Soraya Roberts | Longreads | February 2019 | 9 minutes (2,569 words)
There was a time when people believed masturbating would leave them blind, hairy-palmed, and STD-riddled (okay, the last one was me — I was a kid in the nineties). The ancient Sumerians were down with it — for both men and women — but two centuries of moralists ruined masturbation for everyone. Even now, the act isn’t especially celebrated, particularly if you’re a girl. It’s hard not to think of boys specifically when studies show that kids learn to jerk off from their friends and the media, rather than from their parents or schools. And while I can’t think of one teen movie where a boy isn’t caught with their hands full (of semen), I can barely think of one where a girl is. I read Deenie like everyone else — apparently Judy Blume’s balls-out approach to female masturbation is still rare in YA 46 years later — but there was a dearth of girls getting themselves off in pop culture and, perhaps accordingly, a dearth of girls talking about it in my actual life. This made me feel all those things that have since become stereotypical themes when it comes to women and masturbation: shame, guilt, like there was something wrong with me.
It sucked for me, but it sucks less for girls who get to watch Sex Education. Midway through the British Netflix series about a teenager named Otis (Asa Butterfield), who becomes the unofficial sex therapist of his high school, the resident bombshell, Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) — “I always have a boyfriend” — appears at Otis’ locker, her hair tousled, a satisfied, drugged look on her face. It’s the post-coital look of a person who’s just had a proper fuck — and she has, sort of. “I’ve been wanking all night,” she drawls. “I ate four packets of crumpets and I think my clit might drop off. But I know exactly what I want.” So! Rewind to the day before. Aimee is telling Otis that the boy she’s having sex with has interrupted her demands — “Do you want to cum on my face? What about my tits, then?” — to ask her what she wants. “I don’t know what I want!” she laments to Dr. Otis. “No one’s ever asked me that before!” He tells her to think about what she enjoys doing on her own, but she doesn’t know. She’s never done “that.” So….“So you’re prescribing a wank.” So, in her very pink room, in her very rainbow unicorn undies, she lies on her back, reaches down and… suddenly she’s doing it everywhere. And I mean everywhere: On her back! On her stomach! At the mirror! On a pillow! On the couch! Yes! This is the most sexually satisfied we have seen her in the entire series!
Sex Education started out as a joke — the kid of a professional sex therapist becomes a sex therapist himself — but creator Laurie Nunn and her predominantly female writers fleshed it out, so to speak, to add more potency. “I realized it was an interesting way to have frank, non-judgmental conversations with a teen audience about sex,” she told The Guardian, “but always in a light-hearted way.” In an interview with Teen Vogue, Aimee Lou Wood recalled how taboo masturbation was for girls in her high school. “It’s just so weird because you would hear boys talking about, ‘Oh, I watched this video last night. I had the best wank,’” she said. “They’d be shameless about it at school, and it was all the girls being like, ‘I don’t know what that is. We don’t masturbate.’” She felt “honored” to play a part in debunking that myth.
It’s a myth that is increasingly being confronted by popular culture — Big Mouth on Netflix, Hulu’s PEN15, and even a wink in Bo Burnham’s film Eighth Grade are all normalizing female masturbation at its pubescent source. This is partly down to the less rigid content rules of online platforms, partly to the growing number of women behind the scenes, partly to our collective increased awareness of how women and girls have been ill served by popular culture. Girls are also ill-served by the lack of representation of female masturbation, considering that studies have shown its correlation to positive sexual experiences later on. While up to the age of 10, the sexual behaviors of girls and boys have been found to be fairly similar, a 2011 survey of adolescent sexual behavior (14 to 17) revealed that 62.6% of boys had masturbated at least once in their lives compared to only 43.3% of girls. While the authors of the study theorized about hormonal influences and physical differences (sexual pleasure is harder to come by for girls), they also addressed the likelihood of “strong influences of society and culture, best expressed by a sexual double standard that condones male sexual expressions and suppresses female sexuality.” In other words, it is hard to blame the lower rate of female masturbation on physiology alone when men are not only more socialized to do it, but to talk about it.
