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Is Female Masturbation Really the Last Sexual Taboo?

Most book parties are G-rated affairs. So I did a double-take at the invite in my mailbox from Taschen, the once-prestigious art publisher that now has what must be a more profitable sideline in erotica. Some of their recent XXX offerings include The Big Butt BookThe Big Penis Book (with an Anthony Weiner-esque cover shot), and now, the coyly titled La Petite Mort, an investigation of “the ultimate intimacy”: women masturbating. After taking pictures of call girls for their own advertisements, photographer Will Santillo got interested in the idea of “photographing real sexuality in an aesthetically defensible way,” explains Dian Hanson—formerly the editor of raunch magazines such as Juggs and Leg Show, now in charge of Taschen’s “Sexy Books” division. The third project in a sex trilogy that also includes Flagrante Delicto (photographs of couples having sex) and a series of fetish photographs, Santillo said La Petite Mort was the hardest to pull off. “You don’t walk up to a woman you just met and say, ‘How would you like to masturbate in front of the camera for me?’” he told Hanson. 

Male self-pleasure came out of the bedroom (and into the kitchen) with Portnoy’s Complaint. But is female masturbation really the last remaining sexual taboo? Women are “as hidden as our clitorises,” writes Nancy Friday, the female sexuality pioneer, in the twenty-fifth-anniversary edition of My Secret Garden, her best-selling book about women’s sexual fantasies. In her research, Friday wrote, she found not a single woman who claimed never to masturbate. Yet, more than two decades after her book first appeared in 1973, she was still receiving letters from women thanking her for writing it because “I thought I was the only one.”

But that was in 1998—not exactly the sexual dark ages, but a few beats before the advent of nearly universal broadband access (essential for the “explosion of free porn online,” as a recent New York magazine cover story put it, that took place in the mid-2000s) and, not coincidentally, the spread of upmarket sex-toy retailers such as Babeland, which opened up a well-lit storefront in my family-friendly neighborhood a few years ago on the same block as a gourmet hot-dog shop and a trendy maternity-clothes boutique. In 2009, Self magazine reported that 75 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 25 and 63 percent of women 26 to 35 had looked at online porn. (For older women, the figures were just under 50 percent.) Open any women’s magazine—not only Cosmopolitan—and you’re likely to find a reference to masturbation as part of a normal sex life. If Joycelyn Elders were surgeon general today, her notorious comment about promoting masturbation as a form of safe sex would be unlikely to get her fired.

And so there’s something sleazy about Taschen’s fanfare over La Petite Mort—not the photographs themselves, heavily shadowed and with the models’ limbs artfully arranged, but the rhetoric of liberation that accompanies them. Santillo claims that, in the women’s post-shoot comments, “the single most common word was ‘empowering.’” In interviews with Hanson, a few of the subjects—whose brief commentaries are interspersed with the photos—used similar language. “I hope that all the women depicted, and that in particular the women among the viewers, feel emboldened, feel that women can break the stereotypes of our culture about beauty, and that this collection can help to remove any sense of shame or isolation about expressing their sexuality to themselves and to the world,” Santillo’s wife, who was among his models, comments. But paradoxically, all this revolutionary language only reinforces the old ideas. “If orgasm is the little death, is masturbation the little suicide?” Hanson asks in her introduction. That doesn’t sound so empowering to me.

It’s true that the women depicted aren’t your typical porn stars. Some of them have cellulite, one is pregnant, one is in her fifties (naturally, she’s in better shape than many of the younger women), one is quite overweight (she turns out to be an “adult talent and fetish model”). One has had a mastectomy and reconstruction, her nipple-less breast on full display for the camera. But they nonetheless manage to look like porn stars. Many of the women are wearing Frederick’s-of-Hollywood-style lingerie; a majority sport high heels in bed. They’re obviously playing to the camera—and to the photographer behind it. This book isn’t about capturing intimate moments; it’s a document of the male gaze. (No wonder Santillo’s wife said that the project tested her marital patience.) And so, all the avowals of liberation ultimately ring of self-persuasion. Why is it more empowering to masturbate in front of a camera, necessarily conscious of one’s appearance and the projection of a certain image, rather than in private, thinking of nothing but pleasure, as both men and women clearly do in real life?

People who feel genuinely liberated, after all, don’t make a point of pronouncing how liberated they feel. This is something that men writing about sex seem always to have known, but that women are just discovering. It’s evident in Erica Jong’s new anthology Sugar in My Bowl, for which Jong asked a group of writers to describe the best sex they ever had. The results surprised her. Older women contributed purple fantasias about encounters that shook the earth; younger women were more matter-of-fact. Ariel Levy’s account of losing her virginity is less ecstatic than Jong’s description of a single kiss, but no less real. The only writer to link sex and procreation is Elisa Albert, a young mother. Jong is troubled by what she sees as a sign of cultural conservatism among the younger generation, including her daughter, Molly Jong-Fast, who suggests in her own piece that her prudery might be attributable to watching her mother “saunter around our townhouse au naturel” during her childhood. “The older writers in my anthology are raunchier than the younger writers,” Jong complained in a New York Times op-ed last weekend headlined “Is Sex Passé?” “The younger writers are obsessed with motherhood and monogamy.”

But this seems to me to be the definition of sexual freedom—the fact that women have come to regard sex more in the way that men do, as an elemental part of life, no less essential than eating or breathing, and thus no more in need of cheerleading. Masturbation, for men of Woody Allen’s generation, isn’t an act of empowerment; it’s just “sex with someone you love.” Likewise, sex for women today—in all its forms—is just something that we do, not something for which we need special permission or forgiveness afterward. This wouldn’t be possible, of course, had Erica Jong (and a few of her peers) not brought women’s desire so vividly and loudly to the forefront in the 1970s. But she’s wrong to see her daughter’s complacency as part of a younger generation’s “backlash against sex.”

“Sex for women is dangerous,” Jong writes mockingly in the Times. “Sex for women leads to madness in attics, cancer and death by fire. Better to soul cycle and write cookbooks. Better to give up men and sleep with one’s children.” Butprovided we have access to birth control, a not insignificant caveat—sex can only be more dangerous for women than for men if we conspire to keep it so. (And those men, by the way, are in the “family bed” with children too.) Our kinky fantasies won’t get us banished to the attic anymore—and we can find the accoutrements to fulfill them down the street, after we get out of our exercise class and pick up our groceries. This doesn’t mean that sex is passé. It means we’ve finally figured it out.

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @ruth_franklin.