Party for One

The number one trick to great sex? It’s not about finding the perfect partner, unless that partner is, well… yourself.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
The number one trick to great sex? It’s not about finding the perfect partner, unless that partner is, well… yourself.
Corbis/Click Photos
Corbis/Click Photos

I love me, gonna love myself, no I don’t need anyone else…” If you’ve heard Hailee Steinfeld’s catchy anthem to female empowerment “Love Myself” lately, you’re probably familiar with this refrain. You’ve maybe even hummed along on your way home on the MRT. But listen closely and you may recognise that this song is about a different kind of self-love… Uhm, yeah. That kind.

Consider how the song opens: “When I get chills at night I feel it deep inside without you, yeah Know how to satisfy Keeping that tempo right without you, yeah. Pictures in my mind on replay I’m gonna touch the pain away I know how to scream my own name Scream my name…”

But for the most part, the actressturned- pop-star-in-the-making plays coy on the song’s true subject, telling Noisey, “I think the song just has a really strong self-empowerment message, and whether you take that as something physical or not, it basically means the same thing. It’s about being able to provide for yourself and knowing how much power there is in that.”

But given that she’s wearing a tank top in the music video that cheekily says “Self Service”, there seems to be little doubt that the kind of female empowerment Hailee’s advocating includes a rousing endorsement of female masturbation.

Yup, a Hollywood starlet hoping to make her mark in the music industry may have to tip-toe around the subject, but we’re calling it as it is: masturbation! See, it’s not that bad, is it?

Doctor’s orders

We can assume that self-pleasure has been around since... forever. But we only started to feel negative about it fairly recently. According to sexologist and historian Thomas W. Laqueur who wrote Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation, the publication of a phamplet in the early 1700s played a major role in shaping society’s attitude on self love. Its title? Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self Pollution, and all its Frightful Consequences.

Although the piece was anonymous, it was influential, and it helped to advance the view that masturbation (or onanism, as it was termed) is an “unnatural practice” caused by moral weakness.

Moral crusaders started saying the urge was actually a medical disease with a moral source, and throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, men and women were warned that even thinking about it could lead to terrible physical damage – touch yourself and you’ll go blind or mad, or become crippled. Yikes.

It sounds crazy, but an 1885 edition of Our Family Physician lists masturbation as “a very degrading and destructive habit” that causes “headaches”, “restlessness at night”, “melancholy”, “weakness in the back and generative organs”. This medical text also warned that it also makes you “unable to look a person in the face” and causes a “lack of confidence”. The book also trumpeted: “There is no vice which is more injurious to mind and body, and produces more fearful consequences than this.” It seems ridiculous now, but at the time, it was considered pretty chilling stuff.

Thankfully, the slate was wiped clean in the middle of the 20th century, when the well-known sexologist Alfred Kinsey began to advocate the view that solo sex is a natural instinct – for both men and women. As his work became more well-known around the world, it became more accepted as a part of normal psychological and emotional development.

Let’s (not) talk about sex

But all this doesn’t mean we find it easy to talk about. Masturbation may now be a non-issue in medical and scientific circles, but, even today, some stigma still remains.

“Like all topics related to sex and sexuality, masturbation is not talked about much,” agrees Singapore-based sexologist and sexuality educator Dr Martha Lee of Eros Coaching. “This does not necessarily mean it’s frowned upon,” she stresses, “But I would say, like everything related to sex, it’s not talked about much.”

And how do you bring up such a private subject, anyway? “I think there are plenty of women who masturbate, but they choose not to talk about it,” says Clara, 26. “It’s either because they see it as something deeply personal, or they feel it’s something to be embarrassed about.”

“Obviously, there is nothing wrong if some people simply choose to be more private. But I think some discomfort stems from the fact that Singaporeans can be quick to judge – especially when it comes to female sexuality.”

