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Wellness > Sex + Relationships

The Stigmatisation of Female Masturbation

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UCT chapter.

Do you watch porn? Would you be embarrassed to admit that you do? 

There is an assumption that men are more sexual than women. The assumption that men masturbate, watch porn and need sex more than women do. It is time we challenged this stereotype. I interviewed around twenty random women at UCT. Most women I spoke to admitted to watching porn. I say admitted because they all agreed they felt that there was a stigma involved with women watching porn. Why is there a stigma? Why do men feel more comfortable with porn than women do? How does this stigmatisation of female sexuality manifest in our lives?

Every woman interviewed said that they were personally affected by the taboos around female masturbation and porn. Some women said they felt that masturbation did not form part of the feminine ideal that we have been taught to strive towards. They felt that it was seen as ‘slutty’, ‘dirty’ and ‘masculine’. They were scared of being judged and stigmatized. But men don’t feel like that. Men are generally more open about masturbation and porn. And men definitely watch more porn (According to Pornhub, 63% of their users are male). But, perhaps that’s more to do with the perception of male sexuality than actual biology. 

Quite a few women told me that they felt their sexual pleasure did not belong to them – they felt it was for men. This is a historical idea that has filtered through the ages. Women have, in many cultures, been seen as property of their husbands. Marital rape was not even recognised as rape in South Africa until 1993 (when our parents were our age). Marital rape was not recognized as rape, because the wife’s sexuality was ‘owned’ by her husband. How can you steal something that’s already yours? This idea that our sexuality is not for ourselves is very old, but one could argue it is still prevalent today. And, the pornography that is available often perpetuates that idea. I interviewed a straight woman who said that she watched homosexual porn, because she felt it was more equal. She said that, in homosexual porn there was more of an emphasis on mutual pleasure, but that in a lot of straight porn it was very male pleasure focused. So, the message that we, as women, get is that sex isn’t about us. Men own sex, we just provide it.

There is also the complication of religion. Many women confessed that, whether their childhood was religious or not, they felt that religion had negatively impacted the way they think about sexual pleasure (note: the women interviewed were Christian, Muslim, Atheist or non-specified). A lot of women said that their religious upbringing had left them feeling guilty and shameful about their sexual desires. Traditional religion shuns ‘sex before marriage’, pornography and masturbation. Sex is seen as something to be controlled, not celebrated. Many said that they had been raised on a specific idea of what a ‘good religious woman’ was like, and sexual pleasure did not fit into that. A ‘good religious woman’ was linked to words like ‘pure’, ‘virgin’ and ‘obedient’. So, even if the women did not currently identify with the religion they were raised on, they still felt residual guilt. Both sexes deal with this, but, because the emphasis on female virginity is often greater, and the ideals for a religious woman often stricter, one could argue that perhaps women feel the pressures more keenly. 

‘Handsome Ben’ is a 21 year old on Pornhub. As an amateur, he has ten thousand subscribers and is able to support himself on this job alone. He enjoys doing porn, and says that if he didn’t, he wouldn’t do it anymore. He clearly feels no guilt or shame, and neither should he. He has a job he enjoys, which gives him a lifestyle he likes and pays the necessarily bills. He said he doesn’t feel that there is still a stigma around masturbation. Perhaps that’s because he’s a man, or perhaps that’s because the people he’s surrounded by (his friends and fans) are inherently sex positive. His audience is mainly straight women, a category which, according to PornHubstatistics, saw a 3% rise in 2019. Slowly the stereotype is changing, more and more women are rejecting traditional, restrictive gender roles across the board. A younger, more sex positive generation is emerging, and hopefully with it will come some changes. 

Imagine if you were released from the stigma and could do whatever you liked, without fear of judgement or shame? Imagine if you had no residual guilt from your religious upbringing? What would you do with that freedom? In a world where sex is for men, perhaps one of the most feminist things you can do today is go and masturbate.

I am a 3rd year humanities student majoring in English and Classics at the University of Cape Town. I enjoy history, literature, nature and art. This is beginning to sound like I’m in Lord Farquard’s line up so I’ll leave it at that.