Woman’s Hour discussion: the “female masturbation” taboo

// 29 January 2012

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Jane Garvey in the radio studio.jpg

A guest post from Chrissy D, looking at how a discussion about masturbation on Woman’s Hour has caused outrage in the Daily Mail and the view of women this reaction reflects.

Like Ashley Fryer at The Huffington Post, I’m a little horrified be using the phrase female masturbation. Not particularly because of the shroud of taboo under which it is concealed, but because I’m uncomfortable with the implication that female sexuality is something separate and freakish, something other than normal: in the semantics of patriarchy, there’s masturbation, and there’s “female masturbation”.

The issue of female sexuality, and the extent to which it is allowed to be talked about (rather than sold – of course there is no limit to how, when or where it can be sold!) in the mainstream media, was raised again last month, on Woman’s Hour‘s best bits on 27 December. The programme included a segment in which Tracy Emin made a passing reference to masturbation and put Jane Garvey on the spot on the matter.

The Daily Mail, with its usual lack of sensitivity and inquisitiveness, amplified the dominant message that female masturbation isn’t something delicate media consumers want to hear about off guard, beginning with the rather presumptuous claim that “Female masturbation is not a topic many of us want to discuss over our morning coffee.” Yes, let’s start the day with male masturbation and let our food go down first before we talk about the possibility that women also might be partial to a bit of the same.

“‘Once it came on, I couldn’t cross the room to turn it off’, said one dismayed listener'”; the petrification power of “female masturbation” being so great as to make this person freeze on the spot at the very mention of it. This listener’s comment that “I’ve never heard such a deathly silence descend over the room” gave me flashbacks of the moment in The King’s Speech when Colin Firth tells the British public they are at war with Germany. Indeed, the idea of female sexuality unleashed in broad daylight was enough to inspire one listener to “wither and die”.

To suggest “any sexual act is a private matter” as the listener being quoted in the Daily Mail went on to do, is to confuse “private” with “commodifiable” in today’s hyper consumerist patriarchy. In the mainstream, female sexuality – independent of a male audience- is portrayed as a novelty, a freak show. At the extreme, it has even been seen as criminally deviant and “insane”.

Even Emin’s apparently controversial question to Garvey did little to suggest that a woman masturbating might be as casual and healthy as it is for a man. Women’s most intimate moments with themselves and their sexuality has been commodified by pornographers and a patriarchal system, which still only permits a woman to express her sexuality within a man’s line of sight.

Female sexuality is only acceptable if it can be sold. Lipstick lesbianism, warm-up masturbation, the many and varied types of porn depicting a patriarchal-fantasy version of female sexual pleasure is available for purchase, download and general consumption for a worldwide audience.

Only last week, Jay-Z (most recently of Beyonce fame) was said to have announced -with a poem- his intention to stop using the word ‘bitch’ in his lyrics. This suggests that Jay-Z has more control over the representation of women in mainstream media than women themselves. Women are not typically allowed to be sexual alone, apart from men. It is not female masturbation, but the entirely constructed social concept of a woman feeling sexual, rather than performing it, that is the taboo. Even lesbianism has been colonised by men.

To say that women’s masturbation is marginalized is a little inaccurate; indeed, the performance of it is widely bought and sold but with women receiving little of the capital from it. The coital imperative is the dominant image in our media and culture, along with the influence of pornography on mainstream media and “sexual aids” for women (i.e. vibrators etc) being the profit-making testament to it. And on that matter, as Suzi Godson said in the programme, “the actual act is not discussed (by women)”. 40 – 60% of UK women are said to own a vibrator but, of course, “none of those vibrators are being used for flower arranging”.

As John Stuart Mill wrote in 1869, “What is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing.” A woman being sexual is not a novelty, no more or less evil than the same feeling or act in a man. Mill wasn’t necessarily writing about female masturbation, but his words seem fitting here.

The manufactured taboo in relation to this subject, for as long as women are prevented from talking about it, continues. Pornographers and mainstream media will continue to package and sell a version of female sexuality and even the private realm of masturbation is still not owned by women. The media can sell it, doctor it, replicate it – but women still aren’t supposed to mention it before Louboutins and cocktails.

Photo of Jane Garvey in the Studio by BBC Radio 4, shared under a creative commons licence.

Comments From You

Ania Ostrowska // Posted 29 January 2012 at 5:20 pm

In my personal experience (as well as that of my female friends, of manifold sexual denominations) “masturbation” and “sex toys” go together rather well.

