Not just for boys

Originally posted on Shit on My Hands, January 2012.

On Boxing Day hubby enjoyed the cricket at the MCG and I imbibed my body weight in leftover Christmas pudding, kept two small people fed/entertained/rested, and followed with great amusement the Twitter feed of that fabulous feminist rabble-rouser Clementine Ford. Included in a loooong list of things giving her the pip was: ‘Fuck pop culture pretending chicks don’t masturbate just as much as teenage boys’. Hmm, is that true? I wondered. And since then, while walking to the market or pegging endless baby clothes on the line, I have dedicated my brainpower to recalling pop culture moments that admit (forget celebrate) – girls’ self-pleasuring activities. And aside from the odd Cyndi Lauper, Divinyls or Madonna song, I’ve been pretty much stumped. As in porn, touching one’s self is performed for the amusement of males, or else is a failed endeavour. Such was the case in the recently screened ABC series, The Slap. You may recall Connie has a bit of a go in the bath but can’t get herself off – though that’s possibly because she chooses the world’s largest shampoo bottle to make the attempt (hmm, like Tsiolkas’s novel, women seem to have trouble locating their clitorises).

Yes, positive pop culture references to girls wanking are as rare as well-behaved Australians on Kuta Beach. But what about high culture? Two memoirs come (haha) to mind: Dorothy Hewett’s Wild Card and Krissy Kneen’s Affection. In the former, the playwright recalls joyfully masturbating in various secret locations on the family farm. And Affection includes this evocative description of childhood fiddling:

I lie on the scratchy carpet, pushing my body down against the short pile. The television is on, Playschool or Mr. Squiggle or Bill and the Flowerpot Men or some other burble of music and rhyme. My hips press against the carpet the delightful pressure of a full bladder, full of milk no doubt, a lovely innocent pressure and the feel of sunlight burning a window shape on my calves … when I cross my legs over each other there is an even greater pleasure. I can hear my mother clattering through the washing up… When I fall over the edge I am surprised. Pleased. (pp. 14-15)

Who knew ABC’s finest had such erotic potential? But seriously, I’d bet the examples of women recalling their sexual self-discovery is negligible compared to those of male writers. Is that a result of the historical oppression of girls’ sexuality? Mmm, dunno. Boys were (until the 1960s) subjected to some hideous devices and sermons designed to prevent their masturbating. If anything, there was a cultural myopia concerning the mere possibility of girls performing such acts. If you’re a Mad Men fan, you may still be recovering from the highly disturbing episode in season four when young Sally is humiliated after being busted by her friend’s mother getting off while watching The Man from U.N.C.L.E. ‘What is wrong with you?’ Betty demands of her poor eleven-year-old daughter before threatening to cut off her fingers. Before the sexual revolution, such ‘behaviour’ was deemed so abnormal in girls that it required therapy.

But this response was benevolent compared to the treatment meted out to unrepentant girl masturbators in Victorian times (when self-pleasuring was considered both a medical condition and moral weakness). Here’s how one Parisian physicist treated a 5-year-old diagnosed nymphomaniac in 1864 (the quote is so extraordinary, I’m including most of it):

Neither the constant surveillance of her mother, nor the use of a chastity belt fabricated by M. Charrière had the slightest effect. We know, in any event that this device is much more effective in the case of little boys, by imprisoning their penis in a metal case, than it is for girls. Our little girl, thin, wasted and extremely flexible, managed to insert her toe between the belt’s metal plate and her soft parts, and thus succeeded in masturbating.

Her memory, her intellect were weakening; momentary mental blanks were becoming increasingly frequent. My colleague M. Moreau, of the Salpêtrière hospital, had been consulted and has considered amputation of the clitoris. Questioned in turn, I indicated that I found the section of the clitoral nerves, a procedure employed by some surgeons, to be of doubtful efficacy, leaving the door open to recidivism; that the amputation of the clitoris was the destruction, the irreparable ruin of the organ of pleasure an excessive thing in the case of a young girl whom one is seeking to cure, and I thus came to the idea which I then put into practice.

I operated on the child on December 31 … I joined the top two superior or anterior thirds of the major labia at their thickest point with the aid of a metal suture, leaving in the inferior section on orifice barely large enough to accommodate the small finger, to permit the flow of urine and later, of menstrual blood. Today the union is perfect, and the clitoris is placed out of all reach underneath a thick cushion of soft parts. (quoted in Masturbation: The history of a great terror, 2001, p.111)

Ouch. And this man was supposedly guided by Western scientific reason.

But are we comparatively enlightened these days? Well, as Clementine Ford suggested, in popular culture girls are more likely to engage in shopping and texting than wanking. Indeed, the rich interior fantasy world of young females is quashed to the point they appear brainless ciphers for male desires and commercial interests. And, when we are exposed to an honest, beautiful portrayal or image of burgeoning female sexuality, we become hysterical due to a new moral hazard – the pedophile gaze. The 2010 scandal surrounding Bill Henson’s photograph of a pre-pubescent girl was motivated by fears that sick individuals might become aroused. ‘Absolutely revolting’ responded Kevin Rudd when shown the image (remind me why people want him to be PM again?). Perhaps not the thing 11-year-old girls want to hear about themselves. And if a picture of a girl just standing in the nuddy can provoke such community outrage, the likelihood of regular, non-problematic portrayals of girl wankers in pop culture will remain rare indeed.


Sally Draper outside her psychiatrist’s office, with her nanny, Carla.


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