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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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.