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Sexual shame runs deep in our lives at a societal level. Sometimes we are conscious of it, sometimes it’s so deeply internalised that we don’t know it’s there. It’s present in “purity culture”, in the idea of virginity itself, in the Madonna/whore dichotomy, and it’s present in our own bedrooms.
Historically, it’s an interesting thing. Ancient cultures – in some ways – were more open about sex. As modern-day religion evolved, shame became increasingly linked to puritanical religious beliefs peaking, perhaps, with Victorian Values. And sadly, with colonialisation, these values also impacted on cultures around the world (see Love and Sex Around the World by Christiane Amanpour on Netflix for more on this, and A Curious History of Sex, by Kate Lister, is another great resource).
I wasn’t aware of my own shame around sex for the longest time, and there’s so much I could write about shame in general. But what I am going to do here is simply tell my own story about shame and masturbation in particular, and how I have started to unpick it.
As I said above, there are layers and layers to this: in a nutshell, the shame I felt around masturbation was passed down to me from my Mum (who also had intense shame around sex and masturbation passed down to her) and then exacerbated and embedded by society.
Add to this that masturbation wasn’t something I was taught about in my formal sex education at school. We weren’t taught about female pleasure at all. It was somehow commonly accepted that boys did masturbate, though, and we did cover male arousal, including erections and wet dreams. But sex as a teenage girl was steeped in fear – how not to get pregnant, how not to get an STI – and I left school not even knowing the correct biological terms for my genitalia.
Yet, I have spoken to my school girlfriends at length about this, and some of them certainly did not have the same level of shame around masturbating as I did. I attribute that to a few things, but mainly our upbringings.
Personally, I can trace the main source of my shame back to being around 9 years-old. I was diagnosed with type one diabetes in March 1995, just before my 11th birthday. One of the worst side effects of high blood sugar levels – especially in the months before diagnosis – can be thrush. Unbeknownst to my Mum, I had oral thrush as well as vaginal thrush for months. I had no idea why I was so itchy, but I was. I would scratch and scratch, but my Mum – not knowing how to manage this, and not knowing the reason – constantly told me off for “touching myself”. So scratching became something I did in private. It never did become masturbation, even though the momentary relief was definitely pleasurable. The main thing I learned was that “touching myself” was “bad”.
This, together with all the other pieces of the shame jigsaw, meant that I didn’t masturbate until I left home for university. I had penetrative sex at 16, years before I learned to give myself pleasure. And when I did start to masturbate I relied solely on toys. Even now, I can count the number of orgasms I’ve had using my own hands on one of them.
Now this was a very specific set of circumstances, that is unlikely to be solely responsible for my shame around masturbation, but it does seem likely that it played an integral part. What is also likely is that I would have carried shame around masturbation with or without this experience. My shame might not have been quite so obvious to me, and it might not have been quite as deep-rooted, but given the attitudes towards sex and masturbation that I grew up around, there would still have been shame.
If you have feelings of shame around masturbation, you may not have one incident that sparked it. But I’m telling my story to encourage others to explore their own.
As I said at the start of this, we are fed stories about sex and masturbation from childhood: by our parents; our wider families; the books we read; our sex education, or lack of it; the TV programs we watch; social media; and marketing (sex really does sell). Many of these reinforce stereotypes about female pleasure that just don’t seem to hold up scientifically (a few great books on this: Untrue by Wednesday Martin; Mind the Gap by Dr. Karen Gurney; and Girls and Sex by Peggy Orenstein).
Sadly, there is no magic wand where unpicking and releasing shame is concerned, but acknowledging it is definitely a first step.
I masturbate in spite of my shame, as a kind of middle finger to my shame.
I still often get anxious when I masturbate. I tend to spend little time on it, and it’s functional rather than enjoyable. I do it mainly for a physical release, and to maintain my libido, because I know that if I don’t masturbate my sexual desire overall decreases.
I’ve tried lighting candles, and “romancing” myself, and while I can absolutely see how this could be helpful, it doesn’t particularly help me.
I try not to feel additionally guilt about the fact that I struggle to pleasure myself with my fingers, and rely almost solely on toys.
I struggle to fantasise, which is another difficulty I can have. I know people who get lost in vivid sexual fantasies, but I am not one of them. My brain focuses mostly on the sensations, which can put more pressure on my orgasm, which can – in turn – mean it takes longer to have one.
I do watch porn, sometimes, but I’m also careful about which porn I watch. I only really enjoy watching porn that feels authentic, and in which female pleasure is centred (as an antidote to all the mainstream sex scenes that portray women having orgasms after 5 seconds of penetrative sex, despite the fact that over 70% of women orgasm most easily through direct clitoral stimulation.) Finding porn I really enjoy can be difficult, but it does help me reach orgasm.
I’ve had to unlearn my beliefs that masturbation in a relationship is bad or unhealthy: it isn’t. I do believe that if masturbating alone and in secret is the only sexual activity in a once-sexual long-term relationship that this might be worth exploring, but I definitely don’t think that self-pleasure is detrimental to relationships. In fact, I think it’s an important part of self-care.
In fact, I really enjoy mutual masturbation, and often wish I could channel the energy I feel when masturbating alongside a partner into my solo sessions.
And I definitely don’t buy into the: “If you can’t pleasure yourself, you can’t expect someone else to give you pleasure,” school of thought, though. I’ve learned so much about my body – and my pleasure – through partners who have prioritised me, and I am so grateful to them for this.
It’s often the things we hold the most rigid beliefs about – like our beliefs about sex and relationships – that are the things we can benefit from exploring. Those thoughts and ideas that are so much a part of us, but that we don’t really know how they got there or where they came from.
One of the most powerful psychological tools I’ve come across (pun not intended) is the “Johari Window”: the idea that there are things about ourselves that can be known or unknown to ourselves and/or others. Of course, we don’t always have control over the things we don’t know about ourselves. But that’s where the explorations around our internalised beliefs can be really powerful: they can help to bring parts of us into our known realm where we can spend time understanding them better.
So, for me, unpicking my shame around masturbation is an ongoing journey, but it is absolutely one I prioritise.