Dildo Dilemma – The Paradox of Female Masturbation

Once again, social researchers have been grappling with the The Debate That Refuses To Die, that is, ‘Do men really have higher sex drives than women?’ Whilst this recent contribution, to its credit, acknowledges the complexities and reliability of survey evidence when people’s understanding, experiences and means of expressing their sexual desires have been strongly conditioned by a lifetime of gendered socialisation, the question remains, why does this myth persist and why are scientists and social researchers so fixated on shoring it up? Whilst the prevalence and persistence of this idea, geographically and across history, may appear to suggest at least some biological component, as Engels argued in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, primogeniture or other forms of familial inheritance have likewise been features of most societies in modern history, creating the impetus for a man to ensure his wife’s fidelity, and by extension, control her sexuality and social participation, in order to ensure the paternity of his offspring. Although in very recent history we have had the means to test and discern paternity, such innovations cannot immediately contend with centuries of strongly enforced cultural practices and ideas, which take on lives of their own beyond their original and direct purpose. This on-going systemic anxiety around female sexual desire co-exists quite comfortably alongside the widespread media ‘sexualisation’ of women; neutering authentic, adult female sexuality and replacing it with a performative sexuality, strongly mediated through (perceived) heterosexual male desire. In this way, women are the ‘sex class’, yet sexually repressed.

                Perhaps the most revealing statistic marshalled in defence of the myth of higher male sex drives is the alleged discrepancy is frequency of masturbation, with one study reporting “masturbation was the largest difference of all the variables they examined, with men nearly a full standard deviation higher than women.” We can probably all testify that anecdotally, masturbation is by far the most culturally contentious, taboo aspect of female sexuality, particularly relative to the acceptance of the same behaviour in men, an idea which no doubt heavily influenced men and women’s responses to the survey. Yet this is to be expected, given that women are permitted some level of sexual desire in accordance with the belief in heterosexual male entitlement to sex, however this is often posited in terms of women’s need to for ‘intimacy’ and to create cohesive relationships with men, rather than due to base sexual urges as men have. Unlike other sexual activities, masturbation cannot be explained away as in some way corresponding to male desire and social needs, such as creating bonds with men or producing reciprocal male pleasure, as it is of course solely about autonomous, physical gratification, therefore its existence is simply denied. This widespread pact of silence around female masturbation is profoundly unhealthy in a number of ways. Firstly, it can be deeply harmful to the development of young women and girls, who internalise these messages and view themselves with shame and disgust. We dismiss little boys fiddling with their willies with ‘boys will be boys’, yet an adult women can become so traumatised by her retrospective interpretation of innocent childhood experimentation as to suffer from panic attacks, be unable to have sex and even have to end her relationship. Secondly, if we believe that there is such a great discrepancy between male and female sexual urges, we implicitly accept that many heterosexual sexual interactions are in some way reluctant or a compromise, and therefore not quantitatively distinct from non-consensual sex.

                Yet another paradox exists. Whilst female masturbation is considerably more taboo than male masturbation, when it comes to the use of sex toys, the dynamic is reversed; whilst a woman using a vibrator is sometimes seen as ‘empowered’, at least in nominally more progressive discourse, a man using a fleshlight or real doll is dismissed as a loser. How does this idea co-exist within the general cultural fear around female masturbation and relative acceptance of male masturbation? Firstly, it is important to note that it does not contradict the overall belief that male masturbation is both more prevalent and acceptable, but simply means that whilst they may still do so freely and frequently, it should not be using any implements, whereas if women must, this is the most culturally acceptable form. This may well be in part due to women’s learned fear and disgust of their own genitals, which they are taught to believe are unclean, therefore using a dildo could be seen as the more ‘hygienic’, feminine option, whilst directly touching themselves would be ‘dirty’.   Furthermore, toys, to a greater extent than simply using ones hands or other means are seen as substitutes for a real man or woman, indeed many are designed to suggest this. As woman are subject to additional pressures not to be promiscuous, kept firmly in check through cultural slut-shaming, it may be seen as preferable for a woman to satisfy sexual urges in this way rather than to engage in casual sex. Men however do not experience such pressures, indeed are encouraged and expected to take advantage of all sexual opportunities available to them, so whilst they may masturbate when a woman is not around, such are their rapacious sexual appetites, to go to the effort and expense of investing in one of these ‘woman substitutes’ constitutes a failure of masculinity, as they are not sexually successful enough to satisfy their needs.

