(Jamie O’Leary wrote this paper for her Writing Seminar, “Taboo and Transgression”)

It is no secret that women in the United States have not attained equality. Feminists point out egregious violations of women’s rights such as unequal pay for the same work, laws that aim to control women’s bodies, taxes on feminine hygiene products, and lack of representation in government, business, and academics. However, there is another another critical women’s right being violated that has been largely hidden from the public eye: the right to sexual pleasure. The unequal power dynamics in many sexual relationships are atrocious. Men orgasm with partners three times more often than women do, a phenomenon referred to as the orgasm gap. In fact, only six percent of women report having orgasms every time they have sex.[1] The orgasm gap worsens outside of the context of a romantic relationship.[2] These grave statistics reflect society’s notions that men’s sexual pleasure is more important than women’s and that the male orgasm constitutes the motivation for and ending of sex. In addition, a powerful taboo around women’s masturbation keeps many women from seeking pleasure on their own. Sexual pleasure is a beautiful part of human life, yet it is clear that female pleasure is being ignored on a large scale. How can this problem be addressed? It seems obvious to turn to the place where most people learn about sex in depth: sex education.

In her groundbreaking 1988 article “Sexuality, Schooling, and Adolescent Females: The Missing Discourse of Desire,” Michelle Fine argues that sex education programs omit discussions of female pleasure, which disempowers women and reinforces society’s prioritization of male pleasure.[3] She proposes that schools include a “discourse of desire” that would teach students that women have sexual desire and pleasure. This would promote equal power dynamics in heterosexual relationships and help young women develop sexual subjectivity and self-interest. Louisa Allen responds to Fine in “Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Constituting a Discourse of Erotics in Sexuality Education,” and like Fine, she hopes to change the fact that sex education currently reinforces male-centered notions of sex and casts women as powerless objects instead of desiring subjects.[4] Allen argues that schools need to incorporate not just a discourse of desire but a discourse of erotics, which is more developed and will better accomplish Fine and Allen’s shared goals. A discourse of erotics entails not only showing that female pleasure happens but also teaching that all people have a right to pleasure and opening up a space for students to discuss and learn what things might be pleasurable, such as petting, sexual intercourse, oral sex, physical closeness, or being desired by someone.

Although Fine and Allen make essential arguments about the importance of teaching pleasure for the development of women’s sexual subjectivity and equality, their propositions could never work practically because both fail to incorporate an important source of pleasure for women: female masturbation. In this paper I analyze scholarly research on female masturbation as well as my own interviews of thirteen female college students and find that masturbation is deeply linked to the development of women’s sexual subjectivity and ability to communicate about, prioritize, and advocate for their own pleasure.[5] Thus, teaching students about masturbation is vital to the fulfillment of Fine and Allen’s goals. Open discourse around masturbation promotes positive masturbation attitudes and experiences, so I propose that schools incorporate a discourse of female masturbation as a crucial part of Fine’s discourse of erotics. Although male masturbation and partnered erotic activities would also be taught and explored, there must be an emphasis on female masturbation because teaching students about it is incredibly necessary. Women face objectification and marginalization in sexual relationships and lack places to learn and talk about masturbation, and a discourse of female masturbation is the most effective way to change that. A discourse of female masturbation will teach that masturbation is possible and normal, debunk the myth that women’s pleasure is contingent upon men, introduce masturbation mechanics and techniques, and open up a discursive space for students to share ideas, questions, and experiences. Through a discourse of female masturbation in sex education, female students will develop into communicative, independent, and equal sexual subjects.

According to Michelle Fine, the dominant discourses of female sexuality in public school sex education classrooms are problematic because they silence female pleasure, and so they must be replaced with a “discourse of desire.” Fine argues that sex education currently does not include a discussion of women’s sexual subjectivity, which she defines as women’s roles as desiring sexual agents. Women’s pleasure is absent in schools while male pleasure is present: “male pleasure is taught, albeit as biology. Teens learn about ‘wet dreams’ (as the onset of puberty for males), ‘erection’ (as the preface to intercourse), and ‘ejaculation’ (as the act of inseminating).”[6] Unlike female pleasure, male pleasure is viewed as integral to puberty and the mechanics of sex, so male pleasure is taught and female desire is entirely silenced.[7] Fine argues that this is damaging to women: “Trained through and into positions of passivity and victimization, young women are currently educated away from positions of sexual self-interest.”[8] When female desire is ignored, females are cast exclusively as victims and sexual objects. Thus, by silencing desire sex education actively disempowers and subordinates women, barring them from establishing themselves as sexual subjects. To combat this, Fine articulates a revolutionary idea: the dominant discourses of sex education must be replaced by a “discourse of desire.” This means teaching that women’s sexual pleasure is an integral part of sex and acknowledging and normalizing women’s sexual desires. Fine does not offer concrete ways that a discourse of desire could be integrated into sex education curricula, but she does explain its benefits: it would reposition women from being receptive objects to desiring subjects and promote the sexual equality that has been historically absent in heterosexual relationships.

