Flicking the bean
Features Editor Bethany Bowles spoke with Jacki Yovanoff from Planned Parenthood about adolescence, social stigmas and gender roles in an exploration of female self-pleasure
In 1999, Jason Biggs had sex with an apple pie in the teen comedy American Pie. His character wanted to know what sex with a woman felt like and he was told that a vagina felt similar to the inside of a warm apple pie. So rationally enough, he tried it out.
We’re used to seeing men masturbate as a form of comedy on the big screen. We’re used to hearing slang language like “jacking off.” We’re used to boys just being boys who can’t help but touch themselves. Culturally, male masturbation doesn’t shock us anymore.
Men are allowed to touch themselves for pleasure, to watch porn, to have tissues and hand lotion on their bedside tables. They talk about it with each other in the locker room. Fathers teach their teenage sons that it’s normal behaviour. It’s a stress reliever. It helps deal with those urges that men just physically can’t suppress because of their sexual deviancy. Go ahead boys, masturbate all you want.
But what about the ladies?
I’m sick and tired of it being socially acceptable to talk about male masturbation, while women are still shamed for self-pleasuring. I remember being in high school and seeing Black Swan in theatres. This was the first film I saw female masturbation in the open. Natalie Portman, in a very serious scene, masturbates without knowing her mother is asleep in her room. This scene was horrifying. This wasn’t American Pie, this was a woman feeling shame and embarrassment for self-pleasuring.
We talk about the clitoris being one little dot, or button or bean … but it’s actually a whole structure within our bodies. Pound for pound, a person with a vulva has as much erectile tissue as someone with a penis.
When I was 18, my friends and I went into the Stag Shop. Along with buying lottery tickets, entering sex shops is one of the luxuries of turning 18. I remember suppressing giggles as we pointed at the dildos and vibrators, and thinking: “Do women really buy this stuff?”
“It comes down to our very gendered society,” said Jacki Yovanoff, education volunteer at Planned Parenthood.
“Males are [supposedly] the ones who are always ready for sex and are the ones who are pursuing sex. They’re supposed to be sexual. Whereas, our society is very sexual, but women aren’t supposed to be. [Women] are very sexualized, but not supposed to be sexual. That translates into female masturbation.”
Yovanoff explained that the media is discussing the topic more than ever. In television shows like Girls and Mad Men, female masturbation is being explored, which is ultimately starting a conversation. Once a conversation begins, Yovanhoff said, we will start feeling more comfortable about the topic.
“Whether you have a penis or a vulva, masturbation is good for stress relief. It is good for helping you sleep … and for people who are menstruating, masturbation can help alleviate cramps,” Yovanoff said. “The only harm that comes from it is what society puts on it.”
On top of all the benefits of masturbation, one of the main reasons self-pleasure is so positive is because it helps you understand your own body and your own sexuality. Pleasuring a penis can be fairly straight forward, but a vagina is a little more complex. For several women, achieving orgasm can be tricky, so masturbation can help women figure out their own bodies and lead to a better sex life with a partner.
“Our anatomy is not what we originally thought,” Yovanhoff continued. “We talk about the clitoris being one little dot, or button or bean … but it’s actually a whole structure within our bodies. Pound for pound, a person with a vulva has as much erectile tissue as someone with a penis … which is kind of surprising to a lot of people. When you get to learn your body and understand what it is, and understand that there’s a whole bunch of stuff going on in there, it can take that personal time to a whole new level, too.”
Unwillingness to talk about female masturbation begins when we’re children. Little boys grab their penises and people laugh, but heaven forbid a little girl puts her fingers anywhere near her vagina. We teach little kids, especially little girls, that their genitals are dirty.
“Even the saying, ‘boys will be boys.’ We hear that all the time. You don’t hear, ‘girls will be girls.’ Even those sayings are very gendered,” Yovanhoff said. “We’re putting people into one of two boxes when we’re doing that.”
I’m not claiming to be an expert — only an observer — but perhaps there is something about the externality of male genitals versus the internality of female genitals. There’s something more invasive about female masturbation and maybe that’s a reason why it is stigmatized. Bottom line is it’s your body. Whether you have a penis or vagina, you own that body part. It belongs to you. Touching something that’s yours should never bring shame.
Masturbation is a choice. If you don’t want to do it, that’s fine; you should never feel pressured into doing something you don’t feel comfortable with. But real concern arises if a woman doesn’t feel comfortable doing it because she’s been led to believe touching herself is dirty, or owning a vibrator is embarrassing. That’s body shaming. That’s failed gender equity. Having ownership over your body is a powerful thing. Talking about your body without feeling embarrassed, whether it’s with a medical professional, your best friend or your sexual partner, proves that ownership.
Whether you have a penis or a vagina, don’t ever feel ashamed for familiarizing yourself with your own body.
Just make sure you wash your hands before and after.