My Genderal Interest column this week has proven my 2nd most successful (in terms of page views) since I began writing for Jezebel just over a year ago. Here’s If It’s Not a Secret, It’s Not Safe: Girls, Boys and the Pleasure Paradox.
In teaching courses on sexuality, I’ve heard what’s essentially the same anecdote from many female students. They tell stories -– usually from their high school years — of being asked by male friends if they masturbate. If they say “no,” they’re accused of lying; if they say “yes,” they’re almost invariably peppered with requests for explicit details of how they get themselves off. Some of these guys may be looking for reassurance that girls really are sexual creatures, but many seem to be trying to feed their own masturbatory fantasies. The assumption that Ford mentions –- that those who ask about young women’s pleasure are pruriently preoccupied with it –- may not always be accurate, but it’s at least partly grounded in the real experiences of many girls. Pleasure itself may not be dangerous, but talking about it in the wrong company can be.
Another aspect of the problem is the enduring myth that masturbation is a mere substitute for sex with another person. Normalizing self-pleasure as part of healthy adolescent development makes sense, but that entails more than a vibrator for one’s 15th birthday. It requires ending the remarkably persistent stigma that masturbation is a sign of desperation, social ineptitude, or sexual insatiability. Reframing pleasure as responsible self-care is part of the answer, but so too is making it clear to men and boys that young women’s horniness isn’t a proclamation of sexual availability.
In a class discussion recently, one student recounted that when she had admitted to a male high school acquaintance that she had a vibrator, not only did he ask to see it, but he assumed that because she liked to have orgasms she’d automatically be interested in sex with him. “He was upset when I rejected him,” my student said, “because he actually couldn’t seem to understand how wanting to come in private didn’t translate into a willingness to fuck all of my guy friends.” For too many guys, women’s sexual desire is something fungible, easily transferred from vibrator to dude to dude. This myth is at the heart of slut-shaming: in guy culture, women who don’t confine their sexuality to one monogamous relationship with a man have a kind of democratic moral obligation to make their bodies available to every interested male party.