Gillian Roddie often starts honest conversations on the stories of her Instagram account @evidentiallyyou . Typically, replies from her followers come thick and fast. The response when she talked about women masturbating this past week was something quite different, as Liadán Hynes discovered this week…[restrict]
This week, Gillian Roddie, whose Instagram account is a go to for frank, honest, fact-based conversations on everything from sex to coronavirus to science, began a discussion on her stories about women and masturbation.
“Why did I start talking about it?” Gillian, who works in Trinity College as an Innovations Programme Manager, asked me.
“I taught biology to undergraduates for 13 years. I suppose when you’ve got science on your side, you can come at things from a very factual point of view. One of the classes was a microbiology lecture. Within a couple of years I had changed this from
talking about E.coli, the common cold, and influenza, into well these are the viruses that can be sexually transmitted, and these are the bacteria that can be sexually transmitted. I turned it into an ad hoc sex ed class. I very quickly realised that there is an awful lot of misinformation out there. And this was with third level students, studying science.”
The conversation about masturbation originated out of one around contraception, after the recent banning of a Tampon ad by the ASAI*.
“When I saw that the ad had been banned, I suppose it just made me incredibly frustrated to feel ‘are we still here?’. We have legalised same sex marriage. We have gone through all those horrific conversations around Repeal. And now we’re going to get up in arms about a Tampon ad? I really thought we’d gone beyond that.”
Gillian began a conversation on her Instagram stories about menstruation. The response was really good, she recalls.
“People were really interested in talking about it. And on the back of that, I realised ‘gosh there is still so much stuff as women we need to talk about’. I decided to talk about masturbation. I thought, I’m gonna have some fun with this. I want to set the terms here, and say we need to start talking about this.”
Gillian points out that while conversations around men’s masturbation are entirely normalised, it’s still very rare for women to talk openly about it. “The chances are if you say the word masturbation, the person you are saying it to flinches a little bit, because we are so deeply uncomfortable with that word. And there’s a lot of masculine connotations attached to it. You listen to guys talking and there’s a very good chance at least one of them will talk about wanking at some point in the conversation. It’s so normalised for men.”
“We’ve had movies about men masturbating. It is so part of our vernacular,” she continues. “Where men are concerned we don’t think twice. Of course they do it. When it comes to women it’s a totally different story. We don’t have permission to talk about it, we’re not supposed to talk about it. When you start looking at the history of how masturbation has been discussed, there are religious overtones. In the Roman Catholic church masturbation is a sin. I’m Church of Ireland, and I went
looking and actually the Anglican Church, it doesn’t have an awful lot to say about it.”
Gillian began the conversation with a poll asking the question “do you masturbate?”
“If my Instagram DM inbox was a box, you could hear a pin dropping in it. When I start talking about topics of special interest, it’s very normal for me to get dozens if not hundreds of messages around the topic,” Gillian, who has 13.4k followers, explains.
“And I got almost nothing about this. I got a handful of people saying it’s great that this is being talked about, but that’s it. Whereas with different topics people would give their two cents, or talk about their personal situation, ask a question. People were getting in touch with me saying I feel a bit strange answering that,” she says of the poll.
Can you remember who told, or taught, you about masturbation, who explained it, in the same way someone did periods, and contraception?
“I would hazard a guess that for the vast majority of women nobody tells us, it’s absolutely something we discover on our own.
Just Seventeen; some of those magazine were pretty decent. They had those conversations; with the assumption we weren’t going to be told by our mothers. If you were really saucy you went and bought More, and you looked at the sex position of the month. There’s all of that information on the net but it’s largely unregulated. I think there might be a piece of information dissemination that might have been lost, unwittingly, with the gap of print media, for young people.”
The very first question that Gillian received was from a follower who said “My daughter is five…She has recently started to hump one of her pillows…She told her daddy that it feels nice…Unsure of how or what to say to her…”.
“Kids explore their bodies,” Gillian says now. “If you’ve a boy, you’ll notice he starts playing with his penis at the first available opportunity. But it’s not as obvious when girls do it. But when they discover that touching around their vulva feels good, by god are they going to keep doing it again. The only thing that they associate with it is that it feels good.”
It is adults who sexualise things, she reflects. “Kids aren’t doing it for sex reasons; they have no idea what sex is. I think that’s where it all starts. Masturbation isn’t necessarily about sex. It’s about connecting with yourself, and discovering your body, and spending time with yourself. And it is potentially a true definition of self-care, because it releases serotonin, it can help you sleep better, improve your mood, it can even help with headaches sometimes. But we immediately attach this sexual shame to it, so that it’s seen as almost a deviant behaviour especially in women.”
In fact, if a child is engaging in this behaviour, Gillian points out that telling them off is shaming them. “As a five-year-old girl you’re told that that’s dirty, or that’s not something that little girls do, or that there’s a secret behind it. That’s where the shame starts.”
Unlike Gillian’s usual experience when she opens her stories, and herself, up to a conversation (her highlights include STIs and periods, all dealt with in her typical straightforward, honest, and factual manner), the masturbation talk was quite unidirectional. “It was me sharing articles, things about different positions you can use, the benefits of it, the history; apparently in the fifteenth century women were masturbating left right and centre. And then it was in the sixteenth century that there was some real shame attached to it.”
All of the above can be found on a highlight entitled self-love on her account.
One follower got in touch to say “Jesus Christ, is there nothing sacred anymore?” a question with odd religious undertones to the matter.
Of the approximately 4000 people who responded to Gill’s poll asking do you masturbate, 81% said yes, more than 4 in 5.
“It’s something that’s so deeply pleasurable, and it’s kind to yourself, and it’s compassionate, but we don’t talk about it. So how much are we missing out on if we’re not able to?”
Gillian compares the response to when she talked about masturbation (tumbleweed) to when she spoke about her own experiences with the copper coil method of contraception.
“I talked about my experience with the copper coil. And, in contrast to masturbation, where people were afraid to even answer an anonymous poll, when it comes to negative experiences or things that have happened around contraception and periods, all of these stories began to come out of the woodwork. People felt the need to share their difficult stories, because it was like they needed to get it off their chest, but it was like they felt they needed to warn other people.”
It got to the point where Gill had to turn off the messages in her stories.
“I was getting quite upset reading some of the quite violent descriptions. This is the flip side when we start talking about things. There are so many stories that remain unheard; we’re not giving women the appropriate platforms to be able to safely share their stories with adequate support. I am woefully under qualified to be able to handle those stories. I then was left wracked with guilt, because women had shared their stories with me in good faith, and I couldn’t do anything with it. But I had to look after myself at the same time, and it was a really tough one.”
“I just found the dichotomy of it all so difficult. Something so pleasurable, and so fun and so lovely like self-stimulation; masturbation only ever leads to a happy ending, there’s only good that comes out of it, and yet we can’t talk about it. There’s such shame. No one’s suggesting that we wake up each morning and we go and sit down and we have a talk about wanking over our cornflakes. What we’re talking about is just normalising the conversation. In the same way that guys do.”