                Additionally, the use of dildos is somewhat more acceptable than other forms of masturbation as this accords more closely with androcentric and heteronormative ideas about female pleasure. As if it were not threatening enough that women are capable of experiencing sexual pleasure without men, it is yet more so that in general, women’s primary means of getting sexual pleasure, that is, through clitoral stimulation rather than vaginal penetration, does not even notionally accord with male gratification. The Hite Report on Female Sexuality suggested that only around a third of women were able to orgasm from vaginal penetration, and studies also suggest that 90% of women masturbate with no vaginal penetration at all. Even the Victorians recognised, and agonised over, the deeply troubling fact that the primary means of delivering pleasure in most women was so readily accessible by ones fingers but not with a penis.  Whether through ‘clitoridectomies’ or later, ‘pelvic massage’ using Dr Granville’s electronic manipulator, certainly a more humane option yet still derived from the same desire to control women’s sexualities, the Victorians acknowledged that it was in most cases clitoral stimulation that achieved ‘hysterical paroxyms’ (orgasms), and confronted this fact even though it was problematic to them as they believed it to be such a grave social, moral and medical problem, although of course played down the sexual aspect if this. Only now that there is a clearly acknowledged connection between vibrators and sexual pleasure has there been confusion over the function of the manipulator, many mistakenly believing it to have been for penetration, as indeed many wrongly assume of clitoral vibrators today. Of course, the rejection of the primacy of the vaginal orgasm and exploration of the necessity to assert its superiority featured strongly in second wave feminism, indeed was somewhat overstated, vaginal orgasms being dismissed as entirely mythical, although this was somewhat understandable given the cultural assumptions it was written in reaction to, whereby women who preferred clitoral orgasms were deeply pathologised, called ‘frigid’ and told that their sexuality was inherently immature. Yet forty years on, this idea has had little impact on wider public perceptions, which remains preoccupied with penetration. Whilst we must be vigilant against creating our own, equally oppressive counter-orthodoxies, the fact remains that whilst for the majority, penetration, particularly with something phallic, is not the best means of experiencing sexual pleasure, popular culture strongly suggests that the reverse is true. Whilst the vaginal orgasm may not be a myth, its superiority and prevalence certainly is.

                The veneration of the dildo as the culturally endorsed means of female masturbation helps to perpetuate the idea of female sexual pleasure being derived from a man’s, and uphold the perceived supremacy of the vaginal orgasm. This understanding of female sexuality is evident in the unique position of the rampant rabbit in popular culture, which is not so much due it’s actual ability to meet women’s needs, but the way it is ‘designed to meet our CULTURAL EXPECTATIONS around women’s needs’. Not only is it designed for penetration but is penis-shaped, suggesting that penises are indeed the ideal shape to produce female pleasure. Whilst the Lelo range or We-Vibe may in fact be designed to more genuinely meet women’s needs (in general), they are not seeking to replicate and therefore act as a substitute for male genitals, therefore simply don’t fit with our ideas about female sexuality in quite the same way as a foot-long, vibrating phallus. Likewise, the on-going fascination with the G-spot, and more recently the orgasmic birth, constitute further attempts to re-centre the vaginal orgasm. Of course, this is likely to be an equally fruitless avenue for male scientists wishing to claim and control female pleasure, as most people realise, anecdotally or personally, that the g-spot is best accessed by toys or hands, and that there are few PIV sex positions that are well suited to stimulating it. Nevertheless, in the popular imagination, with its connection to penetration, it is something to do with intercourse, with reporters frequently asking questions such as ‘what are the best sex positions for g-spot orgasms?’ It is highly unlikely that scientists’ are motivated by a desire to explore diverse ways to give women pleasure, but rather about forcing our knowledge of the female body to fit into existing cultural paradigms.

          Under the patriarchy, women cannot win. It is possible to be subject to multiple, sometimes contradictory pressures and expectations – to have limited autonomous sexual desire, yet to be sexually available to men, whilst not being promiscuous – meaning that ostensible sexual liberation has created new and ever more complex demands of women. As long female bodies and sexuality continue to be the battleground for broader cultural anxieties and debates, a woman’s sexuality cannot be her own, and genuine sexual liberation cannot be achieved.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: