Why We Should Be Talking About Masturbation
Originally Published: January 11, 2017
Revised: December 17, 2018
I’ve always been interested in the notion that we can feel hunger but not know what the heck it is that we’re craving. Hours can pass, and the hunger may get worse but the communication between our taste buds and brain remains fuzzy. Sometimes relationships and sexuality can feel a lot like this. Like when you know you want something, out of your partner or yourself, but are at a loss for what it is you really desire. It’s confusing and frankly totally frustrating that we spend our lives in one body, which we dress, wash and feed each day, but it can still feel like a mystery.
It took me a while to figure this out, but it is all about taking time to hash out what you want and like before pleasing others. It can be empowering getting to know what turns you on. Masturbation is one way to learn about our bodies and what makes us feel good. We may like to think that our partners know what we want, but more often than not they are completely clueless! And why wouldn’t they be? We all like different things. What feels natural to one person could be a total turnoff for someone else. To maintain healthy relationships, it is important to be able to communicate what we desire—because what you want, like and will or won’t do matters. For example, if having sex with a condom is important for you to relax, feel comfortable and experience pleasure, that’s important for your partner to know.
Tell Me What You Want
A huge issue arises when sexuality is avoided in conversation and no one is comfortable enough to say what they want. More than that, in a society where self-satisfaction and masturbation can be looked down on, you might not even know what you want! Even in private, it can feel like we don’t have the right to experiment with pleasure.
Whether you choose to masturbate or not, getting in touch with ourselves—and really understanding what we like and need—can lead to a better understanding of how we want to be treated.
I spoke with Al Vernacchio, a teacher of human sexuality at Friends Central School in Pennsylvania, about how masturbation is (or isn’t) handled in school. Al is probably unlike the teacher you had for sexuality education because he addresses sensuality and intimacy as a part of sexual health.
“Silence about a topic in a sexuality education class can signal to students that there’s something ‘wrong’ with that topic, that it’s dangerous or deviant,” notes Al, when I ask about how masturbation and pleasure aren’t addressed as part of sex ed. “Silence can also allow myths and misinformation to go unchallenged.” Like the myth that if you’ve masturbated you aren’t a virgin or the myth that it is wrong to masturbate if you are in a committed relationship.
It used to be (and still is sometimes) that masturbation was considered vulgar. Except vulgarity implies that you are offending someone else, which is pretty much impossible when you’re alone or engaging in shared pleasure. Equating masturbation or pleasure with vulgarity means people end up feeling embarrassed about their bodies. By neglecting to appreciate our sexual side, our right to pleasure and the most intimate parts of ourselves, we are supporting the idea that there are things wrong with us—and our bodies—and that certain feelings, physical or emotional, should be ignored or even suppressed. But don’t we all deserve to feel happiness and love?
Shame vs. Self-love
Self-love and feeling in control of my body has made me more aware of the interactions I have with my partner and in my day-to-day life. When I want something or feel a certain way, I am definitely more upfront about it now because I have seen myself and the people I care about feel isolated about sex and too ashamed to talk about it. Masturbation, especially for girls, is often seen as taboo, but the role it plays in physical, emotional and sexual health goes way deeper than the way it makes us feel in the moment.
It’s like the food analogy: if you don’t know what it is that you want to eat, there is a chance you may go hungry or eat something you don’t enjoy. When you don’t know what it is that you do or don’t want sexually, it becomes far more difficult to advocate for yourself. We can talk to our partners about protection and safer sex and come to a mutual conclusion about having or not having sex, but that is not where the conversation ends. What about verbalizing what you want out of and during sex, not just whether you want it or not? It’s important for our partners to understand what brings us pleasure—and that begins with us understanding this for ourselves. Talking about and experimenting with pleasure can allow for more dynamic and fulfilling interactions. When we talk about masturbation, we are talking about learning what our preferences are and accepting the way our bodies like to be touched and how we like to feel.
Masturbation Is A Choice
To be clear, whether or not you explore your body is your choice. If we choose not to masturbate because of our values, for instance, then we have made a conscious choice based on something that is important to us. But if we choose not to masturbate because we feel shame about our bodies, that is something that needs to be addressed.
“Masturbating can be a healthy expression of one’s sexuality,” explains Al. “Not masturbating can also be a healthy expression of one’s sexuality. It all depends on one’s value system. It’s in the why we do or don’t do it, not what we do or don’t do that’s important.”
Not masturbating is another way of consciously taking control of what makes you happy. Either way, you are making a meaningful choice about an intimate aspect of your life.
Whether you choose to masturbate or not, getting in touch with ourselves—and really understanding what we like and need—can lead to a better understanding of how we want to be treated. Anytime we reconnect with ourselves is an opportunity for growth and discovery. We each have one body to cherish and share, so it’s important to try and feel comfortable in that body. Our bodies can be weird, confusing, scary even, but look a bit closer and you may find that they can also be strong, beautiful and capable of bringing joy and pleasure. Don’t be afraid to go exploring because you never know what you might find!
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