Louisa Allen agrees with Fine that pleasure must be taught, but argues that a discourse of desire is not sufficient; children should be taught how pleasure can be achieved through a “discourse of erotics.”[9] Allen defines erotics as “‘of, concerning, or arousing sexual desire or giving pleasure”  and argues that because sex education omits a discussion of pleasure and desire, it is “de-eroticized.”[10] This de-eroticization reproduces the idea that women are less desirous and capable of pleasure than men, an idea that society and the media already hammer in.[11] A discourse of erotics would help women develop their sexual subjectivity, just like a discourse of desire, and would promote their “sexual health and well-being.”[12] It would “involve the acknowledgement that all young people… are sexual subjects who have a right to experience sexual pleasure and desire.”[13] This is where Allen differs from Fine: where a discourse of desire teaches students that they can experience desire, a discourse of erotics shows them that they have a right to experience it. This sends the strong, egalitarian message that women deserve pleasure and desire as much as men. In addition, a discourse of erotics would also teach students how pleasure can be achieved. It would promote “knowledge about the body as related to sexual response and pleasure and may include the logistics of bodily engagement in sexual activity.”[14] Students have a right to pleasure and desire, and thus sex education’s instruction on the human body and sexual acts must include discussion of the many different ways that pleasure can be physically achieved. Allen suggests that this could include discussion of sexual touching, oral sex, sharing sexual fantasies, and even emotional intimacy. She posits that a discourse of erotics should be relevant to students, exploring topics applicable to their lives and providing a space for them to share their own knowledge of pleasure should they so choose. Although Allen lays out these characteristics of a discourse of erotics, she, like Fine, chooses not to discuss how it might be effectively implemented in sex education curricula.

Allen’s discourse of erotics would be more effective than Fine’s discourse of desire because it takes Fine’s strong ideas about teaching pleasure in order to promote women’s sexual subjectivity and adds important considerations. It does not matter if female students know that they can have pleasure if they do not know that they have a right to pleasure just as much as men do. Furthermore, if women do not know enough about their bodies and the mechanics of pleasure, they cannot achieve sexual pleasure even if they know that it is theoretically possible. Finally, teaching pleasure based on students’ “own experience of erotics” will make sex education classes engaging, relevant, and effective.[15] Thus, a discourse of desire is incomplete without a discourse of erotics. The goals that both Fine and Allen set forth are essential ones: equal sexual power dynamics, women’s sexual subjectivity, and the fulfillment of the right of all students to sexual desire and pleasure. At the heart of these goals are women’s rights and equality. Women should never be objectified, vulnerable, or unequal in sexual relationships, and sex education has a responsibility to ensure that. However, schools currently perpetuate women’s objectification and inequality by omitting a discourse of erotics. Allen’s call to end this by teaching students that they can have pleasure and that they deserve pleasure, as well as teaching them how pleasure can be achieved, is crucial.

Allen’s discourse of erotics, which is a more developed and effective version of Fine’s discourse of desire, must be implemented in schools, but its goals cannot be fulfilled if it omits female masturbation. Neither Fine nor Allen mentions female masturbation as a part of a discourse of desire or erotics, perhaps because of the enormous taboo surrounding it. However, this is an immense mistake: masturbation is the easiest and safest way for students to have pleasure. Furthermore, it does not make sense to talk only about partnered erotics when masturbation is an extremely common erotic act and an important part of many people’s erotic lives. Fine wants her discourse of erotics to be relatable to students, and it is safe to assume that at the age when students are in sex education, which is typically late middle school or early high school, their erotic experience consists mostly of masturbation. If a discourse of erotics fails to mention masturbation, many students’ first and only experience of sexual pleasure is negated and invalidated. Furthermore, even if women learn through a discourse of erotics that female pleasure is possible and normal, women who do not masturbate struggle to communicate about and advocate for their own pleasure and sexual equality in sexual relationships. Of the four women I interviewed who had never masturbated to orgasm but had engaged in sexual activity with men, three of them had given men orgasms on multiple occasions but had never experienced one themselves.[16] Because they did not masturbate, the women felt uncomfortable or unable to tell partners what would be pleasurable for them. Melissa told me, “I definitely have more of a guard up… I don’t know what to tell them, like this makes me feel good, if I can’t figure it out for myself first.” Melissa’s perceived lack of knowledge about her own body makes her feel vulnerable and unable to articulate her desires. Melanie said that when was in sexual relationships she sometimes knew what she thought would feel good but didn’t feel comfortable asking her boyfriends, despite their emotional closeness: “I was embarrassed somehow. I would just feel too uncomfortable to tell them what I wanted.” Even more problematically, interviewees and their partners shared the view that the goal of sex is for the man to orgasm: all three women who had not masturbated in at least two years stated explicitly that they prioritize men’s sexual needs over their own. Amanda said, “It’s okay if I’m not sexually satisfied as long as they had an orgasm. Maybe I don’t know how to be demanding… I very much find myself more about I want them to be happy not I want them to make me feel pleasure.” Amanda views asking for sexual equality as “demanding,” and sees men’s satisfaction, not her own, as the ultimate goal.[17] In other words, Amanda does not view herself as a sexual subject. These findings show that women’s masturbation practices have a profound effect on sexual power dynamics, the orgasm gap, and women’s sexual subjectivity.[18] Thus, women who understand the partnered aspects of erotics will not gain the equality or subjectivity that Allen wants them to if they do not also know about the solo aspect of erotics: masturbation. Female masturbation must be taught if a discourse of erotics is to accomplish its goals.

