Sex Education


This International Masturbation Month, writer, scholar and body politics expert Mary Morgan unpacks how shame and stigma surrounding masturbation stems from patriarchal roots that deprive women of body autonomy. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @msmarymorgan. 

Last night, I drew myself a bubble bath, popped my laptop on a stool, lit a bunch of candles, poured myself a glass of wine, and chose from one of my many waterproof vibrators. I spent a solid 45 minutes in that tub, watching my guilty pleasure Netflix shows and sinking into my own pleasure. And for that better part of an hour, the most important thing in the world was my own body, my own sexuality, and my own pleasure.

I feel no guilt or shame for my love of masturbation. But to arrive to this mindset of empowerment, I had to unlearn cultural stigmas attached to women’s bodies, especially women’s self-pleasure. I think back to when I was growing up, and how little it was discussed as a topic. And by little, I mean, completely avoided as a topic altogether. When I was in high school, no one broached the subject of female masturbation, or even really female pleasure. My friends didn’t talk about it, and it was blatantly avoided in sex education classes. If it was mentioned, someone would inevitably respond something like “I have a boyfriend,” as if that somehow answered the question, or simply reply “ew” to shut down the topic with disgust.

Pop culture seemed to deem it as gross for women to touch themselves, or that only ‘crazy’ women masturbated. Take for example the scene in The 40-Year-Old-Virgin, where Elizabeth Banks was called ‘crazy’ for a bathtub sesh with a shower-head. Magazines didn’t talk about it either. And this was before mass access to helpful sexual empowerment internet sites; my sole connection to the internet was via a shared family computer, and the only things that tended to appear if you searched “women masturbating” linked you exclusively to porn.

It wasn’t until university that I found friends who talked about masturbating. And just like that, self pleasure was normalized. We talked about it openly, freely, and without judgment or shame. It was so freeing! By talking to each other about our own self-pleasure, we combatted each other’s fear of shame, guilt or stigma.

Women masturbating is slowly becoming a more mainstream topic. Shows like Broad City and Fleabag work to normalize an incredibly normal act. Celebrities like Lily Allen are talking more openly about their own self-pleasure. And there are more and more incredible resources for sexual empowerment. But still, many women do not feel comfortable talking about masturbation, or thinking about it, or even doing it, and our society continues to cloak it in stigma.

So why is female masturbation one of the last remaining sex taboos? The answer might not astound you, but it’ll surely piss you off: The shame and stigma attached to female pleasure grew from patriarchal roots. At its core, masturbation is about body autonomy — something women have been historically deprived of.

Body autonomy is having the exclusive right to your own body. Something we all should naturally have! Unfortunately, that has not been the case, and the fight for real body autonomy continues. We live in a society designed by men, for men. Men have therefore shaped our culture, including not only societal power dynamics, but also pleasure dynamics and sex dynamics. From this, our patriarchal society created a multitude of myths and double standards surrounding women’s pleasure, especially self-pleasure.

Our society has historically treated women’s bodies as existing for others, not for themselves. Whether that be for childbearing, for sex, for visual consumption, for homemaking, for caretaking, for male pleasure, the female body was seen as having a purpose for others. Thankfully we have made a lot of progress in exterminating these misogynistic views. But a web of stigmas, taboos, shame, cultural norms, pleasure dynamics and power dynamics still remain.

By consciously or subconsciously viewing women’s bodies as existing for others, women’s bodies are immediately stripped of their own agency. Views on masturbation come from this. For if a woman’s body is not for herself, why would she need to pleasure it? If a woman’s body’s purpose is for others, why would she participate in acts of the self?

Shame and stigma masking female masturbation both stems from, and upholds, the patriarchal belief that women’s bodies are not for themselves. Our society has always told us that there is a stigma around women masturbating, so we internalize that shame and don’t talk about it, leaving the stigma in-tact. We need to shatter this myth once and for all.

If you feel uncomfortable masturbating, or talking about masturbating, or thinking about masturbation, don’t worry, you aren’t alone. Our society has both actively and passively taught us to feel uncomfortable with female masturbation. These gut-feeling negative reactions are not something we were born with, meaning that it is a learned mindset. It’s not as if you were born and thought “Touching yourself? Disgusting.” We are taught this, whether it’s through our parents, schools, communities, religion, pop culture, or some combination of it all.

Take for example sex education at school. Most of our sex education centers around preventing pregnancies or STDs. It rarely focuses on pleasure, if it is discussed at all. And when pleasure is mentioned, it tends to be about male pleasure. There is a deeply entrenched myth that men think about sex all the time, and women don’t, and therefore men must masturbate to relieve themselves. This myth told us that if women never think about sex, or they don’t enjoy it as much, or don’t “need” release, why would they masturbate? Male masturbation was seen as healthy. Female masturbation wasn’t seen at all.

Oftentimes, masturbation is labeled as “inappropriate” or “dirty” or “gross”. This ingrains in us that it’s our genitalia that is somehow dirty, and that we therefore are if we touch it, creating internalized shame around masturbation as a whole. Shame around women masturbating inherently tells us that the female body is shameful. When we’re made to feel guilty about touching our own bodies, what does that then tell us about our bodies? So not only is the act itself then deemed to be shameful, the body in which participated is also seen as shameful.

One of the reasons many women feel awkward about masturbation is simply because we don’t talk about it. No one knows what ‘normal’ is, so no one feels comfortable discussing it, because they fear being labeled as ‘abnormal’ ‘slutty’ or whatever other slanderous thing you could say. Internalized shame from external factors about female pleasure prevents us from really taking control of our own bodies and pleasure. We learn it’s a dirty taboo topic, and therefore, we never bring it up in conversations, which prevents the stigma from being shattered. It’s another vicious cycle. The more we talk about masturbation, the quicker we will finally eliminate this as a taboo.

So this International Masturbation Month, I implore you to not only masturbate, but to also talk more openly about it. We must normalize this topic once and for all and finally destroy this remaining sex taboo. Looking for a great new toy? Ask a friend what their favorite is! Have a favorite masturbation playlist? Share it with a pal! Curious about Kegel exercises? Ask an expert! Send your best friend a new vibrator for their birthday! I am *that friend* who tells my friends about any new toys I get, sends vibrators in the mail, and talks very loudly at dinner about that time my Rabbit went off on an airplane. There is nothing to be ashamed about when it comes to our own bodies.

Masturbation is a celebration of body autonomy. It is quite literally taking your pleasure and your sexuality into your own hands and wielding your own power. And that is nothing to be ashamed of. 


Mary Morgan (she/her) is a writer, artist and scholar focused on body politics. She researches and writes theory on issues interconnected to body autonomy. Using a combination of research, visual art, writing and personal experience, she works to change our society's culture around these issues and fight for body autonomy for all.
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