The Pain and Guilt of Pleasure

by Naima Khan


I was 14 when I had my first orgasm. It happened by accident and I was completely unprepared. I wasn’t precocious as a teenager. At that stage, other girls were starting to grow into their adult bodies and learning the ways in which their clothes and mannerisms affected the boys around them. I was preoccupied with school and never even thought of boys as anything but a mild nuisance. 

Then one night, while I was in my room rocking against a pillow during some game, something suddenly gushed from between my legs. The pillow was soaking wet. No one was around at the time, but I still felt embarrassed. I didn’t understand what had happened and managed to convince myself in the immediate aftermath that I had peed. But over the following weeks, the memory of the tension and heat I had felt in my belly lingered, and I started chasing that feeling.

My initial forays into self-pleasure started with the same fully-clothed gentle rocking that got me there the first time. Gradually, my body grew hungry for more and I started exploring with water jets, sliding objects against my skin, and finally using my fingers for stimulation. It was fun, it felt great, it helped me unwind when I was stressed or helped me sleep when I had trouble dozing off. I also just loved having that time to myself. But even at that time, I knew that there was something dark and shameful and dirty about the pleasure I was giving myself.

I knew that having sex outside of marriage was a terrible sin which would result in eternal damnation, but I also knew that masturbating to provide myself with relief was probably not allowed either (a conclusion that I had to reach myself based on all the online literature which only addressed men’s needs, as if women were not capable of feeling the urge to have sex). I didn’t know what I was supposed to do because there seemed to be no acceptable way for me to deal with those urges apart from fasting and praying them away or getting married.

I was raised in a conservative Muslim household where just the thought of sex felt sinful, so talking about these new feelings to my parents was entirely out of the question. It didn’t help that the only times I ever heard discussions (even tangentially) related to sexuality was when we discussed those girls – the ones who had been up late taking to boys, or who had worn that extra short skirt to attract male attention, or (heaven forbid) had kissed their boyfriends in hushed judgemental tones. The message was clear – only “bad girls” had these feelings or did anything about them, and I didn’t want to be a bad girl.

But I also had no other way to understand what was happening to my body: all the sex education I had received in school was primarily abstinence-focused and convinced me that sex (and any form of sexual pleasure or experimentation) was bad and should be avoided at all cost. There was no easily accessible information, I didn’t feel like I could talk to any of my sisters, I had no mentors (Muslim or otherwise) that I could confide in, and none of my friends ever even hinted at that desperate hunger I kept feeling.

I started to feel isolated in my experience and was convinced that something was terribly wrong with me – there must have been some kind of genetic or hormonal anomaly which was causing me to feel that way when no one else around me did. Maybe I wasn’t praying enough. Maybe my iman (faith) wasn’t strong enough. So I prayed and prayed for God to take away those feelings and help me stay pure but nothing really changed. For years, every self-induced climax was chased by an equally intense feeling of shame and guilt and that I had let my family and my God down.

I never spoke about any of these things until I was well into my 20s. Then one night, many years later, a friend secretly confided in me that she had sex with her boyfriend. Through tears, she told me about how she had been plagued with the same guilt that I had suffered, that it felt so natural to express her love for him physically, how good it felt, how she wanted to stop but didn’t know how, and that was worried that God wouldn’t ever love her again. I was shocked by how frank she was about it, and how honest she was despite her apparent embarrassment. But hearing someone else talk about sex so bravely and honestly finally gave me the permission to discuss and confront my own experiences.

As we clung on to each other for hours, sobbing through the pain that we had both carried alone for so long, we talked about our bodies, our emotions and our relationships with God. We didn’t have any concrete answers then, but knowing that I had someone who understood and been through the same things took such a huge weight off my shoulders.

 That night was the first step in my journey of forgiving myself and reconciling my sexuality with my faith. It has taken me years, and I’m still in the process of learning and growing through it, but it took that one radical act of honesty and trust for me to confront my own actions, feelings and fears. 

That’s why I’m writing this even though it is difficult and it makes me feel exposed. I know that so many of us, including my sisters and my friends, have probably been struggling with these issues in silence without the benefit of each other for support. I want the other women reading this to know that they aren’t deviant freaks and that they aren’t alone in their experiences. I hope this piece helps them start these difficult conversations with the women around them.


Naima is a young professional who is learning to find her place in the working world and in the grander scheme of things.

Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu