“Why don’t you just start asking people for their poop stories?” one slightly peeved commenter posted on Homegrown’s Instagram page. Shortly after, the social platform removed our innocuous request for female readers’ to share their first experience of masturbation. ‘Failure to abide by their community guidelines,’ it seems. “Disgusting,” said another, just minutes before it was removed for the second time. Call us gluttons for punishment but it turns out the mere idea of women pleasuring themselves rubs a lot of people the wrong way. Plenty of readers had our backs through it all, of course, calling the extreme outrage ‘silly’ and ‘unsurprising’ but it does warrant some thinking when a post with zero nudity, zero vulgarity and zero violence begets such an extreme reaction from people and social media platforms. What is it about women being agents of their own sexual pleasure that offends people so much?
Posted below is the illustrated image that went on our Instagram page along with a caption that read “Ladies, we want your masturbation stories. May is the International Month of Masturbation and to celebrate, we want to feature your real-life experiences. Anonymity will be maintained if you want, hell send it to us from a different address if you must. Nothing is too risqué or too plain. Let’s dispel the shame surrounding masturbation, one story at a time.”
To be fair, masturbation’s gotten a bad rap over the years for both men and women included. We’re stumbling our way out of the era where young girls and boys were terrified of ever touching themselves again with threats of blindness, madness, and impotence. But there is still a glaring discrepancy in the way male and female masturbation is referenced in mainstream conversation today. The gap changes dramatically when you consider geography too. While Sweden has been busy renaming female masturbation Klittra to remove the stigma from the act, even the slightest notion of sex is cloaked in so much secrecy and shame in India, talking about masturbation is an act of rebellion in itself. Talk about masturbation as a woman and you have yourself a sharp, shiny double-edged sword. The kind that removes men from the picture altogether in a patriarchal society, and the kind you wouldn’t want anywhere near you, much less your own genitals. No wonder then that the notion of self-pleasure for women has become a beacon for sex-positive feminists all over the world.
And now the battle’s finding its own warriors for change cropping up in India too, wielding words instead of swords. Nishtha Relan’s story for Youth Ki Awaaz, for one, titled ‘I Am a Woman, And I Masturbate. Stop Demonising Me For It,’ had a huge part to play in opening up the channels for dialogue about female mastubration in the country. “I was afraid of going to the gynaecologist for a regular check-up because I thought she might get to know, by looking at my vagina, that I was masturbating and would inform my mother. It never occurred to me that other people could have a healthy attitude towards the act since I had never heard it being mentioned in the 19 years of my life,” she candidly admitted in her ode to self-love. In another equally lauded instance, members of India’s own Nisheeth TV walked the streets of the national capital asking young women to talk about masturbation, and the responses were as refreshing as they were eye-opening. “Everybody does it. It’s a basic human need. It’s very natural. Who doesn’t?” one girl mused aloud.
“Women are consistently taught to think of themselves as objects of sexual desire rather than agents of their own sexual pleasure.”
As more and more issues pertaining to women’s sexuality bubble up to the surface, begging for air after years of repression, it appears more women than ever before are willing to come forth about their own masturbatory experiences. Living proof that in a digital era where everyone has a voice, the personal truly has become political. Hundreds may suggest that the act is a private one, and such stories are making much ado about nothing, however, the fact remains that women are consistently taught to think of themselves as sexual objects rather than agents of their own pleasure. It explains why, despite the short life spans of our Instagram post, a number of young women wrote in to us anyway, eager to share their own hands-solo stories, itching to take a knife to any cloaks that tried to shame them into believing taking control of their own sexuality was wrong.
Equal parts hilarious, embarrassing, brutally honest and self-resilient, hearing their thoughts on self-love made us realise that even laced with thousands of feminist injustices, there’s no greater tragedy than the fact that so many women out there aren’t even aware they can have this experience at all. And when we do, we can hardly even identify where the shame is stemming from, given that the societal conditioning is so deep-rooted. Either way, we can only hope that ordinary, young women getting real about masturbation might inspire others to either understand their own bodies better, or stop feeling shame about enjoying them. It’s time to get over ourselves when it comes to getting off.
