In "Unscrewing Ourselves," our first annual Sex Month on Broadly, we explore the state of sex ed today by highlighting the individuals changing our sexual health for the better. Read more from this series here.
If you want to understand Broad City's protagonists, you can look at their masturbation routines. Ilana luxuriates in an extensive preparation ritual—including candles, oysters, and lipstick—while Abbi schedules "me time" on her calendar and sticks Post-It reminders on her vibrator. It's an accurate snapshot of each character: Ilana is ostentatious, fiercely loyal, and sexually open-minded where Abbi is neurotic, practical, and prioritizes her needs without apology. What we learn about both is that they are women who masturbate. Not to arouse a partner. Not because they're curious about their bodies. And not because they're having a moment of sexual enlightenment that conveniently coincides with major plot points in the show. They just do it because they feel like it.
It's been almost two decades since Charlotte got too attached to her Rampant Rabbit on Sex and the City, but women getting themselves off has remained taboo, even as we nonchalantly watch orgies on Game of Thrones. Meanwhile, people accept it as a fact of life that men can't stop masturbating—an idea usually played for American Pie-style laughs in shows like The Inbetweeners and Peep Show. Even Friends had a gag about Monica mistakenly thinking Chandler was into shark porn.
When it comes to women's pleasure, the perception persists that masturbation is deviant (like Sally Draper being carted off to the psychotherapist in Mad Men), but today's popular TV shows created by women are challenging these tropes.
Watch: The History of the Vibrator
Despite all of Insecure's provocative sex scenes in season two—blowjobs, polyamorous relationships, and a threesome that goes from raunchy to racist—arguably the most progressive is in episode three, when Issa reaches for her vibrator. In keeping with her character, her batteries die almost immediately, and she runs around her apartment searching for spares, exclaiming "Fuck!" every time she comes up empty-handed.
As with the women of Broad City, masturbation is just part of Issa's day. She owns a sex toy. She uses it in her bed, under the covers, wearing comfy clothes, with her hair wrapped. It's a sex scene that isn't especially, or at all, sexy. Instead of careful camera angles that give viewers an eyeful, the scene is about Issa's relationship with herself.
The opposite of Game of Thrones sexposition, Broad City and Insecure have swapped background boobs for genuine character development. A woman taking control of her own pleasure is no longer a statement or a breakthrough. These female characters are already well-aware of their sexuality, their bodies, and their needs.
But in real life, masturbation is still shrouded in shame for many. Leila Frodsham, a consultant obstetrician and gynecologist at the Institute of Psychosexual Medicine and women's health expert for the website The Femedic, told Broadly that most of her patients don't want to discuss the topic.
"In my experience, women very rarely admit to masturbating. Men have no hesitation in discussing it, but women will squirm and deny it. They look horrified when I suggest that this would be the best way of learning how to experience pleasure," she explained. "As a gynecologist for more than 20 years, I hear daily when examining women: 'Poor you, you have a horrible job, having to look at this all day'. There are very few positive words for female genitalia compared with men. It's no surprise that women feel revolted by a part of their bodies."
Jane the Virgin's Gina Rodriguez expressed similar feelings in an interview with Bust earlier this year. "In all honesty, I used to feel guilty for masturbating," she said. "Oh my god, this extreme guilt! And that lasted way too long. Or maybe I masturbated too much! It's OK to look back in retrospect and be like, it wasn't good that I felt bad about touching myself."
As with other taboo topics, seeing women's masturbation in pop culture has the power to normalize the act—if it's realistically depicted. But many times, female masturbation is still portrayed as a sight to titillate men, if not figuratively (like with Riley Keough in The Girlfriend Experience) then literally (like with Lizzy Caplan in Masters of Sex).
Sybil Lockhart, PhD, a researcher for OMGYes, a website that educates readers about female pleasure, is finding that women often think their masturbation should arouse their partners. "Some women describe masturbating in a performative way for a partner, lying back and arching their back as they have seen others do in porn, but in many cases, the performance in no way matches that woman's authentic personal style of masturbating, which they often figure men will find entirely unattractive," she said.
"Women masturbating doesn't have to be—and often is not—sexy in the way a man might want it to be. We're finding that one of the most ubiquitous masturbation styles is simply rubbing on or squeezing an object," she continued. "One needn't be naked to do this, and often it is done face down, so it's not necessarily something your typical porn fan might go after."
In other words, Natalie Portman writhing around in Black Swan while she fantasies about girl-on-girl action might look sexy on screen, but it's probably not how most women would actually go about getting off. Phoebe Waller-Bridge's titular character in the show Fleabag—who watches an Obama speech on her laptop and eats snacks while she reached under the duvet to knock one out—may be more realistic. No matter that her boyfriend is sleeping next to her or that she has crumbs on her T-shirt. The act is ordinary, humdrum, and not for anyone but herself.
When we see female characters on television make time to acknowledge and tend to their sexual desires without guilt or embarrassment, the message is that female masturbation is like getting a good night's sleep or drinking enough water. There's no right or wrong way to do it. And how sexy it is for everyone else is irrelevant.