I’ve never lied when people have asked me if I masturbate. The subject has come up in a range of scenarios throughout the years from “never have I ever” games, events about women’s sexuality, and casual conversations. Every time it creates discomfort and sometimes giggles and questions from women like, “How do you do it? How often? Does it feel weird?” 

My first weekend at Bowdoin I felt like I was in one of the most sexually liberal places in the world. I saw people making out on the dance floor, going home togetherand for the first time in my lifesame sex couples in a public space. At the alma mater of Alfred Kinsey, I assumed everyone, or almost everyone, masturbated. Being a sexual being seemed so acceptable in this context and people talked about their “hook ups” and partners often. But I was surprised.

Some women told me they had never had an orgasm, others that they had never touched themselves and that the idea of it just made them very uneasy. This filled me with questions. What about masturbation made them uncomfortable? Where did these ideas come from? And how did they know what they liked and disliked if they didn’t masturbate?

I began to explore my own relationship to masturbating and tried to answer these questions as best as I could. Growing up I remembered I was told myths that were supposed to keep both men and women from touching themselves. One of them claimed masturbating made an obscene amount of hair grow in people’s hands. I also learned that men always wanted sex and that as a woman I was supposed to be delicate, have no sexual needs and withhold sex from men who had no control over their endless sexual desires.  

When men begin to masturbate it’s often seen as a rite of passage—something all guys do—but many women never even begin to do it because of the stigma surrounding female sexuality. When women do masturbate it’s often seen as deviant, dirty and characteristic of a promiscuous woman. Just like there’s often a double standard in dating and hooking up, there’s a double standard with masturbation. Even in a place like Bowdoin College, which in comparison to most places in the country is very open about sexuality, women can feel shame, anxiety and fear when it comes to masturbating (whether it be actually doing it or just having a conversation about it). 

Masturbating is a way to connect with your body and get to know what your sexual likes and dislikes are. Sex experts like Tristan Taormino, who came to Bowdoin a few years ago, recommend that people (especially young people like college students) do it even if they’re in a relationship. Masturbating also makes the body release endorphins, which means it’s a fun and destressing activity. 

I’m not going to end this piece urging all of Bowdoin to masturbate because the point isn’t to feel pressure to do it and because it’s very normal to feel anxious about masturbating. People don’t get taught how to do it and for many years female sexuality has been heavily repressed and stigmatized. What I do urge people to do is to begin to explore their relationship to masturbation. Why do you do it or avoid it?  What are your beliefs about masturbation and where do they come from?