During the second-wave feminist movement, onanism became synonymous with women reclaiming ownership of their own bodies. It undermined the patriarchal tradition of not only sex as solely something that happens with the opposite sex, but sex for the purposes of procreation only. In 1987, feminist sex educator Betty Dodson would publish the seminal self-fap guide Sex for One: The Joys of Selfloving, and claim, “the best news of this decade is that we can have all the sex we want on our own terms with someone we love who will never abandon us once we embrace selfloving.” This was not however the best news for Tipper Gore, who didn’t think her 11-year-old daughter needed to know about masturbation, especially from a sexually-fluid funk unicorn like Prince. She established the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) — the source of those bad-ass Parental Advisory stickers you probably don’t remember seeing on compact discs because everyone’s a millennial but me — after hearing “Darling Nikki,” Prince’s 1984 grinder about a girl who is also a “sex fiend” because she masturbates to a magazine. PMRC subsequently released a Filthy Fifteen list — Oui, merci! — which included Cyndi Lauper’s synth-jam “She Bop” from the year prior, in which she bops, “They say I better stop or I’ll go blind.”
Gore’s move was reactionary and tone deaf, but it left enough of an impression that as recently as 2015 Carly Rae Jepsen sheepishly nixed a song about masturbation from her album E•MO•TION. This was 25 years after Divinyls’ Christina Amphlett had already moaned “I Touch Myself” and a string of teen-facing pop stars — Britney Spears, Pink, CharliXCX — had taken her cue, though with a slightly less palm-licking energy. The same year Jepsen hesitated, 19-year-old Hailee Steinfeld innuendo’d that the kids were moving faster when she released her first single, “Love Myself”: “I’m gonna put my body first/And love me so hard ‘til it hurts” (in the video, her leotard reads Self Service). Jepsen finally caved last year and dropped “Party for One” — “Making love to myself/Back on my beat” — and even though it took her a while, it lubed up the act of female masturbation with a festive sheen, its confetti orgy at least partially eclipsing Prince’s outdated print fornicator.
Girls’ sexuality wasn’t solely policed by politics in the realm of music, either. In 1966, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) hired President Lyndon Johnson’s former aide, Jack Valenti, who proceeded to reinvent the ratings system in order to, among other things, protect children’s morals. Critics saw the system — which privileged studios over indies that didn’t have the money to shape their films to appease the MPAA and ensure a larger audience — as “censorship in the guise of ratings.” What that meant for masturbation was what that meant for sex (which was always the point anyway): Naughty boys want it, good girls are the object of it.
So, unless you wanted to be the 12-year-old girl from The Exorcist possessed by the devil stabbing her vagina
with a crucifix — “Let Jesus fuck you!” — or the sexpot exchange student in American Pie getting off to her study date’s porn while his friends watched (or the band camp weirdo using her flute as a dildo), you were stuck with independent movies. The indies were where women like Tamara Jenkins were sequestered by the chauvinistic studio system, making small films that no one saw, with progressive representations of girls no one saw. Jenkins’ 1998 comedy Slums of Beverly Hills, for instance, starred Natasha Lyonne as a lower-class Jewish 14-year-old coming of age in the seventies who gets off with the biggest vibrator I’ve ever seen (Lyonne deserves extra credit for also playing a masturbating teen in But I’m a Cheerleader, which was also made by a woman). European films were better — Turn Me on, Dammit! Wetlands, Blue Is the Warmest Colour — but even then, masturbation by girls leaned pathological with hetero sex being the normalized preference.
But the worst representation of teen girl self-love has always been television. If you don’t count the cast of Beverly Hills, 90210 yelling “Donna Martin masturbates” as a prank in 1993, teen shows have mostly been an onani desert. While sex was a regular talking point on Dawson’s Creek, which aired on The WB — a station specifically aimed at teens — the 1998 pilot wouldn’t even allow its male cast members to use the word masturbate. (Remember when Dawson had to “walk the dog” like he even knew what an orgasm was?) Even in the ostensibly feminist Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there was only an indirect reference to girl-on-self when, in the last season (airing in 2003 on UPN), one character asks another, “Why can’t you just masturbate like the rest of us?” In 2008, Bitch magazine praised Gossip Girl for showing Blair in bed fantasizing about Chuck before a housekeeper interrupted her solo-coitus, but only a year later Secret Life of an American Teenager star Megan Park told E! News that ABC Family viewers would be “shocked” by her character starting a club called “Just Say Me,” which encouraged female masturbation (the obscenely lame name of that club didn’t seem to bother her, for some reason).
