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The vagina dialogues

By on October 21, 2018

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I have a very distinct memory from when I was 17 and sitting on the couch across from my mom. She paused the Netflix show we were watching, turned to me and said, “Hey, so do you want me to buy you a vibrator?” Out of pure astonishment and, quite frankly, a lot of embarrassment, I burst out laughing.

Now I think it’s important to preface this by saying that aside from the fact that my mother has a little more grace and never showed up at any of my school functions with a video camera and a slew of embarrassing dance moves, Regina George and I basically share a mom.

Throughout my childhood and into my teens, my mom always cultivated a safe space for me where I could ask questions about my body. She never made me feel ashamed for having curiosities. But even still, I wasn’t really sure how to answer the question. And furthermore, I didn’t understand why, after 17 years of open and honest dialogue between the two of us, I still felt ashamed talking about it.

If I’m being honest — which, by the title of this article, you can probably gather that I’m going to be very honest — when I first sat down to write this piece, I was worried that I was going to be perceived as an oversharer. I mean, I am literally sitting down to write about masturbation, a topic that is still often seen as taboo in our society or too personal to write about in-depth. As a result, I became so focused on how my writing would be received that I struggled to get the piece written at all.

It took a few words from a friend, who, over hot chocolate and a bag of carrots, mentioned her passion for sparking conversations that few are brave enough to have. And it hit me as she jokingly rolled up her sleeves and said, “Alright, you want to talk about it? Let’s go.” This is one of those conversations.

So, as I sit in bed hammering away at my keyboard, I’m rolling up my sleeves myself.

Let’s go.

For the last month or so, I’ve been trying to understand why masturbation, specifically for women and queer individuals, is so frowned upon in conversation. In hindsight, I think it’s partially due to the fact that children rarely received much formal education about it.

This is especially true for me. Throughout my time navigating the Manitoba education system, masturbation was never something formally discussed. The topic was uncharted territory, something laughable and embarrassing.

At least it was for fellow female students. For boys, however, it was seen as normal — to be expected and even celebrated.

This is still the case for many young people trying to navigate today’s middle and high school systems. While these systems and their curricula have changed since the mid-to-late 2000s, young people today are still resorting to the internet to figure things out for themselves. This is especially true now, considering Premier Doug Ford’s rollback of the Ontario sexual education curriculum.

Recently, one of my friends told me that she remembers Googling “how to masturbate” at 16 years old because no one had ever told her what it was or how to do it. Instead of looking to the internet to teach us, this should have been, at the very least, talked about in school. Not only can this dependence result in an abundance of harmful misconceptions, but it can reinforce stigma surrounding masturbation as well.

Online pornography is still the primary method that teenagers resort to in order to learn about masturbation and sex. As a result, young people are being fuelled with misinformation of what ‘real’ sex looks like, only obtaining a false depiction of what it actually is. Traditional porn, so clearly designed to cater to the male gaze and experience, is not a genuine educational resource — especially for those of us who can’t identify with it.

As a queer woman, it’s always been a bit challenging to get access to accurate information when it comes to sex. I can remember still being in the closet, desperately trying to navigate the multitude of complexities that come along with suddenly realizing you’re gay at 15 years old — one of which is that you pretty much have no idea about how sex works, let alone how to be safe when having it.

Thankfully, we are living in a time and culture that is finally starting to move away from those cisgender, heteronormative conversations about what ‘real’ sex is. Dental dams and finger condoms are readily available at most Planned Parenthood locations and several medical clinics throughout the city. Contraception is available on campus, and sex is talked about in orientation events as a given fact of life.

But even so, this is still the experience for so many youths in the LGBTQ+ community, who are taught little to nothing when it comes to non-heterosexual relations. When you’re not having these conversations in school — a place which is, by design, meant to teach — how else are you supposed to learn what sex entails? And if you don’t learn about sex, how can you begin to unravel the complexities of masturbation and self-pleasure?

