Why are we still policing self-pleasure?

It’s 2019 and self-pleasure is still a topic that can cause red faces in polite conversation. What is it we’re so afraid of talking about, and are we holding ourselves back from fulfilling and open communication in our sexual relationships by not talking honestly about our masturbation habits?

Original artwork by @shannonmaryart

In a world where personal improvement is regularly shoved down our throats, to masturbate and enjoy your own body as it is, is a giant flip of the bird to society. We’re urged to improve ourselves at every given step; to constantly strive for the glossiest, most “whole” version of who we are. Self-love chewed up by mass media has a narrow lens of attractiveness and it’s often regurgitated as shiny Empowerment Lite. It often brings with it an assumed self-pleasure knowledge that many of us weren’t socialised to claim. If you don’t see your gender presentation or your body type centered in the public narratives of pleasure often it can be damn hard to learn you are entitled to it.

But of course you are. We’re reminded of this every “Masturbation May” when we see an influx of social media posts and articles reaffirming the point. As Sex I Wish You Knew’s Euphemia Russell said in their first column for That Bitch, “pleasure is political” and in that spirit, the history behind this celebratory month is very much rooted in protest. In 1995, retail sex toy store Good Vibrations set about claiming the month for pleasure as a response to then President Bill Clinton’s firing of US Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders. Her crime was that she dared to say masturbation was “part of human sexuality and a part of something that perhaps should be taught”.

The hysteric response positioned Elders’ viewpoint as one advocating for masturbation techniques to be taught in school. Of course what she was actually trying to say was, self-pleasure should be validated as part of human sexuality and as a form of self-knowledge. It’s sad that 24 years later, armed with the knowledge we have, we’re still pushing for such simple advancements in youth sex education.

Dr Linda Kirkman is a sex therapist, researcher and educator. They say a general societal distrust of pleasure for pleasure’s sake could contribute to our inability to embrace masturbation as a healthy part of sexual growth.

“Whether it’s a love of chocolate, alcohol or sex, there is often a lot of judgement about physical pleasures that people seek,” Linda says.
“Seeking to get joy in the world is not necessarily a priority even though we know it’s so good for us.”

But how much of the pleasure policing is gendered?

In the second Australia Study of Health and Relationships which is completed every decade, researchers made note of the “disappointing” fact that masturbation is generally uncommon among younger women. Their reason for the disappointment is that masturbation has significant benefits for women in learning about their own bodies and negotiation of more “rewarding sexual practice with partners”. They referenced a Queensland study which said that “although young men joked often disparagingly among themselves about masturbation, the topic appeared to be unspeakable among young women…” But does something being “unspeakable” mean it’s not happening? Or does it just mean we are sending the message that speaking about it is shameful, that sexuality is something to be hidden depending on who you are?

Similarly, in Deakin University’s 2016 Youth Sexuality survey, Victorian and South Australian high school students reported that “talking about masturbation” was one of the most uncomfortable topics in sexuality education and overall girls felt more uncomfortable discussing self-pleasure than boys. It needs to be noted that the Australia Study of Health and Relationships does not reference gender diverse people in its study, while Deakin University’s survey states it experienced difficulty in gaining ethics approval for the use of gender categories outside the female/male binary. Students in the Deakin survey made strong claims for more education on masturbation as well as  gender and sexuality diversity and how to break gender stereotypes.

During my teenage years in small town Victoria in the 90s, the sexual language of straight cisgender boys was heralded as gospel and in the schoolyard discourse, they held the monopoly on masturbation and sex in general. All the vulva chat I heard in the schoolyard was less than nuanced and definitely not sex-positive. The vagina was presented in the binary; either as a passive receiver or as a bleeding seething Venus fly trap that wasn’t to be trusted. They were either “loose” or “tight”; too “dry”, too “wet”. The smell was feared. It was like being in a strange genital-focused version of Goldilocks. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t a hugely empowering environment in which to to publicly discuss self-pleasure, let alone communicate desire. With my queer identity 360 billion years in the future, I was firmly enveloped in the heteronormative narrative and its dominant message to a young girl like me – you don’t know what’s good for your body – rang loud in my ears.

Dr Kirkman agrees “inescapable” gender socialisation has had an unfortunate impact in policing who feels entitled to pleasure but emphasised taking the time to get to know yourself and your body – no matter what your genitals or gender identity are – can have major benefits in having the kind of sex that is most pleasurable to you.

Masturbation can teach us a lot about what we like and there’s an important distinction, to discover what you like and then be able to communicate that to someone,” she says.

Communicating desire and boundaries deserves its own article so first things first – a few useful “mazzing mantras” to keep in mind in the pursuit of pleasure.

#1 Masturbation is individual – honour the experiences of your body
No matter who you are, your gender identity or what your physical body looks like you are entitled to self-pleasure. What that looks like from person to person will be different and the experiences – physical or emotional – that inform our connection to our bodies deserve to be respected by us. As Euphemia says “Recognise and respect the effect of any past trauma as you reflect on your own history, body and experiences”. It is valid to prioritise reconnection with your body rather than achieving orgasm.

#2 Consider yourself a stranger
Think beyond your genitals and approach yourself with curiosity. Take the time to appreciate and notice your physical self the way you might with someone else. Our familiarity with our own bodies can often mean we ignore or overlook areas of pleasure potential.

#3 But when it comes to genitals, create a new map
Dr Linda Kirkman recommends “genital mapping” as a technique that can be done alone to discover unchartered areas of joy.
“Just gently explore thoroughly through touch and give yourself feedback on how that feels in different areas for sensation to see where sensitivities are,” they say.
“There may be whole places you never really knew about that you’ve never explored.”

#4 Think about the marathon, not the sprint
There are definitely times when a quick self-pleasure session is the best. But getting yourself off isn’t something that needs to be rushed. Your pleasure is important and you deserve to take the time to discover its depths.


Natalie Cavallaro is a sexual health promotion officer and founder of That Bitch. She credits a magazine sealed section she stole from her mother at age 8 as being crucial to her early self-pleasure knowledge.

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