I know a lot about the masturbation habits of the women in my neighbourhood. I know how many times a week M does it (three, approximately), I know that H (temporarily) lost a small vibrator up her cha cha and I know that S considers it a key part of her day-off regime.
Please note, these brave bean flickers aren’t my close friends. They’re just other moms I chit chat with at the playground or while strolling down our street on a summer’s eve, because what’s a little wine-o-clock without comparing notes on our favourite lubes?
Thanks to a growing obsession with wellness and self-care, a year of stay-at-home orders that saw a massive spike in sex toy sales and a growing cadre of female tv creators who treat masturbation as a matter-of-fact plot point, I’m now privy to the information that my colleague really likes rubbing one out whenever her boyfriend goes for a run, and for that, I’m grateful (I think.)
It wasn’t always like this. Cynthia Loyst, a certified sex educator, tv host and the author of Find Your Pleasure: The Art of Living a More Joyful Life, was a producer at SexTV, a documentary show about human sexuality, in the early aughts. The program delved into every conceivable nook and cranny of sex, kinks and relationships, but the story Loyst remembers causing the most outrage was one where they showed blurred-out footage from the famous masturbation workshops feminist author and activist Betty Dodson had been running in New York since the 1970s.
“People were absolutely shocked at the idea that women were proudly using a sex toy and enjoying it and speaking openly about it,” says Loyst. “We got an astronomical number of complaints, and it wasn’t any more explicit than many other stories we did.”
“Before that female masturbation was usually depicted as pathological—if it was depicted at all. More recently we’re seeing it as a show of empowerment, of somebody who actually knows themself.”
Things have changed a lot since that ill-fated segment about some happy women and their Hitachi wands. Now Indigo sells vibrators and Gwyneth Paltrow talks about sex toys in The New York Times.
Ah, Gwyneth. Love her or hate her, it’s hard to deny the Goop effect when it comes to the increasingly open conversation about around female masturbation, especially fancy female masturbation done by wealthy, cisgendered women wielding chic, expensive toys.
Paltrow’s kajillion-dollar Goop empire was one of the first to push a version of wellness that explicitly includes sexual wellness into the mainstream. Goop has hawked high-end sex toys for years, and they’ve recently come out with their own very pretty double-sided wand vibrator. Now celebrities like model Cara Delevingne, musician Lily Allen and actress Dakota Johnson are investing in and acting as spokespeople for companies that sell sex toys, and while you certainly can use toys with partners, that’s doesn’t seem to be the main, er, thrust, of these famous women’s messages.
Delevingne told Teen Vogue that “I believe that it’s important for women or people who identify as women to feel comfortable in their own sexual power. I hope through my voice and platform I can amplify and encourage everyone to take pleasure into their own hands.” Johnson, the star of the Fifty Shades of Grey movie franchise, told Vogue “To me, taking care of your body in a sexual way should be the same as taking care of your body in terms of nutrients, skincare, exercise, etc” and Allen, who designed her own vibrator for Womanizer, rhapsodized to her 1.4 million Instagram followers about how the brand “changed her life” as part of Womanizer’s #IMasturbate campaign.
There’s also been a lot of patting the bunny on peak tv over the last several years, but as with many of the things we now expect from our prestige shows, Sex and the City was the first to break this taboo way back in 1998 when Charlotte becomes addicted to her Rabbit vibrator (been there, sis). SATC went on to feature several other lady wanking plotlines, but it was the Rabbit episode that really blew up as a cultural touchstone.
“That was revolutionary at the time,” says Loyst. “Before that female masturbation was usually depicted as pathological—if it was depicted at all. More recently we’re seeing it as a show of empowerment, of somebody who actually knows themself.”
Now women taking care of business makes regular appearances on peak tv, especially on critically acclaimed cable and streamer shows. The opening episode of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag famously includes a scene of the main character diddling herself to news footage of Barack Obama; Ilana has an elaborate ritual for her masturbation sessions that includes candles and weird earrings on Broad City; Marnie is so turned on after some sexy talk that she runs into a public bathroom for relief on Girls; Issa Rae tears around her apartment in a mad search for batteries for her vibrator (been there, sis) on Insecure, and Lea Delaria’s masturbation scene with a screwdriver on Orange is the New Black has become so iconic women regularly ask the actress and comic to sign screwdrivers for them. I could go on.
Gen Xers like myself didn’t grow up—or even grow into early adulthood—with representations like these. I certainly don’t remember any of the girls and women on The Facts of Life, Beverly Hills 90210 or Friends masturbating, so if you see some wild-eyed, dilapidated, middle-aged woman on the top of a building sobbing and screaming: “Millennials and Gen Zers are SO LUCKY that it’s cool to masturbate now, it’s not faiiiir!!” take pity on her, she was only ever taught about getting her period and how sex will give you diseases and she’s still recovering. But with the pandemic putting a screeching halt on hookup culture and a very cold shower on the romance of live-in relationships, even public health authorities are now getting on board with a pro-solo-sex message. (The government made me do it!)
“It’s literally a life-or-death exercise right now,” says Loyst. “It’s forced daters to slow down and wonder ‘Do I even want to bother, or should I just stay home because I know how to do this really well myself?”