Written by Finula Greene

I have recently made the conscious choice to begin my pursuit of a ‘hedonistic’ life.

The placement of hedonism onto a female body has always felt to be loaded with negative connotations associated with egotism. I think that the issue is not with the word itself, but perhaps the way in which its tone changes depending on who uses it. To be a hedonist, to seek out pleasures, is not inherently bad, but perhaps the notion of pursuing pleasures as a female-bodied person carries negative connotations.

Although ‘libido’ is inherently a biological instinct that we all experience. Like hunger, you’re driven by an urge and you seek to satiate it. However, we are so far removed from our natural instincts, some labelled as ‘unnatural’, that we don’t even know how to follow an instinct of desire without psychoanalysing it.

What we are taught from birth to consider as a natural instinct is to seek the seal of approval from the patriarchy. That the one true path to self fulfilment is love and affirmation from men. From girlhood, we are suffocated with the narrative that male love and validation affirms our right to exist in this world, that it is the key to a fulfilling life. Where sex and pleasure complicate this is that, at the same time, we are taught that if we use our bodies freely and instinctively it may complicate the pursuit of love later down the line; potentially resulting in the worst female fate of all, the bitter old spinster.

While we may not necessarily be taught this at home or from anyone surrounding us throughout life, the power of systemic repetition is quite successful. And the social conditioning to seek love and male validation as a means of self-fulfilment and life affirmation overrides our instinct to lean into our sexual desires. We see this perpetuated in the far too familiar, ‘why buy the cow, if you can get the milk for free’ ideology. Because while it is with the belief that ‘boys will be boys’, the gendered lens of promiscuity versus constraint is not biologically determined, but rather socially constructed.

Painting of French psychiatrist Philippe Pinel (1745-1826) releasing lunatics from their chains at the Salpêtrière asylum in Paris in 1795
Tony Robert-Fleury, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Boys will only be boys in so much as what is taught to them, which is an unrestrained access to the world and the expectation of promiscuity. Meanwhile, girls learn the values of self-restraint over instinct, and that being sexually free may rob them of their ability to be loved and respected. In the larger picture, being sexually free, especially if you are easily perceived as such may prevent your acceptance in society, your ability to gain employment in certain workplaces and the ability for your intelligence to be taken seriously. Perhaps it is only reasonable to assume that we put the pursuit of pleasure on the backburner in favour of seeking respect; in male-dominated work spaces, in access to the same career opportunities, in equal pay, in avoiding sexual harassment and assault, in avoiding violent messages from men on dating apps that have deemed you ‘trash that should be treated as such’ – because there’s cleavage in one of your photos.

Perhaps if we were not so consumed with the far too long-winded and exhausting fight for the same basic human rights and respect as men we would not feel the need to prioritise how many pleasures we can participate in. More plainly (and grimly) put, perhaps if our lives were not so bogged down by developing tactics to avoid the experience of violent misogyny and systemic gendered oppression, it would leave room to learn how to openly seek a life of pleasure.

The patriarchal self-restraint rhetoric is also largely adopted by so-called ‘radical feminists’ since the Sex Wars of the 1980s. This was a battle between the anti-porn and pro-sex feminists. The anti-porn feminists believed that the fight for sexual liberation bought into the oversexualisation of women and servicing the capitalist machine, and would ultimately lead to an increase in sexual harassment, trafficking, pornography, grooming and so on. While they saw themselves as ‘radical feminists', their rhetoric appealed to the patriarchy. They did not believe in a world in where women could gain complete sexual liberation alongside the erasure of sexual violence; that asking for ‘too much’ guaranteed that no demands would be met.

The belief that we cannot possibly experience liberation in all facets – that it is too much to exist as openly sexual and pleasure-seeking – without experiencing sexual violence is not a belief that can be held by these ‘feminists’. But while their fight seeks for women to gain autonomy, it seems that they have misunderstood the very meaning of the word. To be truly autonomous would mean the freedom to exist as sexual beings free from gendered violence. Not a negotiation between the two. Today, the anti-porn feminists, more commonly known as SWERFs (sex worker exclusionary radical feminists) continue to buy into patriarchal bartering for demands that do not cater for the majority. Mostly made up of white, middle/upper class, heterosexual women, their demands cannot speak for the majority; often hurting many and serving few.

While the demonisation of the sexual woman may not be as obvious and aggressive as it once was, it is still alive and well. Because like any successful indoctrination, it will change with the times and camouflage itself to take new victims.

