Breaking the silence: reinforcing and resisting gender norms through women's masturbation

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Based on the Foucauldian understanding that sexuality discourse operates as a powerful instrument for the regulation of societies and individuals, this research considers how internalized gender and sexuality discourses affect

Based on the Foucauldian understanding that sexuality discourse operates as a powerful instrument for the regulation of societies and individuals, this research considers how internalized gender and sexuality discourses affect young women's embodied experiences of masturbation, and more broadly their sexual subjectivity and health. Drawing on interdisciplinary feminist perspectives on gender, sexuality, health, and embodiment, I examine female sexual health within a positive rights framework. That is, I view the rights to both sexual safety and pleasure as essential components of female sexual health, and conceptualize girls and young women as potential sexual agents. By asking young women about their lived experiences of self-pleasure, this research challenges not only the historical legacy of pathologizing female desire and pleasure, but also scholars' tendency to construct female sexuality solely in a heteronormative, partnered context. Based on focus groups, interviews, journals, and questionnaires collected from 109 female college students from diverse ethnic, religious, and sexuality backgrounds in Arizona and Michigan, I employ grounded theory to analyze individual feelings and experiences in the context of larger societal discourses. My findings indicate that when girls internalize negative discourses about masturbation (e.g. as sin or secular stigma), general heteronormative sexuality discourses, and a silence around female self-pleasure, there are severe negative consequences for how they understand and experience masturbation. I argue that they engage in sexual self-surveillance that often results in emotional and physical struggles, as well as the re-inscription of hegemonic cultural discourses on female masturbation, bodies, desire, and pleasure. By illustrating how even the most private and `invisible' behavior of masturbation can become a site for regulating female sexuality, this research provides important evidence of the power of increasingly covert mechanisms to govern gendered bodies and subjectivities through self-surveillance. Alternatively, this research also highlights the potential of normalizing self-pleasure for increasing girls' and young women's capacity for resisting oppressive gender and sexuality discourses and behaviors, developing an agentic sexual subjectivity, and feeling sexually empowered. Thus, this research also has practical implications for conceptualizing sexual health for girls and young women in a way that includes the rights to sexual safety and pleasure.