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.
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Is our obsession with class is propping up the powerful?

Are we really all middle class now? Lynsey Hanley finds has fresh ideas about old ideas in Respectable: the Experience of Class.

Class is no longer banished from mainstream discussion, but it remains an uncomfortable topic for most mainstream media. The background to this is straightforward. The media all too often discriminate on the basis of parental wealth rather than talent: from unpaid internships to expensive postgraduate journalism qualifications, the routes into the industry are difficult to traverse without parents able to offer financial support. But most of us want to believe that our successes are personal achievements: that if we do well, it is because of our own ability, intelligence and determination. To realise that actually, you have queue-jumped, in effect, because of your parents’ bank balance: well, that would provoke insecurity and defensiveness. And so journalists and columnists are often disinclined to understand why society is stacked in the interests of some, but not others. Even raising the issue of class is felt as a personal attack.

That is one reason Lynsey Hanley is such a crucial voice. When she writes about class, she is writing about lived experience. Her new book, Respectable – the belated follow-up to her seminal Estates, published in 2007 – is a powerful investigation into the psychological impact, and cost, of shifting from class to class. She compares it to “emigrating from one side of the world, where you have to rescind your old passport, learn a new language and make gargantuan efforts if you are not to lose touch completely with the people and habits of your old life”. The case study? Hanley herself. The Personal Is Political would be as appropriate a subtitle for this book as any other.

Respectable compellingly (if sometimes erratically) weaves autobiography with academic research. Hanley grew up on a council estate in Chelmsley Wood, a 1960s ­new-build area of Solihull, in the West Midlands, a few miles from Birmingham. Her childhood, she says, would once have been labelled “respectable working class”: far removed from middle class but not “quite classically working class either” – rather, “foreman class” or “skilled tradesman class”. It feels wrong to infringe on Hanley’s right to self-define, but she does seem to have a very restrictive view of what being working class entails, so much so, that she isn’t entirely convinced she belongs. There has long been a clash between those who define class as a cultural identity and those who believe it has more to do with economic relationships (and those who think it is a combination of the two).

At Hanley’s school, “people didn’t do A-levels”. The high achievers ended up at the gas board or the Rover works and the word “university” evoked “something as distant as Mars”. Her school had 600 unfilled places, “effectively . . . abandoned by the community as much as by the local authority and by central government”. Hanley has always felt like an outsider: she struggled to make friends, found the limits of what was expected of someone from her background suffocating, and when – against the odds – she made it to sixth form, it seemed “one minute I was struggling for air, the next I felt as though I’d entered a large bubble of pure oxygen”. She looks to academics to help explain experiences she found difficult to navigate at the time. Her sense of isolation, for instance, can be illuminated by the sociologist Angela McRobbie’s exploration of “the ‘hermetically sealed’ nature of working-class culture in Birmingham”. The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart’s 1957 classic, is her Bible; she feels he “could have been writing about my own childhood”.

Aged 17, Hanley was juggling five ­A-levels with four jobs: working at Greggs, selling Avon products, delivering newspapers and “making cakes and chocolates and selling them door to door”. But she became a professional journalist. When she was a teenager she visited Aldi to buy margarine and glacé cherries; now she comes back with “cold-pressed rapeseed oil and Pinot Noir”. She says “lunch” where she used to say “dinner”.

This is a well-crafted book full of insights. Hanley is determined to challenge the assumptions of left and right. She refers to socio-linguists such as Basil Bernstein, who examined how middle-class forms of communication were given preference over working-class expression but not because they were innately superior. Those who made the leap from working class to middle class found themselves assimilated by the new world. Many found it increasingly difficult to relate to the world they grew up in, and the people they grew up with.

Hanley thinks the approaches of both left and right to social mobility are problematic. Whereas the right uncritically worships the idea of “social mobility” – of parachuting the “lucky few” into the middle class without challenging the structure of society – the left, she says, believes that “social justice and social mobility are mutually exclusive”. In other words, she is questioning that old socialist maxim: “Rise with your class, not above it.”

Hanley assails those – including me – who place support for populist anti-immigration movements in a broader social context. She believes that we are downplaying the extent of racism in working-class communities, reducing it to fears over housing and jobs. We are robbing people of agency by letting individuals off the hook for their prejudices, she argues, stressing the casual racism she encountered on a daily basis. Disturbingly, she found that racism was often seen as a “sign of respectability”. She remembers sentiments along the lines of “Only common people hang out with darkies” and so on. My parents met through the Trotskyist movement; my father eventually became a white-collar local authority worker, my mother an IT lecturer at Salford University, and I was always by far the most middle-class of my friends. I’m not going to wish away the casual racism I encountered growing up in Stockport (and I’m white), but I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by Hanley’s argument. Why is there an anti-immigration party with mass support now, yet there wasn’t one in the 1950s, when bigotry was far more open and widespread? Surely something has changed, and rising job, housing and general economic insecurity have had a role to play? And will a strategy of criticising people for voting Ukip – or even for the far right – win them over?

My main problem with Hanley’s book is this. Those of us who want to transform society so that it is not run as a racket for a tiny elite need to build a broad coalition. I’m a political activist who writes; Hanley is someone writing about reality as she has lived it. But her book surely challenges attempts to build unity between the working and middle classes. She writes of how middle-class people both hog and deny their “social and cultural capital”, and believes that those who argue in favour of a “99 Per Cent” under attack by an elite help entrench middle-class privilege. The middle classes pretend they have the same interests as the working class, while using their sharp elbows to keep them down.

I wonder if there is a third way. Abolish unpaid internships; introduce scholarships; invest in education at an early age; automatically enrol the brightest working-class young people into top universities; deal with social crises, such as the lack of affordable housing, which help destroy opportunity for the less privileged; have a proper living wage. And so on. But if those who believe in social justice fail to build a coalition of supermarket worker and schoolteacher, cleaner and junior doctor, factory worker and university lecturer . . . well, we will fail. From the low-paid against the unemployed, to private-sector against public-sector worker, to indigene against immigrant, there are enough divisions exploited by the powerful as it is.

Nonetheless, Respectable is of vital importance: a searing indictment of a chronically unjust society in which our opportunities are granted or denied from the earliest of ages. The book may not offer clear prescriptions, but it is incumbent on all of us to fight for a just and equal society – one that currently does not exist. 

Owen Jones’s Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class is newly republished in paperback by Verso

Respectable: The Experience of Class by Lynsey Hanley is published by Allen Lane (240pp, £16.99)

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism