Pleasure and Shame

Words by Helena (she/her), 20 QLD

As a young girl, the shame surrounding pleasure and masturbation was palpable. Masturbation was completely relegated to the realm of the unspeakable within my all-girls high school, a phenomenon which endured until we were well into our later teen years.

It wasn’t until we were about eighteen that a few girls dared to speak up. We discovered that many of us had been hiding our experiences with self-pleasure and were riddled with shame. Others had never explored masturbation at all, even after they had already had sex with a partner. In retrospect, the extent of our collective sexual repression throughout adolescence was alarming.

For women, masturbation comes laden with shame and stigma. Growing up, there is no positive narrative surrounding masturbation for women, but rather an unshakable air of guilt and dishonour. This stigmatisation originates from inadequate or non-existent discussion of sexuality and pleasure as a young girl, which translates into an avoidance in adulthood – it is a self-perpetuating cycle.

Where boys internalise masturbation as normal and a natural biological essential, girls internalise self-pleasure as ‘disgusting’ and shameful.

The roots of this shame surrounding women’s pleasure lie in the denial of their subjectivity, particularly in the sexual realm. Traditional sexual roles normalise passivity for women and sexual agency for men. Women are seen as fulfilling a role and a duty, through which they should derive no pleasure of their own other than that of the gratification of giving. When women are permitted to express their sexuality, it is expected that it be directed toward the desires of men – women are to be looked at and consumed, not to exist by themselves.

To expose the notion that women can and do experience pleasure from sexual acts directly subverts this history of accepted gender roles. As we are expected to be the pleaser, for a woman to receive pleasure or pleasure herself is unthinkable. In line with this, women’s masturbation is not only redundant but also unnatural in the eyes of a patriarchal society.

If a woman is seen as immoral for engaging in sexual acts with the aim of experiencing pleasure, it follows that a woman who masturbates becomes unethical by default – the sole object of masturbation is pleasure, the one thing that is stigmatised the most. As a result, young women fall into a chasm of sexual repression, relegated to an existence as an instrument for male pleasure.

The enduring influence of these traditional sexual roles is further compounded by a lack of education. Throughout my primary and high school years, the extent of our sexual education pertained only to notions of consent and contraception. There was no discussion whatsoever related to pleasure, nor the creation of a safe and sex-positive space in which to discuss and inquire. This leaves young people to their own devices, with the extent of their sexual education often gathered from pornography.

The majority of pornography is centred around male desire. By using this as a form of education, young people are led to disregard the importance of women’s pleasure – young girls internalise that their sexual focus should be fulfilling male desire, and young boys are led to neglect the sexual needs and desires of women.

If young people mirror the skewed, unrealistic, and damaging porn-typified roles during sex, there will be a complete disregard for the pleasure of women. Offering a holistic sexual education to young people creates gender dynamics that are far more balanced, leading to increased sexual wellbeing.

We must all be taught from a young age that intimacy is about pleasure and communication for all parties.

The shame surrounding masturbation and pleasure is incredibly detrimental to women’s sexual health, a vital part of our overall wellbeing. As a society, we must unlearn the narratives fed to us which construct pleasure masturbation as a shameful act, viewing them instead as a powerful and pleasurable blessing. I have hope that the next generation of young girls who follow mine will be free to discuss and pursue their own pleasure.

Illustration by Aileen. You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenngstudio

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