The double standards that treat female and male pleasure differently are sadly common on all sides of the world, but in some cultures, they can affect women+ even harder than what we are used to on this side of the world. Acclaimed vlogger and Forbes 30u30 recipient Catherine Harry accepted our invitation to join our #MasturbationConversations to tell us about her valuable work of bringing up discussions about "taboo" topics such as masturbation and encouraging other Cambodian women to practice self pleasure for their enjoyment and empowerment, rather than to please their husbands. Subscribe here to receive a notification when our new Masturbation Conversations mini doc is released on May 27th & watch a free movie while you wait!
There is no word for “female masturbation” in Khmer. Female masturbation was simply not a thing in our culture when I was growing up and it is still considered a taboo. When I posted a vlog about masturbation on my YouTube channel in 2017, the video was viewed over half a million times and I was met with national outrage. Masturbation is about self-love and bodily autonomy. It is a form of love and pleasure that no one can take away from you and I believe every person deserves to know this kind of freedom.
I was fifteen years old, sitting in class when I heard my male classmates whispering none-too-quietly about the pornographic videos on their phones. They teased each other about “shooting geckos”, a euphemism in Khmer (the official and national language of my home country Cambodia) that I later learned means masturbation. Our other classmates must have overheard, some boys were sneaking a peek, but no one seemed to be outraged by the conversation.
Boys masturbate. That was what we were taught. It was almost as if it was a rite of passage—something that all boys do as they grow into maturity. I accepted it because I was never taught otherwise. It wasn’t until much later, when I began to discover my own sexuality, that I realized no one had ever talked to me about female masturbation.
There’s no need to look further than the language that we use. “Shooting geckos” implies the act of ejaculation for those with a penis, but there’s no equivalence of that for people with a vulva in Khmer. There’s no word for “flicking the bean” or other numerous euphemisms available in English. Female masturbation was simply not a thing in our culture.
I actively saw pornography for the first time at a very young age when I stumbled upon my father’s stash, hiding precariously away in his drawer. But it wasn’t until I was sixteen that I began exploring my body, my sexuality, and what masturbation was. Perhaps it was my curious nature that left me to my early discovery of sex, but I would pin it down to the lack of comprehensive sex education that I received in school that piqued my curiosity even more. There were lessons about puberty in sixth grade, and there were chapters about safe sex sprinkled sparingly throughout my high school textbooks, but the teachers refused to go into details about them. Children shouldn’t learn about sex, we were told. Learning about sex would lead young people to have sex, especially premarital sex, which is a stain on a woman’s dignity. A woman’s dignity was often linked to the metaphor of a white cloth that can’t be wiped clean once it has been stained.
Cambodian women are taught to be gentle, submissive, and to please their husbands—another heteronormative idea that I’ve been trying to dismantle in my work. Be that as it may, women aren’t allowed to have sexual desires. We’re not supposed to want sex, because our body is to be given away and pleasure is not something that we can expect to receive from our partner in return. The only women who are allowed to desire sex are “sluts” or sex workers. Basically, women who are not considered “marriage material” in the eyes of society.
I once spoke to my colleague, who was counting down the days to her wedding, about how she felt about her looming honeymoon night. She said her mother told her to endure whatever she could because it was her obligation as her partner’s soon-to-be wife. It broke my heart that a highly educated, intelligent and independent woman like her would be conditioned into thinking that acts of intimacy were something to be endured rather than enjoyed. This kind of mentality has led to shame from girls and women growing up as they shy away from even the mere thought of touching themselves for non-sexual reasons, let alone to masturbate.
When I posted a vlog about masturbation on my YouTube channel in 2017, I was met with outrage. A prominent filmmaker in Cambodia called for the government to ban my page, saying that I was encouraging young people to masturbate. I suppose he meant I encourage women to masturbate because the fact that men masturbate has never been a secret. The video has been viewed half a million times. In 2020, I did another video specifically about female masturbation that was viewed 2.7 million times. Although this time, I noticed that the reactions I received were quite different. Within the three years, sex has been talked about a little more openly. Progress has been made, albeit slower than I would like. People have gotten used to me talking week after week about taboo and risqué topics.
Nonetheless, we still have a long way to go. Women’s sexuality is still shamed and suppressed. While pornography isn’t illegal in Cambodia, sex toys are. A few years back, I remember reading an article about sex toys being confiscated by the authorities. The reason for that was that sex toys were against our culture and were believed to encourage sexual assault. I doubt our Khmer ancestors were thinking about sex toys, and as someone who’s dedicated years of her life working on and studying sexual gender-based violence, I know the reasons why perpetrators commit sexual violence, and sex toys are not one of them. I also know that sex toys are a tool for female empowerment because they allow women to discover their body and find out what gives them pleasure in the comfort of their own private space and on their own terms. It’s an integral part of the second-wave feminist movement. It’s bodily autonomy. By criminalizing sex toys, women have one less way to seek pleasure for themselves.
Within the past 10 years, I have brought up discussions about sex, starting from a small blog to weekly vlogs five years ago. I’m a feminist, and I believe some of the key elements of feminism are the freedom to learn about sex, exercise our bodily autonomy, and to explore our sexuality. I didn’t have the tools to do that when I was young. My journey was through trials and errors, and I was fortunate enough to have the resources to find my own path. But it wasn’t an easy one. I started A Dose of Cath because I wanted to pave a way for people, especially young people, to own their sex life and stumble as little as possible along the way. I don’t want young girls to learn about safe sex after they become unintentionally pregnant, and I don’t want a woman to spend her entire life not knowing the earthshaking feeling of an orgasm. And thus, A Dose of Cath was born.
However, I see hope in the future. I see more and more young women creating their own platforms to talk about pleasure, menstruation, contraception and safe sex. I see young people coming out as LGBTIQ+. And I see young women talking about sex in ways that I never saw before. If there’s one thing that I hope people will take away from my videos, it’s that I want them to know that their body is their own to explore and discover, to love and to find pleasure in. Self-love is a form of love that no one else can take away from you.
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