Until recently, I wasn’t very aware of the extent to which my friends had also been affected by the stigmas surrounding masturbation and sex. Over a night of wine-induced laughter and hors d’oeuvres, I sat with them, hoping to gain some insight on the topic. I focused my questions primarily on the taboos associated with masturbation, specifically for women and queer people. I first asked my friends what they’d been taught in school, and while the response I received was disappointing, I can’t say that I was particularly surprised.

One of my friends told me that only twice during his time in the Ontario education system did he hear about female masturbation. According to him, aside from conception and childbirth, there was an absence of information regarding the functions of the female reproductive system. He didn’t know that the female body could orgasm until he was about 16 years old.

As another friend so eloquently put it, her sexual awakening was sparked by Taylor Lautner, but she had no idea how to channel the new feelings that he awoke. She told me that throughout her teen years, she wasn’t even aware that what she was doing was considered masturbation, nor was she sure whether it was a normal thing to do. She went on to say that this was due to the fact that no one had ever actually told her what masturbation is, or that it is something that women are even capable of.

While masturbation for men is usually portrayed and talked about as a matter of course that is inherent to manhood, for women, it is centred around a sense of independence. The fact that it involves a woman having a sexuality of her own, independent of men altogether, is in many ways revolutionary. In a world that is just reaching a point where we are beginning to create space for these conversations, this idea still causes discomfort for many people — women included!

I find this fact of particular interest considering that feminism has been on the record since the mid-nineteenth century. Women across the globe have been challenging these patriarchal, misogynistic, and heteronormative perspectives of how the world should operate for over 100 years. And yet, we still struggle with the basic idea of women pleasuring themselves solely for the purpose of pleasuring themselves.

One could say that this extends doubly for queer women. This is because, when we are sexualized, it’s also in the context of interacting with each other, not just with ourselves and our own bodies. The hypersexualization of queer women in the context of masturbation is rooted in the fact that we tend to have, but are not limited to, fantasies about other women. Again, this comes back to the discomfort that people feel when considering women masturbating for their own pleasure, disconnected from men entirely.

This is why I believe it is essential to be aware of the intersecting axes of disadvantage that come into play within the settings of these conversations. This is of particular importance when looking at the experience of non-binary and trans people, because they have the added stigmas surrounding their respective identities that make their experiences unique and, in many circumstances, more challenging to those of cisgender queer women like myself.

There are feminist-inspired sex toy companies, such as KnottyVibes, Picobong, Babeland, and GoodVibrations, whose purpose is to help normalize masturbation and conversations surrounding it. We’ve also now reached an age when there are sex toys specifically designed for trans people, such as Buck-off, the first sex toy marketed for trans men on hormone replacement therapy. All of these companies are helping to develop a culture in which conversations about masturbation are not something that we have to whisper to each other in passing.

I think it’s only fair for me to say that I’m still trying to figure all this out for myself. But if I had to summarize the main realization that I’ve come to since setting out to write this piece, it’s that it’s essential to be self-aware — not just of ourselves and our own bodies, but also because it’s important to be cognizant of the variety of circumstances that come together to make each person’s experience unique and how we choose to speak of those particular experiences.

At this point, I think I should probably point out that I’m a huge advocate for personal growth through education and conversation, specifically when it comes to topics that can, at times, get rather murky. This being the case, I think it’s only fair that I bombard you with an arsenal of learning materials when it comes to the topic of masturbation and other forms of sexual health because, as my mom so bluntly puts it, “Sexual health is important — it’s a fact of life!”

Whether it is by subscribing to blogs such as PinkNews, Autostraddle, and DIVAMagazine; binge-watching YouTube videos by sexual health advocates such as Stevie Boebi and Hannah Witton; or, in my friend’s case, simply Googling “how to masturbate,” education is the first step to getting a grasp on these topics.

In writing this piece, I’m hoping to help normalize conversations surrounding masturbation and sexual education and encourage a more intersectional way of thinking about pleasure. If I’ve done what I’ve set out to do, you’ll walk away from this piece thinking about what you have yet to learn and questioning what you already do.

So I’ll leave you with one final piece of advice: be curious, ask questions, and learn.