And that’s pretty cool, so why don’t people talk about it more?
I didn’t know what the clitoris was until I was seventeen years old and in my first year of college. Seventeen! Which meant I had spent a good part of my teen years not knowing what pleasure felt like, let alone an orgasm. And it wasn’t that I didn’t have a coherent sexuality at that point. In fact far from it, I used to have elaborate sexual fantasies, enjoyed flirting and sexting with other people and was fairly self aware of what my kinks and fetishes were. And yet, I didn’t know where or even what my clitoris was. I had sexual desire, but no means of expressing it on my own body.
Like many people, there was a time I thought masturbation was weird and even dirty. When I was 15, a friend of mine told me how she masturbated from time to time and that she enjoyed it. ‘It makes me really happy,’ she said, slyly insinuating that I should try as well. I replied along the lines of ‘well, if it makes you happy, that’s great, but I don’t think I really want or need to do it.’ This was a complete lie, considering how on most nights I’d lie awake in bed with sexual fantasies coursing through my mind. I’d stay up in the dark like that; wet with arousal, my hands maybe running over my stomach or breasts, but never lower. I had successfully convinced myself that masturbation wasn’t normal or necessary, and that I was somehow morally superior for not doing it.
But my sense of moral superiority was an external veneer, a defense mechanism of sorts to hide a deeper embarrassment: which was that I simply didn’t know how to masturbate. I felt two layers of awkwardness- one at the thought of masturbation itself, and a second at my own naivete in not knowing how my body functioned. My disgust slowly gave way to curiosity. I wanted to explore my own body. But at the time, my idea of sex was immensely fallocentric, and I assumed that pleasure was only achieved through penetration. I tried inserting a finger into myself when I was in the shower, thinking it would result in some sort of rippling pleasure and that I would be struck by an all-consuming ecstasy. Of course, nothing happened. It mostly felt mundane and dry, like a gynecologist inserting a clinical, latex gloved finger inside.
Finally, I had to Google female masturbation to understand how it was done.
I was amazed at the diagrams that revealed that was a small, sensitive organ above my urethra, since until then I thought that pleasure is derived vaginally. And all hail Google! Because when I finally orgasmed, it was like nothing I had ever felt before. I couldn’t believe I had always had this potential for pleasure in my own body, and never known about it. Soon, I got used to experimenting with different strokes, textures, rhythms and wondered why I’d never done this before.
As I got older, it got easier to talk to my female friends about masturbation. I asked some of them when the first time they orgasmed was. The answers were fascinatingly different. Some discovered it accidentally as a child and never stopped, others realised they could orgasm during sex with a partner. The innocuous water spray-faucet was an amusing answer, some of my friends had accidentally angled the showerhead the wrong (or rather, right!) way, and found they could orgasm from that! And yes, in my early-twenties friend group, there were also those who had never orgasmed. Some of them were convinced like I had been, that masturbating was something only ‘other’ people did, and wasn’t something they desired. A few thought their first orgasm should only happen with their first sexual experience. And still others, were utterly clueless.
I can’t imagine the average cis-man having multiple male friends who have never orgasmed in their life. So what makes orgasms so elusive for women? When I brought up this question, some people suggested that female anatomy was inherently more complicated, harder to figure out and was somehow less instinctive. An erect penis, they claimed, was simply more obvious and simpler than a vagina and clitoris. But I don’t think the answer is this straightforward. For instance, a wet vaginal opening is also fairly evident and ‘obvious’ and something I experienced multiple times as a teen. Yet, I never had the confidence to let those signs of arousal lead me towards further pleasure.
And I think this is the root of the problem. To begin with, in a sexually repressive culture, most women are discouraged from exploring or even drawing attention to their genitalia, in both sexual and non-sexual ways. While men can unabashedly scratch their balls, adjust their underwear and even urinate in public, women only ever have one simple rule- keep your legs closed. Men are encouraged to take up space as they grow older, to expand. Women on the other hand, shrink. They hide away their pads and lacy panties, they learn to wear stockings under skirts and dresses, lest some shadow of their underwear be seen, and most of all, they learn to hide their desires, pretend like they don’t know, want, or care about sex. In a culture that encourages women to shrink, hide and never acknowledge their genitalia, it is no wonder it takes accidents and google searches to find what the clitoris is.
In my mother-tongue, there isn’t even an everyday word for vagina, other than derogatory slurs. “So what if someone has an itch or infection down there? What do they tell the doctor?” I once asked my mother. She shrugged and told me that most people, even to a doctor, only refer to their vaginas as “the place they urinate from.” This gross reduction of women’s complex genitalia- labia, clitoris, vulva, vagina and urethra to the act of urination is not just culturally embedded, but also linguistically fortified. If women can’t say vagina to a doctor, how would it ever become a norm for them to derive pleasure from their bodies?
So while masturbation is just as a simple, normal way of destressing and finding pleasure, it is also something powerful for women. It is a way of taking back our bodies from a culture that claims ownership of it. It flies in the face of the need to shrink and hide that women are so used to. An orgasm opens outwards, like being lifted off from the ground, with a sudden rush of blood and endorphins. There is nothing timid about it. And all you need is your own body- and perhaps a little fearlessness.