Have you ever talked to a friend about masturbation? Like, really talked? Masturbation is taboo, and the intricate ways we do and do not pleasure ourselves don’t tend to arise organically in daily chit-chat. In part because silence breeds stigma and partly because I was just curious, I interviewed seven students with vulvas about their masturbation habits. Stigma shrouds masturbation for all demographics; however, I decided to focus on people with vulvas due to the particular mystique (ignorance) around how this population receives pleasure.
“When it comes to masturbating, there is no one way to do it.”
Despite my tiny sample size, one thing was very clear from my interviews: when it comes to masturbating, there is no one way to do it. Two of my participants never masturbated, two masturbated irregularly, and three masturbated more than three times a week. For those that did masturbate, it was usually in their bed. It could be triggered by almost anything, from erotic stimuli in shows or books to boredom, stress or even “having to sit still for a long time.” Most did not use lube, and one used spit as a lubricant. Those that used porn did so irregularly or in phases. One person said: “the over-sensationalised scenes have really put me off.” Speaking on porn, another interviewee explained: “it turns me on, so it gets the job done, but some of it’s so objectifying that if I’m feeling fragile before I watch it, I’ll get really depressed. I have to be in the right kind of mood.” One recommended a “more ethical” porn site called Bellesa, and three mentioned using erotica instead. Almost all incorporated an element of fantasy into their masturbation rituals.
Methods of masturbating were varied. All masturbating participants mentioned clitoral stimulation, rubbing on or just above the clit with their fingers, often in “circular motions.” Four out of five combined this with vaginal stimulation; as one person said: “While still stimulating the clitoris, with my right hand, use my left hand to go into the vagina, using a combination of curving those fingers upwards, inserting and retracting my fingers and eventually moving the individual fingers up and down in a somewhat scissor-like motion.” Another testimony echoed this, identifying the G-spot area in her vagina (just inside at the top) to be particularly sensitive when her clit was stimulated. A third explained that while stimulating their clitoris: “inserting things into [their] vagina is [was] really stimulating and makes [them] a lot wetter” (they added that they’ve tested a range of materials and do not recommend cucumbers for those following along at home.) Finally, one participant relied solely on clitoral stimulation. She was the only participant who regularly used toys: a clit-sucking vibrator and combo toy — but only when her flatmates weren’t home!
The two participants that did not masturbate had different reasons why. One respondee said she “did not get turned on alone, [she needed] another person to feel aroused.” Plainly, she had no interest in masturbation, which is fine and normal, the same way wanting to masturbate is. Crucially, this participant was happy with this: “I haven’t tried to change it, I am okay with it. I would feel comfortable telling friends, I don’t think it is stigmatised.”
Other reasons for not masturbating included a lack of awareness about one’s body. As one interviewee stated: “the biggest obstacle would have been figuring it out because no one exactly tells you what to do.” Difficulties when starting were a sentiment echoed by several of the participants interviewed. These problems arose from misinformation (or a total lack of knowledge) and an absence of discourse around masturbation growing up and in sex education. This issue led one participant to have a “poor sense of [her] own anatomy.” It led another to lament the shortage of “blueprints” to follow (“whereas I always knew what it generally looked like for guys”), saying that male masturbation is “in TV plots, whereas female masturbation isn’t.” Another participant had “thought it was just women sticking themselves with dildos” when she was younger and thought that she would have to wait until she was old enough to go to a sex shop to try it.
“Information drought and shame then feed into each other in a vicious loop.”
Cultural factors play directly into the lack of resources available. For instance, one woman interviewed said: “I grew up in Indonesia, so anything sex-related is still a very taboo topic in society.” While none of my respondents mentioned religion, this factor undoubtedly can also play a role. Information drought and shame then feed into each other in a vicious loop. A particularly poignant testimony came from a respondee who, having discovered the joys of their body as early as age 10, decided to take a peek between their legs. They said: “I was so scared and horrified at what I saw, that I thought masturbating made it look like that, and I stopped. It was only after confiding in my mum that she reassured me it was normal and encouraged me to continue if I wanted.” Three out of my five masturbating participants also referenced shame or stigma.
In the case of my second participant who did not masturbate, this cycle led to repression: “I used to [masturbate and feel horny] when I was a kid and then stopped myself because of learned internalised shame or stigma. It was like I’d switched a light off in my brain, and then later, when I’d started wanting to, I couldn’t just switch the light back on.” In recent years, this participant has been trying to recover her sexual urges with a sex therapist, but masturbation still proves testing: “I think the difficult part is not having an instinct to follow. Like, I want to [masturbate] because it’s something I know exists and remember doing, but I don’t have a feeling to follow to help me figure out what I need to do.”
“Not only is there silence about vulva masturbation in mainstream spaces but messaging in spaces where it is discussed is not nuanced enough.”
This same participant raised a third obstacle to her progress: not only is there silence about vulva masturbation in mainstream spaces but messaging in spaces where it is discussed is not nuanced enough. She said: “There are aspects of feminism and sex positivity conversations that I have found extremely unhelpful.” The interviewee explained that they often give the impression that to be a fully participating feminist, you have to be sexually active or competent in ways that were beyond her for much of her life and that these materials can be just as shaming as those that condemn masturbation. She continued: “The way everyone does it is different, so just because something works for someone, doesn’t mean it has to work for you.” She also stressed that masturbating does not just have to be about orgasm and said this information helped her to progress in her journey with herself.
It is remarkable how many “shoulds” there are, for something so personal, that we do in our own time, by ourselves, alone. At best, external input is helpful. At worst, it is years of reconstructive sex therapy. So there is nothing you should learn from this article. But hey, if something I wrote tickles your fancy, go home and try it… or don’t.