Masturbation: the last great Asian sexual taboo, why it’s natural and why couples should talk about their needs in bed

Reaction to a scene involving an actress in a recent Bollywood film shows how far Asian societies still have to go in accepting sexual self-pleasure

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 June, 2018, 11:03am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 July, 2018, 4:12pm

It was one of the most sexually liberating screen moments in Hollywood history. Woody Allen declares in the 1977 romantic comedy Annie Hall, “Don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone you love.”

For people fighting for sexual rights and sexual equality in those days, it was a triumphant moment.

Fast forward to 2018, and a Bollywood movie covered the same topic, this time in a scene depicting an Indian woman caught masturbating by her husband. The ripple effect of the provocative scene has spread far and wide.

This is a bit of a Catch-22. We continuously read about how Hong Kong fares poorly in international sex rating polls – this could definitely have to do with sexual awareness
Jacqueline Chia

The film, which centres on four women and their attitudes towards sex, love and marriage, has raked in millions of dollars at box offices across the Western world and received rave reviews for making a powerful statement about female empowerment. But in India’s predominantly patriarchal Indian society, it has faced harsh criticism.

Actress Swara Bhasker has defended the behaviour of her character in the film and hit back vehemently at online abusers by emphasising the significance of respecting sexual rights and sexual privacy.

Such an instinctive human act shouldn’t need the recognition of establishments anywhere. It’s a private matter that concerns no one, as long as it’s done in one’s private space and, more importantly, it shouldn’t be degraded or judged, says Sara Tang, a pleasure coach and founder of Sarasense, a service offering sex and relationship advice.

“Masturbation was always disapproved of in my family … As a result of growing up in this kind of stifling environment, many Chinese and Asian women often feel ashamed about their genitals. This common attitude has forced many [Chinese and Asian women] to believe sexual organs are something that are ugly, foreign and off-limits, and hence they should be hidden away,” Tang says.

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Sexual self-gratification is still taboo and stigmatised to different degrees across cultures; advocates, though, believe it’s completely natural.

Jacqueline Chia, co-founder of Mozaic HK Ltd, a dating agency, says even in her native Canada, “masturbation is not a topic that is openly or commonly discussed amongst families and friends”.

“Asians may be more conservative, especially when it comes to women’s sexuality, but this is a bit of a Catch-22. We continuously read about how Hong Kong fares poorly in international sex rating polls – this could definitely have to do with sexual awareness,” Chia says.

One good first step is to change the conversation around masturbation to be more about individual health and personal well-being
Sara Tang

“Female masturbation helps women to be more comfortable with their bodies and sexually aware, which could translate into a more satisfying relationship and a higher level of intimacy with their partner.”

Vera Lui, owner of Sally’s Toys, an intimate lifestyle shop in Hong Kong, agrees that self-pleasure is the last great sexual taboo, because it is seen as abnormal in conservative Chinese culture.

“Some people still believe women use sex toys as a substitute for men. Self-gratification is often seen in a negative light – either the woman can’t get a man or she doesn’t feel satisfied by her lover. Some even see it as cheating,” says Lui.

In fact, Lui suggests couples should buy sex toys together and treat the shopping trip like a special date or maybe a form of foreplay.

Tang warns that young women will grow up feeling inhibited and insecure about enjoying sex later in life if they are being told all their lives that it’s wrong to seek self-pleasure. Such inhibition can cause sexual hang-ups throughout adulthood, she says.

She says a healthy amount of masturbation “provides a lot of physical, mental and sexual health benefits for women, such as relieving stress and menstrual cramps, helping one to sleep better, conditioning the pelvic floor, as well as improving body image [and] self-confidence, on top of being one of the safest forms of sexual expression”.

On the question of whether there is an appropriate age for women to explore self-pleasure, she says: “There’s no set or appropriate age. It’s an inherent, natural behaviour that isn’t learned. On the contrary, people need to learn not to cause embarrassment or show disapproval in their reaction.

“It’s especially important for parents to be supportive of their children and educate them that it’s a private behaviour that’s as natural as going to the bathroom.”

Some people still believe women use sex toys as a substitute for men
Vera Lui

Lui says self-pleasure is OK as long as it’s done in a private and safe environment. She says at a recent sex education workshop, she came across a mother who said she was mortified to find her eight-year-old son playing with himself in front of their domestic helper.

Her advice to the mother was, “First, we shouldn’t treat it as a problem … I told her to tackle it like a normal situation of a child growing up and being curious about their body. After the mother talked to the boy, he stopped doing it in the presence of other people.”

Tang believes Chinese culture is more accepting of men’s sexual desires than those of women, with the view that “boys will be boys” widespread. “Chinese men suffer less from the stigma [attached to self-pleasuring], but they’re not completely immune. Male masturbation still has this tag of ‘loser’ attached to it and is particularly associated with an inability to get a partner to have ‘real’ sex.”

On the other hand, she says, “there is much more emphasis on Chinese women being pure and remaining chaste otherwise it will ruin their reputation and chances of marriage”.

It looks like this last great sexual taboo is not going away easily. Couples need encouraging to be open with each other about their sexual needs, and individuals should learn to be more body- and sex- positive. Continuing to fight the idea that masturbation is natural will do more harm than good.

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“We need to talk about it,” Tang says. “For women, if you find a new vibrator or come across an amazing ethical porn site or some new audio erotica, then feel free to share it with your girlfriends.”

She adds: “Regardless of gender, there’s a huge opportunity for everyone to highlight the many benefits of masturbation, which are scientifically proven. One good first step is to change the conversation around masturbation to be more about individual health and personal well-being.”

Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post and a former sex talk-show host at DBC Radio