Catholic News Service (CNS) takes its Movie Reviews section very seriously. Propelled by their mission to evaluate films based on their alignment with Scriptures and prominent religious teachings, the CNS archive is as complete as Vulture, with their own classification system as strict as, well, Catholicism itself. They are particularly averse to abortion, homosexuality, and masturbation, writing in their guidelines that it is “often presented sympathetically, or even taken for granted as something ‘everyone does.’” They add that normative and acceptable depictions of such practices are always flagged, resulting in many movies being condemned to O ratings, meaning “morally offensive.”
One of these movies is last year’s Yes, God, Yes, which follows 16-year-old devout Catholic school student Alice, known for tossing a classmate’s salad (false) and rewinding Titanic to the steamy car scene (true, but she’d never admit it). These prompt her to attend a weekend retreat, where she finds out that much like anything else in organized religion, abstinence is a complete sham. It ends with perhaps my favorite frame in recent cinema: Alice on the couch, her eyes closed but inquisitive, hands down her plaid school skirt; almost as if she’s shaking hands with her clit for the first time. CNS writes that the film’s main message is that “sex is more fun than being Catholic,” accusing its director Karen Maine of “spiritual suicide.”
Even without a Catholic lens, masturbation has always been stuck between a cock and a hard place. It’s so good yet so bad, something I can talk about as a writer but not as a teenage girl. Medieval myths warning self-stimulators that they could turn blind or grow hair out of their palms may be behind us, but perhaps the act remains too risqué even for our increasingly sex-driven culture—why else would we be so disgusted by the porn we masturbate to only after we come?
Our knee-jerk anxieties about jerking off seem unfounded when everything from billboards to TV shows have been capitalizing on sexual pleasure for years. In the early ‘90s, mediums initially at the forefront of women’s objectification were suddenly depicting them as having agency and power. By the turn of the century, female bodies on screen were starting to discover pleasure and playfulness over passivity and victimization.
Advertising was a major player in this shift. Rosalind Gill, author and researcher on gender and media, writes that the limited formats of ads made marketers rely more heavily on recognizable archetypes, fostering narrow depictions of gender roles. When advertisers saw the emergence of women’s liberation, they knew their depiction of women had to reflect this, or else they risked losing relevance in their consumer base. This resulted in what Gill calls “commodity feminism,” wherein common feminist messaging is co-opted by corporations to reenergize markets while simultaneously distilling their critique of capitalism. It redirects anger and disillusionment to consumerism—power, like Girlboss shirts and period panties, is something women have to buy.
Empowerment at the hands of corporations is exclusively sexual: a strong woman, according to commodity feminism, is someone who can bring men to their knees simply for being So Damn Sexy. In 2002, marketing firm TBWA was allegedly axed by lingerie brand Gossard for its “male-oriented” approach, with ads so crude they could only be aired after 9 PM; before it went off-air Chris Evans said it was “the best commercial I’ve ever seen.” One campaign for the brand’s Satin range featured the taglines (written by men) “Find your G-spot” and “If he’s late you can always start without him,” placed alongside models (shot by men) projecting seduction and alluding to solitary pleasure. Here, an act that women supposedly do for themselves is appropriated by men as something they find arousing. In such ads, “Women are presented not as seeking men’s approval but as pleasing themselves; in doing so, they just happen to win men’s admiration,” writes Gill.
Sex, then, is not just an effective marketing tool but also an in-demand product in itself. Professor and author Greg Tuck calls this a rise in mediated sex, where climaxes can be had even without a physical sexual encounter with another person. This is true for business models like OnlyFans and the porn industry, and perhaps in more indirect means like hypersexualized advertising, which evokes porn itself. “What types of sexual pleasure are invoked by sexual images, products, and services?” asks Tuck. “The answer, I would suggest, is that it is essentially masturbatory, one in which an autoerotic mode of consumption dominates.” It seems sex, for all its merit, does not sell as well as masturbation.
Perhaps this is the case because sex and all its offshoots aren’t as private as they used to be. In fact, Foucault would argue that it was never private at all: supposedly private details of people’s sex lives have always been subject to public discussion and social approval or criticism, regardless of whether others actually witness the act. The confessional booth, which Foucault originally regarded as the place where people discuss sex, is expanding to include listeners other than God: it’s becoming mediatized, told to friends through text and to the rest of the world through social media, personal essays, and podcasts.
