When it comes to beating it, some women can find themselves stuck between a sexually frustrated rock and a don’t-care hard place. For most of our lives, we’re never told anything about masturbation or shown any positive depictions of women doing it (or any depictions, for that matter), and vibed hard that it’s something shameful only loose women do. But now that we all live in a sex-positive, pornified world, women who don’t want to do it or don’t enjoy it find themselves harboring a lot of shame, too. So what’s a non-masturbating gal to do?
On the occasion of Masturbation Month, Ellen Scott wrote an essay at Metro UK about why she never masturbates. “It didn’t feel bad, but the pleasure I was getting from it paled in comparison from the joy of watching an episode of the Mindy Project or the relaxation I gained from spending the afternoon baking,” she writes. “Now, as a semi-proper adult, I just don’t bother. I can’t be bothered. I don’t have the time or the urge.”
Scott describes herself as not being a particularly horny person who is rarely “overcome with lust.” But what’s interesting — and proof we’ve come a long way in destigmatizing female masturbation — is that she feels ashamed for not wanting to. “But the thing is, I feel some shame in admitting that,” she writes. “I feel like being a non-masturbator would make me seem unempowered, sexually inept, or a prude — none of which I am.”
She isn’t the only one. Sex therapist Lucy Beresford tells Metro UK that low sex drive is probably the most common reason some women don’t masturbate. Other reasons include shame for doing so, just not wanting to, or not knowing how. Amanda Hess noted at Slate that there are some additional logistical considerations that may prevent women from some self-love, like the fact that “it’s more challenging for women to get off standing up,” she writes. Plus, “many women need to enlist the help of a vibrator, and vibrators are loud.” Add in the potential of a male partner being threatened or humiliated by the use of a vibrator, and you might have a perfect storm for why some women don’t masturbate.
But we shouldn’t assume they all would or want to if only they could. Anecdotally, I’ve known women who love beating it and women who don’t find it enjoyable, just as I’ve known women who don’t enjoy receiving oral sex at all, or even own a vibrator. And to now feel shame for opting out of the transgressive radical act of masturbation means we’ve been so successful at making masturbation okay that now everyone thinks they have to do it. Which inadvertently fuels the same two limited options for women when it comes to sex: slut or prude. The truth is, neither is a permanent state of being, and everyone falls somewhere in the middle of the two ends of the spectrum of desire, which fluctuates.
Masturbation Month was actually created to honor a woman, Jocelyn Elders. The former U.S. Surgeon General, and the first African American one at that, had a shockingly frank take on masturbation and sexual health for the early 90s. She thought public school kids should be given free condoms, and at a 1994 United Nations AIDS conference, she said she thought masturbation should be taught as a form of safe sex. Bill Clinton promptly fired her for it. The next year, San Francisco sex shop Good Vibrations declared May 15 International Masturbation Day in her honor, and it soon expanded into a full month.
Of course, Elders’ goal was widely misinterpreted as suggesting we should teach kids how to jerk off. But she meant, as she explained in the 2016 documentary inspired by her, Sticky: A (Self) Love Story, that children should be taught that it’s “natural and common,” and “would reduce unintended pregnancy and disease.”
Elders was right. But if self-reported statistics on self-love are to be believed, that message still may need to be more squarely focused on women than men. Not just because men masturbate more than women — a 2018 study of global sexual pleasure from TENGA found that only 76 percent of women reported masturbating, compared with 92 percent of men — but also because there are numerous other benefits to masturbating, for women in particular, that are distinctly important for them, according to Planned Parenthood.
In addition to being the safest form of sex out there, it relieves stress, improves body image, sleep and self-esteem. It can relieve cramps, and improve muscle tone in the pelvic area. Some sex-positive folks are advocating that we give all teen girls vibrators to encourage healthy sexuality, if we really care as much about their pleasure as we say we do. There are now apps that instruct women on where the clitoris is and how to touch it to achieve orgasm.
It’s taken a very long time to get here. We’ve long trafficked in misunderstanding and moral panic about female sexuality, and the orgasm is possibly the least understood aspect of it, linked inextricably to the way we think of women’s sexual desire. Unlike the male orgasm, which leads to ejaculation and the release of sperm, the female orgasm’s purpose has never been clearly understood and long debated from an evolutionary point of view because it’s not required for pregnancy.
There are theories, all of which render the female orgasm now biologically useless: The orgasm is a byproduct of the fact that men and women both get a version of what either would need before gender is determined, but end up not needing. In other words in those early gestating weeks before sex is determined, males get nipples they won’t use, and females get orgasms they won’t use (Get this, ladies: your orgasm is a side effect!) Others theorize that the pleasure of the female orgasm exists to pair-bond men and women, but that would hinge, it seems, on men giving women orgasms that they’d want to come back for.
A prevailing theory now claims that the female orgasm is not a side effect, but a leftover. That theory goes something like this: Intercourse used to trigger hormones that not only led to orgasm, but also ovulation, meaning it once may have actually played an important role in reproduction, but that some members of the species might have lost the ability to do from intercourse. (Thus the explanation for the fact that only 18 percent of women today can orgasm from penetrative sex.)
But since most women don’t have orgasms during intercourse these days, much less at the same time a man is ejaculating, this doesn’t really explain it. What’s more, there’s an orgasm gap in general to prove men don’t get women off as often as they get to blow their load.
So you’d think we’d all conclude that there would be nothing more efficient and pragmatic and correct for women to go to town to give themselves the only orgasms they are likely to get. But thanks to stuffy Victorian ideals about female nature, we somehow got the idea that women didn’t naturally feel any real sexual desire at all. Those who did were abnormal. Those women were sent to doctors for pelvic massage to relieve their hysteria. Dildos were around in Ancient Greece and Egypt, but we don’t get a vibrator until the 1900s, when those pelvic masseuses realize that the job could be a lot easier.
All this is why it’s taken women so long to embrace and proudly proclaim their own sexual desire that exists only for them and not for others. The recent short film, Yes, God, Yes, from Obvious Child director Karen Maine, took this on to brilliant effect, showing that teen girls are in fact, horny and curious about sex. And what’s more, this happens to them long before pairing up with a sexual partner. Which can only mean one thing: masturbation. But it’s not just embracing desire that matters. It’s their right to an orgasm at all, and especially their right to give it to themselves and not depend on a partner to provide it (or worse, go without). In contrast, men don’t seem to have the same hangups about checking a stroke session off their to-do list.
Numerous forums and websites address the question, sometimes from men, of why certain women don’t masturbate. They are often told that the woman probably just isn’t admitting it. But the reasons for not admitting it are coincidentally the same reasons some women say they don’t actually do it — shame, lack of interest, embarrassment, or not knowing how.
Still, we should continue to promote masturbation as good and healthy, and also take these women at their word. Some women do masturbate. Some women don’t. Women who really don’t, and really don’t want to, and “have enough sexual outlets,” or are otherwise satisfied with their sexual interest, don’t need to. They shouldn’t be ashamed of that, or feel as if they’ve missed the liberation boat that leads to only one place: Jerk-Off City.
If we’re sending any other message, we’re doing the same disservice we did when we denied women any sexual identity outside of the one that gives pleasure to men in the first place. That has certainly never been the point of beating off.