“Your Vagina And Vulva Are Not Dirty” Sexologist Shamyra Howard Talks Masturbation & Shedding Shame
Erica Campbell’s comments about masturbation were met with quite a bit of feedback from the people. Most of it was something of the “This ain’t it” variety. Still, we know that the issue of women feeling shame around their own bodies and masturbation is not something that is exclusive to this gospel singer. In fact, earlier this week we had a piece about a woman who felt guilty after masturbating.
With the influence of society’s misogyny and the Black church’s looming hold over women specifically, there are a variety of reasons why women, particularly Black women, don’t feel comfortable in seeking pleasure, sexual or otherwise.
We spoke to sexologist, Shamyra Howard, LCSW, about the shame many of us inherited from the Black church, the benefits of masturbation and learning how to embrace pleasure as Black women.
MadameNoire: I want to talk about Erica but I really don’t want to make it about her because there are so many women who feel shame around masturbation. I don’t know if you grew up in the church but I was wondering if you could speak to the messaging we get from church and society at large about sexuality when it comes to girls and women.
Shamyra Howard: That’s why I said I like her, I just don’t like this message. So it wasn’t about her because I did grown up in church and I received a lot of that same messaging. And now, as an adult, it’s still being perpetuated. So historically, women—our sexuality wasn’t for us. Considering we’re speaking in a heterosexual context, sex was for our husband. It was seen as something that happened to us and if we liked it, we were diagnosed with hysteria. It’s so ridiculous. So, as times changed and evolved, a lot of those ideas and concepts around women’s sexuality and orgasm has not evolved especially in the church, with different purity cultures. I see lots of women who come from very religious backgrounds and they too struggle with the messaging of their bodes being a temple and what that means and if you masturbate or you have sex and you’re not married then you’re destroying your temple. ‘temple is defiled now.’
Like my brothers, I don’t remember them being talked to about sex. The conversation was always about women and it was always ‘Don’t have sex and when you do, make sure it’s when you’re married.’ And that’s problematic for so many different reasons. One because we can’t ignore our sexuality. It’s something that we’re born with. Whether we want to be sexual or not, we’re all born with a type of sexuality. And the choice to not be sexual, that’s a part of our sexuality as well. We still aren’t taught what to do with those feelings. ‘Ok great, I’m going to save this for my husband. I’m going to do what the Bible says.’ And then what? So I’m having all of these feelings. I’m not having sex.—I remember in church they would tell us, ‘Don’t put yourself in a situation that you’re going to possibly regret or could possibly lead you into sex.’ For example, ‘Don’t go on a date with someone by yourself.’ ‘Don’t go over their house.’ But this was only told to women. This wasn’t told to the men. So, is it okay for them to do it and not us?
MN: And are the men only dating other men?
SH: Exactly. So this is the indoctrination that we got. What do we do with the feelings? The church says, ‘If those feelings come up, you pray, you pray, you pray.’ So now, not only are you not giving me the tools to deal with these naturally occurring feelings but now you’re also telling me I’m not praying enough. But nobody ever tells us that we aren’t supposed to experience happiness, glee or joy, which are also feelings just like arousal but arousal is something we need to pray away because it’s ungodly, for some reason, if we were to embrace those feelings because of lust. Our sexuality isn’t always centered around lust or lustful thoughts, especially as it’s centered around masturbation. We don’t only masturbate for sexual reasons.
Historically, women’s bodies were used as a tool for their husbands to use to bring them pleasure but not for us. Yet, we’re the ones with the clitoris.
MN: Can you speak about women who don’t take the time to explore their sexuality by themselves or with a partner and the challenges they may run into when they are with a partner, in a committed relationship and they do want to be sexual?
SH: In my office, I see women—especially women—who come in and say, ‘I can’t orgasm.’ Or ‘I don’t like sex.’ Or ‘I don’t have any sexual feelings toward him.’ Or ‘I’m not enjoying this.’ Or “I don’t like my vulva.’ And whenever we do the sexual history, it usually comes from them not being able to explore themselves in that way. And so some of the issues of women not being able to explore themselves is that they’re not prepared for a sexual relationship. I don’t know who told us that one day we’re just going to get up and we’re just going to know how to have sex. And that’s problematic because women were given these messages and men were too. Men think that whatever they do, it works for Sally, Jesse, Shamyra, Veronica, everybody. And it’s like no, it doesn’t work like that. So we give people these messages, ‘Wait. Don’t masturbate. Don’t explore your body.’ And then we say, ‘Wait for your husband.’ And then the husband is like, ‘You’re not pleasing me.’ And then that’s another problem because in the Bible it says that you need to do this. So I listened to the Bible and I repressed my sexuality for all of these years, now they’re married, now they feel stuck, now they feel inadequate because they’re not equipped to have pleasurable sex with their partner because their partner thinks they’re supposed to know what to do. So those are the challenges, not being prepared for sexual relationships, not knowing their own body and being able to express themselves sexually, not knowing what brings them sexual pleasure, not knowing how to achieve orgasm. And that can lead to all other types of issues like depression and divorce. Society tells me that’s my goal, as a wife, I have to provide sex, even biblically, right? I need to be able to provide sex to my husband and I feel like I am failing as a woman and a wife.
