It was a warm evening in late spring. I got home from work, threw off my shoes and clothes, lay back on my bed and reached my hand purposefully down to my clitoris. I set my fingers to work and let my mind wander through some of my sexual fantasies. I wasn’t entirely sure whether anything would happen but I had an open mind and a whole evening ahead of me and I was determined to see if I could give myself an orgasm.
I’d recently discovered a series of tutorial videos about how to stimulate the clitoris — a part of my body that I hadn’t realized existed until very recently — and I wanted to give it a go. I’d already tried a few times earlier that week, and I sensed that I was getting close, but nothing explosive happened. However, on this particular evening ― May 10, 2018 ― it did and I gave myself my first clitoral orgasm. I was 24 years old.
Up until that point, I genuinely believed that I needed a man in order to orgasm. I’d never learned otherwise. Whenever I had been single and sexually frustrated, I had just wallowed in the pain of being unable to have sex and my instinct was always to go out and find a partner to get me off. I didn’t realize I could do something about it myself.
But the delight at having discovered something so enjoyable and empowering was accompanied by feelings of self-doubt and horror at my own naiveté. When I asked Google, “What is a normal age for girls to start masturbating?” I learned that 12 years old was the most popular answer. I was over a decade late to the masturbation party and I couldn’t believe that I’d been in the dark for so long.
I’d always considered myself the kind of person who knew something about everything. I’d excelled at school, worked in many different industries and, in my spare time, nerded up on everything from computer programming to astrology. But when it came to my own body, I was clearly clueless.
I wanted to find out if I was the only one who took this long to discover masturbation. I broached the topic with some of my friends and found that I was indeed the odd one out. Most of them were regular masturbators and had been at it since their early teens. They were especially surprised when I told them about my late-in-life sexual revelation because, in almost every other way, they thought of me as this hole-drilling, bike-fixing, independent, “I don’t need a man” kind of woman, and they’d assumed I was the same in bed. But being a self-sufficient, modern woman doesn’t mean that you’ve necessarily learned ― or been taught ― about self-pleasure. Society still has a lot of catching up to do in this respect.
“I started replaying moments from my life in the hope of figuring out how I’d come to believe that achieving orgasm was only possible for me when a penis was involved.”
I still couldn’t understand how such crucial knowledge had evaded me for all these years. I started replaying moments from my life in the hope of figuring out how I’d come to believe that achieving orgasm was only possible for me when a penis was involved.
For starters, sex (much less, women’s orgasms) wasn’t spoken about in my home, which is not particularly uncommon for tight-lipped British families. Nor did I learn about pleasure at school. We were taught about the mechanics of how babies are made, how to put condoms on bananas, and the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases, but I don’t remember anyone ever saying anything about how a woman could ― or should ― give herself an orgasm.
The books, magazines and television shows I consumed didn’t tell me about masturbation either. When they featured sex, it always seemed to be about penetrative sex, the perils of sex work and advice like “10 ways to please your man” (which was the headline of one of the magazine clippings I kept hidden under my mattress). It seemed our society was either too embarrassed to mention the female orgasm, or people simply didn’t even know (or care) about it.
Despite my naiveté in certain realms, by the time I was 15 years old, I actually considered myself a bit of a sexual front-runner. I had an older boyfriend and I was the first one in my group of friends to have sex. Another sexually active friend and I even used to re-enact various positions (with our clothes on) for our friends at lunchtime in the school playground. I had experienced what I believed to be an orgasm, but only ever at the hands or penis of a man, and I assumed that orgasming was the result of vaginal penetration. Everything I saw or read about sex confirmed that assumption.
What’s more, despite the conversations my friends and I were having about sex, we never once discussed masturbation. Maybe they were all doing it. Maybe not. Maybe they knew as little as I did. But I never found out because we never spoke about it and it never occurred to me to ask anyone about it.