One would think this wealth of public discourse on sex would pave the way for broad scientific data on its sociology. After all, meanings of sexual acts rely more on their sociocultural context than the physical act—identical practices can have different meanings across place and time. In reality, however, sociologists see sex as unlearned and instinctive, like breathing; only being worthy of study when it goes against the norm.
This, of course, has roots in the Catholic assertion that sex must only be practiced for its natural function. This is also why masturbation is so high on Catholicism’s list of dealbreakers: it’s a misuse of sex. “Can you create children during sex with yourself?” asks the fatherly teacher-priest in Yes, God, Yes during what I assume is a sex-education class, warning students that masturbation leads to perpetual damnation. And perhaps it does—in Genesis 38:9-10, a man named Onan is slain by God for “letting his seed go to waste,” which He did not appreciate. The 1983 film Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life satirizes this with a song called “Every Sperm is Sacred,” in which a roomful of Oliver Twist-esque children sing in chorus, “If a sperm is wasted, God gets quite irate.” In 1992, the Vatican published the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in which masturbation is defined as a “gravely disordered act.”
Even if one’s semen isn’t governed by Father Almighty, simply living under capitalism already inhibits any wasteful self-stimulation. Tuck draws parallels between consumption and masturbation: both are oriented toward self-satisfaction and characterized by insatiability. But for people with penises in particular, it’s mostly seen as “a wasted production and a failure to invest.” It becomes clear why masturbation brings up so many conflicted feelings—the market encourages it, then denounces anyone who succumbs to it. “This looks like masturbation taking the blame for the consequences of a consumption-based economy in which restraint must be a property of the individual rather than the market, which must remain free,” Tuck writes.
I can’t help but wonder if masturbation’s bad rep is due to the fact that our collective knowledge of it is based predominantly on male masturbation, which both Catholicism and capitalism condemn for being “wasteful.” Maybe female masturbation is abhorred as a spillover of this mentality, or it’s just been assumed to be nonexistent. When it started sporadically appearing in movies in the ‘90s and early 2000s, it was regarded as sexy, whereas men’s autoeroticism as often been played for laughs à la Fast Times at Ridgemont High and American Pie. In the 1993 erotic thriller Sliver, the audience watches a fully nude Sharon Stone orgasm in the shower. Other times, masturbation is used to signify a woman’s descent into madness. It’s done by the female serial killer at the center of Eye of the Beholder, and in Mulholland Drive, Naomi Watts’ Betty sobs while getting off, a scene many have regarded as the character’s “most telling moment.” (When asked about the scene, Watts said she was “wildly uncomfortable,” telling Indiewire she was upset at director David Lynch for making her film it.) A more recent example is 2013’s Stoker, in which 18-year-old India climaxes in the shower while fantasizing about her uncle committing murder for her.
On a more domestic scale, self-stimulation can be used to codify a character as deviant. In the family drama Margot at the Wedding, disapproving sister and self-absorbed writer Margot is seen trying (and failing) to orgasm. This film, among many others, depicts masturbation as a habit exclusive to the neurotic, perhaps because there is still deep discomfort regarding sexual narratives in which men are not present.
While female masturbation is certainly more visible on screen, this doesn’t necessarily equate to acceptance. Feona Attwood, in the introduction to her book Mainstreaming Sex, points out that while many women are being allowed to harness their sexual power, this strikingly excludes LGBT women, older women, disabled women, fat women, and other people unable to fit into the narrow standards of conventional sex appeal. It also doesn’t escape me that all examples in this essay are white. (TV is much better at depicting autoerotic women of color, like Issa Rae in Insecure and Logan Browning in Dear White People.) “Far from empowering women, it requires them to internalize and own an impossible and oppressive view of female sexuality,” Attwood writes. This is reflected in the continuous use of the “unattractive” woman searching for sex and love as a comedic device, like in 2015’s The DUFF, or the rom-com parody Date Movie, in which Alyson Hannigan’s Julia only finds romance after she undresses from her fat suit.
