Jacking off, flicking the bean, choking the chicken. These are just some of the phrases that are commonly used to describe masturbation. Something we all know and may do. But why is it so hard for us to speak openly about it, especially for women?
What does ‘masturbation’ really entail?
An online study by Kirschbaum and Peterson in 2018 was conducted to determine what behaviors and acts constitute masturbation. These scholars argued that despite being used in sex education curriculums, sex research, and clinical settings, there doesn’t seem to be a clear definition of the term. The quote below summarizes one of their main findings.
“Women were more likely than men to label a behaviour as masturbation if they were alone and if no orgasm occurred”Kirschbaum and Peterson 2018
Clearly, female pleasure was never valued as much as male pleasure. On top of this, we also have the patriarchy constantly telling us that men are more sexual than females. This causes many women and men to undermine what it means for a woman to masturbate.
Films of North American culture
We all know media has a significant influence on how people perceive certain topics and their judgments. There is a higher frequency and communal acceptance of the portrayal of male masturbation, as opposed to female masturbation. This varies in each culture, but the overall stigma surrounding female masturbation is pretty much universal. North American films, Good Boys and The Ugly Truth, and South Indian film Super Deluxe are great examples that showcase this.
Good Boys (2019)
The first two minutes of this film really stood out to me. The opening scene shows a boy in sixth grade, Max, choosing his avatar for an online video game. This video game has a feature to customize the size and shape of your avatar. Max uses this to his advantage and enlarges the breast size of his avatar. His father walks into his room and immediately understands that his son was about to masturbate.
Max’s dad continuously shows positive reactions to his son masturbating, through not only his language but his expression and tone of voice as well. We see him laugh and reminisce the first time he brought his son home. We also hear him use terms like “it’s cool fool,” “I’m proud of you.” Additionally, he calls his son’s penis a “new toy.” This obviously makes Max uncomfortable. But, we still see his dad being very confident and reassuring throughout the entire scene, especially when he directly states, “sexually masturbate.”
If the situation involved a father walking in on his daughter masturbating, I doubt he would’ve had the same reaction and would’ve used the same terminology! This establishes the constant inequality between the sexes.
The Ugly Truth (2009)
Approximately 45 minutes into this movie, the two main characters of the film, Abby and Mike, have a conversation about Abby’s sexual life. This leads to the topic of masturbation. We see Mike using “flick the bean” instead of the term masturbation. The fact that he uses a different term already shows the gender disparity and the stigma that is present for female masturbation.
I also want to point out that throughout this scene, Abby is constantly speaking and reacting in a disgusted and denying tone. She uses the terms “gross” and “impersonal” when asked about masturbation. This goes to show that patriarchal societal norms really emphasize the constant portrayal of disapproval towards female masturbation. Ultimately, the show increases and maintains the stigma surrounding the topic. This just teaches young women that they should react similarly when speaking about masturbation since this is what society expects from a woman.
What I found interesting was when Mike stated that he calls it “masturbating” but decided to use a different term to avoid offending Abby’s “delicate lady-like sensibilities.” This further emphasizes the stereotypical idea that women are delicate and gentle and wouldn’t engage in gruesome activities, like masturbation.
Films of South Indian culture
Super Deluxe (2019)
Eight minutes into Super Deluxe, we see a group of teenage boys who decide to skip school and watch a pornographic film together. They use the code word “group study” to define a group masturbation session. Since these teenagers don’t have access to online pornographic content, they visit a store to buy the physical copy in person. Throughout the conversation between Vasanth and the storekeeper, Vasanth really struggles to use the terms “pornographic film,” especially since the storekeeper is a woman. He finally uses the code word “matter padam,” which translates to “matter film.”
Masturbation is not mentioned once throughout the scene, which ultimately highlights the strong stigma surrounding the topic, even for men, in South Indian culture. Although there are many films that make indirect jokes about masturbation, sexual intercourse, and pornographic content, it is almost always in reference to men. Moreover, there aren’t any movies that directly state the term “masturbation” in South Indian culture.
Sex education in North American culture
Beyond learning from watching movies and TV shows, children gain much of their information from school. The lack of sexual education on masturbation in North America contributes to the shame and guilt felt by many young women, as seen with Abby in The Ugly Truth. I feel that this also leads young men towards the internet to understand how to control their hormonal changes, which we saw in Good Boys.
An article by Hogarth and Ingham in 2009 highlights the very limited research present surrounding this topic. Their research concluded that women with a positive childhood education on sexual health and masturbation would more likely have positive views and opinions on female masturbation. This shows that with proper sex education curriculums, we can easily reduce the stigma surrounding female masturbation.
Sex education in South Indian culture
From personal experience, I know that India is a conservative country. Sexual intercourse, sexual pleasure, masturbation, and much more, are considered controversial topics that shouldn’t be discussed, especially by a woman. The few movies that have touched on these topics don’t do well in the media industry. This creates a lot of aversion towards the directors and actors of the films. This may be because of the lack of proper sexual education that teaches masturbation and sexual intercourse to children in India. This problem starts from childhood and continues from generation to generation.
How can we stop stigmatizing female masturbation?
Apart from the movies discussed here, there are some more that I would’ve liked to include from both North American and Indian cultures. Examples that display male masturbation are Don Jon (2013), This Is the End (2013), Long Shot (2019), and many more. However, examples of female masturbation are more limited, but include, The To-Do List (2013) and Wonder Woman (2017). In North Indian culture, Veere Di Wedding (2018), Lust Stories (2018), and Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016) are all examples that showcase female masturbation.
I have noticed that more recent films in both cultures reinforce positive portrayals of female masturbation. This is definitely a step in the right direction! But movies alone won’t do the job. We need to invoke conversations within our communities to normalize female masturbation and sexually validate and empower women! We can definitely reduce the stigma by creating more films that encourage and justify the importance of self-pleasure for everyone, as well as how we teach children by improving sex education curriculums.