Photo illustration by Teddy Baylon
Although it is a natural action, masturbation has been subject of its fair share of misconceptions and stigma, especially among women.
“Female masturbation has been seen as unnatural and immoral practice. It is considered a sin by many religions and forbidden,” said Maissa Khatib, associate professor of practice with a doctorate in interdisciplinary health sciences and faculty member of the Women’s and Gender Studies program at UTEP.
According to Khatib, one misconception is that masturbating will have negative effects on sexuality, sexual desire and functionality or will lead to an increased risk of anxiety and depression.
“(These misconceptions are) not true at all,” Khatib said. “If you look at science, at what research has found about masturbation, is most of the time a lot of benefits, health benefits, mental health benefits, but none of the misconceptions … are real at all.”
Some of the benefits that come with masturbation include better sleep, a better understanding of one’s sexual wants and needs, relief of stress and cramps, and even boosting one’s mood, according to a Healthline article. However, Healthline also warns against addiction to masturbation, suggesting therapy if it is affecting one’s life negatively.
Still, the subject of female masturbation and self-pleasure continues to be shrouded with stigma, especially when compared to how normalized it is among men.
This way of treating female sexuality as a taboo throughout history, has served as a way of exerting control over women, taking advantage of the way they are alienated and even ashamed from their own bodies, Khatib said.
“(It) takes away a lot of self-power.(It makes women more) easily accepting to be controlled and dominated by others,” Khatib said. “Think of abortion issue in the U.S. Women’s right to choose is not guaranteed; it depends on which political party is in power. Controlling women’s bodies and choices is taking away their freedom and voice.”
Marquis de Sade, a French philosopher and writer born in 1740, best known for his works portraying sexual sadism, makes a mention on the repression of sexuality as a form of control in his work, “Juliette,” when Mother Delbéne says, “Throughout history, monarchs and despots have always opposed sexual liberty because they have always known that it is never easier to oppress than when the people suffer repression.” The excerpt is translated from Spanish.
One case Khatib mentioned as an example of the way masturbation in general is treated as a taboo is that of Joycelyn Elders, a surgeon general who lost her job after proposing the encouragement of masturbation among high school students as a way to reduce sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and teen pregnancies.
According to a 1994 article by the New York Times, controversy rose after Elders advocated for sexual education in a United Nations conference on AIDS, especially from people with more conservative views, until she resigned. She was actually forced to resign as Leon E. Panetta, Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, declared if she didn’t resign, she would have been fired, according to the article.
“She lost her job just by saying and providing scientific facts about … sex education in high school, especially on masturbation,” Khatib said.
Still today, even with the fruits of the women’s rights movement in the country as part of female liberation from the control exerted over them, there is still work to be done, especially to end the misconceptions regarding masturbation, according to Khatib.
“Yes, over the decades, women’s movements have accomplished a lot but we still have a long way. Women in the U.S., the most powerful country, are still suffering gender inequity, the wage gap, lack of representation in certain sectors in society and lack of freedom when it comes to women’s sexuality,” Khatib said. “There is still an enduring taboo surrounding masturbation and a long history of discomfort to talk about sexuality in general.”
To end this taboo, Khatib proposes a public health campaign aiming to change the current sex education curriculum to be more “multifaceted” and based on research and to deliver more “edutainment” material, which is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “entertainment (as by games, films, or shows) that is designed to be educational,” for people of all ages with media that is appropriate for each age group.
“(We need a) public health campaign that will really address these misconceptions, have intervention that will be targeting all (people),” Khatib said. “A public health approach … should be wide and should be targeting … all of us, men and women who are sexually active in a sexually active age.”
Khatib also proposes for the campaign to encourage parents to look for accurate information about female masturbation and even offer training that emphasizes the importance of this topic so they can talk about it with their daughters.
“Currently, there are two good resources that I recommend: OMGYES, an award-winning interactive site where real women demonstrate, on themselves, various paths to orgasm (and) “Sticky: A (Self) Love Story,” a documentary that takes the revolutionary stance that touching yourself is not a cause for moral repulsion,” Khatib said. “Female masturbation has not only health benefits, but it also empowers women to better understand their sexuality.
Alexia X. Nava Carmona may be reached at [email protected]