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Gender + Sexuality

Everywhere You Look, Sisters Are Doing It to Themselves

Sex, that is. Masturbation, we mean.

By Dorothy Woodend 11 Jul 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

Between the ongoing war on women, the Jeffrey Epstein case and creepy trolls everywhere, it’s been a hell of a week. Women could use a little self-love, and by that I mean masturbation.

The act has come out the shadows and into the spotlight, taking centre stage in films, magazines, television shows and music videos. Fleabag, Broad City, Big Mouth, PEN15, The Shape of Water, Princess Cyd, Booksmart, Teen Vogue — everywhere you look sisters are doing it for themselves.

But just when the entire globe seems poised on the verge of a glorious climax, trust the conservatives to find a way to kill the buzz. A recent op-ed in the American Conservative took aim at young women learning to please themselves.

“Masturbation will not help you get an A in algebra, stop your parents from splitting up, get you the lead part in the school play, supersize your Instagram following, or keep Becky off your back. What’s next: launching successful social justice reforms through orgasms?” wrote Libby Emmons.

Dang, Emmons, you just called my Saturday night plans. But I digress.

The American Conservative critique was prompted by an article in Teen Vogue magazine that suggested young women use orgasms to “help manifest desires and bring forth dreams.”

It was a wee bit of woo-woo, but the underlying idea that gaining a greater sense of independence through understanding your own body is both reasonable and helpful.

This isn’t the first time that Teen Vogue has incited the ire of conservative forces. The publication has established itself as a flag-waving, horn-blowing proponent of the right of women to a happy, healthy and joyous sex life. The magazine has been downright radical in this aspect, blazing a trail with articles about everything from anal sex to the idea that sex work is actually work.

The American Conservative article, with its finger-wagging, hectoring tone revealed an interesting reality. Namely, that the personal and the political are so intimately intertwined at the moment that you need a crowbar to pry them apart.

If TV shows like Fleabag and Broad City are any indication, masturbation has become something of a political act. In the BBC series, our Lady Fleabag is caught pleasuring herself to a speech from Barack Obama, while in Broad City, Ilana, patron saint of polyamory, loses her ability to achieve orgasm after the election of Donald J. Trump.

The broads of TV’s Broad City crackle with sexual honesty.

In the U.S., the anti-pleasures forces are prowling around the bedrooms of the nation, shutting down access to reproductive rights and health care and even taking aim at contraception. In such times as these, sex with yourself might seem the safest thing you could do as a young woman.

But there’s more to it than simple pleasure. Masturbation has come to stand for women finding independence, self-reliance and self-acceptance, all of which prepare them to better state their needs and demands in other ways.

As a number of writers have noted, the surge in sexual autonomy has accompanied the rise of women’s stories. Amanda Hess in the New York Times described the phenomena as lustful girls having a moment, explaining that very existence of the horny girl character is a new and critical departure.

“The default pop cultural perspective remains that of the adult man, and from his vantage point, exposing adolescent female sexuality onscreen can feel predatory or perverted. These comedies have little interest in considering how those men will feel when they are transported into a girl’s bedroom. Girls’ feelings matter, too. And these girls feel so much.”

But even in an age of sexual frankness, women talking openly about desire can still be something of a shock. The Netflix series Big Mouth made no bones about this reality, summing up the concept with a montage of exploding heads.

While most of the raging hormone films have been comedies, there have also been a number of serious dramas that touch on the topic. Princess Cyd contained one of the most down-to-earth presentations of a young woman’s sexual exploration, both alone and with other people, that I’ve ever seen.

As IndieWire indicates, such straightforward depictions are important, but we could use even more. And for this we need more female writers, directors and creatives to tell their stories.

Women have largely led this electric moment of sexual honesty, most notably Phoebe Waller-Bridge of Fleabag, PEN15 creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, and Broad City BFFs Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. They joined a number of other female writers and performers such as comedians Ali Wong and Amy Schumer.

But film and television are somewhat late to the party. Musicians like Cardi B, Missy Elliott and the divine Lizzo have been singing about women getting their freak on for a while.

Lizzo’s 'Boys.' Who needs ‘em?

