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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Glasgow North East Labour MP Paul Sweeney: “Yes badges were cool in 2014 – now it's Jeremy”

The son of a shipbuilder harnessed the Corbyn surge to win over pro-Scottish independence voters.

In 2014, on the eve of the Scottish independence referendum, a young BAE graduate called Paul Sweeney introduced Gordon Brown.  He was there because of a referendum that “sent you into a black hole and spat you back out”, as he puts it. In his case, this started with a letter warning of the impact of independence on the shipbuilding industry, which led to a photoshoot, an appearance on the 6 o’clock news, and eventually the warm-up act for a former Prime Minister.

“Glasgow did feel like the ground was moving under your feet,” Sweeney says.  “It was exhilarating, terrifying.” But unlike Sweeney, most young Glaswegians were swept up in the independence movement, and the north east of the city where he lived was one of the strongest areas for Yes.

Brown’s speech was widely acclaimed for saving the union. But in Glasgow, voters were disappointed, and in the general election, Labour campaigners “were really told where to go”. Glasgow North East, a traditional Labour seat, fell to the Scottish National Party.

And yet, just two years and a snap election later, Sweeney is sitting in Westminster’s Portcullis House, as the constituency’s new Labour MP. How?

“From a very young age, I sensed an area that had fallen from a previous glory”

Sweeney, a fresh-faced 28, was ambitious for his constituency from a young age. “I was brought up in a Labour family – a working class family – in the north of Glasgow,” he tells me. “From a very young age, I sensed an area that had fallen from a previous glory.”

His mother, who worked in the Bank of Scotland, grew up in Milton, a housing scheme in northern Glasgow. “My mum used to talk about how it was a lovely area and lots of families there.” But by the time he was a child, drug abuse was on the increase, and “despair crept in”. Visiting his grandmother had to be done on foot: “You couldn’t drive a car in there because it would be vandalised.”

Sweeney’s father was a shipbuilder. In the 1990s, as shipyards fell silent, he was made redundant several times. “I remember getting up to see him off going to Barrow-in-Furness [in Cumbria],” Sweeney says. “I remember not getting much for Christmas because money was tight.” His father eventually became a taxi driver.

Sweeney, though, increasingly felt compelled to fight the decline. He studied politics and economics at Glasgow University and enrolled in the Territorial Army, before graduating and joining the defence giant BAE. In 2015, he moved to Scotland’s economic development agency, Scottish Enterprise.

At the same time, he joined Labour, inspired by the late John Smith, whom his parents called “the greatest leader my country never had”.  In 2009, he was doing his exams, when Sarah Brown, wife to then-prime minister Gordon Brown, called and asked him if he wanted to help Labour’s candidate Willie Bain in the Glasgow North East by-election.

Sweeney joined a team that included Kezia Dugdale, the future Scottish Labour leader. The Tory candidate was one Ruth Davidson. He recently reminisced with Dugdale about the by-election: “We were saying who would have thought all these changes would have happened in a relatively short period of time.

The Yes badges were the cool thing to have – now it was Jeremy

Bain won, but was swept from office by the SNP’s Anne McLaughlin in 2015 in such an upset that Sweeney started his 2017 campaign only hoping to reduce her 9,222 majority. With little funding, he relied on a team of young volunteers to design leaflets and door-knock.

Then something changed. Was it the Corbyn surge? “Absolutely – without a shadow of a doubt,” he replies.

Initially sceptical of Jeremy Corbyn, Sweeney believes his “vision of hope” revived Labour’s fortunes. In Dennistoun, a hipster neighbourhood known for its SNP and Green vote, all the posters in the windows were Labour ones. “It was sexy again,” he says. “The Yes badges were the cool thing to have on your school bag. Now it was Jeremy.”

One day, a group of young men began shouting at the canvassing team. “We thought, ‘Here we go,’ then it actually turned out they were shouting ‘C’mon the Jez, let’s get Jeremy in.’ It was people who you wouldn’t normally think would vote. I thought that was fantastic.”

All the same, Sweeney didn’t bother drafting a victory speech. He describes the count as “like you are flying through the air”.  When he knew he had won, his first thought was: “Oh, shit, I need to do an acceptance speech."

One of my best friends was killed in Afghanistan

Now safely landed in Westminster, Sweeney hopes to draw on his experience in industry and the military. The latter has taught him caution, not jingoism.

“One of my best friends was killed in Afghanistan,” he says. “It was a terrible time. It was just unbelievable. He went there because he wanted an experience. He wasn’t in the army as such – he was captain of the Scottish Lacrosse team.

“It does lead you to ask, ‘What are we doing? What is the meaning behind this? The intent is noble but there is a certain amount of ignorance about what needs to be done to achieve the political outcome.”

Afghanistan’s troubled Helmand Province, he points out, is the size of Wales: “We are trying to control it with 8,000 people.”

On Trident, an issue that traditionally divides Labour’s pacifists from its hawks, Sweeney’s view is also nuanced. “Trident actually saps services from other ship building industries,” he says. “There was a huge investment on the Clyde and money has to be diverted now. It is robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Sweeney calls himself “restless” for change. He hates “energy vampires”, as he calls those that stand in the way. But while the spectre of economic neglect has clearly driven his career, he is also excited about ideas of nationalisation and regeneration.

“My family are steeped in the Clyde ship building,” he says. “Sitting on your dad’s shoulders watching these ships being launched – it is an extraordinary achievement.

“You can understand why it was so emotional when the ship building declined. It was part of their identity. These are the largest objects made by man. It is incredible to behold.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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