“Have you ever masturbated?” whispered my friend Joyce when our fifth grade class lined up to leave the auditorium following the sexual education assembly.
“No!” I responded, slightly mortified, but intently curious. “Have you?”
“No,” she said with a knowing smile.But she told me she had noticed that her baby cousin was always tugging at his little tiny penis. We laughed.
The sex ed assembly was not nearly as interesting, educational, or memorable as Joyce’s anecdote. When I got home, my mother asked me how the assembly went. I told her it was fine and asked, “When will I masturbate?”
I realized my mistake immediately and corrected it: “Menstruate!” She looked at me in horror and then embarrassment, causing me to sink into oblivion. That was the moment I learned that masturbating was shameful. She said nothing for a very long time. And then she returned to making dinner, and I took the opportunity to obsess alone in my room. She didn’t speak to me again that night except to alert me that dinner was ready. Later, I heard her telling my dad what had happened. I don’t think he ever looked at me the same way again.
Honestly, the thought of masturbation wouldn’t really come up again until I was in my late teens. My mom and dad had long been divorced when I found my dad’s abandoned porn collection, primarily made up of Playboy magazines and a few Penthouse Forums. Forum was literally a hand-sized magazine dedicated to articles, interviews, and, for me, the main attraction: erotic stories. The slow learner in me benefited from Forum. Growing up in white suburbia, steamy stories about housewives entertaining delivery men while their husbands hid in the closet to watch or join in on the fun turned out to be a turn-on. Ironically, my dad’s porn collection inspired me to finally begin exploring my never-before-explored “nether regions”. Quickly, I had joined the enlightened club that had long eluded me. “Self love” is a beautiful thing, even if the act of loving yourself doesn’t always equal self-love and acceptance.
According to Planned Parenthood, while most people admit to masturbating these days, 50% of (cisgender) men and women still feel guilt about it. The guilt and shame around masturbation and receiving sexual pleasure can be traced back to the complexities of patriarchy, body image, and trauma, along with arbitrary beauty standards, cisnormativity, heteronormativity — and, of course, religion.
Masturbation is narrowly defined as, “the stimulation or manipulation of one’s own genitals, especially to orgasm; sexual self-gratification.” As a society, we often focus on genitalia and the orgasm instead for sexual self-gratification, which can often include neither a penis, a vagina, or an orgasm. We live in a culture that confines “sexiness” and healthy sexual behavior to limited gender roles in the male/female gender binary while centering male pleasure over the pleasure, and subsequent education, of women and girls — much less transgender, non-binary and intersex folx.
If someone isn’t comfortable with their body image or literally their genitalia — thanks in part to a culture that doesn’t talk about sexual health — masturbation can lead to guilt and confusion, especially as it relates to one’s perception and validation of self. This dichotomy subverts a positive perception of sex regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. It has become accepted in the medical establishment that masturbation is good for your health. Yet, it’s 2016 and the stigma is still here — particularly for marginalized communities. That stigma causes shame that can result in generalized anxiety, depression, and even sexual dysfunction. So while playing with yourself has all sorts of health benefits, we are still in the dark ages when it come to embracing pleasuring ourselves.
I didn’t take a mirror to my vagina until I was 19 years old, after watching a movie about sexually liberated feminists of the 1960s. And doing so didn’t exactly feel revelatory. I had a lot to learn. Pleasuring myself involved a long series of trial and error. It wasn’t until masturbating became a part of my sex life with partners that I learned how to enhance my own pleasure beyond the concept of just stimulating my vagina in the “‘right places.”’
As a cisgender, largely heteronormative, fat Black woman, learning that I deserved pleasure in a society that saw me largely as undesirable was challenging. Having lived with depression since my late teens and anxiety for most of the last decade, I found that I had been neglecting myself in many areas of my life. Part of my commitment to self has been to reinstate my solo sex life and use masturbation as a tool in my self care toolkit.
Here is why:
- I was first diagnosed with depression in my early 20s following a few bedridden weeks at the end of my first serious relationship and a series of other unfortunate events. During that time, I found that masturbating served the very real purpose of self-soothing. It turns out it is more than just a pacifier. Pleasure induced by masturbation can prevent symptoms of depression and temporarily relieve anxiety. Masturbation can cause the body to release endorphins and oxytocin, the “loving” or “cuddling” hormone. The rise in these hormones lowers cortisol, the primary stress hormone, resulting in lifting your spirits and activating the reward circuits in your brain. It also releases dopamine, a lack of which can result in depression. Simply put, pleasuring yourself — whether you cum or not — relieves stress and can potentially counter the symptoms of depression.
- After a traumatizing series of events from 2007–2011, my anxiety was heightened and sleep became as elusive to me as a multiple orgasm. Masturbating to the point of orgasm can help relieve insomnia. Whether I am trying to get to sleep at a decent hour, or trying to go back to sleep once my 3 AM second wind hits, I can attest to this. Having spent years not sleeping, insomnia takes a serious toll on your body. My ability to process information has slowed, my capacity to retain information has shrunk, and, as a result, my self-esteem has suffered. Masturbation is a critical option when my brain is screaming for rest and my body is wired. Orgasm releases the same hormones that induces drowsiness. So after the high of an orgasm, the low that follows can assist your body to finally relax into into a more restful sleep.
- Masturbating can help improve your body image. Beyond the simple act of directing your attention to yourself, masturbating requires that you focus on how your body feels. Focusing on experiencing pleasure, rather than how your body fits society’s racialized standards of beauty and heteronormativity, is a sex-positive way to be present with yourself and feel empowered. It was with a partner that I learned that my big belly — which brought me so much shame throughout my life — was in fact an erogenous zone. Part of my masturbating often focuses some sensual time with my belly as a result. Rebuilding my relationship with my body may not have happened if I hadn’t allowed myself to receive pleasure through it. Masturbation is a significant part of how I maintain a healthy body image.
- Masturbation can bring you pleasure. I am currently single, and even if I wasn’t, I take pleasure in touching myself. Sometimes it is as simple as feeling my hands travel across my body. The feel of my own hands traveling the highs, the lows, the dips, the curves, the valleys of my own body just plain feels good. That pleasure can be sensual, it can be orgasmic, it can be peaceful, it can be soothing or simply relaxing. There is a joy to being present in your body and bringing yourself pleasure, and it is to be embraced — not make you feel ashamed. You don’t need a scientific list to justify the reality that is physical release and erotic pleasure.
How we experience sexual release and sexual pleasure is unique to each and every one of us. It differs across individuals, personal kinks, gender, sexuality, size, often race, culture, and religion. Masturbation is personal, but science has proven that it’s also a remarkable tool for better mental and physical health. Whether you are stroking, humping, grinding, tugging, tickling, squeezing, plugging in or fantasizing hands-free, how and if you elect to masturbate is completely up to you. Embracing the benefits of masturbation is not always as simple as “Just do it!” But if you are willing and able, consider getting it on with yourself. There’s nothing wrong with feeling good.