I am in seventh grade. My new LG Touch lights up with a message from my latest crush, Brendan Supple. We are playing the “question game,” which is basically preteen sexting. It’s intense in that “haha, and then what” kind of way.
do u masterbate? Brendan texts me. He’s the pinnacle of eloquence.
no haha :) I type back in a panic.
I’m not one to lie, but at twelve I’m wracked with guilt over masturbation. It would be at least four years before I realized that other girls masturbate, too. But by twelve, it was already common knowledge that boys masturbated. A lot.
We talk about guys masturbating all the time. There are so many nicknames for the act of cisgender men masturbating that basically anything you say could be a euphemism for a dude jacking off. The equation for creating an alternative saying for “masturbate” is verb-ing the noun: Beating the meat. Tugging the slug. Pulling the rope.
Some of them sound incredibly violent and not at all like something I would want to do to my hypothetical penis: bleeding the weed? Flogging the egg man? (I sincerely hope no one has ever, ever, said this in reference to masturbation.) The thing is, there are hundreds of generally accepted ways to say you’re going to flog your egg man. Fixation on cis-male sexual pleasure has been a constant in the human sexual landscape for the past, oh, forever. I flounder to find a good way to refer to masturbating if you have a vagina, other than saying “masturbate.” (I have yet to find a single person who can say “flick the bean” without cringing or laughing.) This lack of colloquialisms for female masturbation is about more than a lack of creativity. It’s indicative of the disparity in attention to male and female pleasure.
Curiously enough, a fix of sorts did come about, but only when doctors started diagnosing women with “hysteria” when their husbands couldn’t make them come. The “percussor,” more popularly known as the vibrator, bearer of multiple orgasms, was initially invented to aid doctors in administering “pelvic massages” to their patients in order to calm hysteria and cure “frigid woman syndrome,” (also known as, “you-can’t-come-and-it’s-you-fault syndrome”). That’s right, making your girl come was a duty delegated to medical professionals in the late nineteenth century. Percussors disappeared off of the popular market somewhere around the 1920s, returning to the black hole of female sexuality. (Freud literally called female sexuality the “dark continent” of psychology. But let’s be honest, Freud couldn’t make a girl come.)
But if doctors aren’t making people come any more, then who is? Because, according to over thirty studies regarding the female orgasm, women aren’t coming during sex. Dame Products CEO Alexandra Fine explains that women are four times more likely than men to refer to heterosexual intercourse as “not pleasurable at all.” This phenomenon is referred to as the “pleasure gap” in sex. In one survey of individuals ages 18-65, 62 percent of women reported regularly orgasming from sex, compared to 85 percent of men.
Studies aside, this is something I witness and experience all the time. The whole idea of “faking it” is preposterous when you actually think about it: women are more concerned with men’s egos than their actual sexual pleasure. When I asked a female CC student why she faked orgasms, her response was that she “got bored and wanted it to be over.” She told me, “‘Jackhammering’ only feels good for one person.” If your sexual style is compared to a power tool, it’s a safe bet that you’re not making anyone come.
Another female student noted, “Everyone acts as if the path to pleasure is the same for men and women, when it’s drastically different.” Why are women so reluctant to instruct men how to make them come? Why are men so offended by women not coming when it’s pretty unequivocally their fault? Even as I ask myself these questions, I know the answer: Throughout our entire lives, women are taught to protect fragile masculinity at all costs. Because if we don’t, the price we pay could literally be deadly. How many stories have I read in the past month about women being beaten to death or stabbed or shot for rejecting a man’s advances? I recall the high school-era drama surrounding “blue balls,” a phenomenon experienced and whined about by men, often used to coerce women into sexual acts they weren’t comfortable with.
I was curious as to what cisgender men had to say about the pleasure gap. Were they aware of it? Did they give a shit? Naturally, I decided to ask the men I’ve had sex with. The interviews were a lot like the sex I’ve had—nothing extraordinary, but they got the job done.
One man I interviewed fumbled uncomfortably when I asked him if he thought he made girls come, saying, “I don’t know, I have no idea. I feel like, honestly, maybe? I mean, people make different movements and noises and whatnot? And afterwards I’m not gonna like, I mean I don’t…ask.” I watched the realization settle into his face. He continued, “maybe that’s really… rude of me?” This Don John Doe wasn’t aware of the pleasure gap but was able to guess at it quickly, comparing it to the “wage gap, in that men orgasm way more often than women do.” What frustrated me about talking to these guys is that even if they were aware, or they acknowledged their own problems, they just didn’t seem to care that much. It’s almost as if making someone with a vagina orgasm has become an exceptional accomplishment—those who can do it are special and rare, and those who can’t are just fine, too. So the burden of both people’s orgasms falls on the femme.
How, then, do we reclaim pleasure in sex? Some sex shop curators, such as former dominatrix Amy Boyajian of Wild Flower, a sex shop in New York, are working to reform the discourse around sex. Most importantly, Boyajian is trying to change the popular view of sex toys. Re-enter the great “percussor” of the 19th century! Boyajian wants to resist the idea of “sex toys and the stores that [sell] them…as lurid and sinister places that only creepy men in trench coats [visit].”
