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LOVE & SEX

For women, masturbation is an act of revolution

Pissed-off women are putting their hands down their pants and being reawakened. Stephanie Theobald reports

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I’ve done some interesting journalistic assignments in my time: taken the Amazonian hallucinogenic Ayahuasca, attended a goddess workshop in Wales and a black mass in Paris. But the most life-changing experience I’ve ever had was with then-85-year-old pot-smoking masturbation addict called Betty Dodson.

I use the word “addict” lightly. Betty was a woman dubbed by her superstar contemporary Gloria Steinem “one of the first feminists” and, by that, she meant sex-positive feminist. While glamorous Gloria fought for things like abortion rights and equal pay, she believed sex was a private matter. Betty, however, a “rowdy cowgirl” from Wichita, Kansas, would go to New York orgies in the 1960s and wonder why women were faking orgasms. It was an insight that launched her on a lifetime’s crusade and led her to write the world’s only bestselling book about female masturbation, Sex For One.

Five years ago, Betty relaunched the masturbation masterclasses she’d begun in the 1970s, because, in the age of the internet, she believes that women are more confused than ever about their bodies. In April 2014, I attended one of the first revamped workshops and, by the end of an incredible weekend, I’d become convinced that self-pleasure is not a second-rate activity, but the foundation of female sexuality. I also learned that the vulva is the correct name for the female genitals, because the word encompasses the full works: the inner and outer lips, the clitoris, the vagina, the urethra. Wise-cracking Betty gets incensed at the way so many women misuse the “vagina” word. “The vagina’s the goddamn birth canal!” she growled, several times, over the course of the weekend.

There were 12 other women in the class and, on day two, we all masturbated to orgasm in a circle. Betty had been emphasising that the vulva is a Mustang to the penny-farthing of the male genitalia (“Men just have a couple of balls and a tube!”), but this was the first time it struck home that there are 8,000 nerve endings in a clitoris compared to 4,000 in a dick. I ended up having the most incredible orgasm, which reminded me of the time I snorted a line of heroin.

That was when I decided to go on a road trip across America. To meet more of these amazing 1970s feminists. But, actually, I wasn’t just after the ultimate autoerotic experience. I was also shaking off the aftermath of living with a condition called vulvodynia, which means “pain of the vulva”. Doctors have a fancy name for it, but don’t really known what to do about it. They gave me pills called anticonvulsants, which made my body feel as though it had been sprayed over with varnish, and I could only have 70% of an orgasm.

By 2014, I was off medication, but I felt that I needed to rediscover my orgasm from scratch. So, every night during my 3,497-mile journey across America, I would indulge in solo-sex “homework".  And, indeed, autoeroticism started to bring me back to life. I learned that if you spend enough time getting intimate with your own body, self-pleasure becomes a form of meditation, a way of going back to the basics of who you really are. I learned that you can recharge your life force, and that what Jean-Jacques Rousseau termed “the dangerous supplement”, back in the 18th century, can work as the ultimate self-care medicine.

Hands might have trembled over the canapés at parties, but women would later catch me in a corner of the room and, once they started talking about their masturbation experiences, there was no stopping them

Yet, when I came back to the UK from America, I’d have to make a snap decision at parties when someone asked what my new book was about. If they looked cool, I might say, “Masturbation.” Otherwise, I'd just go, “It’s about female pleasure and desire,” although even that seemed to make a lot of hands freeze over canapé trays. I got endless rejection letters from publishers (“I'm not the best editor for the job. I'm sorry not to have better news – particularly when it reveals a bit of prudishness on my part,” said an especially honest one, summing up the attitude of a lot of them).

What spurred me on was the knowledge that women really did want to talk about this final sexual taboo. Hands might have trembled over the canapés at parties, but women would later catch me in a corner of the room and, once they started talking about their masturbation experiences, there was no stopping them.

There was the woman in the all-female Duran Duran tribute band, Joanne Joanne, who admitted that her teen solo-sex fantasies were inspired by the Clive Barker and Anne Rice novels she used to read. Or she’d be in bed with, say, Simon Le Bon, in an LA hotel room, with neon light coming through the slats of the blind in just the right way. Then there was the lawyer I met at a yoga weekend, who was delighted to tell me about her forays into solo sex aged 11. “It was a revelation! I realised: OMG there’s something I like better than food!”

We’d swap stories. I’d tell them about the nurse I’d met in San Francisco who grew marijuana plants. She masturbated in front of her plants every day for 365 days and, what do you know, she had the best crop of weed ever. Or about California-based Annie Sprinkle, the former porn star and cult performance artist, now in her sixties, who talks about “fast-food” masturbation (usually phone porn) and the “gourmet” variety. The latter segues into something she terms “medabation”, or a mix of masturbation and meditation. Annie told me that she masturbates for world peace, something some might laugh at, but, frankly, Christians send off distilled thoughts known as “prayers” to try and alleviate world suffering every day. Yet the kind of energy generated during orgasm is jet fuel compared to the economy petrol that comes from a morning at mass.

I first noticed a change in attitudes to masturbation at the beginning of this year.

There’s a feeling of pissed-off-ness in women. Put it down to the endless nasty sex stories around Weinstein, Kavanaugh and Cosby. Following in the footsteps of the pioneers of the 1970s, we are seeing a new wave of sex-positive feminism, and a growing number of us are choosing to transform our anger into the more refreshing, rejuvenating and political arena of pleasure. The Pleasure Revolution, I’m calling it. Because 99% of sex is about pleasure.

