Female masturbation is scary. In the 18th and 19th centuries, male masturbation was also scary. As the sexual desires of Victorian-era women were largely unacknowledged, masturbation was viewed as a male action and thought to be a disease that produced illnesses like epilepsy, blindness, and loss of memory. Numerous published studies attempted to show that masturbation resulted in insanity. Freud believed that masturbation led to “sexual exhaustion.” While masturbation is no longer medically classified as a disease, that fear surrounding it lingers. Today, even after the feminist movement of the 1960s, female masturbation is an act that is rarely talked about. We do not discuss masturbation, whether in the theoretical (what it means emotionally to pleasure ourselves) or the physical (what the act of pleasuring ourselves actually entails). Though you can find sex-help books in your local Barnes & Noble—no small feat in and of itself—masturbation-help books are much harder to stumble upon. Women are more comfortable with pleasure when it comes from someone else. Maybe that is partially because masturbation is typically thought of as—and typically is—a male action.  A 2009 National Health and Social Life Survey found that nearly three quarters of male respondents masturbated, compared to less than half of female respondents. Why do men masturbate so much more than women? We cannot answer that question without talking consciously about masturbation and the gendered taboos that surround it, with our friends, our sexual partners, our siblings.

A month ago, the Women*s Center of Princeton University brought Ellen Heed, a self-proclaimed “Somatic Educator and Healer,” to campus. Heed came to give various talks on masturbation, human anatomy, and sex. As Jordan Dixon, the Assistant Director of the Center, describes, the center sought to begin a conversation about sexuality in concrete, exciting terms. This was not a sexual awareness campaign or a campus initiative to promote sexual safety.  Rather, this was a frank attempt to understand our sexuality in an honest, interesting way. I think about the time I spend worrying about my intellectual and even emotional growth in college. How often do I consciously ponder my sexual growth? Heed is not a doctor; there is no M.D. behind her name. When I ask her about this, she claims that even doctors do not know much of the information she aims to spread. Their language is one of pathology, not pleasure, she says.

It is the week before Heed is due to arrive and the campus is covered in posters promoting her events. The posters the Women*s Center chooses to use are in their signature pink and purple.  They look innocent enough, except for the content. Phrases like “Where’s the Male G-Spot?” “Anal Is His Favorite Thing—What’s Yours?“ “Why Is It so Hard for Some People to Orgasm?” prompt an angry op-ed calling out “crass publicity” in the Daily Princetonian.  The Women*s Center calls Ellen Heed’s week in residence at Princeton “Sex With the Lights On,” and she gives three talks on female, male and intersex genitalia respectively. She also teaches a class called “Yoga for Better Sex.” I am busy all three days, but manage to snag a spot for her Wednesday lunch conversation, entitled “Developing a Self-Pleasure Practice.” The description on the center’s website reads, “Ellen Heed discusses the importance of women developing a practice for sexual self-pleasure.” I refer to it in my little black planner as “Masturbation Lunch” and pencil it in neatly between a meeting with a professor and lecture.

Wednesday arrives and there I am. This is Masturbation Lunch. There are tinfoil containers with salad and lasagna. About forty women, mostly undergraduates, file into the room until there are no chairs left. Some sit cross-legged at the back. Ellen Heed, the woman herself, is seated in the front. She has dangly earrings, a little tummy, and a stretchy red shirt; Heed presents herself as decidedly not corporate. She opens by soliciting questions, forgoing a prepared talk. There’s a moment of anticipation: who will speak first? Who will admit to masturbation? Surprisingly, it is my close friend, the girl I texted the night before to come with me. We had never spoken about masturbation. Hand up, my friend blurts her question, asking about the different causes behind female and male inability to perform sexually.