The antithesis of this archetype isn’t much better: Attwood calls this the sassy, sexy, strong girl, the “pneumatic take-me-now-big-boy fuck-puppet of male fantasy.” The continuous hypersexualization of mainstream culture blurs the line between empowerment and pornographic pandering to the male gaze, especially for the women being depicted on the big screen. Contrary to their seemingly feminist veneer, this character still operates in a male-centered context; her sex drive is something she “gifts” to her male partner, and her pleasure something her partner “gifts” back. In a way, sexual agency is loaned to women—both on and off screen—just so they can construct themselves as something more identical to the heterosexual male ideal. Pleasure-seeking in the form of masturbation is conflated with self-presentation, the camera often zeroing in on faces and flesh in an act catering more to the voyeurs than the subject. Because women’s cinematic history has been mainly conservative and misogynistic, the dawn of the sassy, sexy, strong girl becomes challenging to critique.
This isn’t to say feminists in real life weren’t putting in the work to destigmatize female masturbation. In the early ‘70s, sex educator Betty Dodson’s Bodysex Workshops, together with the publication of Nancy Friday’s book My Secret Garden: Women’s Sexual Fantasies, helped redefine masturbation as a form of self-love. But as Lauren Rosewarne noted in her book Masturbation in Pop Culture: Screen, Society, Self, overly feminist narratives are rarely seen on screen, so these sentiments haven’t been reflected in cinema until recently.
Movies that depict masturbation as something women do for themselves are often comedies. It can be as quick as Cameron Diaz snapping, “Who needs him? I’ve got a vibrator!” in There’s Something about Mary, or as heavy-handed as the sequence in Pleasantville in which the life of a 1950s housewife living in black and white suddenly turns colored when she learns to give herself an orgasm. These examples hint at a self-sufficiency akin to liberation.
More recent films have begun to depict female masturbation for what is really is: ordinary, and not exclusive to characters with conventional sex appeal. In a quick scene in Sing Street, we see the protagonist’s mother load up batteries in her vibrator when she finally gets time alone in her bedroom. Elisa, the mute, lonely janitor at the center of The Shape of Water, is seen routinely getting off every morning before work, an egg timer and the bubbles in her bathtub the only things visible on camera. Middle-aged Michele from Elle jacks it to a hot neighbor she sees through a window. In Lady Bird, the teenage protagonist sits on the edge of a bathtub, looking at a picture of her new crush in the school yearbook. “Cut to: Just Lady Bird’s feet on either side of the tub-tile, the water streaming down,” writer-director Greta Gerwig writes in the film’s screenplay. “It’s obvious what she’s doing.”
Like Lady Bird who flies to the East Coast for college, Yes, God, Yes’ Alice is advised by a comforting stranger to attend university far, far away from her small town. Both girls come from Catholic schools, which generally encourage sexual restraint with the threat of severe punishment (e.g. Hell). Religious women often feel more guilt over normal sexual impulses, which result in them stifling their own sexualities; the counterargument that Catholicism preaches sexual purity for not just women but also men is futile when we recall that the Church is still a largely patriarchal institution. This guilt is especially visible in Yes, God, Yes, as Alice learns that masturbation is a sin while her body teaches her the complete opposite. Through her small acts of defiance, shame-ridden Catholic women in the audience are vindicated, unshackled from sexist dogma.
This renewed ownership over one’s sexuality reflects the wider transformation of sex as observed by Attwood: sexual practice is now viewed more often as play and pleasure, a source of self-expression and not just a mere means to romantic kinship. Masturbation, in this regard, has potential for the democratization of pleasure, diversifying our sexual experiences and urging individuals to construct a sexual self. Tuck, borrowing Descartes’ cogito, put it succinctly: “In masturbation, I think, I act, and I pleasure myself—therefore I am.”
Ultimately, masturbation offers an understanding of our sexuality outside the binaries of gender. Accepting it as ordinary—neither wasteful nor particularly revolutionary, which are both gendered claims—allows our pleasure to exist unattached from the inherent inequalities of capitalism, gender, and organized religion. If that doesn’t make you orgasm to the point of taking the Lord’s name in vain, I don’t know what will.
By Andrea Panaligan
Illustration by Julia Tabor