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

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.

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