And from there we’re on a roll. There is no more silence. We have entered an alternate space where somehow it is permissible to talk openly about our pleasure. Heed responds to my friend’s question by explaining that women have a stronger emotional attachment than men to shame that often stops them from performing sexually. Heed argues that women often feel shame during sex, both surrounding the state of their physical bodies and about their inability to please their partners. When women feel that shame they have trouble accessing and focusing on their sexual selves. Not only do men feel less shame during sex, Heed claims, they also have a much easier time dismissing that shame and focusing on the sexual task at hand. Personally, I think of shame as the desire to escape the perceived judgment of another. While we are all, males and females alike, constantly being judged by our external appearances, I would argue that women are judged by physical appearance more often. That judgment holds us back in so many ways; sexual shame is just one facet.

In response to another question, Heed explains that, practically speaking, it is more difficult for women to get to know ourselves biologically because our erectile tissues are not exterior like men’s are. Female erectile tissues lie within us; we must take the time to explore that interior. The only way to learn what feels good is to try it out. The only way to know if the hood of your clitoris has been retracted is to feel it. If you do not try it, you will not know what is possible. Heed refers to masturbation as a discipline. Like reading or swimming, masturbation is a specialty to be mastered. She describes the ideal sexual relationship as threefold. Your partner has his personal sexual practice, you have yours, and together you meld the two to achieve partnership, a middle ground that pleases you both.

At one point in the lunch, she pulls out a plastic pelvis (the kind you would see in a biology class on a plastic human skeleton, not a dildo) out of her lopsided Mary Poppins bag to demonstrate a masturbation position. She proudly declares, “Never leave home without your pelvis model.” The all-women room breaks into subdued laughter, maybe giggly, not particularly nervous. She suggests masturbation study breaks, using masturbation as a way to relieve the stress of homework. She instructs us to set a timer, have a formal end and beginning, perhaps start by stroking your clitoris for fifteen minutes and noticing the sensations without any particular goal in mind. Heed is detailed and precise. She promises us that masturbation will refresh our ability to focus and make us more creative. She says, “I’m suggesting that sex and one’s ability to study might actually compliment each other…especially sexing with oneself. Mindful masturbation is a really weird concept, but I think it is a great way to enhance creative thought and output.” Personally, I am dubious, but that idea gets some enthusiastic head nods from the women around me. 

I, with two friends, interview Heed the following afternoon back in the Women*s Center. We sink into matching purple beanbags. When I ask about her experience interacting with Princeton students for the past week, Heed admits that we seem especially eager to learn; we want information and we do not have it. It does not surprise her at all that our level of sexual knowledge is quite sparse despite the exposure to sex that often comes with being a modern college student.  She mentions that students at Princeton were curious in particular about female sexuality and were shocked by the fact that women ejaculate when reaching climax in orgasms. She has been impressed with the strong, emotional questions students here have asked—for example, “What can I do to prevent painful sex?” Heed observes that, in general, Princeton appears to be a “less embodied campus…people are in their heads…students are not paying attention to themselves.” I take this to mean that we Princeton students are not thinking consciously about our emotions, our desires.

The lunch and my interview with Heed made it clear that Princeton students are uneducated when it comes to masturbation. We simply do not know. We have been taught geometry, philosophy, even biology. We have proud parents who fed us broccoli and took us to the playground so we could adapt to leading physically healthy lifestyles. Perhaps we learned how to pray and meditate, to access a rich spiritual life. Maybe our schools even gave us some kind of sexual education, showed us how to put a condom on a banana. But they most certainly did not give us the tools to explore ourselves sexually. No one has ever taught us to prioritize or even comfortably acknowledge the existence of our physical pleasure. As Heed puts it “Our lack of education is the stumbling block preventing us from reaching our erotic souls.” What that erotic soul is I cannot possibly fathom, but somehow I doubt that I—or, for that matter, most women—will ever reach it. And we should. Ultimately, a speaker like Ellen Heed is important because, as clichéd as it is, knowledge is power. In this case, female anatomy is power. When women rely on others for sexual pleasure, they negate their own ability to know what pleases them. As long as women fail to self-experiment sexually, to acknowledge their own right to their insides, they will be unable to fully control their bodies and desires. A woman who masturbates is a woman with a voice.