The pleasure principle: why masturbation for women can be an act of feminism

Illustration+by+Jae+Kitinoja
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The pleasure principle: why masturbation for women can be an act of feminism

Illustration by Jae Kitinoja

Illustration by Jae Kitinoja

Illustration by Jae Kitinoja

Illustration by Jae Kitinoja

Hansook Oh

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Illustration by Jae Kitinoja

Illustration by Jae Kitinoja

Valentines day encourages men to get their women things like diamonds, chocolates and flowers. But the best thing you can do for your female partner is to become cliterate.

Cliteracy is a term coined by New York artist Sophia Wallace, who recently received media attention and was featured on the Huffington Post for her campaign to educate people about the still-mysterious female gentialia, the clitoris.

Wallace’s most stunning art piece is a giant replica of the clitoris. Most people would probably imagine a giant mound, as the part of the clitoris that can physically be seen in just a small nub at the top of the female genitalia. However, her art piece brings attention to the fact that the clitoris is actually a larger, more complicated internal organ.

Why would many people be surprised at that fact? Scientific research has only just seriously begun studying about the clitoris within the late 20th century. The first major findings about the complexity and function of the clitoris were published in the New Scientist journal in 1998 by Australian Urologist, Dr. Helen O’Donnell.

O’Donnell found through a layer-by-layer dissection of the female genitalia that the clitoris is an internal organ that can be up to 9 millimeters long and 2 centimeters wide. It is much more deeply rooted than the outer most part, the glans, may seem to lead on. According to her surgical findings, the external clitoris is the tip of a pyramid-shaped mass of erectile tissue, which splits in two and extends backwards in the pelvis, lying a few millimeters above the muscles that connect to the thighs. Two other “arms” curve around the vaginal cavity (canal) and “hugs” it when stimulated.

Why aren’t women and men aware of the entire clitoris? Why is our hypersexualized society still strangely ignorant of the fact that women can pleasure themselves without a partner? And with such an incredible and extensive source of pleasure, why does it seem that even in the twenty-first century, women taking control of that source of pleasure through masturbation is still taboo in our society?

The answer is plain sexism. Masturbation and sexual gratification is an uncomfortable and sometimes shameful topic for many people, both women and men, but it is especially daunting for women to be completely comfortable with the pleasure power of their own bodies.

First, the ignorance of the anatomy of the clitoris stems of sexist science, which has largely been driven by men. According to a 1998 review of O’Donnell’s work by Yvonne Roberts, titled “Sexist Science Misses a Mountain,”–yes, that is a great pun–our lingering discomfort with female sexuality is rooted in the prudishness and patriarchy of Victorian society.

“The clitoris has always terrified, foxed and infuriated men determined to subdue female sexuality and refashion it into something modest and malleable, moulded around male appetites,” wrote Roberts. “Women were inferior versions of the male – so how dare they, unlike men, develop an organ entirely for sexual pleasure?”

According to Roberts, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an important French philosopher and anatomist in the eighteenth-century, announced that “women were “naturally” passive, biologically built to keep pregnant and exude gentleness. Intercourse was an act of submission intended to create children. Male lust was an unpredictable beast, easily roused beyond reason, should a woman exhibit anything other than great reserve.”

“The clitoris was clamped,” wrote Roberts.

An argument against sexism as a cause for clitoral ignorance might point out that physically, males have an advantage when trying to acquaint themselves with their, how you say, “junk.” Since males have their major sexual organ hanging right in front of them while the majority of the clitoris is hidden by pubic bone and fat, one could say sensicaly that the penis should receive attention first.

While that can be a sad excuse for male scientists and surgeons, it is problematic that women were not socially allowed to join them in the field.

“Female surgeons keen to discover parts of themselves that their male colleagues have been disinclined to reach,” wrote Roberts.

Now, back to masturbation. It is true that normalizing self-pleasure is difficult for both women and men, although masturbation is natural and healthy. According to a recent report titled, “Depiction of Masturbation in North American Movies,” masturbation is the most common sexual activity among humans.

“The large majority of adults (aged 20–59) in the US report having masturbated at some point in their lives, with approximately 65 percent of men and 40 percent of women reporting masturbating in the past month,” the report found. “In a study of online sexual behaviour among university students, 77 percent of men and 22 percent of women reported that they had masturbated while online in the last year.”

The authors found that, though masturbation is connected with sexual health, “many individuals continue to feel guilty about masturbating and many hold negative or ambivalent attitudes toward masturbation.”

There can be numerous hypotheses about why women statistically, at least in this study, masturbate less than men. Perhaps they are ashamed and did not honestly answer the question. Perhaps women feel more shame and thus do not masturbate more frequently. And perhaps sadly, women are not aware of what buttons to push.

The act of a woman being in touch with her body is not solely about pleasure, but can, in a political and social sense, be an act of feminism and defiance of oppression. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, one out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. This does not account for women who have been molested or faced sexual violence in other ways.

Sexual oppression and violence towards women is a means of social and gender control. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, rebel soldiers controlling mineral mines use mass rape and mutilation of women as a method to subdue and terrorize the population.

In parts of Africa, women are victims of female genital mutilation, where their outer clitoris is cut off and/or their vaginal lips are sewn together, so that a future husband can ensure his bride is a virgin. This often causes infection and intense pain. Westerners may see this is a barbaric practice local to third-world tribes, but the idea of controlling women by removing their source of pleasure is not totally foreign to more “civilized” societies. Sigmund Freud suggested slicing off the clitoris as a cure for female health problems, such as masturbation and “hysteria.”

If we consider pleasure as the opposite of pain, and autonomy as the opposite of oppression, then we could consider female masturbation as the opposite of sexual violence. Masturbation in this sense is an act of defiance against sexism.

So men (and women), instead of (or on top of) buying your female partner conflict diamonds, chocolate or flowers, romance her this Valentines day with your new-found knowledge of her clitoral might. If you like it, you should put your tongue on it.

For all my single ladies, put your hands down and into your pants.