She says that with the rise of feminist sex stores, which base their ideology around education and pleasure, the market of the sex store shopper expanded to include women and gay people. She’s now working to include trans and nonbinary people as well. Wild Flower’s products are not categorized not by gender, like many sex toys are, but by the body parts to which the sex toy applies—vaginas, penises, butts (oh my!), as well as categories for BDSM and nipple play. The store, along with her popular Instagram page, @wildflowersex, features numerous educational articles and videos with titles like “Oral Tips With A Giant Vulva” (if you want to know what an enormous paper mache vulva looks like, then this one is right up your alley!) and “What’s The Deal With Cock Rings?” There’s an entire page dedicated to the varying purposes of crystal dildos and yoni eggs (dumbbells for your vagina).
Boyajian’s unthreatening mannerisms and no-nonsense approach to sex education puts her miles away from mainstream sex education in this country, which is more reproductive education than anything else. We’re taught more about fallopian tubes than about consent. I knew the function of the vas deferens before I knew the word “orgasm.” How is anyone supposed to figure out what they like if they learn about pleasure through the lens of salacity or obscenity? Pleasure is not obscene—it’s essential.
When I asked Boyajian what she thought about the pleasure gap and why it exists, she brought up the important effect that societal norms have on sex and sex toys today: “Sex toys are seen as competition to partners in the bedroom, when they are simply aids to women who find it hard to orgasm via penetrative sex. Any woman who talks about sexuality is deemed a slut. Sexual wellness is bigger than penetrative sex, like period sex and vaginal health, but these are too ‘icky’ to be part of the mainstream narrative.”
There are dangerous ramifications of the common notion that some aspects of sex are icky while others are acceptable. More movies are rated NC-17 for cunnilingus scenes than for scenes with graphic portrayals of sexual assault. Sexual violence is deemed safer for audiences than seeing a vagina being pleasured. No wonder my best friend in high school confided to me that she had never been eaten out “because vaginas are so gross and I don’t want to anyone to see that.” Clearly, there’s something horrifically wrong with the narrative surrounding pleasure. It’s a sobering reality, but not an immutable one.
If we’re going to talk about women’s pleasure during sex, then women’s comfort also has to be discussed. If your male partner can’t say the word “tampon” without lowering his voice or giggling—if your period is denigrated as something “gross” or “unspeakable”—then what the hell is that dude doing near your vagina anyway? Sexual pleasure comes with feeling comfortable that your body, no matter what it looks like or how it functions, is not wrong. Amy’s advice for anyone struggling to feel comfortable in their sexuality is to, “Create an ongoing romance with yourself, explore your body, and get to know what feels good via masturbation. Treat yourself to a vibrator. Make your pleasure a priority…Explore your fantasies and do it a way that is non-judgmental. Be gentle and kind to yourself.”
I swear to God, I’m going to get “Be gentle and kind to yourself” tattooed on my ass as a reminder because I think it’s the single greatest piece of advice I’ve ever received. But it’s also important to be gentle and kind to others. Whether you’re having Sting-esque tantric sex for hours with your fiancée or a Craiglist-organized orgy, the golden rule still applies. Every Sunday I hear (okay, overhear) a story about a sexual encounter. The story is always centered around the fact that it happened, not about whether it was enjoyed. We talk about sex as if pleasure were inherently part of the act, which only serves to push the pleasure gap under the rug. And as I’ve encountered countless times, femmes often recount their sexual exploits with a level of bashfulness that just isn’t present in male discussion. One of these days I’m going to stand on a table in the dining hall and just scream, “It is okay to come!”
Discovering what pleases you isn’t exactly a linear journey. What’s often forgotten in conversations about pleasure is that pleasure is different for everyone. Don’t let shame or discomfort dictate your sex life, and don’t feel pressured to feel good all the time. It’s okay not to know what you like, and it’s also okay to take your time to figure it out. The most important thing is to feel comfortable, whether that’s figuring out sex for yourself (or with yourself) or initiating a potentially uncomfortable conversation with your partner. Set your vibrator on high (or low, or whatever setting you damn well please) and get to it. Don’t settle for anything less than shaky legs, flushed cheeks, and arched backs. Men? It’s a clit, not the Strait of Magellan. I’ve always hated that romantic aphorism about having to “love yourself before anyone else can love you,” but I’ve realized it has a granule of truth.
In a recent sexual encounter, my partner asked me if I had come. Resisting the familiar urge to lie, I told him I hadn’t. In the anxious theatre that is my mind, I imagined the various ways this guy would be angry at me, ranked by levels of violence. I remembered fights with my high school boyfriend, who told me that I should see a doctor if I couldn’t come because he had done everything that he could. I remembered the first time I had sex in college, lying in my bed like shit, maybe that really is all there is. I remembered my first multiple orgasm experience and how elated I was that I wasn’t broken in some deep down, physical way. I nervously awaited his angry answer.
Grabbing the soft pouch of my tummy, he told me, “Damn, I’m sorry. I’ll do better next time.”
And with those gentle and kind words, we went to sleep and I waited for that promised “next time” to come.