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Female masturbation needs to be de-stigmatised

This week, a German university hit the headlines for its masturbation workshop. In a world where women’s desires are still treated as taboo, perhaps we all need classes, says Caroline O’Donoghue

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

Today, a German university is making waves for its masturbation workshop, where participants are asked to bring along a hand mirror, a towel and lubricant. To be clear, the event isn’t an actual module, but a workshop independently being put on by a student who attends the University of Bielefeld. It’s part of a series of gender-themed events titled “Society. Makes. Gender” and, judging by the event page, has very much a feminist outlook on masturbation.

“We will thoroughly and visually study the anatomy of the wonderful vulvae, getting to know the interplay of the G surface, the prostate and the clitoris,” reads the event page. “Everyone explores their own vulva under guidance.”

"This is a bad joke,” retorts Philip Sagittarius, deputy chairman of Bielefeld University’s Christian Democratic Student society.

But is it?

At some point in my mid-teens, and for no reason other than a growing fear of our own changing bodies, a Spanish Inquisition-style movement formed in my all-girls school. It was swift, deadly and had one aim: to find out who in our class was masturbating.

There was the legend of the girl who had stuck the round end of a hairbrush up herself. There was the girl who went to a sleepover and got a nosebleed during the night, and everyone said the blood on her sheets was because she had been masturbating on her period. There were even stories about girls who had bought – actually purchased! – vibrators. Being found guilty of wanking was a shame tantamount to shitting yourself on a school trip or having a boy accuse you of being too hairy. The shame could descend over you for weeks, months at a time.

The lunacy of this being that we were all, obviously, wanking madly.

It’s bonkers to me that, at 17, I knew more about Seth Rogen's wanking than I did about my own

Regardless of what genitals you have, it’s a simple fact of life that when you’re going through puberty, you can’t keep your hands off them. And yet, despite the hyper-sexual media we were consuming – worshipping Sex And The City at 15, reading More! magazine for Position Of The Week, frantically researching whether a tongue piercing would make us better blowjob candidates – we were terrified of attaching it to any kind of desire. Sex, like everything else in our lives, was something to prove ourselves with. Something to have in your self-identity tool kit along with your good marks and the fact that you’ve seen Kelly Clarkson in concert twice. We hummed and hawed over whether we were “ready” for sex, but our minds were so divorced from our bodies that we didn’t have the slightest clue of what “ready” actually meant. “Ready”, in essence, meant “he wants to and I don’t mind”.

Which is why I wonder if we needed someone to talk to us about desire, and the most primal form of that desire, which is masturbation. The thing we were all doing, but terrified to admit to, preferring to labour under the idea that we were the only disgusting girl in our class doing it. We needed someone to say that not only was wanking “perfectly natural” (the adults-speaking-to-teenagers buzzword that all teenagers shudder at), but that it was important. That, on the most basic level of human curiosity, it’s important that you know yourself and it’s important to know what feels good, so you can know what it feels like when something isn’t working for you. Masturbation is explicitly linked to consent, and women’s reticence to say no can be directly related to not knowing what an enthusiastic yes even feels like.

Maybe we needed a wanking class.

Wanking classes do actually exist. Omgyes.com provides women with tips on self-pleasure, all under the mantra that “complexity isn’t the same as unknowability”, and that just because getting off can be difficult doesn’t mean it’s impossible. The German “workshop” is actually fairly standard and there are Tantric classes in London that encourage women to touch themselves in a group setting.

It’s graphic, sure, and by no means is masturbating as a group ever going to become the status quo. But I think to dismiss it entirely as 18-year-olds trying to shock their university would do them a disservice, and to misunderstand the conversation around female mastubation entirely. If you were born after 1980, you have been raised on a cultural diet of men wanking. It dominates every level of comedy, from the splashiest Judd Apatow comedy to the most sparsely attended open-mic night. It’s bonkers to me that, at 17, I knew more about Seth Rogen's wanking than I did about my own.

If you’re in any doubt that a double standard exists around this, wait for the next time you’re down the pub with a mixed group. A guy drops a masturbation joke and there’s almost always a titter. No one bats an eye – it’s seaside-postcard level of offensive. A woman does the same thing and the energy completely shifts. There’s something tawdry about it, unseemly. Something very “lock up your husbands – this woman is talking about wanking, thereby posing a threat to us all”.

I’m not saying we should put all masturbation chat back in the prude box – I’m broadly fine with wank jokes in Oscar-nominated movies. But female masturbation still needs to be de-stigmatised, even if holding a hand mirror to yourself in public isn’t your thing.

@Czaroline

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