I remember my mom telling stories about my grandma, that she was the “go to” mom for her circle of friends. If they had questions about anything — menstruation, breast size, boys, penises —my grandma was there to answer questions. Maybe this made it easier for me to ask my mom about things—I just always knew I could. I still explored in private, read things I probably shouldn’t have, explored bodies with friends, but my mom was there and available. I babysat for someone who had a subscription to Playboy, so I read columns and looked at pictures. Certain “steamy” books made the rounds in junior high school and I read those. I vividly recall those butterflies in my stomach and genitals and while I probably couldn’t have identified them as arousal, I just wondered. I didn’t feel ashamed at all, I just knew those were feelings I didn’t have all the time. Certain boys took my breath away and made my heart beat faster, but moving to three different places in high school kept me from dating much. I was an athlete—not so attractive at that point in time—the guys ogled after the cheerleaders, not the basketball players. Bottom line, I was kind of a late bloomer.
It wasn’t until college and a first boyfriend that I had any thought at all of acting on any of those feelings of arousal. This was the first time I’d felt a guy get hard against me during a kiss and the first time I felt that fullness between my legs while in someone’s arms. As first loves do, things progressed a bit to mutual touching and masturbation and wow, those butterflies I’d experienced in junior high jumped to the feeling of an orgasm. I didn’t know what to call it—I just knew it felt so wonderful. Thankfully I was taking a women’s studies class during all of this exploration and one of the texts was Our Bodies Ourselves. It encouraged knowledge and answered questions. Probably many of those questions I could have asked my mom, but college was better timing for me, so I learned from a book. I don’t remember masturbating in high school and it was that first experience with John* that led me to seek an orgasm on my own. So there I was, reading for class, and turned a page to one that said, “Learning to masturbate.”
At the same time, I was involved in the university fellowship at my local church and we were hearing a bit of a conflicting message. While I understood at that time (my mom would have said so too) that sex before marriage wasn’t the best choice, the whole masturbation issue was fairly unclear. I recall one pastor saying, “It’s when the obsession with sex (masturbation) gets in the way of your relationship with the Lord, that’s when you’re off target.” Well, that didn’t clarify it for me at all, but it also didn’t stop me from touching myself until I had a great orgasm. As I moved to different churches with different pastors and eventually worked for a fairly conservative Christian organization, some guilt crept into my practices. Was masturbation selfish? Was it not trusting God to fulfill the sexual part of me through a man? Was it sinful? Was it isolating? I am quite sure that I prayed for my sexual desires to go away.
There was no set time that I finally settled into the fact that I enjoyed the pleasure and relaxation of masturbation. I simply remember getting over the guilt. And there was guilt. I had a copy of My Secret Garden by Nancy Friday and I recall tossing it because it created arousal. I was afraid of going to movies that had passionate love scenes because then I’d want to go home and have an orgasm. For a long time I didn’t own any R-rated movies. Maybe it was a group of young women I led in Bible study who finally made me realize I needed to be frank about our need for self-pleasure and self-knowledge. I was in my mid-thirties and I heard them (in their 20s) being very nervous about anything sexual. Grateful for that women’s studies class, I mentioned Our Bodies Ourselves and said, “Whether you’re in a relationship, want to be in one, or are never in one – you owe it to yourself to know your body. Know what brings you pleasure and know how to express it to another when that time comes.” Years later one of these young women said, “I am so grateful you said those things to us – no one else did.”
Peg Achterman, PhD, Seattle, WA
Tags: masturbation, guilt, shame, arousal, orgasm, attraction, Peg Achterman