of how this concept causes harm is that it takes women’s pleasure completely off the table. “We’re expected to be the pleaser, so for a woman to pleasure herself or be the one receiving pleasure is less common,” French said.
The ideas that promote a woman’s sensuality as weird or embarrassing come from the media, where women are expected to seek male validation. “A lot of what I’ve learned from … the media, the movies, and Taylor Swift songs is about men liking me, and finding me attractive, specifically,” said Juniper Dorado, a BHS junior.
This heteronormative narrative about how women are supposed to act and look affects how women view themselves. “I’ve internalized a lot of ideas around my body as an object and as something to be consumed,” Dorado said. “I sometimes feel really disconnected from my body because I feel like I’ve gotten into the learned habit of objectifying myself,” she added. “When I disconnect from my body, I disconnect from feeling pleasure. … That could be sexual pleasure, but it could also just be emotions in general.”
“We act like [masturbation is] something to be ashamed of because it hasn’t been discussed for decades,” French said. Although it varies from state to state, US sex education often fails to discuss masturbation. Learning about STI prevention and birth control is important and practical information, “but if you don’t talk about pleasure and how that plays into sexual experiences, then you’re leaving so much information out,” Matthews said.
“At the end of the day, pleasure is the primary reason why most people engage in sex, and so it’s a shame that we don’t talk about that more,” Connolly said.
Even though it is not talked about, “masturbation is normal, everybody does it,” said Anton Migdal, a BHS junior. Not only is it normal, but masturbating is good for you. “Masturbation can relieve stress, improve sleep quality, strengthen pelvic floor muscles, relieve menstrual cramps, and improve self esteem and body image,” Connolly said. “It can make a person more comfortable with their own body, and it’s also really safe and can be very empowering!”
“Masturbation, like sex, is often seen in very narrow terms … but it can be any physical sensation that brings you pleasure. So masturbation could even be like touching your boobs,” French said. “I don’t feel like we talk about how broad it is, and how many ways you can explore your body. It’s important to encourage the exploration of your own body, so that you can … get in touch with this other side of yourself.”
According to a worker — who chose to remain anonymous —at Feelmore, a sex shop located on Shattuck Ave., “[Masturbation is] how you learn your own boundaries. It creates boundaries for yourself and your partner.” While masturbation is normally thought of in the context of the individual, it translates to sexual experiences with others as well.
Masturbation can also have an impact on a larger scale. “[Masturbating] actively counters rape culture in a way that people can advocate for themselves. There’s more agency in knowing what you like and what you don’t like,” Matthews added.
“If I can be confident with myself, then I know how to be confident with a partner,” French said. “And if I can tell the partner what I like, [then] the experience is going to be better for both of us.”