“Of course I’ve masturbated during a Zoom lecture!” my friend yelled at me over FaceTime. “Haven’t you?”
I laughed, immediately taking her off speaker and politely nodding to the lady standing next to me in Target.
“Camera on or off?” I asked.
“Decline to answer.”
I laughed again and made my way to the chip aisle. “I’m pretty sure that could be considered sexual harassment.”
“Yeah, me too.” She crunched down on a chip and put another in her mouth. Watching her eat her snack through my screen had been the inspiration behind my excursion.
She swallowed and looked at me through the camera. “You doing OK?”
I knew what she was referring to. “Yeah, I’m doing OK.” I nodded to myself. I picked up a bag of Cheetos and put it in my basket.
“Have you tried masturbating? You gotta masturbate after a breakup, Hel, c’mon.”
I burst out laughing, drawing attention to myself from yet another Target shopper.
“I will, I will.”
“Well, that sounds enthusiastic.” She smiled at me. “You sound like you’re 13 again.”
“Try like 16.”
“God, 16 years without a nut. Can you imagine?”
I could. When I was younger, I literally didn’t think women masturbated. At all. I thought it was something boys did because I just never even heard about women doing it. Not in television, not in pop culture, not in jokes around school. Even after I finally learned women masturbated too, I didn’t want to do it because I couldn’t possibly feel feminine while doing it, which, with my gendered perception of masturbation, is personally really important for me to feel sexy.
“What about you, when did you start again?” I asked her.
“Seventh grade, I think. But I don’t know if it counts if you’re counting the nonexistent hairs on your palms the morning after.”
I chuckled while picking out a couple of kiwis and putting them in a bag.
“Man, I wished we’d talked about this stuff back then.”
She sighed. “Me too.”
I love talking openly with my friends about masturbation. Their funny stories, victories and misfires put my own into perspective. They remind me that I don’t have anything to be ashamed of. Masturbation may be a solo activity, but people, women especially, should never feel alone in doing it.
“Do you think if we’d started talking about this stuff earlier, that we’d have felt different about it when we first started out?” I asked her.
She thought about this for a second. “Yeah, I do. But it shouldn’t have been up to us to make ourselves feel comfortable with it.”
“Yeah, that’s true. It’s so different now sometimes I forget how I used to feel, you know?”
I masturbate pretty much every night and it’s a great part of my day. Honestly, just the idea that I can naturally make my body feel so much pleasure all by myself is such a unique feeling of empowerment. I never really get over it. It gives me power over my body. I may not be able to control when it feels pain, but I can control when it feels immense pleasure. And control, even just over yourself, has a way of making you feel powerful.
Sometimes I don’t do it “naturally.” Sometimes I use my bright pink vibrator, aka the best boyfriend I’ve ever had. Sometimes I put on music. Sometimes I watch porn. Sometimes I do it while I watch just regular TV like I’m in an old married couple. I do whatever I want. Whatever makes me feel good.
“It would’ve made sex better, too.” I was on the street now, walking home.
“If someone had normalized masturbation for us when we were younger.”
“You think so?” She thought about it. “I started masturbating so long before I ever had sex though that I knew what I wanted.”
“But knowing what you want and actually asking for it are two different things.”
I didn’t really know what I wanted the first time I had sex. But honestly, even if I did, I don’t think I would have been able to tell my partner. That would have been too reminiscent of such a gross, masculine act. It would ruin the mood — my mood. Society gendering masturbation affected my entire sex life. How I viewed my own enjoyment, how I communicated with my partner about that enjoyment. All of it.
I remember one day my friends and I were sitting around the lunch table, reading the school newspaper. Our school had put out a poll about sex. One of the questions was, “Do you masturbate?”
“Only 40% of girls here masturbate?” one of my friends said, flipping the newspaper to the next page. “That can’t be right.”
We all looked at each other for a second, and then the discussion broke out. Some of us had never masturbated in our lives, some of us had tried it and others were experts. But once we started talking, we all got so excited that it didn’t matter who did what; we just wanted to talk about it. We wanted someone to finally acknowledge and validate this part of our lives.
I was home now, unloading my groceries. “I’m thinking about writing a column about it,” I told her.
“Yeah, you know. Just throw a little representation into the void. Like that one time in our old school newspaper, remember?”
“You think that’ll help?”
I couldn’t help but picture myself when I was younger. Her wide eyes unknowingly basing her femininity on an unachievable level of purity shown in the media by simply not showing anything at all. Her need for the world to recognize her desires, and the world’s continued silence. Sure, my one voice is something, but silence is pretty loud.
I thought about that for a second. “No,” I sighed. “Probably not.”
Helen D’Orazio writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected]