By Ab Velasco
Angela Beldas masturbates by candlelight.
“It’s like I’m touching my inner self,” she says, grinning.
How often she diddles depends on whether she has a guy in her life, or if she has time.
The second-year diploma in arts student doesn’t like to rush it. “You have to take time out for yourself.”
She’s not high-tech enough to use vibrators, but sometimes fantasizes about girls. “I’ve never slept with one though. I also like the outdoors, and to imagine exotic things like waterfalls.”
Masturbation is a touchy subject. Toronto police threatened to arrest Madonna if she performed the act during her Blonde Ambition Tour in the late ‘80s.
But repression was worse in the sixth through the tenth centuries. Early theologians declared masturbation to be a greater sin than sex. The Catholic Church attempted to maintain a system of repression by encouraging parents to condemn this behaviour.
The word masturbation did not exist in the English language until the middle of the 18th century, says Thomas S. Szasz, professor of psychiatry at the State University of New York Health Science Center. The Oxford Dictionary recorded the word in 1766. Szasz says the earliest known use of the word was a corruption of the Latin word Manustupration, or manual stupration, meaning to defile (or violate) by hand.
Today masturbation is a regular gag joke in movies such as Slums of Beverly Hills and American Pie. Some believe that swabbing the honeypot can be a liberating act for women.
“Society views it as a want and not a need, so they perceive it as wasteful,” says Carlyle Jansen, owner of Good For Her, a Toronto sex shop for women.
Jansen has a political view of masturbation.
“I think it’s a radical activity. It challenges the patriarchal mentality. For a long time, women had to hold back their sexuality.”
Jansen says that there is an assumption in society that if a woman enjoys ex and seeks pleasure, she is selfish.
“From a feminist point of view, it would be obvious that this is a way of reclaiming one’s own body,” says Ronald De Sousa, professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.
A research study of university students at a New England state university in the early nineties shows that men are more willing than women to say that they masturbate (81 per cent vs. 45 per cent). The main reason given is that men and women are brought up with different attitudes towards sexuality.
Jansen, who began masturbating in her early 20s, admits that it took her six months to get over feeling ashamed. She believes attitudes today are changing.
“It’s different for younger people now. There are still lots of people who feel shame, but more and more people are talking to me about it,” Jansen says there are differences between what men and women think about when they masturbate.
“Men get turned on more by the visual,” she says. “I think women like to use their imagination more. I know women who get turned on by intense emotions.”
Maria Gurevich, a professor of psychology at Ryerson, says society has a double-standard when it comes to sexuality.
“Society in general tries to contain female sexuality, while at the same time exploiting it. We use female sexuality to sell everything from cars to laundry detergent, but there are few candid discussions about female sexuality that are outside the context of pornography,” she says. “We also have a very rigid notion of gender, which is linked to our constrained perceptions of sexuality.”
Gurevich says that this notion is introduced from birth and reinforced throughout childhood and adolescence. At the same time, she says there are relatively few outlets for women to talk openly about sex and desire.
But not all women like talking about it. Selena Matthews finds masturbating dirty.
“You’re like, putting your finger down there. The feeling … it’s wet,” says the second-year Ryerson student.
Matthews says her curiosity eventually led her to masturbate. “It’s really strange. I’m a strong Catholic. The urges are there, but I don’t think it’s necessary.”
The last time she masturbated was a month ago, and, like all the other times, she felt shameful. “I read the Bible afterwards,” she says laughing. “I feel bad, and I keep asking, ‘why am I doing this again?’ I guess it is somewhat pleasurable, but it’s still dirty.”
Men who are aroused by vivid images of female masturbation would disagree.
For some male students at Ryerson, the act is arousing, but the implications are even more fascinating.
Viktor Vitebski, a third-year computer science student, thinks that the idea of a woman masturbating is not only sexy, but healthy and educational. “I think it’ a turn on if a woman learns about her own body. It helps when you’re with her sexually,” he says.
He says that it’s something he talks about with certain women.
“Some people are open to it and some are not,” says Vitebski.
“Some people are brought up in the traditional sense. Sex is not for fun, but it’s more of a tool,” adds Chris Chow, a third-year computer science student. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with masturbating, if it makes them feel good physically.”
So how much probing will it take before female masturbation gets as many slang terms as playing the skin flute?
Gurevich says that North American society needs to get to a place where our culture is more comfortable with sex in general. She says rather than sensationalizing it, we need to treat masturbating as more mundane, as a vital aspect of our lives, like eating and drinking.
Jansen says education is key.
“I would like to see high schools mention the word clitoris and talk about the erogenous zones. I want to see health classes talk about pleasure in that it’s clean,” she says. “I also would like to see more families talking about sex.”
De Sousa says masturbation is something that children discover on their own.
“What is needed here is an absence of repression. The simplest thing to do is to not pretend that children experience pleasure,” he says.
And don’t pretend that women don’t experience pleasure. Get the candles out if you want, but all you really need is a helping hand.