Sexual squeamishness does women no favours

The opinions in this article are NSFW. Or breakfast. Or anywhere - that's the problem. Women aren't supposed to be filthy.

Let's talk about female masturbation. Or, as it should more rightly be known: masturbation.

I'm a lifelong, unashamed wanker. Like most other women I know, I masturbate fairly regularly. Sometimes to ease stress, sometimes to get me through a dry patch, and often just because I've seen something so hot that it'll prevent me from working unless I can get it out of my head. Like singing a song to remove the earworm.

And yet publicly admitting that I'm a wanker makes me feel like a tomboy. Not because few women talk about it, but because of the way we talk about it. We're "admitting" to it coyly, with stifled giggles and demure blushes and a veiled implication that rubbing ourselves sore for no better reason than that we want to is ever so slightly weird. Owning a vibrator is fine, of course. Push the boat out: get yourself a collection of sparkling, buzzing and almost uniformly pastel-coloured masturbation aids if you want to – that still fits neatly with the narrative. It's fundamentally about the acquisition of pretty things rather than the fulfilment of ugly needs, a concept which is far less tasteful and – dare I say it - ladylike. A woman pulling her trousers down and bare-handedly frigging herself to a quick, functional climax, despite being a far more common way to wank, is not a particularly common image.

But women do this. We wank. Not in a romantic, bathtub-filled-with-rose-petals way but in a dirty, lustful, grunting way. We have fantasies and desires that can't be sold in WH Smith; we masturbate with a fervour that can't be explained politely.

The fear of female sexual desire is apparent in so much of the language we use. Women's magazines are happy to mention how you should treat your man's "testicles" and "penis", but less keen to refer to the vagina, clitoris and vulva. Women reading about sexual positions are instead told to trigger their "passion buttons" or informed that a particular trick will feel really good "there". When we talk about the horrors of pornography, and how our innocent children are having filth inflicted upon them by a wicked internet, our focus is on how the young boys – who seek porn out because they're understandably curious - will be corrupted, and the girls – who must have stumbled across porn while innocently googling Twilight fanzines - will be defiled. People rarely observe that some of these girls must be wanking too. Like it, loathe it, or shout "won't someone think of the self-esteem issues", some teenage girls are actively watching, enjoying, and rubbing their clits to porn.

As girls grow older, they're offered yet more reasons to think that torrid lust might be an exclusively male experience. In women's magazines, discussions of sexual fetish are pretty solidly divided into the "safe but naughty" category (tying each other with silk scarves, spanking, threesomes) or "depraved" (hardcore pain, urine or things that can't be catered for at Ann Summers). The latter category, we're supposed to believe, is solely the domain of men - something we should either tolerate or reject outright. We're primed to imagine that women are looking on in horror, either damaged by the rampaging power of male sexual desire or feisty and strong enough to say, "no, you may not do deliciously disgusting things with me, for I am a woman of dignity". That's our choice, right there: to be corrupted, or to be strong enough to say no. Women who actively enjoy sexual extremes and experiments – who want to hurt consenting men and shag multiple partners at once and have anonymous, no-strings sex that ends with a high five instead of a hug – we're not really in this picture at all.

On the surface, this can seem like a good thing. The mystery that shrouds our more sordid needs saves us from potentially awkward conversations - our secrets remain firmly hidden behind a blush and an arty book cover. But this does women no favours in the long run. Keeping our sexual desires secret doesn't make us alluring: it makes us weak. When we whisper censored versions of our fantasies we're allowing ourselves to be cast in a passive role, that of the delicate companion whose job is to temper untameable male sexual urges. If women are seen to have little sexual desire, we're not equal people engaging in mutually pleasurable acts; we're stoic yet silent heroines, tolerating sex for the sake of something else. And each time this rose-tinted rom com plot is repeated – boy meets girl, girl politely lets boy shag her – it influences not just our attitudes but our behaviour.

When was the last time you saw a man reading something erotic on the bus? I doubt you've ever seen it, and yet you'd be more likely to roll your eyes than bat an eyelid if a woman pulled out a dirty book on the commuter train to work. This isn't a good sign – a demonstration that we're becoming more comfortable with female sexuality - it's the opposite. A woman can read erotica in public because we aren't threatened by her; her sexual urges are clean and controllable. She's probably reading the book with a vague sense of irony, or because her friends have told her to, giggling slightly as she gets to a particularly rude bit. Women can read porn on the train not because we're comfortable with their sexual urges, but because we never confront them. We can wave a sign that says "mummy porn" without acknowledging what's actually happening. The less playful truth is that when most women read erotica they get not just cerebrally but physically aroused: their heartbeat's rising, their clits are throbbing, their vaginas are getting slick and moist. Some are crossing their legs to feel the pulse of their arousal thrilling their crotch through the seam of their jeans.

This kind of image, while it might not be what you want to read over breakfast, is not only a common thing but something we should see more of. Hear more of. Talk about. Understanding female sexual desire, and having an open and honest discussion about it, gives women more power to shape our entire outlook on sex.

While we remain silent on what we actually want – the unsanitised fantasies that drive us to masturbate at night, rather than the tamed-down versions we'll admit to after a drink or two – we're letting other people dictate what we should and shouldn't enjoy. We damn ourselves to lives spent reading about how to please our men, instead of the things that actually turn us on. We're seen as people who give sex as opposed to people who need and enjoy it. This is an excellent foundation on which many of the ugly structures of patriarchy are built: the myth that women must be pure to be good; that we must be either coerced, bribed, or forced into bed; that our clothing and behaviour can be dictated by men, because they're the only ones who could possibly understand the sexual significance of our bodies.

I appreciate that telling your partner, friends, or the internet your genuine sexual fantasies, using words like "clit" and "vulva" instead of "passion button" and "down there" isn't going to shake the foundations of patriarchy to their very core. But by having a more honest dialogue about female sexuality, we can at least frame the debate so that women's real desire is somewhere in the picture. We're not just things to be used and appraised, we're active participants, who appraise and lust as hard as we're lusted after. We're drooling, fornicating, powerful creatures too. Creatures who need not just love but sexual comfort, the fulfilment of lustful fantasies, and above all a damn good wank.

Girl on the Net writes on the net at Girl on the Net, and her book My Not-So-Shameful Sex Secrets is out later this month.

A woman can read erotica in public because we aren't threatened by her; her sexual urges are clean and controllable. Photograph: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.