"How do you know?"
A question that made me stop dead in my tracks and filled me with shame as all the blood rushed to my face - thank goodness we were in a dark room and my cranberry-colored face was not very visible.
I was in a tiny dorm room a few weeks into my freshman year of college, having one of my first real sexual experiences with a partner. Like many first-time, in-a-dorm-room-bunk-bed sexual experiences, it was not going very well. My partner, probably as nervous as I was, was fumbling quite a bit and I thought to myself, "Okay, I should show him, or else this could go on for far too long." But as I whispered, "Uhh a little more like this" and tried to show him with my hand, he asked the above question with an incredulous, accusatory tone followed closely with a "What? Do you... masturbate?" The final word dripping in disbelief.
I felt ashamed, embarrassed, tiny, and wrong as I stumbled on six words at once and eventually let out a response that amounted to an "uhhh... hrrmm... errrrr..." before, unfortunately, my partner simply shook his head and went back to what he was doing before - which, for clarification, resembled someone using sandpaper on splintered wood.
I was at a university known for its liberal academics and perspective, interacting with someone who had, just minutes before, discussed progressive politics with me, yet he could not believe that I, a young women - clearly interested in engaging in sexual activity - masturbated.
And, unfortunately, my experience is not an anomaly. In my personal and professional conversations with women about their sexual experiences, women proudly owning their own sexuality and knowing their own bodies and sexual responses in an intimate way is often, at the very least, overlooked, and at its worst, rejected, looked down upon, or punished. We are socializing young women - in school, professionally, and, in this case, sexually - to not trust themselves and their knowledge and experience and instead, to defer to the knowledge and experience of the men around them - whether it's their fellow students, colleagues, or sexual partners.
In my case, this fumbling 18-year-old boy was supposed to know exactly how to touch me, while I, the person who had lived in and experienced this body for 18 years, was supposed to have no clue.
Seems a little ridiculous, right?
When people ask me why I think women's sexual pleasure is so important to focus on, especially when "there are so many more important things to be focusing on and trying to change," I think back to that moment in a cramped dorm room - a moment I know many other women also have to look back to - where I felt so much shame for knowing my own body and, despite being told by society not to, trying my best to ask for what I wanted. And I realize, yes, I focus on women's sexual pleasure, but the discrepancy in our society between women's sexual pleasure and men's sexual pleasure is just a tiny symptom of the larger problem of how we socialize men and women to view themselves, each other, and the unequal dynamics of our interactions.
We are taught that men are sexual beings and cannot control themselves and women are demure, have self control and are only sexual for men's pleasure. Sex is over when men orgasm, and sometimes women are lucky enough to orgasm, but a lot of times they aren't. Sex is something we - men, women and everyone in between - are not supposed to talk openly about but is shoved down our throats at every turn by the male-centric media.
Enter OMGYes, an interactive women's sexual pleasure research site, with personal and candid stories from women themselves, explicit demonstrations, and simulations, that I have helped develop for the past year. I hope to encourage women to truly own their own sexuality and explore their own bodies in a way that society never encourages them to do. Then, women can use that explicit experience of self-exploration and knowledge of their bodies and pleasure to navigate their sexual experiences. They can feel confident in asking for and telling their partners what they know feels good - and what does not. I also want it to encourage partners of women to really understand the importance of trusting a woman's knowledge of her own body, her own pleasure, and her own experience and to learn from her what feels good.
When it comes to the experience of gender inequality, while there are huge systemic, institutional issues at play, sexual pleasure is a supremely personal experience. So, inherently, the gender inequality of sexual pleasure is one we can begin to overcome at the level of personal experience as well.
HuffPost UK is running a month-long project in March called All Women Everywhere, providing a platform to reflect the diverse mix of female experience and voices in Britain today. Through blogs, features and video, we'll be exploring the issues facing women specific to their age, ethnicity, social status, sexuality and gender identity. If you'd like to blog on our platform around these topics, email firstname.lastname@example.org with a summary of who you are and what you'd like to blog aboutSuggest a correction