In the same vein, women with positive masturbation experience exhibit the sexual subjectivity that Allen hopes to instill with a discourse of erotics. In contrast with the interviewees who did not masturbate to orgasm, those who did brought strong communication and insistence on equality to their sexual relationships. All four women who masturbated to orgasm and also engaged in sexual relationships reported having one-to-one orgasm ratios with male partners, knowing how to tell their partners what would give them pleasure, and having the confidence to do so. Liz told me that she prioritized sexual equality: “I’m pretty, like, adamant about people taking care of me as well as me taking care of them.”her pleasure, and allowed her not to settle for an unequal or un-pleasurable sexual experience. These findings show that positive masturbation experience helps women become equal sexual subjects, thus fulfilling the goals of a discourse of erotics.

I propose that a discourse of female masturbation be included as an integral part of a larger discourse of erotics, because women who have a place to discuss and learn about masturbation exhibit positive attitudes toward it, which lead to positive experiences and the sexual subjectivity that Allen hopes to instill. Hogarth and Ingham found that women with positive attitudes toward masturbation were able to comfortably and effectively communicate with partners and thought about their own pleasure and desire, as opposed to prioritizing the pleasure of their male partners.[21] In other words, they were sexual subjects. These positive attitudes toward masturbation translate to positive experiences; Davidson and Darling found that “those women who reported guilt feelings associated with masturbation were more likely to have negative feelings toward the practice and less likely to indicate positive physiological and psychological reactions after engaging in self-stimulation.”[22] Guilt, which leads to negative feelings around female masturbation, must be eliminated because it cancels out masturbation’s positive effects. Masturbatory guilt exists because female masturbation is an enormous taboo; there is no consistent discourse of female masturbation either in the media or among people, including women themselves.[23] Thus, women feel shame because they have no way of knowing that masturbation is normal, acceptable, or healthy. In my field research there there emerged a clear pattern: the women who saw masturbation as a positive force in their lives and consequently has positive solo and partnered erotic experiences had places for discourse around masturbation, usually an older female mentor or an open group of friends.[24] Those who had not masturbated to orgasm or felt ashamed of masturbating did not have reliable sources of discourse.[25] The correlation between having places for open discourse and having positive attitudes toward and experiences of masturbation is significant; it is in the silence around masturbation that shame is accumulated. Although, as my interviewees show, it is possible to find discourses of female masturbation outside of sex education, not all women are so lucky. Four women that I interviewed had never talked about female masturbation with anyone before. Furthermore, those who find places for discourse suffered from poor timing: almost all them reported that they only found these places in college, long after they had developed sexually and many of them had began masturbating. Most interviewees explained discovered masturbation with no information, support, or confirmation that what they are doing was normal and okay.[26]  The timing must be better: as an integral part of the larger discourse of erotics that Allen proposes, schools need to introduce a discourse of female masturbation into sex education as women begin their sexual development. Only then will women have positive masturbation attitudes and experiences, which is necessary for the development of their sexual subjectivity and equality as Allen envisions. Unlike Fine and Allen, who do not explain how their envisioned discourses would play out in real classrooms, I detail in the pages that follow how a discourse of female masturbation should be implemented in sex education as a concrete way to accomplish the goals of a discourse of erotics. Typically, schools teach one course on puberty and another on sex and sexual safety. All of the elements of my proposal should be implemented in the latter course, which usually takes place in late middle school or early high school.

