the one about masturbation

As a woman who grew up in the Deep South, in an Independent Fundamental Baptist church, in “purity culture”– you can imagine that I have some pretty intense hang-ups about masturbation. Like most women, I think, my experiences with it go back a long time and I have extremely conflicted feelings and memories about it. Throughout my teenage years I battled with it constantly. I don’t even know how many hours I spent on my knees at the altar begging God to help me “stop doing It” (I could only ever refer to masturbation as It) until I finally gave up and refused to go forward to the altar anymore.

It was the first thing I ever really felt betrayed by God about. He promised that there wouldn’t be any temptation we couldn’t face, didn’t he? He said that his strength was made perfect in our weakness, right? He said that we could cast all our burdens on him and he would take care of them? I don’t even know how old I was when I decided that I was done dealing with all the agony and pain– I was convinced that if I could dedicate that much time and energy into “quitting,” into countless promises and bargains and vows, that no matter how much I tried it just wasn’t going to go away … then either masturbation wasn’t a sin, or it was and God didn’t really give a rat’s ass about helping me with it so neither did I.

But, out of curiosity I did some research into the arguments for and against it. The ones “in favor” of Christians masturbating were mostly still under the rules and constraints of purity culture, and went something like “how can you expect someone to make it to their late twenties and not have sex if they can’t masturbate?” The arguments that were definitely against it were pretty standard fare– it’s having sex with yourself, which is basically cheating. One forum poster somewhere had a somewhat more developed argument– the symbol of marriage for Christians is about Christ and the Church and how the Church needs Jesus, and sex is only really an extension of this metaphor, so masturbation is basically giving a big middle finger to God and Salvation and saying we don’t need Jesus to get to heaven, which is heresy.

I actually applauded that guy. Making masturbation into a salvation issue was impressive.

But the one argument I heard that stuck with me and bothered me the longest actually came through a friend when we were having a conversation about our “sexual struggles.” I asked her for her opinion on masturbation, and she explained that women shouldn’t masturbate because we’ll figure out how to give ourselves better orgasms than our husbands can with just their penis, and that will hurt his feelings and make him feel like less of a man, then handed me a book that explained how masturbation was a form of “defrauding our spouse.”

Yes. You read that right.

Women shouldn’t masturbate because all men supposedly really suck at sex. Also, the corollary: women should give up having their best possible orgasms so that they don’t damage the fragile male ego.

That one bothered me up until I had sex with Handsome and had the rather magnificent revelation that I enjoy pretty much any form of sex with him more than I enjoy masturbating by myself. By, like, a lot. At that point that I’d ever believed that I’d never be able to enjoy sex with a partner because it wouldn’t be as good as flicking my own bean just seemed hilarious, but I was convinced of that for a good six years.

I’ve grown in my views a little more since then, and now I don’t think it even matters whether or not you can achieve a better orgasm on your own or with your partner. Hopefully your partner cares enough about your orgasm that they’ll listen and learn, but honestly? That I can manipulate my clitoris just a little bit better than my partner can doesn’t really say anything about him or us or our relationship or about the sort of sex we have. It’s difficult to explain in the heat of the moment exactly what I need, and doing it myself shouldn’t be a problem. If your partner gets his panties in a twist that you got yourself to an orgasm, then your partner has some stuff they need to work out on their own.

But, looking back, it disturbs me that I internalized the message of “sex with your future partner is going to suck.” Obviously, it wasn’t enough to convince me to stop masturbating, but I did it believing that my responsibility as a wife was to make sure my husband felt like a stud and that my own pleasure wouldn’t matter, that achieving orgasm wasn’t nearly as important as taking care of his fee-fees. And I wasn’t supposed to even let him know that I could have a better orgasm. Communicating my sexual needs to my spouse was, apparently, forbidden.

A little while ago I was having a conversation with someone about the sex advice in Cosmo, and how one of their mainstays is “masturbate masturbate masturbate. Figure out what you like and then tell them.” This person thought of that advice as so ridiculously obvious as to be useless, and I had a hard time articulating why the whole concept was revolutionary for me. I literally come from a world where the sentence “communicate with your spouse? Who would DO such a thing?!” isn’t sarcasm.

Photo by Jessie Essex
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