If I were inclined to handicraft, I would surely manufacture a customised dildo; as I’m not, I pay for them, trying to make sure as many women as possible benefit financially from my purchases (e. g. buying from women-run sex shops, like Sh!).

Obviously, they are not *necessary* for the act but I wouldn’t demonise them.

Tom Midlane // Posted 30 January 2012 at 11:57 am

“And on that matter, as Suzi Godson said in the programme, “the actual act is not discussed (by women)”.”

Hmmm. I’m really not sure about this. Most of my female friends are happy to admit they own a vibrator and that they masturbate. I guess most women don’t discuss the nitty-gritty, but then men don’t tend to compare masturbation techniques with each other down the pub over a pint either.

Holly Combe // Posted 6 February 2012 at 12:22 pm

@Tom Midlane. While I agree the “nitty gritty” of techniques isn’t something women or men are generally expected to discuss openly in public, I do think there are different expectations of us. After all, we still live with the legacy of a gender dichotomy where men’s masturbation and autonomous sexuality is traditionally taken as a given but women’s is not. Doesn’t this mean that the terms within which women and men are expected to talk about masturbation are often very different?

We surely know that men are not automatic raging sex machines (without sexual complexity) and women are not automatic passive receptacles for those apparent needs (without desires that are just our own) but the media seems determined to play this stereotype out. Under this dichotomy, women’s masturbation is not taken as a given. It is presented as exotic, titillating and less usual and therefore suspected to be a performance for someone else’s arousal. Meanwhile, men’s masturbation is commonly framed as distasteful but essential. (From what I’ve seen, any suggestion that a man may not do it is typically met with scoffing and disbelief!)

Thankfully, as your example possibly demonstrates, there are times when enlightened friends in mixed groups are *all* at liberty to refer to the solo side of their sex lives in a banal and passing fashion. However, it seems to me that there are many settings where this equality doesn’t exist. Women are still framed as “other” and I reckon this often means the socially acceptable options are for us to either pretend we don’t wank at all or make the discussion as titillating as possible.

Ania Ostrowska // Posted 6 February 2012 at 1:35 pm

I was wondering, perhaps we should run a weekly column called “Your masturbation stories”?

To break the taboo.

Holly Combe // Posted 6 February 2012 at 6:26 pm

@Ania. Well, at the risk of sounding like an indulgent “fun feminist”, I’m always up for chatting about wanking but I guess that would be a tough one to run without

a) attracting ridicule on the basis that men somehow “wouldn’t talk about it in that way”. (Of course, it stands to reason that having your masturbatory life taken as a given by society means you aren’t going to require special space to talk about it. Also, funny stories about finding tea and biscuits on the side after cracking one off are commonplace for men anyway.)

b) being perceived to be pandering to raunch culture.

Actually, I care much less about the second one, as I think neutralising the significance of the possible male spectator is an important part of having these kinds of discussions on our own terms. What dudes think either way would not be the point!

Ania Ostrowska // Posted 7 February 2012 at 11:01 am

@Holly: obviously, my column suggestion was half-joking ;)

However, from the perspective of good sex education for women, the main target seems to be as many happily orgasming masturbating women as possible. Indeed, many women own and use vibrators; however, far too many women do not masturbate/ come at all or very very seldom.

The way I see it, any material (and sometimes the boundary between the educational and the commercial is blurry) that helps women discover their bodies and have fun with them is good. So if side effect of texts/pictues/campaigns encouraging women to masturbate (or openly talk about it) is men ridiculing such material or wanking to it, I would say: let them do that. This is not the point of it and frankly, who cares.

The problem with “pandering to raunch culture” argument is such that even though we agree that sexuality (especially female sexuality, but also more broadly heterosexuality) has been ‘hijacked’ or ‘colonised’ by patriarchal/male-dominated/raunch culture, we will never agree what to do with this colonisation.

I will always say: reclaim it, show it, exhibit it, talk about it, play with it, sex is not the enemy. If you’ve had a great wank and want to share it on the morning radio show, go for it. Don’t worry about spoiling anybody’s breakfast, a dismayed listener can always turn the radio off.

Or make her/himself another bowl of porridge for that matter.

Chrissy D // Posted 7 February 2012 at 9:50 pm

Great comments – and for once I have nothing to add, except to agree that it is hard to agree on what to do with the colonisation. For mainstream culture to ‘admit’ that female sexuality exists away from patriarchial line of sight is the starting point, though, in my opinion. And yes there is the occasional, novel discussion about a ‘true’ version of female sexuality in our mainstream media, but not often, so keeping this discourse open (or opening it more fully) is also vital.

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