Allen hopes to promote women’s sexual equality and rights to sexual pleasure, so a discourse of female masturbation would clearly inform students that women can and do masturbate. Allen wants schools to acknowledge that women experience, desire, and seek pleasure, and teaching that women masturbate would do just this, as the entire objective of female masturbation is women’s pleasure. As it stands, many young adults of both genders do not realize that women can masturbate or have pleasure at all.[27] In contrast to female masturbation, male masturbation is the subject of a rich discourse. References to male masturbation penetrate popular culture and boys and girls learn about it at young ages.[28] All but two interviewees learned that men could masturbate before they learned women could, often years before. Thus, through discourses of male masturbation, children internalize the idea that men have sexual desires and needs. On the other hand, the silence around female masturbation, both in schools and in society, generates the idea that women do not have strong sexual desires. It is no wonder, then, that many more men than women report having masturbated.[29] A discourse of female masturbation will allow schools to break the silence. Teachers should state explicitly that both men and women can and do masturbate, and that many find it a source of pleasure and a way to satisfy their sexual desires. This will send the message that women have sexual desires just as men do. This is essential for male students because it will compel to them consider women’s desires in future sexual relationships.[30] In addition, it will empower women to value and promote their own pleasure, both with partners and alone. Masturbation is a pleasurable act, and Allen would argue that female students, who have a right to their own pleasure, are entitled to learn about it. Thus, both men and women will benefit from learning that female masturbation is a possible and normal expression of women’s sexual desires.

Allen wants a discourse of erotics to promote women’s sexual health and well-being, so discourse of female masturbation should teach female students to access pleasure in a healthy and safe manner by affirming that masturbation is beneficial and normal. In their study of twenty women’s attitudes toward masturbation, Fahs and Frank found that “for many women, masturbation allowed them to express positive feelings toward their bodies, and it served as a nurturing and affirming mode of self-acceptance. Whether feeling joy or pleasure, having fun, or relieving stress, masturbation enhanced many women’s lives in positive ways.”[31] In a society where women’s bodies are criticized and women’s sexual desires are suppressed, female masturbation can be an empowering act. Masturbation can also help relieve menstrual cramps, improve women’s moods, and improve genital self-image.[32] All of this information should be communicated to students in order to encourage them to masturbate. Schools should also present masturbation as a safe alternative to sex: instead of engaging in risky sexual behaviors with partners, students can fulfill their own sexual needs.[33] Teachers cannot explicitly tell students that they should masturbate because schools do not have a right to tell students what to do with they own bodies. However, teachers must explain that female masturbation is a healthy, positive, and pleasurable behavior, which will to dispel shame and encourage children to masturbate should they want to.

Allen wants female students to become independent sexual subjects, so a discourse of erotics should emphasize the fact that female masturbation does not depend on men in any way.

Women’s pleasure can be completely independent of men, yet highly problematically, many women do no know that.[34] One interviewee, Bridget, expresses dismay and anger that she did not know that women could have orgasms without men until she was seventeen years old. This is especially shocking because Bridget’s mother is a gynecologist, which shows the power and severity of the taboo around women’s pleasure and masturbation. Melissa, who also thought that women depended on men for pleasure until age eighteen, added that it is important for women to know how to masturbate so that they do not feel required to find men to fulfill their sexual needs. “If you don’t want to go for a cheap hookup… you have to have another option,” she says. “That’s not what’s right for everyone.” Sex education teachers must present masturbation as a way for students, especially female students, to achieve pleasure without anyone else, and tell students that they need not enter into sexual relationships they feel unsure about when they can masturbate on their own. However, this is not enough, because women often think of their own masturbation in male terms. Fahs and Frank found that many women spoke about masturbation according to “stereotypically masculine scripts about sexuality.”[35] For example, the majority of women in the study did not practice self-penetration, but because of the lack of discourse around masturbation they assumed that most women did, perceiving themselves as abnormal for getting sexual pleasure only from clitoral stimulation. These women internalized the idea that women’s sexual pleasure is contingent upon men or substitutions for men (vibrators or fingers that penetrate in place of a penis), thereby impeding their sexual agency. Thus, when describing female masturbation, teachers should explicitly state that penetration is not the only way to masturbate and that many women prefer clitoral stimulation.[36] In addition, women in Fahs and Frank’s study were preoccupied with men’s perceptions of their masturbation; they expressed “concern about men feeling inadequate or undermined (leading women to masturbate either for a partner’s pleasure or in secrecy).”[37] These women were unable to separate their own, independent sexuality from the desires and insecurities of men. To show female students that their masturbation is only about them, teachers should state that people still make their own, independent choices about masturbation while in relationships. They should emphasize that no matter what, one’s decision to masturbate is about one’s own pleasure only. Male students will benefit from this because they will learn that they are not the center of a sexual interaction or relationship. Thus, teaching students that women’s pleasure can be completely independent of men will cast women as independent sexual agents and interrupt patriarchal sexual scripts.

