Thursday, the Living section editors favorably featured the 56 seconds in which Dr. Christiane Northrup spoke about the importance of masturbation during an hour of Oprah devoted exclusively to issues of women's physical and mental well being.
The responses it received revealed the anxiety female masturbation still provokes in men and women, as indicated by the high number of comments that saw it as fodder for jokes.
Finding humor in sexual tension isn't harmful. Sex and the City did a great episode on masturbation in which Charlotte, who isn't pro vibrator, is urged by her friends to try the Rabbit. At first she resists, but then becomes so enamored of her experiences with it that she falls into an erotic haze and stops leaving her apartment. To help her kick her growing addiction Carrie and Miranda bang down her door and perform an intervention. In the show Charlotte isn't maligned or debased.
By contrast, many of the responses to the Oprah clip were more mean spirited in humor, showing it's often easier to reduce masturbation (and the women discussing it) to a dirty joke rather than to value it as a component of female vitality, a vitality which for many women is hard fought.
Northrup and Winfrey were performing a function that's long overdue: educating women on the benefits of feeling sexually alive, and calling attention to masturbation's role, biochemically and emotionally, to that end. This has been available to women in book form, but not during daytime TV, where one can always find an abundance of idiocy and violence.
Doctors paying attention to the quality of women's sex lives is a fairly new dynamic. Why use humor to tear down two women imparting sexual health information to an audience of adult women? I recall no controversy when the male Dr. Oz imparted sexual information to an all male audience.
So far, in my Women's Realities Study, which allows women to anonymously respond to any of the 63 questionnaires on the major themes of being female, the Masturbation questionnaire has had the third highest response rate. It's been outdone only by the topics Menstruation, and Relationship with Your Mother. And almost every single woman who chose to complete this questionnaire confessed that she did so in spite of the fact that it made her uncomfortable. These were women from 18-53. They didn't do it because it was easy. They did it because it was important to them.
This fall I gave a lecture on "Women and Girls, and Their Sexuality" based on these responses, and it was supported and attended by the former Chief Resident of New York Hospital, Cornell Weill Medical Center, now a cardiologist there; and a well-respected pediatrician of the same hospital affiliation. After the lecture during the Q & A, they book-ended my material with their own to illuminate the lifelong function of this integral component of human sexuality. The cardiologist spoke of the importance of masturbation to elderly women, many of whom have had unsatisfying sex lives, and the pediatrician spoke of different cultural attitudes toward children's presexual masturbation and how they can incur shame.
In 2008 women still experience guilt and shame around masturbation. 70% of the respondents to my study felt guilty, and 80% of them were never taught about it as a normal aspect of human sexuality - with a surprising 4/5 of those women being under the age of 35 and raised by mothers of the post feminist era. 88% of them reported a strong desire to hear other women's thoughts and feelings on masturbation, with most of them responding yes and absolutely emphasized with one to three exclamation points.
I'll let some of the women speak for themselves on the guilt they feel, and their desire to learn more about masturbation:
"Sometimes randomly, I'll feel a wave of guilt afterwards. I have no idea why, because in my head and heart, I don't think it should provoke guilt." -age 23
"Why should I feel guilt about doing something natural, that causes no harm or bad feeling. It's relaxing and if we weren't supposed to enjoy sexual pleasure then why do we have a clitoris?[But]Sometimes I feel weird, and then I feel weird about feeling weird. I hate how repressed I feel sexually by feeling uncomfortable talking about something natural." - age 24
"I hope to feel physically good during [masturbation], not much else. After is more complicated because sometimes I feel like I just wasted time and energy and nothing came out of it. Like I should have been doing something else, anything else'productive'...I just feel guilty about feeling good in general, about things that are not necessary or productive." --no age given
"[If I had a daughter I wouldn't teach her about masturbation because]I don't know how without being a perv." -age 19
"I wish I had known I could have an orgasm right off the bat. I wish that someone had told me it is a good way to know my body and my sensuality." --age 40
"If my mother were an entirely different woman, I would like to have learned from her. I wouldn't have wanted to hear specifics of her practices, but more about masturbation being a natural way to get to know my own body." --age 44
And lastly these poignant responses from the Relationship with Adult Girlfriends questionnaire highlighting just two reasons women might further prioritize the meaning of masturbation in their lives:
"[The most private thing I ever confided in an adult girlfriend was] that I'd never had an orgasm. [The most private thing an adult girlfriend ever confided in me was]that she didn't have sex when she was married. Was still a virgin when she got divorced." --age 65
If we don't learn from each other, we only perpetuate the discomfort, and hand it down to our daughters.