It’s been a big year for female masturbation – or at least, for female masturbation finally being recognised as an actual thing. Anyone who knows their way around feminist corners of the internet will know that practically every day there’s a new interview with Caitlin Moran about why discovering masturbation as a woman is the most radically awesome thing you can do, or a blog-post informing you that orgasming regularly will make you live longer, or something about “Kilttra”, usually along the lines of, “omg, Sweden has just invented a perf new word for female masturbation that combines clitoris and glitter, everyone’s fav things!!” So if, for whatever reason, you can’t quite relate to this fervour of gushy self-love, you can be left with a niggling feeling that maybe, just maybe, you’re doing feminism wrong.
Now, don’t get the wrong idea here – by no means am I criticizing being loud and proud about female sexuality and self-pleasure. Nor am I trying to deny its radical significance in a world of patriarchal oppression that teaches women that our bodies are shameful, dirty, and not ours to own. Learning to orgasm and then orgasming as much as possible is undoubtedly something to celebrate and encourage. But for anyone with a vagina who struggles with this aspect of their identity, there’s a risk of feeling inadequate, left-out, or even ashamed, in a mainstream movement that often simply fails to acknowledge that for many of us, things just aren’t that simple.
There’s a deep flaw in the assertion that anyone who has a complicated or troubled relationship with sex just needs to drop everything and masturbate until the problem goes away. Getting to know your own body and understanding how it works sexually is a good thing, provided that your desires and needs fit the convenient narrative that sets female orgasm up as the Holy Grail of liberation. But the problem with a discourse centred on how the body “works” sexually is that this inevitably assumes that if you don’t engage with sex in that way, then your sexuality is broken, and it needs to be fixed for the good of your physical and mental well-being. Basically, it means you’re repressed, and feminism’s role is to liberate you from this tragic state of affairs.
The reasons why this narrative might not fit everyone are extremely varied, and intersect with different kinds of patriarchal oppression in complex ways. That complexity, however, is the whole point: orgasm can’t possibly be the only solution offered to people with vaginas to address our disaffection with our bodies and sexualities, when thousands of years of patriarchal hegemony have left sexual and identity politics in such a horrible mess. Physiological problems, trauma, gender dysphoria and plain disinterest are all very real factors that problematize the liberation-through-masturbation narrative, but if you’re affected by one or more of those issues then there isn’t a lot of dialogue out there to help you come to terms with your complicated relationship with sex and masturbation.
For me personally, my lack of interest in masturbation, the physical discomfort I sometimes experience from clitoral and vaginal stimulation, my failure to relate to the image of the glamorous female sex icon in ecstasy in a bathtub surrounded by scented candles and rose petals, and my traumatic early sexual encounters all combined to leave my relationship with my sexuality in a state of crisis. By the time I left school, I felt completely estranged from by body and so shaken and intimidated by the idea of sex that I was depressed and angry with myself. I had hoped that feminism could help me figure out what the hell was wrong with me, because I was convinced that I’d never be happy until it was fixed. Sex-positive feminism definitely went a long way in helping me learn to value myself and to assert my needs and desires, but I couldn’t help feeling alienated by the pervasive message that in order to be a sexually liberated woman you needed to make yourself come. If this still wasn’t working for me, then it was just a further sign of personal failure and another source of shame. I resolved to try harder to get myself off like a good feminist, all the while feeling more confused and upset than ever. It took years before I finally began to accept that actually, there might not be anything wrong with me at all. My relationship with my body and sexuality is not typical, and it is often difficult, but it is just as legitimate as everyone else’s, and I should be learning to embrace it for what it is instead of trying to fight against such a fundamental part of who I am.
What surprises me is that as feminism becomes more and more diverse and intersectional, and our understanding of the complexity of gender and identity politics deepens, the movement’s attitude to the sexual liberation of people with vaginas remains so remarkably narrow. I’m not really sure what to make of my sexuality, but one thing I do know is that it has nothing to do with glitter, and very little to do with my clitoris either, for that matter. So Sweden can keep “Klittra”. The emerging dialogue around self-love is definitely awesome, and it’s making a real difference to the status of female sexuality in society, but I’d like to see a similar wave of positivity and enthusiasm around accepting yourself and your sexuality whether or not you’re comfortable with wanking.
The good news is that now the stage is set, there’s hopefully going to be room to take the discussion further. We still desperately need better sex-ed and health-care provision, an end to the shaming and objectification of women’s bodies, and more rights for the LGBTQ+ community, all of which will make it easier to have these kind of conversations. It’s my hope that as feminism continues to grow and become more inclusive, we’ll start hearing a stronger message that self-love doesn’t have to be one thing or another – it can be as sexual or platonic as you want, and any variation is totally fine and wonderful, as long as the love is there, and as long as it’s unconditional.