My dad found my big box of dildos. We can all learn from what he did next
Illustration: Meg Murgatroyd
Moving house is one of the most stressful things we go through as adults. The boxing, unboxing, packing and re-packing is an unending cycle of turmoil for a hoarder like myself. Unable to throw away my perfectly good (read: falling apart) bed frame, I’d recruited my father to store it in his spare room in North Wales. He dutifully obliged and came to help me.
We got to work quickly, pulled off the top mattress, (yes I have two) when I popped to the kitchen to make us a cuppa. My unsuspecting, unsupervised father had been left to his own devices, blissfully ignorant to the fact that not two feet away from him was a treasure trove of rumbling, vibrating and gyrating timebombs. Tick-tock.
On my way back, I’d gotten distracted by my housemate’s reality tv show when I was abruptly called back to earth with a bang.
“So, er Kate..” Dad calls, “...I assume you’re keeping this big box of dildos?”
Ahhh shit. He’d only gone and taken off the top mattress and I’d only gone and forgotten what was lurking beneath it.
My housemate, and very old friend I should add, let out an almighty roar of laughter, knowing full well about my deep love affair with masturbation. This was followed by a; “Thank you for letting me witness this” through wheezing and tears. Yeah, yeah, you’re welcome.
Anyway, what happened next surprised me.
Dad chimed in through my splutters and panicked noises of “err.. umm.. ahh…” with a; “It’s okay, we’re all adults aren't we?”
And, just like that, the shame was gone. My dear old Dad, who had always shied away from chats about the birds and the bees, was showing me that he understood that it was acceptable, dare I say it, normal for women to own their pleasure.
This exchange made me question our relationship with shame and masturbation; why does it still exist? Where did it come from? What can we do about it?
It may come as no surprise to you that masturbation and shame come as a package deal for many women. You may have even experienced it for yourself, I know I did. I didn’t masturbate until I was 27 years old and I still grieve for all the quality time me, myself and I have missed out on. The reason we’re not alone when it comes to experiencing shame and masturbation is because of the historical and contemporary repression of women’s sexuality.
We almost always point to the Victorian era as it is infamous for its repressive outlook on masturbation. Its dichotomy as both sickness and cure is a hypocrisy that has left a damaging legacy.
During this time, if you were a woman with poor mental health and enjoyed masturbation you would often find yourself sectioned. Heck, at the time it was justifiable to be put away for just one of these ‘ailments’.
‘Fallen women’ were subjected to maddeningly torturous, invasive and downright cruel procedures. The terminology alone was enough to incite feelings of shame, failure and weakness. So it’s no wonder that women felt a societal pressure to remain pure, meek and obliging in order to survive the threat of being locked away.
From the 18th to early 20th-century, asylum doctors linking madness with the womb, fertility and sexual pleasure has resulted in many fucked up stereotypes for the women who proceeded them, such as; the crazy ex-girlfriend, the dragon lady, the slut, the virgin, the lolita and many others.
This control over women’s bodies, sexuality and freedom of expression has resulted in an unbreakable cycle of gaslighting. There’s no real sense of equilibrium between what is right for men and what is right for women because the double standards are staggeringly nonsensical.
The message for women has always been pretty clear; Don’t do it. People will think you mad.
As we’ve careered into the 21st century, we’ve become somewhat more accepting of women masturbating and having agency over their sexual expression. Although, new constraints are being built on old prejudices, which means that nothing is truly fixed, merely repackaged.
The bad taste leftover from the Victorian era reeks of patriarchal entitlement and control. We’ve inherited a pretty shitty outlook on sex as we try and debunk the negative connotations of sluttiness, promiscuity, and sex appeal.
The issue is that this repression and societies unwillingness to view pleasure as something that women could have autonomy of has meant that there was little or no education surrounding healthy masturbation practices for women.
Many of us have been thrown down the rabbit hole of playground learning so that when we come to our first encounter with another human, not only are we do we not have all the facts, but we have no idea how to guide our partner to our desires. More importantly, we are not taught about consent, coercion or consequences.
The short of it is; we don’t know what makes us feel good or safe. This means that for many women sex is something that is done to them, not with them. This lack of participation and unwillingness to include, understand and celebrate the myriad of ways that women experience pleasure is nothing short of criminal. I mean it, this intentional exclusion breads rape culture, lad culture and perpetuates victim-blaming in even the most high profile sexual assault cases.
Why? Because in nearly all scenarios, we learn about sex through the heterosexual male gaze, which is but one-millionth of a spectrum we could experience. We need to actively normalise masturbation and sexuality if we are ever to experience freedom from sexual repression and rape culture.
When we normalise female pleasure we recreate it as something without ties to outrageousness. We get to rebrand it as an ordinary, reasonable and enjoyable part of the human experience. When we hand back ownership to women we pave the way for so many valuable things that have been starved of equality for centuries. Things like sex education that discusses the mental health impacts of repressing sexuality, how to enjoy masturbation safely, porn as a performance and not as an expectation. The list of what is possible to change for the better is endless.
Frankly, repression of sexuality and sexual urges has a profound reaction to our mental health and well-being. This is why it’s important to take note of this moment shared between me, my dad and my housemate. Together we exchanged something quite spectacular, and that was the normalisation of women’s pleasure and their right to own it autonomously. We stopped thinking about how daughters should remain pure, about how sexual experience should only be enjoyed in a palatable way and instead we laughed in the face of shame.
This is your permission slip to join us.