Routine VS. Obscene
Divya was twenty when she had her first experience with masturbation. “We have a subject in MBBS called Forensic Medicine and it talks about abnormalities of human sexual behaviour. Masturbation was included in topics such as paedophilia and the ‘peeping Tom phenomenon.’ It made me curious, I didn’t have a clue as to how to do it, but it was exhilarating. It made me feel good and weirdly guilty,” she wrote to Homegrown. It took her a few months to get over the guilt she felt, but, “I still wanted to do it! It’s funny because I never even gave drinking and smoking pot a second thought,” she explains when quizzed about the feelings of guilt she associated with the act of masturbation initially.
It’s the ‘routine’ benefit that men are granted on the topic of masturbation that irks her the most. “For men, ‘he doesn’t watch porn and doesn’t masturbate, it’s not normal’ is the norm. But if a girl does it, it’s ‘dude why so horny?!” she explains. “It’s like an unspoken rule that men doing it is normal, but women don’t do it, don’t talk about it nor do women want it. No one bothers to actually ask before forming an opinion.” Ann Friedman noted the same in her article for The Cut where she wondered if masturbation was the last sex taboo for women. “It’s something bad girls do, not something every girl does,” she wrote.
Proud mothers, proud daughters
For Aratika Das, however, masturbation was always about a feeling of strength and she has an unusual (at least in the context of Indian culture) person to thank for it. Introduced to the concept by her “extremely liberal-minded” mother, Das was always encouraged to talk openly about her body and the various things it could experience, a factor that is at least partially responsible for her healthy thinking towards it. “I was around 13 when I first masturbated,” she tells us, adding, “I don’t remember the exact feeling I had right after that first time, but every time I do it, I feel strong. Not the kind of strong that pushes you to do something more, but more like a realization of owning your own body.” Still, even with guidance, she found it difficult to masturbate in the beginning, a concept that might point towards how differently men and women approach the act to begin with. Some experts point towards the biological, others towards sociological reasons, but one way or the other, it does force one to consider that reaching orgasm at all has always been a more complex thing with women. Statistics suggest that as many as one in three women have trouble reaching orgasm during sex. Tina Gong, designer of an app that encourages more women to play with themselves and even teaches them how, explained that her motivations were that “many women and girls may not even know how to masturbate at all.” All this proves is that it’s always been more complex for a woman to experience complete sexual satisfaction. But getting to know your body better through something like masturbation can only help, and a little education on it couldn’t hurt either.
“I’d tell my younger self not to force it, if I could,” Das admits. “But ultimately, self love is important because my body and mind are the only things I really own. Nobody is allowed to control it. This is me, for the next XYZ number of years. This right here, will remain as my identity.”
When curiosity didn’t kill the cat (or anybody’s vagina)
Unlike Aratika, Disha turned to a more modern God for answers - Google. The search engine’s tips and tricks weren’t the easiest way to orgasmic heaven though. In tenth grade at the time, she knew what it was and had wanted to do it for a while, but with the lack of proper information accorded to her, she just couldn’t figure out how it worked. “I came across stuff like ‘just stick a finger up the hole,’ and I thought to myself ‘um..that sounds painful! What hole?!’ I was shocked to discover that there are not one but two holes down there. Eventually, I discovered a little thing called the clitoris and managed to get to it,” she wrote to Homegrown. She even found a friend she could discuss her explorations with, often leading to hilarious conversations that sounded something like this: Dude, I’ve spent hours looking, I can’t find my clitoris. What if I don’t have one!? Okay, listen... today when you get home, take a chair, sit in front of the mirror and pull up a diagram. If you still can’t find it, call me,” she laughingly admits.
It’s particularly interesting to note this because even while women talk about literally everything when it comes to sex, masturbation still remains a closely guarded topic. As Emily Shire put it for The Daily Beast, “For women, the love that dares not speak its name is self-love.”