It’s true: unlike what we saw on Sex and the City, women are embarrassed to bring up the M-word during girl-talk. In fact, many are quick to deny it from fear thair their peers would see them as desperate. Says Cheng, 28: “When I was younger, I felt masturbation was something to be ashamed of, and nobody should admit to it because it’s embarrassing. But, over the years, I’ve realised there’s nothing wrong with it. And while I don’t go around publicising it, I no longer feel it’s necessary to hide the fact that one masturbates.”

After all, she notes, “Men feel it’s perfectly normal for them. They are proud to brag about it, whereas women who do it are embarrassed to admit it. Or if women hear about someone who masturbates, they sometimes tend to develop judgments about that woman – for example, that she’s so sexual, horny, or gross.”

No girls allowed

Cheng is correct to point out that, as in other areas of life, a gender gap lies here too. Though the authors of Onania and Our Family Physician were careful to note that both sexes can be “afflicted” by masturbation, the fact is – since the days of Alfred Kinsey’s first famous sex surveys – masturbation is more widely reported amongst men than women.

All this secrecy makes it hard to know what to do. You can feel like Columbus trying to find America without a map. You just have to blunder about and hope you find land... or, at least, find the right spot to touch.

Let’s take the original Queen of Pop, Madonna, for example. For the past 30 years, she’s styled herself as the poster girl for sexual liberation – an artistic revolutionary with the banner cry: “Express yourself, don’t repress yourself.” But in a 1991 interview with The Advocate, the singer admitted, “I didn’t really discover masturbation till I was 17 or 18 years old. I’d had intercourse before I understood that.”

Similarly, Desperate Housewives actress Eva Longoria told Self in 2005: “I didn’t begin enjoying sex until I started masturbating. Before that, I really wasn’t sexual. I bought my first vibrator three years ago. It’s a shame I didn’t discover it sooner.”

So maybe we should all heed the words of Taylor Momsen – former Gossip Girl star and lead singer of The Pretty Reckless. In an interview with The Guardian, she said cheerfully: “I’m a promoter of masturbation. Don’t sleep around – learn about yourself first! Guys do, but girls don’t. That’s why girls have so many bad experiences.”

Borrowing from the boys

Indeed, according to sexual health therapist Serena Cauchi, it’s true that men’s sexual experiences are often more positive than women’s because they know their own bodies better. “Men who masturbate regularly have an advantage when it comes to their bodies – they know what turns them on and how to reach orgasm,” she says.

Compare this to the “Sleeping Beauty” approach to female pleasure we’re often taught, where we’re told to wait for Prince Charming to arrive, then we’re expected to just lie there and let him unleash our inner sex goddess. Unless you’re Anastasia Steele living in a world of fiction a la Fifty Shades of Grey, there’s one word for this scenario: unlikely.

“When they start having sex, many women have no idea what it takes for them to climax,” Serena continues. Few guys would be in this situation. “There’s an old saying that 95 percent of men masturbate and five percent lie. Guys have years of practice at turning themselves on before they even get intimate with a woman,” she says.

As a result, men know exactly what makes them feel good, but no one in the room has any idea how to get a woman to O-town – including her.

“I think masturbation has made me more open to accepting myself,” confirms Clara, 27. “And as I became more comfortable with my body, it became clearer to me what gets my engines going.”

Feelin’ myself

So yes, the truth is that the number one trick to great sex is in your hands – literally. “You need to know your own body intimately to have a good sexual relationship with another person,” insists sexual health therapist Heide McConkey.

“Regardless of whether you’re a man or woman, if you’re comfortable with your own body and sexuality, you’re less likely to have difficulties when being sexual with a partner,” affirms Dr Martha.

“Masturbation is a great way to learn about your body and express your sexuality in a safe way. Knowing and understanding your body and what feels good allows you to better communicate better about what feels good to our partners.”

