“Did she do perineal massage when she was pregnant?” a close friend of my husband’s asked him when heavily pregnant with her first child. He thought for a moment, then said with a knowing laugh, “Yes, lots!”
“Oh, good!” she replied. The conversation moved on for a moment. Then returning to the topic, he decided to admit he was slightly less sure of the intricacies of perineal massage. “By massage, you mean wanking, right?”
“You said what?” I squealed, outraged and mortified, when he recounted the story to me later in the day. “You told her not only that I actually have masturbated at some stage in my life, but that I was at it all the time when pregnant! Have you no idea of the rules of female engagement? We discuss everything, including you. But we do not discuss the ‘M’ word. Ever!”
I have only admitted to masturbation to my two closest friends. Only once. For about two minutes. Without details. And only very recently in our friendship. They did not reciprocate. The open discussion of orgasms and pleasure is similarly off limits.
I remember at school I was caught off guard aged seventeen, when a friend, in front of a close group of friends, asked if I had ever masturbated. Well, being an upfront person amongst intimates, I admitted I did sometimes. “Oh my god, you perv!” was the response. This was the 1990s, not 1900.
Male masturbation is a common subject of jokes and lighthearted off-the-cuff remarks. It is seen as a natural, commonplace necessity that all men and boys do regularly. A release of the steam valve. But women don’t, or at least shouldn’t.
A little boy fiddling with himself during a nappy change or whilst watching TV is joked about between family onlookers. A little girl who does the same is tacitly ignored, her wandering fingers hastily removed.
Why is admitting that we enjoy pleasuring ourselves such a taboo?
The female orgasm has been a subject of mystery and even denial. Masters and Johnson in the 1950s were the first to study it. Before then it had been the subject of myth and legend, with many women unaware it was even a possibility. Freud labelled women who enjoyed self-pleasure “hysterical”. In the 1970s, Shere Hite shed a huge amount of light on it in The Hite Report (a detailed sexual study of large numbers of American women). But since then it has only been the subject of pornographic titillation, not just a normal part of female experience.
The repression of female sexuality has existed in most cultures for thousands of years. In some it is achieved through grotesque physical practices such as female circumcision and chastity belts; in others, through strict dress and behavioural codes. In Western society it generally exists through denial and denigration. And, of course, through taboo.
We cannot speak openly of our bodies, our pleasures; we cannot even name our genitals comfortably. Female liberation has only gone so far. The shame of a woman admitting she enjoys intercourse is taboo enough. To admit that she pleasures herself, disregarding her biologically procreative function and female duty to provide male pleasure, is beyond taboo. As is the admission that the female libido increases when pregnant, or that it is decreased by the use of the contraceptive pill. I don’t think men would stand for the chemical neutering of their libido. But because female pleasure and libido are embarrassing extras, they can be done without.
The repercussions of liberation
The taboo of female self-pleasure and sexual ecstasy informs so many of the cultural practices that structure our preconceptions and experiences of what it means to be a woman.
What would be the repercussions of the liberation of female self-pleasure? I venture that it would be the key to finding our true power and potential, including:
- An honouring rather than suppression of our deepest urges, and celebration of our passions.
- Greater gentleness and consideration of ourselves in all areas of life, rather than self-abuse and self-denial.
- A deeper self-respect when it comes to policing our boundaries with others, rather than opening ourselves to the abuse of others because we perceive ourselves as powerless.
- A more meaningful connection to our body and self image, and connection to the physical self rather than rejection of it.
- A deeper understanding of our hormonal tides and the ebb and flow of our libidos with our fertility cycles.
- An enhanced self-reliance, rather than relying on men to fulfil our needs.
The repercussions for sex education
Sex education for girls usually focuses on saying no, being safe and avoiding diseases and unwanted pregnancies, not on pleasure. If we could talk to our daughters about self pleasure, if we could encourage them to pleasure themselves, they might teach their lovers what is good for them. But I would guess that very, very few mothers, aunts and sisters feel able to have that conversation with their pubescent girls. Whereas boys will snigger and talk and even learn to masturbate together, for girls it is a solitary, shameful taboo with no guidance, no encouragement, or even acknowledgement.
The repercussions for birth
It also strikes me that moves forward in natural childbirth and acceptance of orgasmic birth will only really happen when women learn more about their own bodies and feelings through personal experience, a long time prior to birth. When, rather than submission to medical authorities and acceptance of pain and a desire for numbness “down there”, they choose waves of feeling, a sense of empowerment, they will choose the possibility of ecstasy. They will be familiar with the feeling of surrender to their bodies’ sensations. They will feel comfortable to touch the crowning baby’s head or use nipple stimulation to induce and augment labour. They will revel in writhing and groaning and all the sexuality which comes with birth, which currently is so discomfiting to hear about in childbirth classes. If we are familiar with our unctuous juices in sex, we will perhaps be more accepting of them in birth. We might see the connections between the contracting uterus in orgasm and in birth and the oxytocin-induced haze with comes after birth and orgasm.
We might come to a body literacy: a deep visceral and experiential understanding of our physical and emotional being which we do not run from in fear. We will have the courage to actively question and resist the ‘rape’ mentality of cascading interventions of medicalised birth: the cutting, numbing and shaving of the sacred female space.
When we learn to accept the sexuality which is our birthright, our fertility, our creative cycles, our birthing and our mothering, then perhaps we can begin to reconcile the roles of mother and lover, and help our daughters to claim it for themselves, unsullied by shame.
The clitoris: some facts
“The clitoris is pure in purpose. It is the only organ in the body designed purely for pleasure. The clitoris is simply a bundle of nerves: 8,000 nerve fibres, to be precise. That’s a higher concentration of nerve fibres than is found anywhere else in the body, including the fingertips, lips, and tongue, and it is twice the number in the penis.” Natalie Angier, Woman: An Intimate Geography
“70% of women who cannot climax during intercourse can climax during self-stimulation.” Shere Hite, The Hite Report
“At a witch trial in 1593, the investigating lawyer (a married man) apparently discovered a clitoris for the first time; he identified it as a devil’s teat, sure proof of the witch’s guilt [...] He showed it to various bystanders who had never seen anything like it. The witch was convicted.” Barbara G. Walker, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets
Lucy’s reflections on birthing pleasure
Since the birth of my second child I have begun to recognise the connections between my experiences of birth and sexual arousal. I have never heard them discussed in detail, and am sure many would find them shocking. But I have found them to be deeply enjoyable, and healing; a way of reconnecting to the power of my two births, an experience I will have so few times in my life. I do not feel uncomfortable now about the sexuality of my birthing or the birthing sensation of my sexuality. Instead I revel in them and allow myself to float down the ecstatic route of my birth canal. As my uterus pulses with the rushes of love, my mind and body return to the moment of birth, the moment of release of my two children, my greatest creative gift to the world. Here ‘I’ am, lying betwen two worlds, in the swirling mists, outside of time and history and the world of forms. A being of pure feeling, pure pulsing energy, floating free but grounded in love.
- The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler, Virago
- Aphrodite’s Daughters: Women’s Sexual Stories and the Journey of the Soul by Jalala Bonheim, Simon & Schuster
- The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality by Shere Hite, Seven Stories Press
- Female Ejaculation and the G Spot by Deborah Sundahl, Hunter House
First published in Issue 20 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.