In a conversation between Features writers Alijah Webb and Nakia Stephens comes a discussion about the taboo women face regarding masturbation, what is lacking in modern sex education, and why we still slut shame in the age of resurging female empowerment.
Images of half-naked women cascade across screens, nude heavenly bodies assert their prominence in divine classical artworks – their beauty is discussed in classrooms, analyzing every inch of the female body. With sexual positivity on the rise and feminist theory becoming more accessible, why do I keep hearing women shaming other women for engaging in one night stands? What a slut. God forbid a woman decides to take matters into her own hands and masturbate! How dare she utilize her sexual autonomy and take control of her own body! Body positivity is only acceptable when it accompanies a carefully curated Instagram post, right?
I learned through media and personal, first-hand experience that othering and being othered are not separate acts. I can be the subject of the male gaze and vow my vengeance against all men perpetuating these behaviors one day; then the next day I could see a woman showing “too much cleavage” and subconsciously think “she doesn’t respect herself.”
We’re taught not to be proud of our sexuality and work within a patriarchal system. It’s difficult having to toe that line; to not be too much or too loud, because then we’ll fall victim to the caricatures society has created of our identities, especially when it comes to sex. Outside of the preconceived norm, how can we operate in a society that prioritizes heterosexual, monogamous, mostly white, sex? Where did this discrepancy come from and how is it still perpetuated in America in 2018?
Fundamentally, American culture exists within a construction of deep sexual repression, and yet sex sells? It oozes out of each and every production whether carefully implied or overt. If we are constantly being spoon-fed sexualized images, why are people so uncomfortable talking about the vibrator in the room? According to Pornhub, the most searched term in 2017 was “lesbian” – people are so interested in female anatomy, but only when it exists for the male gaze, enforcing the fetishization of lesbian/bisexual relationships. Additionally, with top search terms including “Ebony” and “Korean,” such generalizations regarding race also serve to reduce women to just the color of their skin and the layout of their features.
With no respect for our identities and sense of self, how are we supposed to operate sexually?
Sex and masturbation have been shamed and highly regulated for centuries. The concept of masturbation as a lowly, weak alternative for sex ultimately stems from the intolerable regimes of sexual control that America is built on. The great taboo of masturbation exists because even touching yourself is a crime against nature. This is a dominant narrative that I’ve encountered, not only because of the area I was raised in, but also because this narrative exists on a larger scale.
We can recognize this on Facebook pages devoted to anti-masturbation propaganda. “Christian Moms Against Masturbation,” one of the greatest troll pages of our time, posts and advocates for keeping children from touching their “sin parts.” The hilarity ensues when you realize that there are thousands of people on Facebook that follow the page, and actually subscribe to the idea that masturbation is immoral.
As women, we have been taught that we aren’t allowed to experience sexuality on our own terms, only to be seen and not heard (unless carefully moaning our lover’s name at their request). We’ve been trying to reclaim our sexuality since the second wave of feminism in the 1970s, but it’s 2018 and we’re still trying. We’re still trying because women refuse to acknowledge their own sexuality, especially in the case of female masturbation. In 2016, the Gender and Women’s Studies department at Nazareth College conducted a study, in which 67% of 2,300 women aged 18-40 admitted to faking their orgasms. 39% of these women achieve an orgasm through masturbation/use of a sex toy and only 20% achieve an orgasm through vaginal intercourse and clitoral stimulation. If women are better getting off on our own why aren’t conversations about masturbation more accessible.
The presentation of sexuality manifests itself in a number of ways, but I constantly feel like there are specific pressures on, and models of what I conjure when I think of “deviant bodies.” Deviant bodies, being those that are othered in society, are constantly subject to ridicule and they present themselves in queer bodies, bigger than our self-constructed “average” bodies, and especially in bodies that are of different ethnicities and from a myriad of cultures and nations.
There’s an unspoken hierarchy that permeates society and implies that to be male means being awarded certain privileges and perks you wouldn’t receive otherwise.
While older men are the ones perpetuating this backwards-ass history, it’s us, the women, who are buying into it. By shaming other women and their choices, we perpetuate a system of inequality that only serves to our detriment.
Photography by Andrew Uhrig. Originally published in Rocket Vol. VIII, Issue 2.