Just as Allen’s discourse of erotics includes details of how different sexual acts are physically performed, a discourse of female masturbation should discuss masturbation techniques and mechanics. As already mentioned, women who know how to masturbate to orgasm are able to communicate to partners what is pleasurable and are empowered to become equal sexual subjects. However, due to the lack of discourse, many women simply do not know how to do it, which leads them to feel frustrated and give up. For example, three interviewees gave up after multiple failed attempts to masturbate to orgasm. Poppy reported, “Frankly, I’m not very good at it. I just get bored.” [38] All three women expressed extreme frustration and a desire to have an orgasm on their own, but none felt that they fully understood the mechanics of masturbation.[39] A discourse of female masturbation needs to present complete, detailed information about the female anatomy and how it relates to pleasure.[40] In addition, it must address masturbation mechanics and techniques and include a description of what an orgasm feels like.[41] This will help women to successfully masturbate to orgasm, eliminating the stress that results from insufficient knowledge. Explaining techniques might be awkward for teachers and elicit uncomfortable or inappropriate reactions from students, so this information would be best conveyed through reading. One excellent resource is “S.E.X.” by Heather Corinna.[42] This comprehensive book includes frank information about all facets of sexuality, including masturbation. It presents masturbation as a normal, healthy practice for both men and women.[43] The book explains the different ways that men and women masturbate and gives explicit instructions for readers to follow should they so choose. Sex education students should be given this book, or a book or pamphlet like it, to refer back to whenever they like. Male students should be required to read the information about female masturbation so that they know ways that female pleasure can be generated, which would lead to them knowing better how to help female partners feel pleasure.[44] In order to ensure that students read and process the information, teachers should provide a brief review of the reading in class or ask students to read it while present in the classroom. Without a discussion of masturbation mechanics and techniques a discourse of female masturbation would never be successful, because women need to know how to masturbate in order to reap its benefits.

Finally, in addition to teachers’ explicit statements about the independent, egalitarian nature of female masturbation and a book to explain mechanics and techniques, a discourse of female masturbation must include space for students to ask questions and share their experiences.[45] According to Allen, it is essential to present a discursive space around erotics, and students can choose whether they would like to take advantage of it. I propose that students be broken up into small groups and prompted to discuss their thoughts on female pleasure, masturbation, and sexual equality. The teacher should tell the students that they are welcome and encouraged to share personal experiences if they feel comfortable. This is the only time that boys and girls should be separated, because single-sex groups would make many students more likely to share freely. Older students (for example, high school seniors) could be brought in to facilitate these discussions and answer questions. This discursive space is essential to promote positive, shame-free attitudes toward masturbation, allow students to learn from others’ experiences, and give them the opportunity and confidence to share their own knowledge. As Allen says, students would not have to participate, but the very presence of an opportunity for discussion would break the taboo and inspire girls to bring the discourses outside of class to their friends and families.

Just a few years after Fine’s groundbreaking suggestion that pleasure be taught in sex education, Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders said at a United Nations conference: “I think [masturbation] is something that is a part of human sexuality and it’s a part of something that perhaps should be taught. But we’ve not even taught our children the very basics.”[46] One week later, the White House forced her to step down, demonstrating the gravity of the damaging taboo around masturbation. Over twenty years later, we are still failing to teach “the very basics” of masturbation. In fact, not a single interviewee was taught about masturbation in sex education. Fine and Allen have laid the groundwork with their writing on discourses of desire and erotics, and it clearly essential to introduce a discourse of erotics into sex education in order to promote women’s pleasure, equality, and subjectivity. However, perhaps afraid of the backlash that Elders faced, Fine and Allen fail to identify female masturbation as an indispensable element of a discourse of erotics or desire. There is no place for this fear because sex education is failing its students, many of whom enter into sexual relationships that have massive orgasm gaps and position women as dependent objects. Sex education is often children’s first formal introduction to sex, so it can have an enormous impact on how children view sexual power dynamics and themselves as sexual beings for the rest of their lives. Schools must recognize this responsibility and introduce a discourse of female masturbation that includes more than just “the very basics:” it should teach that women masturbate for pleasure, show that women’s masturbation and pleasure can be independent of men, introduce masturbation mechanics and techniques, and provide a discursive space for shared knowledge and experience. Through a discourse of female masturbation, schools can educate their male students about equality and empower their female students to become sexual subjects who communicate about, prioritize, and seek the pleasure they deserve.