A montage of photgraphic images of a woman experiencing "female hysteria"
D.M. Bourneville and P. Régnard (montage by User:Damiens.rf), Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

We see this now in the fashion industry's commodification of the sex worker aesthetic, while the social and emotional wellbeing and safety of sex workers remains mostly unchanged; despite some legal policies getting through here and there. We see it in comments made by women who consider themselves to be sexual but rarely venture into any territory not deemed acceptable by society or appealing to the male gaze.

I think of the girls in high school that proudly boasted that they had never masturbated, because they kind of thought it was ‘gross’ and that they could ignore the urge until someone else did the work.

I think of the women that visit sex stores with their shy friends, who obviously want to buy a pleasure tool but leave empty-handed because their lifted-nose peers would “never need a vibrator, they’re so unnatural”, and only use a crystal wand because they “don’t want to get too used to how easy it is to climax with a vibrator”.

I think about those who rave about how they don’t need lubricant and that it’s “another ‘unnatural’ thing to put into our bodies”. I think of the women that talk about how difficult it is to reach climax during partnered sex; how they could never bring a vibrator out during sex because the fear of emasculating their partner is greater than the possibility of never having an orgasm during sex with them.

I think of the two, nervous sixteen-year old girls, clearly students from an affluent secondary institution, who in the year 2023 did not know what a clitoris was, having never heard the word before their visit.

I think of the middle-aged divorcees that come in and talk about their twenty-year marriage. The relationships where they were never sexually satisfied and outrightly prohibited from exploring anything in the pleasure realm, alone or otherwise, now revelling in the new found freedom to explore the joys of their bodies without critique from a partner.

I think of the women in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s who spent who knows how long working up the courage to set foot in their very first sex shop to buy their very first vibrator; nearly crying when you make them feel safe and worthy with the right to pleasure. The coy customers who still spend a large amount of time tossing up between the toy they actually want and the more phallic and penetrative toy; because deep down they still believe that this is inherently shameful and if they’re going to do it, they may as well get something that at least resembles a penis. I think of these people and I see the ways in which the world maintains its unrelenting grip on women’s right to pleasure.

Women line up at a shop counter, choosing from a selection of hanging penises.
The frontispiece to an edition of Aloisiae Sigaeae (The School of Women), an erotic dialogue by Nicolas Chorier, printed c1690. Courtesy the British Library

Let me make it perfectly clear, I do not blame these people for any of this behaviour, they are victims of a very successful indoctrination campaign. What we see is that trying to override the urge to seek sexual fulfilment outside of patriarchal value usually ends up failing, and that the urge in and of itself takes over.

What we can learn from this is that it is never too late. It is never too late to explore your own body, to try new things that have piqued your interest but you’ve avoided for fear of what it says about you. It’s never too late to learn about your own anatomy, because yes, even that information is kept from almost all of us until we seek it out on our own.

To err on the side of cliche, your body is genuinely amazing, and the most amazing part about it is that it is uniquely yours. While I can tell you that most female-bodied people orgasm through clitoral stimulation, you might find that you prefer cervical stimulation. While some really enjoy a phallic and rigid penetrative toy with lots of power, others may like something soft and squishy with a lower power threshold. While some may get off exploring the parallels of pleasure, pain and power dynamics, others may be most satisfied with so-called ‘vanilla’ sex.

While the world may have led you to believe that exploring desires and preferences, even on your own, makes you less than, I can tell you right now that the best part of my job as an educator in an adult store is the gift of affirming your right to pleasure. Because as long as everyone is safe, happy and there is enthusiastic consent with others present, you have every right in the world to explore what your pleasure map looks like.

A muted colour brushstroke painting of two lovers in bed, kissing.
“In Bed, The Kiss”, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

To conclude this Masturbation May, I leave you with some self-loving homework. Have a solo pleasure adventure and romance yourself with a night of heavenly delights; whether that be putting on music, lingerie or taking some sexy pictures before touching yourself. Or perhaps you want to take a bath and light some candles, get all sweaty, moist and relaxed for your lead up to ecstasy. It could mean reading some erotica, watching some ethical porn. Perhaps you’ve considered another toy, but figure the one you already have gets the job done well enough. Now is the time.

Pleasure is not a luxury that needs enough ticked boxes to warrant it. This world can be cruel and lonely sometimes so it is of utmost importance that we allow ourselves the experience of pleasure. None of us are alone in the world of shame, and while the work of deprogramming never has a final destination, the journey is better than waiting around for a letter of approval from the powers that be that will never come. With all that said, I bid each and everyone of you a very hedonistic season ahead.

With much love,

Fin xxx