By Rowena Kosher

Rowena Kosher (she/her) is a student at Columbia University studying Human Rights with a Concentration in Gender & Sexuality studies. Her research engages with queer theory, sociological approaches, gender, and activism. She is also the co-editor of Columbia’s Human Rights blog, RightsViews. You can find her on Instagram @rowena_kosher.

“YOU are your safest sex partner.” These words, part of New York City’s advisory sheet “Sex and Coronavirus Disease 2019”, recommend masturbation above all other sexual options during social distancing and quarantine. Upon reading this, the human rights, gender and sexuality studies feminist in me was pleasantly surprised—rarely does masturbation figure prominently in discussions of sex in the mainstream.

Masturbation, or stimulation of one’s genitals for sexual pleasure, has a long history of stigma surrounding it, rooted in religious, cultural, moral, and medicalized discourses that still pervade our thinking today. This is particularly true in discussions of masturbation by people with vulvas. Compounding this, masturbation is linked up with other taboos about people with female anatomy, including menstruation. In the overlap between sexual arousal and the menstrual cycle, two stigmatized processes create a double stigma. As a result, the notion of masturbating while menstruating may cause discomfort, a side effect of internalized rhetoric of shame and disgust. Yet, what a better time to counter a stigmatized subject than when sheltering in place?

Although pop culture and commercial media have begun to breach the topic of masturbation, on the whole, it is burdened by a history of silence and myth. Doctors in the 18th century medicalized masturbation as a disease, arguing that self-pleasure could cause insanity and be destructive to both mental and physical health. Because masturbation lacked a reproductive goal, it was tied closely to rhetoric of unnaturalness and moral or religious ruin. The 19th century ushered in an explosion of tools and techniques to curb masturbation, particularly in females, including the Victorian-era gynecologist Isaac Baker Brown’s “cure” for “hysterical” women—a clitorectomy, or excision of the clitoris.

Even today, there is a deeply entrenched gendered aspect to solo sex. Traditional gendered sexuality scripts leave sexual initiation and pleasure to people with penises, while vagina-havers are assigned a passive, gate-keeping role. This emerges not only from the cultural emphasis on vaginal, heterosexual intercourse, but also from society’s gendered public conversations about pleasure. In an article published in the Journal of Sex Research, Breanne Fahs and Elena Frank describe the “plethora of long-standing depictions, representations, and discussions of men’s masturbation as a valid, humorous, deviant, or important part of men’s lives” while female pleasure is largely absent from both medical and academic literature.

What research does exist about masturbation, however, suggests that we ought to be throwing those silences out of the window. Stigma about masturbation leads to intense feelings of shame and guilt, and poor self-esteem. However, engaging in masturbation can actually lead to self-discovery and body awareness. Masturbation can improve body image, providing an opportunity for womxn to learn about their pleasure and their autonomy outside of cisheteronormative constructs.

Yet, considering masturbation while menstruating brings a whole new level of nuance to the notion of societal taboo. Menstruation, too, is surrounded by a cocoon of silence and shame, disgust and repulsion. In an article on menstruation and social stigma, Ingrid Johnston-Robledo and Joan Chrisler argue that menstrual blood is a stigmatizing mark rendering bleeding menstruators as ‘unclean’ and even ‘blemished in character.’

Menstruators are taught from menarche (the first period) that we must keep our bleeding uteruses out of sight. We have all seen the advertisements for menstrual products that promise “no leaks” and “silent packaging.” Johnston-Robledo and Chrisler call this a hidden stigma, because menstruators will go to immense efforts to conceal menstruation. For instance, a 2016 survey uncovered over 5,000 euphemisms for menstruation from 90,000 women globally.

Positively, there has also been a bourgeoning movement of menstrual activism and academic critical menstruation studies which have worked tirelessly to challenge these taboos. Menstruation is becoming a more publicized, normalized process. What would happen if we could also advocate for the normalization of doubly-stigmatized menstrual masturbation?

Masturbation is physiologically beneficial for pain relief, decreased stress, and assistance falling asleep. When the body reaches climax, it releases a cocktail of pleasurable neurotransmitters. Pain thresholds after female masturbation can increase by more than 108%, and orgasms engage the parts of the brain which respectively release serotonin (an analgesic) and control pain response in the brainstem. For menstruators, this information may particularly pique interest. Pain relief? Mood stabilization? Pleasure? These certainly catch my attention when I think about my personal experience of menstruation—a time marred by cramps, decreased self-esteem, and lower mood. 

Beyond health benefits, masturbation and menstruation may overlap because of one’s sex drive. Although evolutionarily, sexual arousal ought to be at its peak during ovulation (10-14 days before menstruation), some menstruators experience an increased sex drive while bleeding. One of my friends has termed this “being hornonal”—horny and hormonal. Health professionals describe several factors that might drive this feeling. Pelvic congestion can put pressure on the G-spot, triggering arousal. The decreased (although not eliminated) possibility of pregnancy allows some menstruators to drop psychological barriers. Lastly, blood acts as the body’s natural lubricant, making sex or masturbation more comfortable. While this is not the experience of all menstruators, it is a documented and common phenomenon.

With all of the benefits of masturbation while menstruating, it seems obvious that the practice offers little to lose. Regardless, we ought not to oversimplify it. Both masturbation and menstruation exist within social and cultural contexts that have consistently cemented discourses of filth, rhetoric of shame, and gendered scripts, all neatly tied up in the cisheteropatriarchy. Stigmas that are mutually intertwined do not untangle easily.

That being said, there is also opportunity here: in voice, discussion, or experimentation. As individuals trying to reconfigure systems of power, we create new normals through challenging existing structures, including those we have internalized. Taking time to interrogate one’s relationship with masturbation and menstruation can help us understand our reactions within the context of stigmatized practices, perhaps beginning to reshape our thinking.

Here’s my challenge to you, menstruators: next time you’re bleeding, menstrual cramps stab you from the inside, or hornonal urges kick in, try touching yourself. You have the permission of pandemic sexperts. You have my permission. You have science and the power of a radical feminist mindset behind you. Throw a towel down and get it on.

In Spring 2020, Columbia students and faculty had the opportunity–for the first time ever–to spend a full semester exploring menstruation through many different angles in the course “Menstruation, Gender, and Rights: Interdisciplinary Perspectives.” Students engaged in writing OpEd style short pieces that draw attention to various facets of menstruation neglected in the mainstream discourse. Leading up to the worldwide day celebrating menstruation, we have the honor to present a selection of emerging menstrual voices. If you’re interested in joining, please stay tuned–we plan to offer the course again in Spring 2021. — Professor Inga Winkler