Yes, women enjoy masturbation. This is not surprising, or new. After all, ancient Greek poetry described women pleasuring themselves, and archaeologists have unearthed dildos dating back 30,000 years. But while it’s had a turbulent history, these readers are highlighting a change in the way women see self-pleasure in 2020.
“Masturbation is a key step in my wellness routine,” says Lulu, 24, a PR executive. “I do it every day and love having that time devoted to myself,” she says. “It keeps me feeling in touch with my own body and mind.” Emma, 27, a solicitor, masturbates to relax. “I do it every night before I go to sleep,” she says. “It helps me unwind after a stressful day at work and allows for some precious me-time, which I don’t always get when I’m busy juggling life.” And, Olivia*, 30, a nurse, has a “self-love sesh” every week. “It’s an hour-long event for me and nobody else; it’s for self-reflection and cherishing myself in private,” she says. “I also put on music, lingerie, and take photos of myself. It’s fun, it’s nourishing – physically and mentally.”
According to GLAMOUR’s recent survey, answered by over 1,000 women, 92% of us do it – and 79% see it as self-care. “Sexual wellness is just as important as my mental and physical wellness, and I can tell how my mental health is doing depending on how high my sex drive is,” says Lulu. “When I lose my urge to masturbate, it’s a reminder to check in with myself to see what could be causing that.”
Today, ‘self-care’ is a potent refrain. Originally a medical term with roots in the civil rights, women’s and LGBTQ movements of the ’60s and ’70s, the concept was amplified by African-American activist Audre Lorde who famously wrote: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” in her 1988 book A Burst Of Light.
Since then the meaning has become remarkably flexible. In theory, if something makes us feel better mentally or physically, then it’s seen as self-care. But critics say the 23.8 million #SelfCare posts on Instagram showing anything from swanky spa setups to slogans telling us to ‘JUST EAT THE CAKE’ – along with the billion-pound consumer industry that has risen up around the term – has diluted self-care’s powerful political and health-focused message.
Yet this growing connection between self-care and masturbation is bolstering it. The sex-positive feminist movement has emboldened women’s voices to destigmatise ongoing taboos – and a recent surge of female pioneers are normalising the discussion around masturbation, talking about it in the same language used in the wellness industry. Brands like audio sex app Ferly, a digital space for women to explore what pleasure means to them, views sexual wellbeing as the third pillar of our health, along with physical and mental.
“We’re pushing the idea that sexual self-care is a dedicated practice for your wellbeing that helps bring yourself back to your body,” says Ferly’s co-founder Billie Quinlan, who’s talked to hundreds of women since the app launched in June last year. Flagging its body-mapping feature – where users can mindfully explore their pleasure hotspots – Billie says so many people are used to seeing masturbation as a fast, functional act, but, “it really isn’t about scratching an itch. It’s carving out time to slow down, connect and be intimate with yourself when the pace of life is so quick that it’s easy to feel totally removed from ourselves and our bodies.”
Broadening the definition of masturbation to sexual self-care does open up a more holistic way of thinking and connecting to our sexuality, which often gets reduced to physical sex with other people. Self-pleasure puts ownership of our sexuality back in our hands (literally) – and women who own their sexuality are influential consumers: the global sexual wellness market is set to be worth $39billion by 2024. Of course, many products miss the mark (think vagina sheet masks), but more brands are taking a sophisticated approach to physical self-love.
“The current cultural climate has given us a window to redefine the narrative around healthy female pleasure,” says Dominnique Karetsos, co-founder of the Intimology Institute, an organisation that specialises in sexual wellness. “Sextech brings together the best of technology – and women – to delineate an archaic binary market polarised between family planning and porn. From long-distance vibrators to VR sex education, brands are helping to elevate the category of sexual health to include pleasure, which we know has social, mental and physical benefits.”
Enter Boots, Feelunique and Cult Beauty who all recently introduced their own sexual-pleasure and wellbeing category, encouraging women to make it a “priority”. And in January, after 52 years of banishment (sigh), sex toys were finally allowed alongside smart home devices and autonomous cars at the global Consumer Electronics Show (CES). The show made history by allowing sextech products to compete for awards for the first time, including Lioness 2 – a next-level vibrator controlled through an app that uses AI to track orgasm patterns to improve future sessions. It was also a finalist in the Best Digital Health and Fitness Product category, along with – wait for it – an electric toothbrush, which sends climatic ripples worldwide that wanting a better masturbation experience is as normal as a teeth-cleaning one.
36% of GLAMOUR readers say they masturbate 2-5 times a week. For 5%, it’s once a day
“We’re having a watershed moment,” confirms Lioness co-founder Liz Klinger. “Being at CES means companies like us can reach more audiences and open new ways of talking about our sexuality – and that helps to reduce stigmas.” The science is also providing a deeper insight into masturbation. “We’re giving info in the form of scientific wellness data – similar to how we have fitness stats on a Fitbit,” adds Liz. “But women’s pleasure needs more clinical studies, especially with the psychological aspects of it.”
Aspects such as shame. For every young woman empowered to normalise the experience and bring the topic up at brunch or send masturbation memes to her WhatsApp group, there’s another who’d rather mute it. In fact, 53% of GLAMOUR readers don’t feel comfortable talking about it: “I’m embarrassed”, “It’s too personal” and “I don’t really know” were all answers.
“I’m definitely seeing two camps: one where masturbation is like the ‘Voldemort’ of female sexual desire; you don’t say the word out loud,” says Liz, who talked to many women about perceptions of self-love for Lioness. “But more people are leaning into the, ‘Hell, yes, let’s talk about this’ camp. Interestingly, we’re noticing more women from areas where it’s more culturally, religiously or socially conservative – and therefore tougher to have these conversations – who are recognising that experiencing pleasure in this way is a normal part of being human. And they’re saying it’s self-care.”
Again, it’s positive progress, but, of course, not every person or brand is still ready to have these conversations. And, sadly, 83% of readers feel society still has a problem with female sexual desire, which probably explains why over half of us keep schtum. This is hardly surprising: female pleasure has always had a rough time getting the recognition it deserves. “We’ve never had the social permission to validate our sexuality,” says Dominnique.
Historically, the focus for women and sex has always been on the vagina and its functional role – so reproduction. “The clitoris was barely mentioned in medical texts until the 1980s, prompting Australian urologist Helen O’Connell to discover and publish its full structure, but this only happened as recently as 1998,” explains psychosexual and relationship therapist Kate Moyle. Why? Blame the patriarchy, says Flo Perry author of How To Have Feminist Sex. “For millennia, women’s sexuality was just something to be traded and used by men,” she says. “To control women, the patriarchy suppressed woman’s own sexual wants that didn’t fit neatly into the roles men created for them.” Women were power silenced and shamed; being told that masturbation was dirty and sex was only for male gratification. And, as Flo adds, “it takes more than a few decades of feminism to get over that kind of thing.”
Billie agrees we’re trying to change generations of social narratives, but believes, “On a ground-swell level, there’s a real desire to challenge outdated perceptions.” Olivia is one of those women happy to stimulate a discussion. “I feel fully comfortable talking about masturbation, especially with my friends [as do 79% of readers in the ‘yes-to-talking’ camp]. But, generally, I think the discourse is still derogatory and immature. I’d say a lot of people think if a woman has a sex drive and doesn’t keep it ‘behind closed doors’, she’s easy, slutty. And then, when she masturbates in private it’s seen as secretive and shameful. Female desire should be on the same level as male desire, but lots of us grew up with little sex education, so this still stunts the overall conversation.”
Most of our generation will remember ‘learning’ about masturbation as though it were just for the boys. Their first wank was a cumming of age; a fist-bump welcome into manhood. As for the girls? “I don’t remember even having a word for it,” says Lulu. “Or one I felt comfortable with.” It’s true: the words used to describe masturbating (which always sounded mechanical) is often gendered – and that creates a bigger problem. “I remember learning that touching myself was seen as ‘disgusting’,” Lulu continues. “It affected me enormously. When I first had sex, I had never masturbated and I didn’t know what I liked. Sex for the next five years was the opposite of pleasurable, and I never understood why. Then, at 22, a friend showed me the position of my clitoris and… boom: everything changed.”
