Despite having worked at Glamour magazine and coming of age in the Sex and the City era, I was 30 years old before I made up my mind to give masturbation a try. Thirty before I ever used a vibrator. Thirty before I had my first orgasm.
Sex has always made intuitive sense to me—the human connection, the intimacy—even if I didn’t actually have sex till my late 20s. (Blame Catholic repression.) But the idea of anyone, male or female, masturbating? That grossed me out for a long time. It seemed tawdry, seedy, shameful—in a category with sex shops, colored condoms, and porn videos. On top of that, I’ve never been someone who pursues pleasure for pleasure’s sake. I eat what’s healthy, always refuse dessert, and even when I go to the movies, it’s in the hopes of learning something that will help me develop as a storyteller. A typical type-A over-achiever.
Guys don’t need electronic devices purchased at stores with names like Good Vibrations, books with names like Sex for One, or DVDs called Viva la Vulva.
Like me, Mara Altman, the author of a new memoir called Thanks for Coming: One Young Woman’s Quest for an Orgasm—a 377-page exercise in what might be termed “vagina-gazing”—wasn’t that interested in making time for orgasm either. (Not until she landed the Coming book deal, that is, at age 26, which more or less required that she give it a whirl.) Her shrink’s diagnosis: that she couldn’t allow herself enjoyment unless involved in the accomplishment of a task.
Other than that, though, Altman and I don’t have much in common. She was raised by two hippie-ish parents, Berkeley dropouts who were so open about sex and sexuality it could be embarrassing; her theory is that she rebelled by never touching herself. Sounds feasible, at first. But she never quite squares that hypothesis with the fact that she lost her virginity at an unremarkable age, when she was a high-school senior, at her parents’ house, in her very own bedroom—and the next day, after “proudly” telling them what went down, they gave her their copy of The Kama Sutra—none of which seems to have bothered her much.
Still, she did have masturbation-block. Altman, a former Village Voice staff writer, had “always hoped some man would hit a bull’s eye and save me the trouble of exploring myself.” I know plenty of women who have felt the same way. Perhaps this expectation is another iteration of traditional gender roles; maybe it comes of the belief that men are more sexually experienced. But that’s not because they’re particularly sexually talented as a gender, but rather because the mechanics of male masturbation are so much simpler. Dudes don’t need electronic devices purchased at stores with names like Good Vibrations, books with names like Sex for One, or DVDs called Viva la Vulva.
Once women ask around, however, it’s no big secret that a vibe—not a man—is the best route to getting off. That’s what all my lady friends told me, anyway. Altman gets the same advice, and on page six of her me-moir, admits she could “just shove one of those rabbit vibrators ... down there and probably get it over with.” Yet she doesn’t actually use one till page 240. And almost immediately after she finally does—no surprise—she has that elusive orgasm. It’s a moment that’s, ironically, anticlimatic for the exasperated reader, who long ago figured out that the main reason Altman procrastinates so long is because she wouldn’t have a book otherwise. Were she a particularly funny or talented writer, she might have pulled off being a tease for so long, but I lost my readerly erection by about page four. Despite the energy she brings to her task, Altman doesn’t have the chops to make a Don Quixote-length book about her quest worth reading, particularly because her personal story isn’t especially compelling—she doesn’t delve in a meaningful way into the existing literature, scientific or otherwise, nor does she have very interesting insights.
Without insight or self-reflection, discussing this path to orgasm is, well, just masturbation. My own self-analysis goes like this: I was raised by a construction-working Irish immigrant father, a widower who never discussed the birds and the bees with me and was angered by the vaguest reference to sexuality. Thirteen years of Catholic school only intensified all the shame and fear I associate with sex.
It seemed to take almost as long to de-program myself, with therapy, as it had to get inculcated. I was in my 20s before I finally lost my virginity, and it was even longer before I made it across the masturbatory threshold. Though all my boyfriends encouraged me to give it a go, saying it was the only way I’d ever have an orgasm, I held out, not understanding what all the fuss was about—till an ex suggested that learning how to climax might help alleviate my chronic back pain. That sounded promising. (After all, as Altman notes, orgasms are natural analgesics.) Though sexual realization didn’t seem particularly exigent, physical relief did. And because I already had a vibrator—snagged years earlier off the Glamour giveaway shelf (still in its packaging, I assure you)—what did I have to lose?
When I first started using the “Jungle Smoothie”—a dildo with a vibrating “bullet” attachment for clitoral stimulation—the pleasure was so intense it was uncomfortable, almost like tickling can be. After only a few seconds each time, I had to stop. But within two or three weeks, I was getting the hang of it.
By then, I’d heard about “spank banks” – the mental-picture libraries men carry around in their heads, full of images of ex-lovers, coffee-shop crushes, and media darlings that they flip through to get turned on. But the images that floated through my mind as I learned to masturbate were not of former paramours, fantasy boyfriends, or centerfolds from Playgirl or Pitchfork. Rather, my memories were of my mother, who died a couple of weeks after I turned eight: hugging me on her lap, soaping me up as she sat by the side of the bathtub, or squeezing me to her as I sat in the front seat, crying, on the day I was banished from kindergarten with lice. And the first few times I climaxed, I wept.
Apparently, my reaction isn’t all that unusual: Masturbating often releases traumas and old memories, according to a sexpert Altman talks to—referred to only as “Zola”—even if Altman herself didn’t “break down and cry or have... some crazy epiphany.” The crazy epiphany I reached after spontaneously associating those childhood remembrances with masturbating? That enjoying an orgasm is as innocent as feeling deliriously happy and protected in a mother’s arms. It wasn’t till then that it occurred to me that maybe I’d held myself back from sex for so long because the feeling of being naked and vulnerable and yet safe in a lover’s arms is like nothing so much as being held by my mother.
These days, I come occasionally during sex with a partner, but the most reliable method by far is the old vibrator. Apparently I’m not abnormal: 30% of females who can climax on their own never do it during conventional intercourse, and only somewhere between 20% and 35% almost always have an orgasm during sex, says Dr. Elizabeth Lloyd, author of The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution. I can get off anywhere between three and seven times without breaking a sweat in the time it takes for a few Radiohead songs to play, as long as my rechargeable vibrator batteries are good. Furthermore, about half of all women, like me, don’t feel satisfied after one climax, and many can have anywhere between 15 and 25 in a row, as Lloyd also points out.
What I’ve learned on my own is that physical self-love is a means to psychological self-love. In the same way that my literary preferences and career aspirations and clothing choices help to define me, knowing what I like and desire sexually has helped me better understand who I am, too. Plus, my newfound ability to orgasm has made me take an almost ridiculous pride in myself. Contrary to the way I feel when I’m sick, or itching through an allergic rash, my bod doesn’t seem to be fighting me when I strike vaginal gold. Rather, it’s on my side. Fond of me, even. It regularly amazes me, kind of like babies can dazzle their parents. Would you look at that? I often want to shout afterward, beaming down at myself. Isn’t that something?! And I have to agree that it is.
Maura Kelly just finished her first novel. Her personal essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Observer, The Washington Post, Salon, Glamour, Marie Claire, Penthouse, and other publications.