Don't Hold Back
by Krista Halverson • photos by En-Min Chang
It’s been said that 99 percent of people masturbate, and the other one percent is lying. For men this may be a fair assessment, according to sexuality research, but for women it’s an entirely different story. If they’re doing it, they’re not talking about it, and neither is anyone else.
Discussion about masturbation commonly includes slang that centers upon the male body. While terms such as “spanking the monkey” and “jerking off” are part of a common vocabulary, there are only a few obscure words for female masturbation. The act of women giving themselves pleasure is not openly discussed as part of female sexuality, and shuffled between complex ideology, political correctness and post–free love mores, female sexuality for physical pleasure alone has been lost.
After her 1976 study of female sexuality, Shere Hite, a prominent sexuality researcher, called for an “undefining” of sex, one that would include women reclaiming their sexuality, independent of a sexual partner. In this revamped meaning of sex, female masturbation can become an acknowledged practice devoid of the feelings of shame and guilt with which women often associate it. Now three women at the University of Wisconsin at Madison have taken Hite’s injunction to a new level by creating a student group called WHAM, or Women Happily Advocating Masturbation.
Cheryl Kingma, Julie Halpern and Katie Hawbaker started WHAM in the fall of 1996 when they were given a class assignment to do a “cultural intervention”—an examination and deconstruction of an anomaly that has been normalized by culture and society. The group recognized the need to create “a middle ground between virginal purity and the sexual whore image,” says Kingma. By establishing an open discourse about female masturbation, the women hoped to encourage a forum in which a woman could enjoy her own sexuality. “It’s ours,” says Kingma. “We should have fun with it.”
WHAM fights the association of female masturbation with male pleasure and voyeurism. Imagine, for example, a porno film illuminating the smoky room of a bachelor party. On the screen, a woman, contorted uncomfortably on her back, slips her hand southbound as the camera digs in for a close-up. The party explodes into cheers. It’s a stereotype, but it has become part of America’s belief system. Another example is the man who walks past WHAM’s information table, scans the group’s flier and inquires, “Can I watch you masturbate?” Such incidents indicate that Americans believe a woman’s sexual pleasure is not for herself, but for a man.
Or take, for example, Antioch College’s guidelines for sexual consent (“Can I kiss you? May I touch your breasts?”) or the recent Oprah-glamorized books: The Rules, in which two New Jersey women denounce liberated sexuality as the sure route to eternal singledom and unhappiness, and The Official Sexually Correct Dictionary and Dating Guide. Although Antioch’s rules, created to prevent date rape, and The Rules, created to make men commit, represent political opposites, each assumes the same ideology: Women’s sexuality is a reward for good boys, and women are not sexual within themselves.
These messages tell women that their sexuality is a gift to be shared only with men who have earned it through courageous acts of promising commitment. Although the idea of virginal purity has been inherited from earlier times, it has survived the sexual revolution. Society still frowns on “loose” women because they have given of something that is not innately their own, but the possession of a man or a future partner.
One problem with these ideas is a definition of sex as intercourse only, says Hite. Based on the need for patrilineal inheritance, society views “coitus [as] the ‘real thing,’ and all other forms of sexual gratifications [as] substitutions for, or perversions of, this ‘natural activity,’” wrote Hite in her book Women As Revolutionary Agents of Change. But society is in transition, says Hite, making it possible for women to claim their own sexuality. Here is where WHAM steps in and takes advantage of changing gender roles.
WHAM’s goal is to bring the topic out in the open—to let women know masturbation is normal and to help them feel more comfortable with their bodies. The group’s motto, “Wham, bam, thank you Ma’am,” depicts the “change from female sexual objectification to empowerment,” according to Kingma. WHAM now has 28 members, including five men, who instead of feeling emasculated, realize that they have something to gain. “It improves their sex lives, too,” when their partners are more comfortable and familiar with their bodies, says Kingma.
After becoming an official student organization, WHAM set up a booth at its school’s student union. “Masturbation. No Commitment. A Cheap Date,” read the pink-inked signs above the women’s heads. Throughout the day WHAM passed out more than 150 brochures with a design that reflects as much about the group’s ideas as the words do. The neon pink paper, a color like WHAM’s message—proud, empowered and feminine—is folded two times, constrained and ready to be opened. The cover depicts a cartoon of a woman holding a dildo and a vibrator, smiling gleefully and imagining herself as a kid in a candy store. Kingma describes the group as made up of “feminists with a sense of humor,” an apt description for an organization that tackles tricky subjects with candid jocularity, such as a slogan in its handout that describes masturbation as “Safe Sex! The only way to get off and be completely safe from pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.” Humor can make people more comfortable discussing this cultural taboo—one that, ironically, many women break, according to studies such as The Hite Report on Female Sexuality.
Despite scientific shortcomings, including a biased sample and questions requiring sexually graphic responses, The Hite Report is valuable, according to human sexuality professor Janet Hyde. The final report included respondents’ full answers and offered insight into the detailed sexuality of individual women. “Women reading it said ‘This is me.’ [It] validated people’s feelings and opened men’s eyes to phenomena they hadn’t heard of before,” says Hyde. The study received a great deal of publicity and started people talking about a new, post-Freudian model of female sexuality.
Further, it aided in creating an open discourse about masturbation. Still, the subject remains sensational, even silly, though it is as natural as intercourse. Tracing masturbation through our evolutionary gene pool, we discover that our cousins the primates do it—with remarkable flexibility, allowing them to perform oral sex on themselves—often to the horror of zoo visitors. They aren’t the only ones. Deer do it. Women aren’t even the first animals to use vibrators. The female porcupine will hold one end of a stick between her paws and walk around, straddling the stick as it bumps against the ground and vibrates against her genitalia.
The act of masturbation, although normal in animal behavior and other human cultures, still elicits distaste in most modern societies. Former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, for example, was fired in 1994 in part because she advocated teaching masturbation in schools as a means of preventing teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Although educating children about intercourse is common in the majority of public schools, the idea of individually owned and pleasurable sexuality remains a radical and, to some, offensive notion.
As public perceptions of sexuality continue to change, women like Hite and the founders of WHAM hope that America’s penchant for a traditional definition of sex will change with it. “All the kinds of physical intimacy that were once channeled into our one mechanical definition of sex can now be reallowed and rediffused throughout our lives,” writes Hite. “Although we tend to think of ‘sex’ as one set pattern, one group of activities (in essence, reproductive activity), there is no need to limit ourselves in this way.”
- WHAM / Don't Hold Back.