There's no denying a century of progress towards gender equality, but there's one area where women lag stubbornly behind men: masturbation.
While making time to be by yourself might not stand out as the most pressing feminist priority, that gap is a consequence of decades of conditioning that shames women's sexual pleasure – and closing it is critical in equalising men and women.
Orgasms as a feminist issue
The disparity of orgasms between straight men and women is well-documented.
Known as the "orgasm gap", it’s the finding that heterosexual women are having as few as one orgasm for every three their male partner experiences.
A whole range of explanations for the orgasm gap have been offered: poor knowledge of women’s anatomy, gynaecologists failing to ask female patients about sexual satisfaction, and the belief that men’s orgasms serve an evolutionary purpose while women’s are widely (and incorrectly) thought to be for just bonding with a partner, not procreation.
Often (and lazily) we’re told it’s simply because women aren’t getting enough head.
Author and speaker Peggy Orenstein, whose bestselling books chart the expectations of women’s sexuality, has articulated closing the gap as achieving 'intimate justice.' She says that while we've raised women to expect equal treatment at home, at school, and at work, no similar expectation exists in the bedroom.
“We’ve raised a generation of girls to have a voice, to expect egalitarian treatment in the homes, in the classroom, in the workplace. Now it’s time to demand that ‘intimate justice’ in their personal lives.”
The orgasm gap is more than just a sad inevitability. In 2014, a team of Australian researchers surveyed more than 20,000 men and women to learn more about their sexual habits.
The researchers found that half the men surveyed and a quarter of the women had masturbated in the previous four weeks. That’s twice as many men masturbating as women.
Not talking about this difference encourages old beliefs: people still say sexual women are slutty, that the clitoris matters less than the womb, and that celibate women are “frigid.”
But boosting women’s masturbation rates offers a solution: the better you know yourself, the more confident you’ll feel asking for what you need and the greater the pleasure you’ll experience.
Knowing your body better can help you give informed consent to a partner, say ‘no’ when something happens that you don’t like, and explore pleasure without guessing, fumbling, or feeling uncomfortable.
Masturbation helps you learn what you like and gives you the language to say it aloud -- helping you feel confident, strong, and in command of the pleasure you deserve.
How masturbation boosts confidence and self-knowledge
Masturbation can help boost confidence and pleasure for a woman in a sexual relationship – particularly with a member of the opposite sex.
Jacqueline Hellyer, a sex therapist, told the ABC that there’s still a strong message that female sexuality exists just to pleasure men.
“If you are completely reliant on another person to give you pleasure, well, you need to have bloody good communication skills,” she said. “Particularly if your partner is male. He doesn’t have female genitals. He doesn’t know what it feels like.”
Hellyer suggests that women aren’t told their genitals are there for their own pleasure, which discourages practise. And centuries of socialisation have positioned young women as passive people-pleasers.
We’re shamed out of exploring pleasure before we have a chance to try – and are taught sex education that leaves nearly one in three women unsure of where her clitoris is.
But decades of research show that sexual pleasure has a huge impact on women’s self-esteem, physical wellbeing and mental health. Knowing your body better can help you give informed consent to a partner, say ‘no’ when something happens that you don’t like, and explore pleasure without guessing, fumbling, or feeling uncomfortable.
How to make it happen
It’s normal to feel shy, awkward, or even uncomfortable when starting, or resuming, masturbation. But it gets easier, and you’ve only got yourself to show up for – it’s a pressure-free exploration of what feels good for you.
If you’re specifically seeking more and better orgasms, here’s a research-backed list of behaviours found to link with more orgasms for women.
While their list includes the oft-repeated "wear sexy lingerie" and "try dirty talk", the researchers also suggested:
● Asking for what you want in bed.
● Praising your partner for something they did in bed.
● Incorporating more variety into your sex life (think date nights, massages, and light S&M).
And the easiest way to ask for what you want? Knowing what that is.