We know: knowledge is power, but knowledge of your clit is very powerful. Emma also credits a gamechanging chat with university friends for introducing her to a whole new level of mindful self-pleasure – and a bullet vibrator. “The more you know your own body and what turns you on, the better sex will be, whether on your own or with someone else,” she says. “It’s mentioned a lot more in TV compared to when I was growing up. Thanks to shows like Sex Education, at least younger people are having more access to this information earlier, and seeing that these ‘urges’ aren’t wrong, they’re totally healthy.”
She’s right. We’ve seen activism such as The Pink Protest’s #GirlsWankToo campaign, feminist porn sites such as Lust Cinema and Indie Porn Revolution, and a whole month dedicated to masturbation (thanks May), but pop culture is also pushing a wider openness around female pleasure. Podcasts are prioritising women’s sexual perspectives as a way of improving sexual wellbeing, and on screen, we’ve come a long way from Sex And The City showcasing the sensual delights of the Rampant Rabbit. There’s that Goop Lab episode on women’s orgasm workshops, and more scriptwriters are integrating self-love in healthy, matter-of-fact ways. See Big Mouth, Fleabag, Wanderlust, Booksmart, The Shape Of Water. Musicians Cardi B, Miley Cyrus and Lizzo all sing about solo sex, celebs including Shailene Woodley and Anna Kendrick aren’t afraid to get the conversation going in interviews or on their social feeds, either. And while, yes, they’re not the first to share, seeing these moments of solo sex honesty in the mainstream media feels exciting and profound because female pleasure has rarely been dealt with so centrally without some sort of shame.
We’ve come to a better place with masturbation perception, precisely because of the rehabilitation of sex away from the binary of clinical babymaking or shameful raunch, yet GLAMOUR’s survey shows there’s still a sense of ‘catch-up’ needed with discussions. So what else can be done?
Lots more conversations are a good start – not necessarily broadcasting it in your performance review at work, but not being embarrassed to talk about it day-to-day either. Younger generations are leading the charge, armed with more health and tech knowledge, and the desire for solutions – and change.
Part of that change is ensuring diversity isn’t relegated. “More women-led, female sexuality businesses need to be created and supported. And not just for white cis women, but for marginalised females, trans and non-binary folks,” says Jannette Davies, founder of sex-positive community Sonder Beam. “For too long sex and sexuality has been ruled through the male perspective, then through that of white cis women.”
This change should start earlier, too, argues Kate. “One key factor that will make a difference is substantial, inclusive and open sex education,” she says. “In the Netherlands they start to introduce the idea of sex from the age of four, but we also need to educate parents to feel comfortable having these conversations.” She also wants to convince people that ‘investing’ in your sex life is OK. “Adding body literacy to the list will help more women feel empowered about their bodies – removing shame and stigma.”
Just a few years ago, the idea of a woman masturbating when she was horny was socially perplexing. Now it’s being viewed as something much more subjective – and even self-healing. Particularly for those who have had traumatic experiences or struggle with physical connection to their bodies.
“Some of our users are moving through sexual trauma, they find sex painful or they’ve got low a libido due to depression, anxiety or medication – but they’re still looking for ways to reintroduce pleasure back into their lives,” says Billie. “After using Ferly’s guided practices and exploring their whole body, mindfully, they’ve told us it’s allowed them to connect with themselves for the first time in ages.”
How could knowing yourself this intimately or giving yourself some stress-busting pleasure be anything but self-care? Whether it’s aiding your mental health or giving you that confident glow, this shifting view of masturbation shows it’s a wellness pillar we need to stop being ashamed of – and start owning. So let’s stop whispering it in hushed tones and say it loud and proud. Women masturbate. It’s fun. It’s good for us. And it’s nothing to keep quiet about.