If the idea feels foreign to you, take baby steps. “Many women do not think about sex the same way as men – our sexuality is less focused on our genitals. So for women, the genitals tend to be less of an object of fascination or fixation, compared to men,” says Dr Martha. But this doesn’t mean you should stop yourself from exploring your body and your sexuality.

U + ur hand

The first thing to understand is this: porn often gets it so, so wrong. Only 25 percent women can climax from penetration alone – and this is according to 33 global studies on female sexuality. The rest of us need direct clitoral stimulation. For those of you who tuned out during sex ed, the clitoris is a sensitive piece of tissue at the upper end of the vulva. It contains more nerve endings than anywhere else in your body and, “For many women, touching the clitoris is the only way to orgasm, even during sex with a partner,” says Serena.

Flying solo

If you’ve never touched yourself before, “Some people find having a shower or bath helps them to relax,” suggests Dr Martha. Once you’ve eased into the moment, “Engage in exploring your entire body, noticing where and what kind of touch feels good,” she suggests. “Experiment with different kinds of touch and speeds – stroking, rubbing, shaking, circling, patting and tapping.”

Some of us may feel frustrated, embarrassed or even bored at this point, but don’t quit. “These feelings are normal and, in time, you’ll feel more comfortable with touching yourself,” says Dr Martha. It takes time to cultivate a mind-body connection – your brain has to learn how to tell your body to relax and release pleasure.”

“Allow yourself to feel good. Let go of any expectation of needing to go somewhere with the feelings of arousal,” advises Dr Martha. “When you let your feelings of arousal to build and just continue, an orgasm may happen. But relax, because this may take some time, or it may take longer than you expect. It may also take several attempts before it will happen,” says Dr Martha.

Think back to when you learnt some other physical skill, like riding a bike or swimming. At first you were terrible at it... then one day you’re, like, “Hey! I can do this!”

And remember Eva’s advice about vibrators: some of us need a bit more speed and pressure to climax... and that’s OK. Says Stephanie, 29: “I tried using my hands, but I didn’t ‘feel’ enough. I wondered if I was just not very sexual. Then I tried a vibrator... and surprise! Never looked back.”

“This is one of the most normal sexual releases we have,” says Heide. “And as a woman, it’s good to be in tune with your body, and be aware of how it reacts to touch. Being in control of your own pleasure, rather than relying on a man to give it to you, creates sexual and personal independence, which is linked to positive self-esteem.”

Hear that? It’s time to kick shame to the curb, because the secret to self-love may just be… self-love. Who knew it could be really so simple?

Good Vibrations

Your battery-operated boyfriend has an interesting origin… and nope, it’s got nothing to do with sex shops.

The first vibrators were used in the doctor’s office. Confused? Throughout human history, female sexuality has often been misunderstood, so much so that up until the 19th century, women who complained of sexual frustration were sometimes (mis)diagnosed with an ailment called “hysteria”. This was thought to be due to some mysterious “congestion” in the womb that made women emotionally “weaker” than men. Symptoms included nervousness, muscle spasms, irritability, loss of appetite, frustration and sexual desire.

The accepted treatment for such hysteria was a “pelvic massage” performed on the patient’s genitals by a physician or midwife. After experiencing a “paroxysm” (read: orgasm), the hysterical woman would experience sudden relief from her “symptoms”.

This practice was perfectly socially acceptable and, as word got out, it became a financial boon to doctors. So in the machine-obsessed Victorian era, busy doctors looked for a way to relieve their fingers by using vibrating machines.

Early versions of the vibrator included hand-cranked, water-pumped and even steam-driven female massagers. Often large and unwieldy, one design even featured a padded table with a hole in the middle, with a vibrating sphere attached to the top.

Then, in the 1880s, a British doctor named Dr Joseph Granville invented a handheld electromechanical vibrator – and the modern vibrator was born!

Though it seems odd to us, it was even marketed as a home-use treatment for hysteria until the 1920s and 30s. All we can say is, truth = officially stranger than fiction.