A competition in Sweden has renewed debate over what is still one of the most stigmatized subjects of modern sexuality: female masturbation.
The competition is centered on declaring a new name for female masturbation, and the winner will be selected from over 1,000 entries in June 2015. While the competition represents a step in the right direction toward legitimizing this healthy sexual act that remains taboo for women, its mere existence underscores a universal insecurity surrounding the issue.
Research backs this up: Some people believe it's actually impossible for women to masturbate, while others think it happens too infrequently to warrant any discussion. Meanwhile, a survey of 20,000 people conducted by the Australian Study of Health and Relationships shows that most women refrain from masturbating, arguably largely due to embarrassment and discomfort caused by the stigma around it.
"Less than half of all women aged between 16 and 69 said they had masturbated in the past year, and for girls aged between 16 and 19 the figure falls to 30%," the Brisbane Times reported. "By contrast, a resounding ... 76% men engaged in self-pleasuring."
Here's the point: Women need to get over ourselves when it comes to getting off.
Which is why the Swedish competition is such good news — naming the act gives it credibility. "When it comes to masturbation," Kristina Ljungros, spokeswoman for Swedish Association for Sexuality Education, said, "People mostly think about just men doing it, and we don't think of it as common for women. If we don't have a word in the language, how can we even talk about it?"
Some would argue the existing stigma can be traced back men's desire to control women's sexuality. Masturbation inherently removes men from women's lives, making women independent in a way that still makes society uncomfortable. Even A-list women celebrities are castigated for too outwardly displaying sexuality — as recently as last year, Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé were criticized for the odes to female masturbation they conveyed in "Adore You" and "Rocket," respectively.
But while female sexuality is threatening to men because it is seen as aggressive, female masturbation is doubly threatening because masturbation is seen as an act only men do. Furthermore, masturbation is evidence that women do not need men for sexual pleasure — not surprising when statistics prove that women only climax 64% of the time during heterosexual, vaginal sex.
"Stigma around female masturbation is part of a longer legacy of stigma against displays of autonomous female sexuality," Amber Jamilla Musser, assistant professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, told Mic.
Culture has long declared women should only exhibit passive, responsive desires when it comes to sex. Early psychiatrists turned this into a medical truth by labeling female sexuality, and masturbation in particular, as a psychological disease most clearly with "female hysteria." These psychiatrists, Musser said, "hinted at independence from men and the potential participation in a sexual underworld of lesbianism, masturbation and miscegenation."
For women of color, this stigma is exponential, which Musser alludes to above and elaborates more fully in her book Sensational Flesh: Race, Power and Masochism. From the the media's response to Nicki Minaj's infamous butt album cover photo to the millions of girls and young women who are victims of female genital mutilation around the globe (125 million girls in Africa and the Middle East, alone), women of color have long been singled out for gendered shaming.
Most important, normalizing female masturbation will send a message to women that it's more than OK to pleasure oneself. Women reclaiming their bodies as their own — rather than as men's possessions — is a cornerstone of feminism. Our power comes from not only knowing the power of our bodies but, more pointedly, knowing we ourselves are in control of them.
"Masturbation is true girl power," Karley Sciortino, editor of the sex positive website Slutever, said.
And she's absolutely right.