 

Works Cited

Allen, Louisa. “Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Constituting a Discourse of Erotics in Sexuality

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Armstrong, E. A., P. England, and A. C. K. Fogarty. “Accounting for Women’s Orgasm and

Sexual Enjoyment in College Hookups and Relationships.” American Sociological Review 77.3 (2012): 435-62. Web.

Baker, R. Robin, and Mark A. Bellis. “Human Sperm Competition: Ejaculate Manipulation by Females and a Function for the Female Orgasm (1993).” Sperm Competition in Humans: 177-210. Web.

Corinna, Heather. S.E.X.: The All-you-need-to-know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You

through High School and College. New York: Marlowe, 2007. Print.

Davidson, J. Kenneth, and Carol Anderson Darling. “Masturbatory Guilt and Sexual

Responsiveness among Post-college-age Women: Sexual Satisfaction Revisited.” Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy 19, no. 4 (1993): 289-300. doi:10.1080/00926239308404372.

Escajadillo-Vargas, N., Mezones-Holguín, E., Castro-Castro, J., Córdova-Marcelo, W., Blümel,

J.E., et al. (2011). “Sexual Dysfunction Risk and Associated Factors in Young Peruvian University Women.” Journal of Sexual Medicine, 8, 1701–1709.

Fahs, Breanne, and Elena Frank. “Notes from the Back Room: Gender, Power, and (In)Visibility

in Women’s Experiences of Masturbation.” The Journal of Sex Research 51, no. 3 (2013): 241-52. Accessed April 9, 2016. doi:10.1080/00224499.2012.745474.

Fine, Michelle. “Sexuality, Schooling, and Adolescent Females: The Missing Discourse of

Desire.” Harvard Educational Review 58, no. 1 (1988): 29-54. Accessed April 9, 2016.

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Herbenick, Debra, Michael Reece, Vanessa Schick, Kristen N. Jozkowski, Susan E. Middelstadt,

Stephanie A. Sanders, Brian S. Dodge, Annahita Ghassemi, and J. Dennis Fortenberry. “Beliefs About Women’s Vibrator Use: Results From a Nationally Representative Probability Survey in the United States.” Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy 37, no. 5 (2011): 329-45. doi:10.1080/0092623x.2011.606745.

Hogarth, Harriet, and Roger Ingham. “Masturbation Among Young Women and Associations

with Sexual Health: An Exploratory Study.” Journal of Sex Research 46, no. 6 (2009): 558-67. Accessed April 9, 2016. doi:10.1080/00224490902878993.

Jehl, Douglas. “SURGEON GENERAL FORCED TO RESIGN BY WHITE HOUSE.” The New

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Kinsey, A.C., Pomeroy, W.B., Martin, C.E., & Gebhard, P.H. (1953). “Sexual Behavior in the

Human female.” Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders.

Leitenberg, Harold, Mark J. Detzer, and Debra Srebnik. “Gender Differences in Masturbation

and the Relation of Masturbation Experience in Preadolescence And/or Early Adolescence to Sexual Behavior and Sexual Adjustment in Young Adulthood.”

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Tiefer, Leonore. “Masturbation: Beyond Caution, Complacency and Contradiction.” Sexual and

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Wade, Lisa D., Emily C. Kremer, and Jessica Brown. “The Incidental Orgasm: The Presence of

Clitoral Knowledge and the Absence of Orgasm for Women.” Women & Health 42.1 (2005): 117-38. Web.

 

I pledge that this is my own work in accordance with University standards.

X Jamie O’Leary

[1] Wade, Lisa D., Emily C. Kremer, and Jessica Brown. “The Incidental Orgasm: The Presence of Clitoral Knowledge and the Absence of Orgasm for Women.” Women & Health 42.1 (2005): 117-38. Web.

[2] Armstrong, E. A., P. England, and A. C. K. Fogarty. “Accounting for Women’s Orgasm and Sexual Enjoyment in College Hookups and Relationships.” American Sociological Review 77.3 (2012): 435-62. Web.

[3] Fine, Michelle. “Sexuality, Schooling, and Adolescent Females: The Missing Discourse of Desire.” Harvard Educational Review 58, no. 1 (1988): 29-54. Accessed April 9, 2016. doi:10.17763/haer.58.1.u0468k1v2n2n8242.

[4] Allen, Louisa. “Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Constituting a Discourse of Erotics in Sexuality

Education.” Gender and Education 16, no. 2 (2004): 151-67. Accessed April 9, 2016. doi:10.1080/09540250310001690555.

[5] I interviewed a group of thirteen female Princeton University students who volunteered for this study. I asked these women about the sex education they received, their attitudes toward and experiences of masturbation, and the power dynamics they experience in sexual relationships with partners. All of these women spoke to their heterosexual relationships with men. Although it is outside the scope of this paper, further research should be done to examine the effects of masturbation practices and attitudes on same-sex sexual relationships.