Online platforms have, however, offered something of a self-gratified girl oasis. In 2016, when Degrassi moved to Netflix, executive producer Stephen Stohn admitted that network execs had been pressuring them to go safe. “This year,” he told The Hollywood Reporter,” we can tell stories about female masturbation.”
When you marry a streaming service to animation, you can get even more explicit. In the first season of Big Mouth, the Netflix series about a group of pubescent hormone monsters (both literally and figuratively, in the form of teenagers), the episode titled “Girls Are Horny Too” has Jessi being encouraged to masturbate by her vagina (voiced by Kristen Wiig — I wish my vagina was voiced by Kristen Wiig). According to writer Emily Altman, the show actually took a while to settle on a vagina. “It’s funny because we didn’t have intense conversations about the penises,” she told Refinery 29. It’s less funny when you think about how many spray-painted cocks you see on a daily basis (pretty sure I’ve NEVER seen vulva graffiti).
The next season followed up this climax with Missy getting “full blown glitter tummy” from “wiggling” with her “Glow-it worm.” A Shame Wizard haunting the entire school tricks her into taking the doll to a sleepover at the school gym, where she is then found in flagrante solo. “Oh my god, Missy’s, like, jerking off, she’s such a horny spaz, you guys!” a classmate says to cacophonous laughter. When her friend Andrew checks on her later, she calls herself “the biggest perv in the world” to which he responds, making her feel better: “What? That’s impossible! You can’t be the biggest perv in the world! You’re looking at him!” Though Big Mouth was created by Nick Kroll and his childhood BFF Andrew Goldberg, the writing room’s man-to-woman ratio is 50/50. “There’s a lot about girls and puberty and sex that doesn’t get discussed in the way that boys talk about it,” executive producer Jennifer Flackett told Refinery 29. “We really wanted to give a voice to it.”
The best way to remove the shame of masturbation among girls (and, later, women) is to be open about it. That was the aim for Maya Erskine, whose Hulu show with Anna Konkle, PEN15, has the two of them (well out of their teens) playing 13-year-olds. In the third episode, Maya’s pulsating vulva — the best depiction of a female erection I’ve ever seen — after she makes her My Little Ponys kiss, leads her to start masturbating (non-stop, as though in a trance, including a make out session with a Brad Renfro poster — the show takes place in the year 2000). At one point, the ghost of her grandfather appears, a manifestation of her shame, which grows more defined the more she masturbates despite her male classmates, like Sam, openly discussing their jack-off sessions. Eventually Maya bursts out crying in front of Anna before confessing: “I’m like Sam, only I’m grosser ‘cause I’m a girl and I’m a pervert.” But then Anna admits she does the same thing in bed. “And you don’t feel gross?” Maya asks through her tears, to which her friend responds, “How gross can I feel if you do it too?” For Erskine, the goal of the episode was twofold: to make girls feel less alone, and to remove the negativity from female masturbation. “No one talked about it,” Erskine has said, “And so it just shut me up for so long.” After she talks to her best friend, Maya’s grandfather disappears — their openness effaces the shame. The next time she masturbates, she does it in peace.
Like the women who wrote PEN15 and Sex Education and Big Mouth, I see now how distorted my view of masturbation was as a girl. And though I can’t say how their sexual lives might have been affected, I would probably not have been so fearful of sex had their storylines on the misplaced shame and guilt associated with female masturbation been available to me and my friends. But girls now have more chances to learn what I didn’t. The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film reported that in 2016, the prevalence of girls’ speaking roles in movies was almost equal to boys’ (48.2 percent). And while USC Annenberg’s report on diversity in entertainment found that in 2018 girls and women only made up 33.5 percent of all speaking characters in television shows, the center also discovered that more women direct (12 percent) on streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu than on film (4 percent), if not on network and cable. Which is to say that even though Bo Burnham had his 15-year-old Eighth Grade star Elsie Fisher kissing her hand in bed while scrolling through photos of her on-screen crush, she threw the phone across the room — eff off, dad — before she had the chance to go any further. Through the eyes of a woman, who knows where her hands would have gone, and who knows how many girls like Fisher that would have helped.
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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.