So, it seems that female masturbation is still a touchy subject. Tracey Emin apparently caused a tidal wave of chatter in the Twittersphere, when she turned the tables on Jenni Murray on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour last Thursday and became the interviewer: ‘Are you telling me you never masturbate Jenni?’ The audience response was such that Jenni and her guests revisited the subject yesterday, asking why it is that women find masturbation so hard to talk about.
The fact that Emin is still able to startle a hardened interviewer like Murray into the flustered, defensive ‘don’t even go there’ response, and that this brief bit of typical Tracey cheekiness earned attention from several national papers suggests that female masturbation is still a topic – or a behaviour – situated somewhere on the ‘scandalous’ scale. The flip side of this is that male masturbation is perceived as somehow more fully integrated into our culture at large. It seems that despite all of Charlotte, Miranda and particularly Samantha’s strenuous and persistent attempts, we still haven’t got the message – the ladies like a little alone time too. (Note Carrie’s absence from this list). It seems that no matter how much Tamsin Greig enjoys the Shipping Forecast (Black Books, Series 1, Ep. 5. – if you haven’t seen it, you have to!), she just can’t do the same for female self-pleasure as that infamous American Pie, and that pre-date stress relief in There’s Something About Mary did for male masturbation.
But hold on, aren’t we missing something here? Is it really fair to say that because lads mags are permeated with soft porn, because wanking jokes are a staple of stand-up, and because cinema unabashedly gives us scenes, comic, serious, sad, of men making the most of their anatomy, that men are more comfortable talking about masturbation? Is this what really counts as conversation? Just because the assumption is that every man does it, that it is an inherent part of a man’s nature, does that count as being able to discuss it? I’m pretty sure that you ask any group of boys, men, lads, blokes, gentlemen etc., to ‘talk’ about their own personal experience of masturbation in public, and you’ll be met with a red face and a knob gag.
While I wouldn’t dispute the fact that female masturbation is still on the list of ‘controversial’ topics for huge sections of society, it is equally important to be aware that in suggesting women find it particularly difficult to talk about, we are perpetuating the assumption that men have first dibs on all things sexual. More than that, we’re also reading the cultural noise surrounding male masturbation as men expressing themselves freely. This is potentially as restrictive and confusing as the absolute refusal to acknowledge the existence of masturbation, as both shut down space for discussion and leave those whose experiences don’t ‘fit’ the norms with which they’re presented feeling anything but free.
Generalisations such as ‘everyone does it’ aren’t as liberating as they sound either – what about the people who genuinely don’t? And just because ‘everyone does it,’ it doesn’t mean we all feel the same way about it. It’s a sure sign that these representations of masturbation aren’t liberating when we realise that kids of both sexes discovering masturbation are still haunted by those age-old myths of blindness, pregnancy and somehow ‘damaging’ their bodies in our apparently sexually open society.
For those of us who watched Sex and the City, we all knew Carrie had a vibrator, and we all assumed she was a fully paid up member of the ‘me time’ club, but unlike the others, Carrie never wanked in front of the camera. Carrie’s bashfulness speaks volumes. We, as a society, might be fully aware that everyone’s doing it, and we might even be openly applauding the fact that so many of us are comfortable in taking pleasure in our sexual skins. But that doesn’t mean that we’re ready as a culture to talk about it. And until we start really talking about it, let’s not assume that men are any more comfortable about talking masturbation just because Kleenex sell us man-size tissues.