Teen Vogue was there early talking to Lizzo about body image, sexuality and pleasing one’s self long before the singer hit superstardom. “Because her own road to self-love was so difficult, Lizzo has made it her mission to showcase hers as loudly as possible, and nowhere is this more apparent than the music video for ‘Scuse Me,’ a masturbation anthem that’s filmed in, of all places, a church.”

All of this openness and freedom is a positive development. Masturbation ain’t what it used to be — a thing that was never spoken aloud, ever. I don’t even remember having a word for it as a younger person.

In the pre-internet age, sexual education largely consisted of finding nudie mags in the woods or stealing your parents’ copy of The Joy of Sex, with its terrible drawings of horny, happy hippies. About the least sexy thing I could imagine.

Real information was hard to access: you had to look that shit up, using the Dewey Decimal system, no less. Rumour was rife. I remember a lot of sessions wherein a group of teenage girls would stay up late, sneak some crème de menthe from their parents’ liquor cabinet and talk about sex.

No one had anything useful to contribute, and light on actual facts we looked to other sources for enlightenment. Books like The Clan of the Cave Bear and The Thorn Birds were in heavy rotation, but back then the raunchiest stuff had to be euphemistically described with discrete mentions of assuming the position and throbbing manhoods.

The sexier stuff came in stranger ways. In an episode of Star Trek, for example, where Spock goes horny crazy and must have sex, or he will DIE!!! The orgiastic possibilities of Gilligan’s Island, or what happened when the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman finally got together. (I close my eyes and all I see is a blur of velour jumpsuits.)

My point is that the erotic mind is a capricious beast that attaches to the strangest stuff and in lieu of real information, young women would come up with the wildest conjecture and theories about how things worked.

Information is power, but it’s also what keeps you safe. In this, girls and women have it much better at the moment. There is definitely more genuine information out there, and even better, there is less shame.

That’s the biggest shift, and why the internet very quickly handed the American Conservative its proverbial ass, smacked red as an apple, when it attempted to shame young women for self-pleasure. To return to the good old days of mortal embarrassment and silence was simply not happening, not on Twitter’s watch.

For some, the change still takes some getting used to, especially for women who came of age before the m-word was spoken out loud. The only time I remember a woman talking about masturbation was Elaine Benes and her Queen of the Castle routine in the infamous Seinfeld episode.

Girls didn’t do that. Period. Which is why a film like Booksmart has stayed in my mind. In Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, best friends Amy and Molly discuss different means and methodology of masturbation, with little mortification and much glee. I have to admit, I was a little bit taken aback, not just by the scene, but by the fact that two female friends could talk about it with openness and candour, as well as hilarity.

Although Booksmart has been described as a female version of Superbad, the two films differ in substantial ways. There was an edge of disgust in Superbad that curdled the good times; also the young women in the film were mainly there as objects to be pursued, and they didn’t have storylines of their own. And so Superbad followed the well-beaten path of sex comedies, aimed at teenage boys and men.

On the 20th anniversary of the release of American Pie, the Guardian took aim at how things have changed, arguing that the film marked a transition between the raunchy coming-of-age films of old and the new crop of kinder gentler horniness.

But as the article makes clear, the movie didn’t have the faintest clue what to do with its female characters: “Women seem as inexplicable to the film-makers themselves as they are to the characters. That’s been an unfortunate part of the continuum of teen sex comedies, too, long before American Pie and well past it.”

The one thing American Pie did have was the character of Michelle (played by Alyson Hannigan), a boned-up lunatic with a penchant for playing the flute. Take that as you will. But something of her independence and self-acceptances in the film snuck through. In some fashion, she is the godmother of all the horny girls.

It’s something of a leap from the pie-humping humour to radical new forms of sexual emancipation, but some things never change. The kids — gay, straight, or somewhere in between in Booksmart — aren’t that much different from the teenage girls thumbing madly through Judy Blume books looking for the raunchy stuff back in my day.

But even in a brave new world of gender-neutral bathrooms and Teen Vogue listicles, it’s as hard as ever to figure out the mysteries of desire.

While much of the media attention has been focused on young women discovering their sexuality, the process can happen at any age. A recent Guardian story about a 70-year-old woman buying her first sex toy was cheered on by a healthy chorus of commenters who applauded her independence and agency.

The story was so good-natured and sweet, it made me feel better about the world. We could all use a healthy dose of private joy.  [Tyee]

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