"Can you stop using your vibrator as a coaster?" asked my best friend. For visual aid, we're talking about a fancy vibrator housed in a box, hence why it could be used to balance mugs. I didn't move it. I wanted to keep it out in pride of place, ready to share its magic with any woman who was willing to listen to me.
I'm not a sex toy sales rep. Nor am I a sex expert. I'm far from well versed in the art of self-pleasure. I am, in fact, a 24-year-old woman who just masturbated for the first time.
This may come as a shocking statement and I promise it's not captioned for clicks. I'm just a girl, standing in front of the minefield that is masturbation, asking why it didn't come into her life sooner.
Why didn't my friends, mum or sex ed teachers ever mention it? Why did it always feel wrong or dirty to think about? Why is male masturbation so commonly accepted while women's self-pleasure is still shrouded in secrecy? And why, according to a 2020 Womanizer study of 6,000 people across 12 countries, do 35% of women never have solo sex?
As Shadeen Francis CST (certified sex therapist), LMFT (licensed marriage and family therapist) so perfectly put it to me, masturbation "wasn't in the newsletter". "We literally figured out the technology to put people on the moon before we mapped the clitoris," she added. "As a culture, we haven't been very invested in women's pleasure so of course you haven't explored your body, of course you aren't really sure where to get information and of course all of this feels like it's whispered down the lane."
Growing up, despite watching unrealistic porn, daring each other to sprint into the adults-only section of Ann Summers or – if you were that unfortunate kid – having your mum's vibrator discovered by a nosy house party guest, young women rarely got a look into the world of women's self-pleasure, with or without sex toys.
Angela, a 24-year-old finance worker from London, said: "At school, guys always spoke about wanking so I knew people were actively doing it, but it wasn't something you'd speak about as a girl." This gender divide is echoed by Amber, a 19-year-old student from Essex who recently tried to engage her younger cousin in a conversation about female masturbation. "Her face, when I brought up the subject, was like 'OMG, no! How are we having this discussion between us?' She looked like she wanted to die. But when we went onto the topic about boys doing it, she was like 'Oh yeah, well that's normal.'"
This gender disparity in self-pleasure has a name: the masturbation gap. And just like the gender pay gap, men are getting more. The same Womanizer study found that men masturbate on average 154 times a year, compared to women at 49 times, and while 8% of men had never masturbated, that number more than doubled for women.
"We give men permission to be sexual beings. In fact, we claim that it's biology, though there actually isn't anything to back that up," said Shadeen. "It's all socialisation. Women are socialised to not experience themselves as fully formed sexual beings."
Angela, Amber and I are all part of Generation Z, characterised as standing up for what we believe in and forever fighting for equality in every sense of the word. We're also apparently in a 'sex recession', according to The Guardian, possible reasons for which range from increased levels of anxiety to less urgency to have partnered sex and a stronger stance on core values making us pickier about our partners.
With everyone from the BBC to BuzzFeed reporting on our fall in fornicating, it only makes sense that we would be masturbating more. Yet despite all of this, touching ourselves is still taboo, even for us. Healthline's masturbation page confirms this sentiment: "As a result of gender roles and societal norms, people who have female anatomy are more likely to feel 'dirty' or a sense of shame for masturbating." This rang true for Amber: "It was something that I was not scared of but as it's so not spoken about I thought I was going off the rails." Angela, who discovered masturbation by accident at a relatively young age (as many people do), shared this shame and didn't explore her body again for a good number of years. Personally, I was unaware that so many people were doing it while feeling like we weren't allowed to – that was until I was asked to review a sex toy (common practice for a beauty writer) and threw caution to the wind in a now-or-never decision that has quite literally changed my life.
This feeling of shame, Shadeen informs me, can take root very early in life. Not everyone is interested in masturbating for various reasons, from religion to sexual preference, but "for a lot of folks that have never explored their own bodies, there is usually early-life messaging that shows up around that, traumatic or not." While the 'boys will be boys' mentality often comes through for young men, young women receive the message that 'good girls don't do that'.
All that said, we are much further along in celebrating female self-pleasure than we have been before. It may still not be taught in sex ed but there are a growing number of resources available elsewhere, you can buy sex toys online (and have them delivered the same day!) and together we are creating conversation and social acceptance around it. As Lucy Litwack, CEO of Coco de Mer, maker of my fabulous vibrator-cum-coaster, said: "Masturbation is a fundamental human right and it should be a basic principle to know, explore and enjoy your body. Female pleasure is not a luxury, it's a necessity for many people."
Masturbating strengthens your trust and confidence in yourself, it relaxes your mind and body, helps you to work out what you like sexually before expecting a partner to show you and, ultimately, it just feels good. Doesn’t that resonate with what younger people are meant to stand for?
"We are unapologetic in our drive for female empowerment and complete gender equality," said Lucy. Masturbation is simply another area in which we should achieve this. So whether you're a master masturbator, just starting your journey or feeling any form of shame about wanting to try it, as Shadeen says: "This is your body, and you get to decide what you do or don't want to do with it. And if now is not the time, there's absolutely no pressure, your body will still be here when you're ready. So at the point in time when you feel curious, feel safe, feel ready to explore, then I hope you have a great time." I know I am.