Healthy sexuality is an integral part of female wellbeing and can no longer be ignored or seen as an indulgence

Check out the proliferation of Instagram accounts, including @clubclitoris and @the.vulva.gallery; The Pink Protest, which tries to dismantle the stigma attached to female masturbation; Janelle Monáe’s Pynk video (although, for the ultimate in queer, self-pleasuring, orgiastic fantastic-ness, you should check out Peaches’ Rub video – the uncensored version).

The great thing about judgment on masturbation is that judgment changes all the time. Around 1715, self-pleasure became the crack cocaine of sexuality with the appearance of an anonymous pamphlet called Onania: Or The Heinous Sin Of Self-Pollution, And All Its Frightful Consequences (In Both Sexes). In the 19th century, Freud conceded that masturbation was an immature stage in sexual development (although, until 1896, he still believed it was the cause of bed-wetting) and then, in the 20th century, along comes Betty Dodson with the message that it’s the foundation of our sexuality.

In the 21st century, masturbation is finally coming out from the shadows. I was heartened, at this year’s Shambala festival, to find a “Cunt Tent". It was created by Vanessa Brooks, the director of Europe’s first holistic-midwifery school in the south of Spain, Daaluz Oasis. The day I stopped by, Vanessa was running a genial sew-a-vulva afternoon. Some men came with their partners, but mainly it was full of women shouting across the yurt, things like, “Can you pass that bit of velvet for my clitoris?” and making coos of “Oh, I love your cunt!” in tones usually reserved to express admiration for a Stella McCartney trench coat.

There was tangible excitement on using a word so heavy with power and transgression. An ancient Germanic word, there is nothing intrinsically offensive about it beyond our culture’s negative attitudes towards femaleness. When Vanessa Brooks’ tent was at this year’s Boomtown Fair, in Hampshire, the organiser asked her to take the “Cunt: Know Thyself” sign down while the local mayor was doing a tour of the festival, for fear he might be offended. Interestingly, the Cunt Tent at Shambala was situated opposite a pub called “The wonky cock”, but that didn’t cause any feathers to flutter at all.

Many of the women at the sew-a-vulva afternoon were great at needlework, but not so hot at what a cunt looked like, anatomically. Luckily, Shambala also boasted a “Lady garden”, billed on its Instagram account as “a tantalising throne throbbing for you to seek and explore inside the Hidden Forest”.

In times of war – and it’s always a time of war – women especially need to seek out more pleasure. Because it’s the first thing they steal from us

The immersive installation, made from recycled materials, was conceptualised and created by a Bristol-based collective of twentysomethings, including Digory Barlow, Abby Howard, Luke Dowding, Elliot Munns and Abi Hubbard, an MA student in stage-prop design, who sculpted and created the gigantic “Glitorus”, which was doused in eco glitter and hung from a tree. Creative director Camilla Mason says she believes that, as women become more educated about the anatomy of the clitoris and the vulva, masturbation will become a more alluring prospect. “I don’t think masturbation is taboo any more,” she says. “I think it’s more about women being unable to have orgasms by themselves out of not knowing how to. Maybe because they feel it to be their partners’ obligation to make them come or maybe it’s because of deeper psychological issues surrounding this previous taboo.”

I was heartened, also, to see that, in Gwyneth Paltrow’s new Goop store in London, alongside the store’s fancy cashmere jumpers and expensive make-up, there is a “sex cabinet” containing lubricants and vibrators and yoni eggs. Mainly, the cabinet is symbolic. It says: healthy sexuality is an integral part of female wellbeing and can no longer be ignored or seen as an indulgence. Some journalists scoffed the next day, in their columns, at the idea of crystal eggs you use to masturbate with, but, actually, the journalists I spoke to said that Zara Home and Marks & Spencer’s were now looking old-fashioned for not having sex cabinets in their stores. That’s not looking like such a joke now, given that, last year at the prestigious Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year awards, the New Generation prize went to Stephanie Lays for her smart vibrator, the MysteryVibe.

I’m happy to see this new awakening in women. Take my friend Kia Bing-Davies, who stopped being a lawyer, retrained to be a therapist and now runs women’s sexuality circles using jade eggs. The evenings are a version of the consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s, where women met at each other’s homes to discuss issues of sexuality and female politics.

“A lot of these women have been on auto pilot,” Bing says. “It’s as if their sexuality belongs to their husband. The crystal egg forces them to slow down and feel into their bodies. It can also open you up spiritually, if you choose to go in that direction.”

That’s what’s exciting about the new autoeroticism. You don’t have to do it in front of marijuana plants, you don’t have to get spiritual about it. But you can, if you want. And you might as well try some of the new types of solo sex I uncovered on my American trip. Eco sex? Energy orgasm? The 21-day masturbation challenge?

So, no more Kavanaugh blues. As the American punk singer and writer Lydia Lunch insists: “In times of war – and it’s always a time of war – women especially need to seek out more pleasure. Because it’s the first thing they steal from us. You have to find a way to dissolve into hedonistic pleasure: you have to pander to your worst instincts.”

These days at parties, I don’t shy away from the subject matter of my book. These days, I’m proudly serving masturbation realness.

@stephotheo

Sex Drive: On The Road To A Pleasure Revolution by Stephanie Theobald is published by Unbound on 18 October (£16.99)

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