MN: There have been studies about the importance of physical touch. And there is this idea that you don’t deserve sexual pleasure unless you’re in a marriage. But the reality is everybody won’t get married and everybody doesn’t desire to be married. But still, physical touch is a basic human need. And sexual touch is a basic human need. How do women reconcile that if they’ve grown up in the church?
SH: You see a lot of types of repression. People grow up with intimacy issues, not understanding how to be intimate in the relationship because intimacy is not just sex. Intimacy involves that affection and physical touch. There’s research on skin hunger. We crave touch. Our bodies crave touch. Our skin craves touch. Our skin is the largest sexual body part. Our brain is the largest sexual organ but the skin is the largest body part.
From birth, until death we crave that. When babies are born, we do skin to skin contact. We grow older but we never grow out of our need and our desire to experience that type of touch, that type of connection. That’s why hugs are extremely important in relationships. In type of sex therapy, we focus on touch. It changes the relationship dynamic when you have touch. It also improves sex because now you’re touching not only for your partner’s pleasure but for your own pleasure.
MN: What do you think about the concept of soul ties being something we made up. Because I don’t even think that’s in the Bible.
SH: A construct. I think we kind of made the whole Soul Tie thing up. It’s really interesting hearing church folk speak about soul ties in the way they do, especially when they talk about paganism and witchcraft. But usually when I hear about soul ties, there are usually sexual undertones. ‘Your soul is always going to be connected to them and you got to be delivered from that.’ But just like soulmates, I don’t think that has to be a romantic partner. I think a soul tie or a soulmate—and I don’t see that as a negative thing either. I think that person comes into your life and acts as a mirror to teach you something very important about yourself. And maybe they stay and maybe they won’t. A lot of soulmates and soul ties are meant to show you a different level of self-awareness, accountability and challenge you in different ways.
I don’t look at it as something that’s negative. I don’t look at it as just people dropping off sex in your life. I basically think it’s about the relationship that you share and where you are at that time in your life and whether it’s about your growth or your ego.
MN: What about virginity as a construct?
SH: When I learned about that my mind was blown. Because whenever we talk about women having sex, it’s always attached to a man. So we’re told that we have to preserve ourselves for our husbands. But if you look at what sex is, it doesn’t always involve your genitals or your mouth. Sex, in the way that I define sex, is it’s an emotional, physical and spiritual erotic connection that the people involved share with each other. So that can manifest in a sexual way, that can manifest in a non-sexual way and it doesn’t just mean intercourse. You can have sex with somebody by doing eye gazing and that might be an erotic connection or stimulation for you. When you talk about virginity, there’s this whole myth about the hymen being broken. And you need to see blood and that indicates virginity. And that’s just not true. There’s no real function for the hymen, it’s just there. Some people are born with a broken hymen. Some people play sports and its broken. That’s not an indication and that doesn’t keep you as a virgin.
It’s meant to keep women in a specific category and to show you what your worth is based on your sexual status and that’s just not okay.
MN: What are some things women need to unlearn about masturbation but also the things we’ve been taught about our bodies? There’s a lot of shame about having a vagina, vulva.
SH: Most of what we were taught about our bodies we need to unlearn that. I see us going more toward that but not only do we need to unlearn that, we also need to teach that to men as well. And I also find these messages hard to hear from Christian people as well because if we’re made in God’s image then everything that’s made in God’s image is good and perfect. So when we’re marketed all of these products for vaginal health, particularly smell—vulvas and vaginas have a smell. They don’t smell like roses and blueberries. And if they do, they’re masking something. A lot of people are ashamed of the way their vulva smells and that further causes them to be sexually repressed. So learn your sexual self. Learn that your body is okay. Because we’re taught that our bodies are not for us, we don’t want to go through the trouble of learning about them. But also we need to learn how to own pleasure. One of things I like to ask people to do is to list what is pleasurable to them outside of sex. And also what’s meaningful. Those are the things you want to work toward.
And for people who want to do this, masturbate. Explore your vulva and vagina. Get a mirror. Look at it. If you have a partner, get them to look at it. It’s not dirty. Your vulva and vagina is not dirty. Masturbation is healthy. And most importantly, if we learn to embrace our own sexuality and our sexual selves in a way that we find that honors ourselves, our beliefs and our boundaries, whether that’s spiritual, Christian, whatever you are—if we do that, we could decrease the orgasm gap. There’s an orgasm gap. Research shows that men in heterosexual relationships with straight women who are having sex, they orgasm almost every time they have sex, close to 95 percent of the time. Women on the other hand only orgasming about 65% of the time. Women in lesbian relationships orgasm closer to 87% of the time. Even gay men orgasm 89 percent of the time. So what that says is, we are not prioritizing women’s pleasure. It’s always been about the man’s pleasure. If we can own our own pleasure and demand our pleasure and make people respect our pleasure, then we’ll decrease the orgasm gap, our sexuality will be valued as a whole, we’ll have less sexually repressed people and also we’ll have people who are more prone to honor those boundaries, whether they’re spiritual, Christian or whatever, because now you feel like you have a place. You have a voice. And not only do you have a voice but your voice is heard, is valued and is respected.
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.