Like most other women who bought their first thongs sometime in the early 2000s, I found PEN15—a new Netflix series about, basically, being a seventh grade girl—to be relatable as hell (like, painfully so). When Maya and Anna, the show's 31-year-old protagonists LARPing as their teenage selves, walked into their new middle school for the first time, my armpits reflexively started sweating. I gasped when the girls pulled out a journal filled with the AIM screen names of their classmates. And I gasped even louder when they hoisted their wildly hairy legs over the edge of a shared bathtub to shave their legs (below the knees) for the first time.
But one episode didn't ring as true to my own 13-year-old experience, and it makes me extremely jealous of Maya and Anna's fictional world. It's the third in the season and it's about when Maya, through some accident of hand placement, figures out that masturbating is a thing and obsesses over finding time to sneak it in. At the episode's end, Maya tearfully explains to Anna that masturbating is why she's been such a dodgy friend lately, and the two bond over their shared relief that if they both do it, that must mean they're not "gross."
The TV show about my own experience with masturbation at 13 would've been a whole lot of nothing, except the time a very brave boy raised his hand in teen church and asked the youth pastor if it was allowed (no). Touching ourselves in "our areas," as Maya innocently and delicately puts it, was never fodder at my own sleepovers. It wasn't until I was in my early 20s—a whole high school degree older than PEN15's characters—that I had my first similar conversation with some girlfriends. A cursed side effect of growing up in the Evangelical south (or really anywhere) as a teen girl means a lifetime of unraveling the shameful bullshit you feel about being a woman who gets horny (hence Maya's tears and her concerns that she was "a pervert"). As soon as I heard friends say they were also doing this secret thing, a little bit of that shame went away.
Research shows that women tend to talk about sex with friends more than men do, with the sole exception of masturbation. My friends and I support that stat: While we talked all the time about the (disappointing) sex we were having with other people, it took us several years of hanging out almost every day (plus a drained bottle of warm wine) to finally broach the masty chat. That could be because, as Ann Friedman wrote in the Cut in 2012, masturbation is one of the last remaining sex taboos for women. We're cool with admitting that we both have and want sex, but something about centering the pleasure conversation on solo sex makes people squeamish.
Even in the most progressive households, it's rare that a sex talk covers pleasure and masturbation beyond "do it in private," says Sandi Kaufman, LCSW, a sex therapist in New York. "There's a lack of education around it in childhood. It really is a hidden phenomenon," Kaufman says. "I read a statistic recently that 95 percent of people have masturbated at one point in their lives, but it's probably the least talked about thing."
Yes, you can go online and read all the sex tips and masturbation hoorah essays that exist, but that doesn't carry the same weight as hearing your friends talk about the same things. The same study that noted how low masturbation chat is among women ultimately found that friends have an extremely influential role on your own sexual attitude. Kaufman gave the example of sitting with some female friends about 15 years ago, when someone brought up all the anal sex she was having and how much she loved it.
"I was shocked—it was like, wow, people never talk about it," Kaufman remembers. "It was helpful to hear that these women enjoyed it, because a lot of what you hear about anal sex is it's painful or not fun."
It'd be better for everyone if masturbation conversations happened the same way. Not to prove that using a vibrator isn't painful (although some people may think that, who knows?), but because, as Kaufman says, talking to friends about sex is what "breaks apart taboos." The increase in pop songs about throwing a "Party for One" is one thing, but talking about that party with your friends? That's even better.
It may not have been when we were 13, but I'm glad my friends and I eventually had our own late-in-life pinky-swear moments like Maya and Anna's. Half of my experience with female solidarity is just reassuring other women that we're not gross for doing totally normal things. The chats we have now about the strangest and best vibrators we use or whether it's possible to burn your own clit off are some of my favorites. Just like the first time we all huddled around a bottle of empty wine and disclosed our most private habits, I still feel the lifelong stigma slipping away with each conversation. While most of PEN15 is a delightful and painful reminiscence on the cargo capris of the past, I hope the gentle support of sexuality in the third episode is a sign of things to come. Just maybe without the braces.