“I found it impossible to confide in anybody about this, forget close girl friends,” Disha confirms. “But now I find that the taboo is being lifted. I know I can talk to any of my girlfriends about this, even male friends to some extent. A significantly larger number of women are open to admitting that they like to masturbate or watch porn. So that’s something wonderful - we’re finally claiming full ownership of our bodies, and being able to pleasure ourselves. We don’t have to depend on men (or anyone else for that matter) to be able to satisfy ourselves.”
“Self-love is important because my body and mind are the only things I really own. Nobody is allowed to control it. This is me. This right here, will remain as my identity.”
Her thoughts on the different ways men and women approach and think about masturbation are an interesting combination of biological and sociological too. “Social stigma has never been as big a deal for men,” she says. “They have always been largely comfortable with discussing and joking about it, even sharing their porn with each other. But this kind of a dialogue amongst women is a very new thing, and in less educated sections of society the taboo probably still exists strongly. What peers think always does affect the way you approach something, and guilt plays a big role in it all. Secondly, the technique for doing it is so different for both the genders. With men, it’s kind of straightforward- I mean, there’s not a lot of variations you can try, and the end result is almost always an orgasm. Women on the other hand, have so many complicated aspects. There’s masturbation through direct clitoral stimulation, through penetration, through the G-spot... then there’s combinations of these three. Then there’s the whole multiple orgasms thing. And not to forget, before any of this, there’s this hymen tearing stuff that can seem pretty terrifying. Oh, and we also bleed once a month. So we have extremely complex relationships with our vaginas, since there’s just soooo much going on down there. Thirdly, I’ve been told that orgasms feel very different for guys. Apparently it’s one intense rush of release for men, whereas for women it’s a soft and gradual sensation that rises to a peak and then subtly reduces and falls. So given all these factors, it’s no wonder that the approach is different.”
The only way up is down
Finally, we had two young women who preferred to stay anonymous while sharing their stories with us. Both their names have been changed to protect their identity. Mallika* was about 17 when she started exploring her body and was initially quite apprehensive. However, she wouldn’t do anything differently if she had to do it all again. “I’d want to discover it by myself, including the inhibitions exactly the way I did,” she insists. What she enjoys most about it now though is that with acceptance and time, she has a much clearer understanding about what makes her feel good and what doesn’t. “I can now be a lot more vocal about these things with my partner,” she confesses, touching upon one of the most liberating aspects of female masturbation there is.
Women are consistently taught to be the object of somebody else’s pleasure; we’re just never taught to be agents of our own. But if self-love can lead to a whole new breed of women who know exactly what they want in bed just as much as their partners, how could that possibly be bad thing?
Kritika*, 33, agrees. “Self-love is healthy!” she professes. “It makes you way more comfortable with your body and it adds to your sex life. Besides, if it’s something that makes you feel that good with no downsides to it, it’s basically a gift to yourself!” As someone who accidentally chanced upon masturbation in the shower at 14, she didn’t have as many of the obvious apprehensions about indulging in the act, but she did feel incredibly confused just after. “It was so new, and I specifically remember feeling like I’d discovered something nobody else knew about. If I could go back in time and tell myself something about it, i’d just make sure I understood that it was normal and natural.”
Ultimately, maybe that first rabid commenter wasn’t all that wrong. Drawing from the thoughts of everyone we spoke to, once they broke past the ‘shame’ of it all, masturbation really might be regarded as a bodily function as normal and basic as pooping. It feels great, it’s an instant relaxer and there are virtually no downsides to doing it. So even if the whole world seems to be telling you you’re the wicked witch of the west for flicking your bean whenever your heart (and loins) desire, it’s time for women to realise that there ain’t no love like self-love. And all that power lies in our own hands/ imagination/ sex toys.
[Ladies, if you want to explore your bodies but have no idea where to start, Tina Gong’s HappyPlayTime app is as good a place as any. It is a series of sex education games and tools whose aim is to eliminate the stigma around female masturbation.]
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