Once, when I was 16, my boyfriend asked me to touch myself in front of him during sex, but I didn’t really know what to do. I lay on my back and sort of uselessly stuck my fingers up my vagina while pretending to be turned on. I did it for his pleasure, not mine. Now I look back on that moment and cringe. I wonder if he knew how utterly clueless I was. I wish he’d just told me, “You know, you can do it yourself if you do this.” But, just like everybody else, he probably assumed I already knew.
I can’t be the only one who didn’t have a clue what my own body could do. This isn’t just a case of me getting facts mixed up along the way. It’s demonstrative of a culture that favors the male gaze and male pleasure and, in part thanks to religion, teaches that sex is — or should be — a purely procreative act. I knew a lot about male masturbation — in fact, I think we even learned about it in school — but none of that was of much use or interest to me. In hindsight, almost everything I learned about sex seemed to center on how it felt for men.
That needs to change. We need to talk about female masturbation and female pleasure as being an equally important part of sex as male pleasure is. It needs to be part of compulsory sex education in the U.K. (and everywhere else, please). It’s not enough to leave teenagers to their own devices and assume that they’ll discover their bodies themselves and miraculously be aware of all of their parts’ functions and potential. Nor is it wise to leave their education to the internet where misinformation abounds and young girls and boys are bombarded with images of supposedly perfectly shaped, perfectly shaved bodies — images that are often unrealistic and, most likely, damaging to self-esteem and healthy sexual exploration.
Sex education — in school, homes and the media — needs to get a lot better. It needs to discuss pleasure and all of the ways it can — and should — be experienced, so that girls like me don’t grow up thinking they need a man ― or anyone else ― in order to orgasm. In most cases, as it turns out, the opposite is true; generally, women find it easier to orgasm during masturbation than they do with a partner. Young boys and girls should also learn that, no matter whom they have sex with, everyone involved should experience pleasure.
I don’t want any more girls to miss out on the wonderful feeling, not to mention health benefits, of orgasm. The world needs more happy, healthy, turned-on women ― women who are in touch with and understand their bodies, who know how to satisfy their own desires, and who are able to communicate those desires to others.
It goes beyond the simple cause and effect of masturbation leading to orgasm. For me, masturbation has opened a lot of doors. I’m getting better at pleasuring myself sexually but also pleasing myself in other parts of my life. It’s as if getting acquainted with the most fundamental act of self-pleasure has allowed me to be more generous toward myself with everything I do. It has also opened the doors to a lot of emotions that, for various reasons, I blocked myself from feeling for a long time, but now am able to release.
"[Sex education] needs to discuss pleasure and all of the ways it can — and should — be experienced, so that girls like me don’t grow up thinking they need a man — or anyone else — in order to orgasm."
I finally feel like a woman (contrary to the popular myth that you become a woman when you’re first penetrated by a man), and I can look at myself in the mirror and actually love the person I see. The discovery of masturbation didn’t instantaneously provoke this shift in perspective, but it has played a very important part in the process. And I now enter sexual relations with men with the expectation that I will derive just as much pleasure from the experience as he does. It is no longer a case of the pleaser and the pleased. Now, if I encounter men who expect this to be the case, I don’t accept it as normal, but instead question it, challenge it or leave.
I can also feel this attitude beginning to creep into other areas of my life. Until recently, I would expect myself to give more in any relationship — romantic, friendship, business — and took it for granted that the other party did not have to work as hard as I did. Or, if someone did express their love for me, I would feel the need to overcompensate with how I returned that affection. It had never occurred to me to behave otherwise. Now I’m learning how to accept and receive love, not only to give it.
Talking publicly about a topic that is still somewhat taboo, even in 2019, isn’t easy. It’s even more daunting to expose how naive and clueless I’ve been for so much of my life. I’m afraid of being laughed at or pitied. I’m worried about people I know reading this — my parents, men I’ve slept with in the past, and even some of my friends. But I have to get over myself and keep talking about it, because this shame is part of the problem. If people weren’t so ashamed of discussing masturbation, then I might have learned about it much earlier in my life and I could have saved a lot of wasted years of sexual frustration.