Skip to main content

Need a Hand? A Brief History of the Stigma Surrounding Women Masturbation

Published onSep 07, 2022
Need a Hand? A Brief History of the Stigma Surrounding Women Masturbation


While 'everyone' does it, no one talks about it. Masturbation is a rather taboo subject that many prefer not to address since it makes them uncomfortable; however, the predicament is that it should not. If society can explicitly discuss sex that involves two individuals, shouldn't it be just as simple to discuss the sexual pleasures of one individual? To answer that question, for men, It truly is that simple. So what about women? Masturbation is a bizarre and foreign notion for several women. It is a sinful act that shouldn't ever be committed or discussed. This begs the question - where does this stigma stem from? Why are a majority of females self-conscious about masturbating? Why is it that sex is regarded as a healthy practice, but masturbation is not? It is plausible that this may stem from the history and inception of women's masturbation, which I will discuss in this section, inspired by the photograph displayed below.

An 1822 image of a woman wearing a leather corset for treatment against masturbation. The woman is standing straightforward and has her head turned slightly to her left side. Her arms are resting straight down. All she is wearing is a corset that seems to protect her from masturbating.

Masturbation Kills

In the 19th century, it was commonly acknowledged that women were incapable of perceiving sexual gratification or pleasure. Their bodies were made to bear offspring and to serve as a vehicle for male libido, which was natural as it was the norm. As a result, sexual frustration drove countless women insane. Anxiety, restlessness, irritability, anxiousness, sexual fantasies, feelings of fullness in the lower abdomen, and dampness between the thighs were among the symptoms they reported to doctors.1 This syndrome was coined "hysteria," from the Greek word for uterus.

Some misconceptions associated with prolonged hysteria included impaired digestion, hysterical epilepsy, and eventual death. Yes, people really believed female masturbation could kill, so solutions to prevent this form of hysteria were extreme and included wearing corsets - as seen in the picture above - and clitoridectomies.

Vaginal penetration was exclusively regarded to be sexually arousing for women in the 1800s by healthcare professionals. Physicians concluded that the patient was experiencing a hysterical paroxysm through clitoral stimulation, which, if successfully achieved, absolved female patients of their symptoms attributed to hysteria. Therefore, doctors offered female patients' pelvic massages' and 'clitoral stimulation' as therapy, which was not seen as sexually stimulating. However, as the proportion of patients increased, doctors began to develop signs of strain and exhaustion, leading to repetitive strain injury. As a result, the Percussor, the first electromagnetic vibrator, was patented.2

Although not common, clitoridectomies were performed on women, which was also deemed a remedy for this 'hysteria.' These women were to lay "in a supine position, spreading their closed legs. It was necessary to hold [the clitoris] with forceps turned to the outside so that the excess could be seen, and to cut off the tip with a scalpel, and finally, with appropriate diligence, to care for the resulting wound.]3 Other 'cures' included eating plain nourishing food, exercising, and getting fresh air. Women were even forced to wear leather corsets to prevent them from stimulating their clitoris. It wasn't until 1952 that the American Psychiatric Association stopped viewing sexual frustration as a form of hysteria and understood the real cause of the same.4

Masturbation Feels Good

It is no secret that based on its history, there is a stigma associated with female masturbation. Since the 1800s, masturbation was seen as an abnormal practice that could lead to lunacy and death. Not much has changed in this regard as, to this date, studies show that females continue to feel guilty about self-gratification. However, this should not be the case. In the last few decades, science has shown the positive effects of masturbation. It is important to note that there are several reasons behind the purpose of female masturbation, including to achieve sexual pleasure and that it is not just a means to serve as a substitute for one’s partner. “Sexual pleasure appears to be the main reason for masturbating (65%), but results have revealed other different purposes for this behavior, including to cope with stress (32%), to fall asleep (20%), or unavailability of a partner (8.6%)”.5 It’s clear that masturbation is an essential and vital element for the development of female sexuality.

Masturbation is also an effective substitute for other sexual practices. It is a healthy alternative if one prefers to abstain from having intercourse. It shields one from the myriad of severe sexually transmitted illnesses that may be contracted during sexual activity whilst also allowing one to experience sexual pleasure. For several females, this capacity is linked to independence and autonomy.6

Masturbation not only is sexually pleasing, but it allows women to gain a better understanding of their bodies and desires, which enhances their overall self-esteem and, in turn, increases their intimacy with their genitalia. Women are thus sexually liberated and empowered as they are able to concentrate on their own sexual enjoyment while not stressing about pregnancy or satisfying a partner.7

Masturbation is Sexy

Now that we know all this information, isn’t it vital that we as a society try to remove the stigma associated with female masturbation? There are several methods to normalize self-gratification that have not been implemented. Physicians should encourage females to masturbate and reassure those who have previously masturbated that they are “normal” and that countless other females fancy this practice for numerous reasons.

Policymakers and campaigners should consider masturbation, specifically, those working on comprehensive sex education reform, as a training algorithm for women and as a contraception option to coupled sexual intercourse. Moreover, across sexual education curricula, the emphasis on sexual safety, STDs, and unintended pregnancy can be strengthened. Masturbation must be addressed in sexual education courses as a healthy and alternate method of sexual liberation. Not only must this type of education and knowledge help to avoid disease transmission and adolescent pregnancy, but it would also help to dispel perceptions that masturbation is harmful, infrequent, or inappropriate.8 Other methods include encouraging parents to discuss masturbation with their daughters. Very few do, which can mean that many females are unaware or uninformed about female masturbation: “the frequency, the acceptance of it and the attitudes surrounding it.”9

It is important to note that there has been a lot of subjugation and hate towards the reformers who have tried to normalize female masturbation in the past. After proposing that masturbation should be taught in sex ed in 1994, US Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders was forced to resign.10

​​A female who feels competent and responsible in treating herself through her own form of sexual pleasure truly displays independence, autonomy, and, therefore, sexual empowerment in a patriarchal system that places such little priority on female sexual satisfaction. For numerous females, masturbation empowered them to express confident feelings toward their bodies, and it assisted as a nurturing and affirming mode of self-acceptance. Whether feeling pleasure or satisfaction or alleviating tension, masturbation heightened several females’ lives positively and slowly started to be accepted by society. It has taken us a long time to get here, and reform has long been overdue, but we are finally beginning to realize just how important masturbation is to sexual fulfillment. Let’s give each other ‘a hand’ while we continue to try to combat these issues together to overcome the stigma associated with female masturbation.

About the Author

Rosa is a second-year student at Wake Forest University. She’s from Greenville, NC and she is majoring in Psychology with a minor in neuroscience. Rosa dreams of becoming a radiologist or psychiatrist and when she retires, dedicate her life to helping strayed dogs find a loving home.

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?