I had my first orgasm when I was 11 years old. I was sitting in the tub, washing myself like I did everyday. Only, something felt different. I paused, curious, and wondered why the water felt so incredible — particularly when it hit a certain spot. In half-fascination and half-fear, I felt a strange, pleasurable energy building up below my navel — curious at what would happen when I reached the brink — until I did. I fell backwards in the tub, startled, as the waves of ecstasy engulfed me.
I felt a little guilty, like I had done something that I wasn’t supposed to. The word “orgasm” wasn’t even a part of my vocabulary at that time. Shame poked its way into my conscience, but I pushed it back as I thought, “If it’s so bad, why does it feel so amazing? If my body can do it naturally, it mustn’t be wrong.” Needless to say, I took many happy baths after that.
But it wasn’t simple. My mother and father avoided conversations about sex, and would quickly and abruptly change the channel on the TV whenever something remotely sexual was broadcast. They would frown or make disapproving comments when they heard news about teenagers or people engaged in any sort of sexual activity. It made me feel that to be sexual in any way is shameful; that it was always somehow wrong, no matter how natural it felt.
Over the next several years, despite the stigma and guilt, pleasuring myself a few times a week became as regular a part of my routine as going to school. Face flushed and feeling rejuvenated, I would sometimes bounce out of bed in the morning and get ready for my day with tingles of pleasure running down my spine. Over time, I felt more alive and at home in my body. If anything, masturbating allowed me to become deeper in tune with its cycles and look at myself naked with less and less shame.
As a teenager, I found out that the source of my pleasure was my clitoris, a fact that was oh-so-conveniently left out of our yearly body and sex talks at school. I was perplexed. I felt that other girls should know just how incredible our bodies are, not just for making babies, but for inducing mind-blowing — and multiple! — orgasms. But like most girls growing up, I stayed silent. The topic of masturbation was not one to discuss.
Luckily, today we are having more conversations about women’s sexual pleasure, the clitoris, the G-Spot, and what turns us on and why. But there is still a long road ahead for women — and let’s be frank, men too — in educating ourselves about our bodies, anatomically, sexually and emotionally, and in reaching a fuller sexual awareness and strength.
In a society where mainstream representations of sex are mainly focused on male pleasure, women’s pleasure is mostly talked about in the context of pleasing the men they are with rather than for its sake alone. Although research and debate about the clitoris has existed for centuries, it is only in 1998, with the publication of Australian urologist Helen O’Connell’s breakthrough study on the organ, that we even learned about its actual size. That small “button” normally associated with the clitoris is only the tip of the iceberg: as O’Connell wrote, much of the organ is internal, and the unerect clitoris could be up to nine centimeters long.
Some advice: get to know yourself down there. Learn how to pleasure and express yourself. Be a little selfish. Do your own research on your body and find out what feels good for you. Even if your sexual urge is low, knowledge is power. It is also the first step toward understanding the desires you do or don’t have.
Today, when I pleasure myself, it no longer feels like an internal battle or a shameful secret I must keep from others. Today, I have more power over my body than any man that I’m with does, and that not only inspires them enough to learn more but also leaves them in awe. Today, knowing myself and being able to pleasure myself and appreciate my body’s potential is not just empowering, but divine.
Eve Steinem is a pen name for a New York City-based feminist writer.
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