Is masturbation being rehabbed ... through television?
While far from being completely normalized, television is helping to give self-pleasure a new look. Sure, it is still played for laughs in some circumstances and completely demonized in others. But things are getting better and discussions are happening because of a more open approach to masturbation. As a result, there has been a significant, positive shift in how solo sexytime is being depicted. Instead of the typical frat house mockery, self-love is more often being treated with care, consideration and good intentions.
It might be surprising to know just how often masturbation is used as a plot device on television. Writers and producers are embracing the idea for both comedy and statement. So, what is there to get all excited about? The following shows have embraced this new openness and opportunity to share the love that speaks your own name.
We cannot have a discussion about self-love and satisfaction without starting with the scene that truly kickstarted it all: Seinfeld’s “The Contest.” If there were depictions of TV masturbation before Seinfeld’s iconic competition then they immediately paled in comparison to this comedic and cultural tour de fingers. Even though it first aired 26 years ago, this remarkably on point scene (and the whole episode) framed masturbation in a whole new light. Instead of embarrassment, the four friends react to George’s admission of being caught by his mother with shock and awe at the situation - not the fact that he was masturbating. Here, masturbation is depicted as straight-up normal. That the conversation blooms into "The Contest" and a further debate about the supposed differences between male and female masturbatory habits is also revelatory (having Elaine not win is a master stroke). In this episode, Seinfeld dispelled myths, had real conversations, and couched it all in easily palatable comedy.
Clutching at Comedy
While Seinfeld may have established the high-water mark of hands-on happiness, a number of other shows have followed in those iconic footsteps, particularly comedies. But the teasing and mocking tones have been wiped up, suggesting that we could finally be getting over the idea that masturbation is a laughable last resort for the pitiful and lonely.
Two of the biggest sitcoms of all time introduced oh-oh-onanism in humorous yet sympathetic ways to give their characters, and supporting players, more depth.
On one episode of Friends, Monica surprises Chandler while he is on a business trip. She walks in on him pleasuring himself to some ... unusual content. Much awkwardness ensues and Monica has to do some soul searching. Staying true to sitcom nature, there is no consideration of a misunderstanding, and Monica does work through her feelings. Instead of ridiculing or shunning Chandler, Monica uses the encounter as a learning moment and she tries to make Chandler more comfortable with his kink. Was this the first instance of YKINMK on television? Instead of denigrating masturbation and a (potential) kink, one partner tries to learn more and accept the other’s preferences.
On the other sticky hand, it can’t be a surprise to the Big Bang Theory gang to learn that Howard is a fan of the five knuckle shuffle. That said, they probably hope he just sticks to his knuckles and not enlist the aid of a robotic arm. Looking to get a better grip on his pleasure situation, Howard finds himself in a penis pinch, so he enlists the help of his buddies for a different kind of release. Sure, they tease him a bit, but they are generally sympathetic to his plight and know they need to rescue him from the bionic handjob before his mother finds out! A friend in need...
Despite many years of warnings about hairy palms, social ostracization, and eternal damnation, young people continue to explore their bodies. Roaming hands and experimental thoughts are an intrinsic part of human development and growth. Our bodies are pretty fantastic things. When we find pleasure, we are likely to repeat the experience. Combine this with burgeoning sexual feelings for others and we begin to see just how important self-discovery is, particularly for young people.
For the most part, television shows have left the possibility of masturbation among young people as a great big ellipses before the next scene. Characters swoon over crushes. Their faces flush, their voices squeak. We all know they are headed off to a private space to rub one out, but that is rarely shown. This shouldn’t be declared a universal experience everyone can relate to, but many galaxies have been painted with the sticky fingers of those who have been there.
Of course, depicting youth sexuality on television is a controversial subject that needs to be approached with care. There have, fortunately, been two excellent examples that show producers pushing boundaries to give viewers a truthful glimpse in.
Mad Men challenged many social ideals and the show really pushed the envelope with Sally Draper. The precocious child grew into an even more precocious teenager throughout the series. When Sally touched herself, on a sofa with other kids around, while watching "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," Mad Men made a quantum leap forward for honest sexual and masturbation representation. In reality, though, there should have been nothing shocking about the scene. If you have children or spend time with little ones, you know they are going to shove their hands down their pants at some point. Mad Men just brought this reality home.
Another brilliant example of showing masturbation as much-need self discovery is the recent brilliance of Everything Sucks! Usually, movies and TV portray teenage boys stealing pornography for self-pleasure purposes. Everything Sucks' Kate turns this trope on its head as she explores both her sexual pleasures and sexual orientation with some pilfered porno. By revealing Kate’s same-sex attraction and equating it with sexual feelings and not just warm feelings, the show does the unprecedented. This is a great movement forward and an awesome representation for LGBTQ youth.
In much the same way that self-discovery is a key part of our continued masturbatory growth, so too is exploring our bodies and exploring different types of pleasure. As we meet and have sexytime fun with different partners, we will pick up different tips and tricks, likes and dislikes, through interacting with others.
However, what we learn with others is our secondary type of sexual learning. Our first, foremost, and most fantastic sexual experimentation comes firsthand. Or hands. Or hands and toys and shower heads and washing machines and lotion and so much more. Every time we touch ourselves, we add more to our individual sexual encyclopedias.
Two great scenes embrace some stereotypical masturbation scenarios - the infamous “dead hand,” the bath spout, and being walked in on - to highlight the humanity and commonplace nature of masturbation.
In the outstanding teen coming of age comedy "The Inbetweeners," ultra-confident, big mouth Jay tries out the “dead hand” method. To create the sensation of someone else touching his penis, Jay cuts off the circulation in his hand. Maybe this works, maybe it doesn’t. It does,however, render said hand useless in turning off a laptop playing porn when your Mom and friend walk in.
If that is a typical penis-personed trope, then folks with vulvas seem to be universally attracted to masturbation in the shower or bath - with the help of running water from the faucet. No doubt this must feel good for some people, given the traction it has in pop culture. So when Caroline has some time to herself on Two Broke Girls, she tries to enjoy some alone time in a warm bath. Unfortunately, and as if on cue, Max returns to their apartment and interrupts Caroline’s self-love session. Sure, it's funny, but it also depicts a woman taking charge of her own pleasure ... and hopefully she manages to finish!
Finally, we cannot talk about masturbation without exploring the idea of straight-up fulfilling sexual need. While it is entirely inappropriate to think of other people as responsible for meeting our sexual desires, we do have agency over what we do with our own bodies. Sexual tension can build in our desire for others, but it can also build in our desire for ourselves.
For some, however, it is challenging or downright impossible to fulfill those sexual needs. People who have specific fetishes might not be able to find partners who will participate. Queer folks who aren’t out might not be able to reach out to partners they desire.
Another population who cannot act on all of their physical desires are the incarcerated. Prison is a lonely place and the separation from sex can be a major life challenge for some inmates. Even engaging in solo pleasure requires a shift in mindset because privacy is non-existent.
Of course, it would be naive to believe that sexual activity does not occur in prisons. We know it does, and people scratch that itch both through masturbation and partnered sex. The groundbreaking show Orange is the New Black depicts the measures some prisoners must take to enjoy masturbation, providing critical insight and empathy for those of us who have not experienced such conditions.
After all of this talk of the progress made in depicting masturbation on television, there’s only one thing left to say:
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