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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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA