Why New Zealand Women Need to Talk More About Masturbation
"The vagina can atrophy if not used."
Illustration by Ben Thomson
Masturbation is so natural there is research that suggests babies do it in the womb. It's something, as the joke goes, that 95 percent of men admit to doing and the rest lie about. So why isn't it the same for women? Why don't we talk about it as much as men? And why should we?
One reason that girls need strong female role models is that you can't be what you can't see. When it comes to role models for women's masturbation, you don't necessarily need to see it, but you do need to know about it. Although there is often acceptance and humour around male masturbation, there is relative silence around the female equivalent: because it is possible to ignore young women masturbating, a lot of people choose to. Comparing it to men's solo habits, family counsellor Suzie Wallis says, "It's not as visible, and you don't need to deal with ejaculate as often," but that there is still a conception among women that it is shameful, dirty, and embarrassing.
A 20-year-old Samoan woman reported being worried about receiving death threats if she talked about female masturbation in parts of her community.
The silence is also a result of what Kyrin, owner of Love&Luna, a crystal sex-toy shop, calls the "intergenerational conflict". Many of her customers are young Pacific and Māori women coming from backgrounds like the one Kyrin herself grew up in: conservative, often Christian, where discussions of sex and masturbation are unheard of. Conversation about masturbation is so taboo that one of her brand ambassadors, a 20-year-old Samoan woman, reported being worried about receiving death threats if she talked about female masturbation in parts of her community. It's no wonder some women have no sense of societal permission to explore their bodies in the same way young men do; some women may feel as though what they are doing is somehow wrong.
That conflict might be as simple as discomfort. As Julia says: it "would be a VERY uncomfortable topic. My mum and dad never gave my sister and me any kind of 'sex talk'—what we know, we found out for ourselves." But even seeking advice from friends can be fraught with difficulty. Devon is a passionate advocate of masturbating now, but describes how she "definitely felt that there was a social taboo around what I was doing and that it was something that needed to be kept secret from my peers".
So, if women can't always discuss this properly with their parents or friends, where are they getting their information? It isn't schools, where discussion around sex is more about relationships and mechanics than pleasure. Which leaves the internet, pornography, and sex shops.
Kyrin notices that although her customers are keen to engage with her in person, she makes her sales primarily through her website, suggesting that women are still embarrassed to buy their sex toys in person. Edit Horvath, an Auckland-based sex therapist, believes the popularity of sex-toy parties is that they allow women to touch and play with toys at home, which makes them less frightening, but she is careful to note that these and internet purchases may not be of the same quality you can find in store.
Obviously, many women literally work it out for themselves, but the lack of clear conversation and information leaves a mark on many. For cam girl Charlotte Jane, when she was young, "masturbation was something that felt incredibly taboo and made me incredibly uncomfortable to talk about". She has turned it into her career now, which is clearly the other end of the spectrum, but she says that one of the biggest differences between the way men and women treat masturbation is that men admit it whereas "most women I know will deny ever having masturbated and will just brush the subject off when it is mentioned."
Things are changing, though, and young women are, ahem, opening up about what they do with themselves. One reason may be the greater integration of the LBGTQI community, in which women are a lot more open about this. As George, a queer artist, told me "most of us are pretty avid and open masturbators", so much so that they create exhibitions entirely about masturbating, which helps to take the conversation to the mainstream masses.
"The vagina can atrophy if not used."
It's something we need to be talking about. Solo experiences give women a way to understand and own their bodies, and to take the pressure off their partners to provide what is often an elusive experience. All of the therapists VICE spoke to emphasised that getting to know your own body allows you to better let a partner know what works for you and what doesn't.
Horrifyingly, Horvath told me that "the vagina can atrophy if not used". The nerves in the clitoris and vagina need, as do all nerves, stimulation and touch to grow and maintain. This also means that the less, and later, women begin to masturbate, the harder it will be to reach the desired goal—the equipment is simply rusty.
Kyrin told VICE that women often believe an orgasm isn't worth the hassle. But learning to change this is empowering, and beneficial to your health. As she says: "If you know something is going to give you a huge hit of dopamine, why aren't you doing it every night?"
Maybe a better question is: why aren't you telling your friends?