[6] Fine, 36.

[7] In fact, the female orgasm may play an important role in insemination: Baker and Bellis found that women who had orgasms anywhere from a minute before to forty-five minutes after ejaculation retained significantly more sperm, leading to an increased probability of impregnation. Baker, R. Robin, and Mark A. Bellis. “Human Sperm Competition: Ejaculate Manipulation by Females and a Function for the Female Orgasm (1993).” Sperm Competition in Humans: 177-210. Web.

[8] Fine, 42.

[9] In fact, there are dozens of scholars who have written about teaching pleasure in sex education in response to Fine. All point out that although Fine wrote her piece in 1988, the problems she articulates are still very present today. Surprisingly, I could not find scholarly responses to Fine that mention masturbation as a necessary part of a discourse of desire.

[10] Allen, 157, taken from Sinclair J (1995) Collins English dictionary (Glasgow, HarperCollins) and Allen, 154.

[11] Allen, 156.

[12] Allen, 151.

[13] Allen, 152

[14] Allen, 152

[15] Allen, 152.

[16] The woman, Mary, who reported having orgasms with partners estimated that she typically had an orgasm only once for every seven orgasms that her male partners had.

[17] Amanda also said that this feels discordant with her strong feminist beliefs: “I hate it,” she told me. In every other part of her life she advocates for equality, but in sexual relationships she cannot shake her belief that men’s pleasure is more important than her own.

[18] This field research is supported by Hogarth and Ingham, who found that women who expressed negative attitudes toward masturbation spoke little of their own sexual desires, felt unfulfilled in sexual relationships, and struggled to communicate with partners about their own pleasure or even about condom use. They also expressed the patriarchal idea that it is women’s role to be passive and men’s role to be active in a sexual relationship, casting themselves as sexual objects instead of subjects. Women who showed disinterest in or lacked knowledge about their own bodies “often perceived their own sexuality in terms of their boyfriends’ needs and pleasures.” These women did not see themselves as independent sexual agents. In contrast, Hogarth and Ingham found that women with positive attitudes toward masturbation spoke about their pleasure and desire, and were comfortable and able to talk about sex with partners. This, alongside my field research, suggests a strong correlation between masturbation and sexual subjectivity. Hogarth, Harriet, and Roger Ingham. “Masturbation Among Young Women and Associations with Sexual Health: An Exploratory Study.” Journal of Sex Research 46, no. 6 (2009): 564. Accessed April 9, 2016. (doi:10.1080/00224490902878993.

[19] Liz says that she has even moved men’s heads before during oral sex to make it more pleasurable for herself: “I’m like, guys do it, why shouldn’t I? I’m not going to sit here and waste my time.”

[20] Vivian echoed this sentiment: “Even in just like hookups I think I’ve gotten to a point where I’m like I’m not hooking up with you for your pleasure.” Vivian feels comfortable advocating for her own pleasure no matter what her relationship with her male partner.

[21] Hogarth and Ingham.

[22] Davidson, J. Kenneth, and Carol Anderson Darling. “Masturbatory Guilt and Sexual Responsiveness among Post-college-age Women: Sexual Satisfaction Revisited.” Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy 19, no. 4 (1993): 289. doi:10.1080/00926239308404372.

[23] Fahs, Breanne, and Elena Frank. “Notes from the Back Room: Gender, Power, and (In)Visibility in Women’s Experiences of Masturbation.” The Journal of Sex Research 51, no. 3 (2013): 244. Accessed April 9, 2016. doi:10.1080/00224499.2012.745474.

[24] For example, Angela was unable to masturbate to orgasm in high school. However, when she walked in on a college roommate masturbating, the two of them opened up an ongoing discourse. Angela, with the encouragement of her roommate, began masturbating again, reached orgasm, and now sees masturbation as immensely positive. In fact, she has set a goal to masturbate five times a week and keeps track of her progress on her phone. She and her roommate now discuss their masturbation practices regularly.

[25] For example, Bridget began masturbating her senior year of high school and recounts feeling deep shame. Her parents would casually discuss her brother’s masturbation at the dinner table but she felt that her own masturbation was far less acceptable and she went to great lengths to hide it from her family. For Bridget, the shame has not fully gone away: “It feels wrong at times, like I shouldn’t be doing it.” Bridget’s interview with me was the first time she had discussed her masturbation practices with anyone, which supports a correlation between discourses of female masturbation and positive attitudes toward it.

[26] Sheila said that as a young girl, “I understood that I can give myself pleasure, but then it took time before I actually realized that this is actually a common, normal thing. Before I was like, ‘what the fuck is this? Is this like a weird subculture? Who does this?’” Sheila masturbated for years before realizing that what she was doing was a typical and acceptable behavior.

