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Gospel singer Erica Campbell's comments about masturbation being impure threw me for a loop. I shouldn't have been surprised though. Given the way the church speaks about women and sex, it's a wonder that any of us raised in that environment have healthy attitudes toward our sexuality. But while Erica 's message was dangerous because of the size of her--and the Breakfast Club's platform--she's not the only woman who thinks self-pleasure or masturbation is impure. This week on MadameNoire, we had a woman write about how masturbating makes her feel dirty.
In an effort to debunk some of these ideals, we reached out to sexologist Shamyra Howard to discuss what we need to unlearn about our sexuality --masturbation specifically-- and why Black women have such a hard time surrendering to pleasure. The first part of my conversation with her is on MadameNoire.com. You can read the second part below.
NoSugarNoCream: Why do you think it is that Black women have problems prioritizing their own pleasure? Shamyra Howard: What I see a lot is that Black women are so closed off—contrary to common pop culture belief--A lot of Black women don’t think they deserve to feel good. it’s almost like you’ve got to always be providing or doing something for someone. Or we’re always grinding or focusing on our goals. So we’re not always taking the time out to focus on ourselves because it’s always, ‘How do I show up for this other person?’ We’re leading these lives of showing up for other people and being people pleasers that we forget it’s okay for us to experience pleasure as well. It’s okay for people to please us as well. And I think that’s the meat of the issue. We are so focused on giving that we don’t focus on receiving. And it’s hard to receive for a lot of people, especially people who are so focused and used to doing things on their own. It’s hard for you to just sit back and receive and allow yourself that vulnerability in that space to receive. A lot of this has to do with vulnerability. And vulnerability isn’t easy. It’s emotionally risky. If it’s too risky, I’m going to protect myself. And also, how do you do that? We don’t know what pleasure is…And that goes into the whole other spiel about what self care looks like. We glamorize it but self care is not pretty. It’s one of the most unpretty things we can do on a daily basis. But it’s not meant to be pretty. It’s meant to rejuvenate us and allow us the space to exist and experience. NSNC: I also wanted to ask you about masturbation in a committed relationship. I guess some people [Erica] think that’s weird… SH: Yeah they think it’s weird. They think ‘I have a partner what am I masturbating for?’ But again, sexual pleasure is not just for a partner. So that goes all the way back this [sex] being for a partner. And I don’t just see this with men (not wanting their female partners to masturbate) I also see this with women (not wanting their male partners to masturbate.) Women have an issue masturbating in a relationship because we’re told once we have a partner, our partner is our be all, end all and I shouldn’t need anything else outside of the relationship and that’s where we’re set up for failure because one person cannot give you everything. And we need to understand that. But masturbation or mutual masturbation in a relationship— you don’t stop being a sexual being once you become partnered. You’re still a sexual being. You’re still exploring your sexuality inside of your relationship. Not only is it okay but it’s highly recommended that you and your partner start collectively exploring your sexuality but also you still want to maintain some individual sexual relationship with yourself where you still masturbate and also incorporating mutual masturbation. It helps the sex because now you’re teaching your partner what you like. So that’s another way to break down the orgasm gap is to be open and also for them to be able to take your advice. But it’s also a huge form of sexual intimacy to be able to masturbate in front of your partner if you want to. NSNC: People think that masturbation is just for sexual gratification but what are the other benefits of it. SH: A lot of people—especially as it relates to people in church. They say that masturbation is not good because of two things, the whole spilling the seed thing. But more about ejaculating outside of a vagina. [Specially the vagina of your brother’s widow.] And the other thing that they talk about is lust. It invites the spirit of lust. Masturbation isn’t just sexual. There is research that shows the health benefits of masturbation. It reduces stress. It helps you to sleep. And for people who have periods, it helps to reduce your menstrual cramps. Because orgasms are muscle contractions. And also alleviating pain. Because the hormones that are released from the brain during orgasm—one of them is oxytocin and it creates a pain reducing feeling in the body. That’s why people like it because it helps your overall quality of life. People who have penises, it can help with prostrate. It can help with concentration. But usually we masturbate because masturbation feels good. And a lot of women masturbate because it’s the only way they can achieve orgasm, even in a relationship. 80 percent of women can only achieve orgasm through clitoral stimulation. So when you see a woman masturbating, it’s a sexual revolution because she is owning her pleasure and that’s the way she gets an orgasm. Also there is something amazing that happens for people who use masturbation in their meditative practices. There is something called manifestation masturbation. In a nutshell, say you want a new job. You envision this job. You put yourself in this space where you’re masturbating. You’re envisioning yourself in this role at your job and you’re masturbating and you’re thinking about yourself in the environment. Then when you orgasm, you simply say thank you. Because orgasm seals the deal. So I’ve already spoken this into existence and it’s happened. A lot of people say that is prayer as well. And that has absolutely nothing to do with sex. ‘ NSNC: I’ve never heard that before. That’s new. You should try it. NSNC: On MadameNoire, we had a woman write an essay saying that she does masturbate but she always feels dirty afterward. So what are some steps to get rid of those feelings. So, we’ve got to figure out where those feelings come from. They don’t just come out of the air. They are attached to some type of thought or idea or ideal. So first, you have to figure out where those feelings come from. Then we have to allow ourselves to be open to experience pleasure. Knowing what our bodies are and knowing that our bodies are working in the way they’re designed to work. And then too that your body is not dirty. You are not dirty for doing this. You are not impure. You are still a whole human being. Most importantly if someone is having a struggle masturbating, I want them to go to a sex therapist to help them uncover where those feelings come from. What is that shame associated with? Does it come from your religious values and you feeling like that’s a contradiction. Does it come from you feeling like you’re cheating on your partner? Usually, a lot of sex education can resolve these issues. I usually recommend the bible Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski. It’s a really great resource to help people understand vulvas and vaginas and to help people understand arousal and desire more.
Shamyra Howard is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a private practice serving the Baton Rouge, LA and surrounding areas. She specializes in sexuality and relationships. You can follow her work on social media or via her website, On The Green Couch.