I have trouble talking about sex. It’s a very present issue in my life, and I’m currently in therapy learning how to unravel the network of shame I’ve built around sexuality. Phew, glad we got that out there.
My relationship with sex has always been rocky. In high school, I felt shameful for wanting it—with women—so I repressed any real desire I felt. Even when I started dating women in my early twenties, it wasn’t some glorious sexual liberation; I retreated even further into my sexual shell, battling my own internalized homophobia. I figured my heterosexual friends wouldn’t want to hear about my sexual encounters with other women. My sex life was a dirty little secret. I wasn’t being totally transparent with my sexual partners either when it came to what I wanted and what felt good in bed—whether it was my inability to vocalize what position I liked best, or feeling scared to say “I’m too tired tonight.” I still struggle with that.
I desperately wish I was one of those hyper-empowered, sex-positive feminists, but I’m not. I mean, that’s the end goal—but after growing up repressed and feeling utterly embarrassed about my sexual desires, I’m just not there yet. I am trying. Therapy has been helpful. So has watching women own their sexuality in pop culture.
Over the past few years, a wave of female-driven movies and TV shows have started to normalize the development of female pleasure—like Pen15’s cringeworthy flirtations with adolescent desire, Blockers showing teenage girls asking for oral sex, or Outlander’s pioneering scenes that shifted focus from the male orgasm to the female orgasm on screen. But never have I felt so personally seen than when watching Booksmart, the teenage sex comedy directed by Olivia Wilde. In case you missed it, the Superbad-esque storyline follows out teenage lesbian, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), grappling with her virginity and sexual firsts.
One scene stood out to me as especially cringeworthy, probably because it hit me where it hurt—smack dab in my own sexual embarrassment center. It was the moment when Amy, budding young lesbian, reveals she’s been humping her stuffed panda. Yes, masturbating with a stuffed animal.
Allow me to explain. While in her bedroom, Amy opens up to her best friend Molly (Beanie Feldstein) about her fear surrounding sleeping with a girl for the first time—she doesn’t know how to do it. Molly suggests that Amy take her hand the way she would masturbate, and simply “flip it.” Amy says, “What if I don’t use my hands?” As she suspiciously eyes a corner of her room, Molly guesses what Amy uses to masturbate, and Amy cringes, begging her to stop: “Can we just stop talking about this, please? For the love of all things!” Relatable. Finally, Amy admits, “It’s the panda, ok?!” Molly doesn’t shame her, but she does poke fun at the ridiculousness of the scenario: “Does she talk dirty to you? Tell you about how she’s endangered?”
This scene had me reliving my sexual shame all over again—because I can relate. I’ve never admitted this out loud, or written it down, or told another soul, but when I was a pre-teen…I used to masturbate by humping a vibrating pillow. It was hot pink and squishy and was meant to be a massage pillow and I stained it from…well, you get it.
This is mortifying to admit, let alone publish. But honestly, the Booksmart scene between Amy and Molly made me feel so much better about my own past. Clearly I’m not as weird and alone as I thought I was for the past decade and a half. For 15 years I’ve been carrying this well of shame about early masturbation because I was completely alone in learning how to masturbate. I had no idea what was normal—I just assumed I was some sort of freak.