The fifth episode of Lifetime's "UnREAL" opens with a shot of protagonist and reality TV producer Rachel (played by Shiri Appleby) masturbating with a vibrator in the back of a van. "Chivalry is not dead," says the male host of fictional dating show "Everlasting," as Rachel, laying under a wool furniture blanket, tries to get off to some porn on her iPhone. The scene isn't "sexy" -- there's no lingerie, no tousled sheets, no moaning, no male-gazey camera shots. While the fantasy of a "Bachelor"-like dating world is being created outside of the production van, the audience watches the real part of "UnREAL" unfold inside.
The scene frames Rachel's masturbation as mundane, utilitarian, routine -- which is exactly why it's so special.
Over the last few years, we've seen more women getting themselves off on our TV screens on shows like "Girls," "Orange Is The New Black," "Reign" and "Mad Men." With each groundbreaking scene -- and the inevitable discussion that follows -- we get closer to recognizing that getting off is no big deal.
While masturbating on-screen isn't something we see all that frequently regardless of a character's gender, men doing it feels fairly de rigeur. (Think: "American Pie," "Skins," "There's Something About Mary," "Sex and the City," "American Beauty," "American Horror Story," "Fast Times At Ridgemont High," "The Big Bang Theory.") It's usually played for laughs, or as a way to bring up relationship issues when a female partner walks in on the act. The scenes might read as awkward, but not shocking.
"Male masturbation is pretty common on TV," "UnREAL" co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro told The Huffington Post. "You've seen it a lot, and it's always a joke and there's a shorthand for it. But a healthy, adult woman who isn't having sex probably is jerking off -- but no one talks about it."
Our very language encourages a gender imbalance when it comes to open dialogue about masturbation. There is a nearly unlimited list of slang terms and euphemisms for male masturbation, but depressingly few for its female equivalent. (Is "flicking the bean" really the best we can do?) The Swedish Association for Sexuality Education made international headlines when it coined the term "klittra" last month, combining the Swedish words for "clitoris" and "glitter."
This lack of public discussion about female masturbation might explain why people absolutely feel the need to comment on it when a woman gets off on-screen.
In "Girls" Season 1, Allison Williams' character Marnie masturbates in a public bathroom after hanging out with a sexy artist. The scene made OK Magazine's list of "The 5 Most Scandalous Scenes From HBO's 'Girls' So Far,'" and New York Magazine asked Allison Williams how she "prepared" for it. (To her credit Williams told NYMag that she was "sort of fascinated that it’s being made into a thing.") The pilot of "Reign" -- a CW show -- included a very brief scene of Kenna, a teen lady-in-waiting, starting to get herself off. Much was written about the scene and the network's decision to trim it down -- "It might have been the most risqué scene in The CW’s history had it aired uncut," wrote Entertainment Weekly -- but very little was said about the fact that as Kenna is starting to pleasure herself, she's joined by the (much, much older) King of France! (See the clip below.)
"Is masturbation more shocking than sex?" asked a 2013 HuffPost Live segment. When it comes to female masturbation, we still treat it as such.
So what is it about on-screen female masturbation in particular that elicits such a strong reaction from those watching?
Marti Noxon, "UnREAL's" co-creator who is perhaps best known for writing and producing "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," thinks the general silence about female masturbation and the reaction to seeing it on TV comes down to discomfort -- specifically men's.
"I think it makes men uncomfortable," said Noxon. "I think there’s something really scary about the idea that [sex is] not always romantic for us, and that it’s not always about needing a man there to take care of our needs. I think it’s scary for guys to see that, and be confronted with this in-your-face idea of 'yeah, we’ve got it.'"
The beauty of these "in-your-face" scenes is that the more we see them, the less "shocking" they become. Because (spoiler alert!), in the real world, masturbating is pretty damn "normal" -- and healthy. A 2009 study found that 78 percent of Americans over 14 have masturbated (though in every age group, women were less likely to report masturbating than men). Plus, getting off can help lift a woman's mood, balance her sleep habits, decrease her stress levels and soothe her menstrual cramps.
"It’s part of being a healthy person and having a sex drive, and not always relieving it with a partner," said Shapiro. "I don’t actually think it’s a big deal at all. I wrote this episode [and] when I first turned in the script, there were a lot of conversations about, 'Well, we haven’t established that Rachel’s a sex addict.' And I was like, 'Why would masturbating make her a sex addict?'"
They decided to move ahead with the scenes (the episode both begins and ends with Rachel jerking off) after what Shapiro calls a "really interesting, fruitful conversation." And the resulting scenes are painfully and beautifully human. Just like Rachel, lots of women masturbate. And use sex toys. And watch porn. And fall in love. And have sex. And get up afterward and kick ass at their exhausting jobs.
"My total impetus for making stuff is about humanizing women," said Shapiro. "And I just think [masturbation] is a really normal part of being human."
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