[27] It is essential to acknowledge that there are more than two genders, but this paper must be limited to a discussion of men and women.

[28] Pun intended.

[29] Leitenberg, Harold, Mark J. Detzer, and Debra Srebnik. “Gender Differences in Masturbation and the Relation of Masturbation Experience in Preadolescence And/or Early Adolescence to Sexual Behavior and Sexual Adjustment in Young Adulthood.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 22, no. 2 (April 1993): 87-98. doi:10.1007/bf01542359.

[30] In my field research, many women who did not masturbate to orgasm and accordingly did not reach orgasm in sexual relationships reported that their male sexual partners did not ask or care about their pleasure. For example, Melanie was in a long-term relationship, yet even though they had sex frequently, Melanie’s boyfriend never addressed the fact that she had not had a single orgasm. “There wasn’t necessarily a reaction,” she recalls, “it was just done once he had come.”

[31] Fahs and Frank, 248.

[32] Tiefer, Leonore. “Masturbation: Beyond Caution, Complacency and Contradiction.” Sexual and Marital Therapy 13, no. 1 (1998): 9. doi:10.1080/02674659808406539 and Escajadillo-Vargas, N., Mezones-Holguín, E., Castro-Castro, J., Córdova-Marcelo, W., Blümel, J.E., et al. (2011). “Sexual dysfunction risk and associated factors in young Peruvian university women.” Journal of Sexual Medicine, 8, 1701–1709.

[33] This is an argument that could be presented to abstinence-only schools that might be hesitant to include a discourse of female masturbation.

[34] The belief that women needed phalluses for pleasure was widely held until 1953, when Kinsey et al. found in their groundbreaking study that only 20% of women who masturbated used vaginal insertion. Kinsey, A.C., Pomeroy, W.B., Martin, C.E., & Gebhard, P.H. (1953). Sexual behavior in the human female. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders.

[35] Fahs and Frank, 241.

[36] In the larger discourse of erotics, teachers should also say that in partnered sexual activities women often get the most pleasure from the stimulation of the clitoris, not penetration. They should emphasize the fact that female pleasure is just as important as male pleasure, and so sex consists of far more than penetration alone.

[37] Fahs and Frank, 248.

[38] Poppy considered it unfair to expect men to help her achieve orgasm when she could not achieve it on her own. “I can’t be too hard on them if I can’t do it to myself,” Poppy said. Due to her frustrations with masturbation, Poppy did not insist on her own pleasure. This ties back to the link between masturbation experience and sexual equality.

[39] In addition, without being prompted, they each introduced the idea that they could not orgasm because there was something physically wrong with them. For example, Poppy suggested that maybe her nerve endings were weaker that those of other people. Women deserve to avoid these unnecessary feelings of deficiency and frustration.

[40] Fahs and Frank write that “girls are often not even taught the terms or provided with representations of their genitalia, such as vulva, clitoris, or labia.” This is unjust: women have a right to knowledge about their bodies. Fahs and Frank, 241.

[41] Melanie expressed doubt about whether she knew what an orgasm felt like, saying, “I know it’s supposed to be overwhelming and feel really amazing… I don’t know if I have too high of expectations or if I’m just not doing it right?” Melanie did not have a place to discuss masturbation, and therefore thought that she might have been having orgasms all along and not noticing them. This uncertainty, she told me, felt embarrassing.

[42] Corinna, Heather. S.E.X.: The All-you-need-to-know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You through High School and College. New York: Marlowe, 2007. Print.

[43] The book even includes a list of the different slang terms for masturbation, which further normalizes the practice and allows students to recognize when it is being spoken about.

[44] Male students would be given this same information about male masturbation, but it is less necessary because they learn it from popular culture and from non-stigmatized discussions of male masturbation with others.

[45] Some parents would object to their children being taught about masturbation even in high school, but their concerns are not valid. First, high school students are too old to be effectively sheltered: it is very preferable for women to learn about masturbation from trustworthy adults who promote women’s empowerment than for them to hear about male-focused sex from patriarchal popular culture. More importantly, this paper has shown the strong link between women’s attitudes toward and practices of masturbation and their sexual subjectivity and equality. By keeping their daughters from learning how to masturbate, parents would be blocking their daughters from becoming independent, communicative sexual agents. It is hard to imagine that any parent would want to keep his or her daughter from sexual justice and equality.

[46] Jehl, Douglas. “SURGEON GENERAL FORCED TO RESIGN BY WHITE HOUSE.” The New York Times. December 09, 1994. Accessed April 23, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/1994/12/10/us/surgeon-general-forced-to-resign-by-white-house.html.

 

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