Betty Dodson has made a career out of teaching women to masturbate, but she’s only one woman. “You first have to be self-sexual, and then you can have sex with other people,” Dodson said recently, summarizing a life philosophy that has crowned her the grand dame of radical sex positivity. “The love affair — the sex affair — that we have with ourselves is the primary one. It should be ongoing throughout our life, and we should honor it.”
Dodson’s ideas reached a wider audience last fall, when “Broad City” sent Ilana to a sex therapist named Betty in search of her lost orgasm. (The culprit: Donald Trump.) Titled “Witches,” the episode spawned countless think pieces and was a standout in a series that has promoted sex positivity from the beginning. But “Broad City” is a comedy, and while its impact is vast, it is largely felt by a self-selecting audience already primed for its feminist messaging.
When earnest and tasteful portrayals of women masturbating start to crop up in Oscar-nominated films, however, that’s a marked cultural shift toward embracing women’s pleasure. Not at the hands of a man, or any partner for that matter, and — most importantly — with women as the masters of their own pleasure — not simply as a source of it for others.
Twice in “The Shape of Water,” the most-nominated film of the season, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is seen in her morning bath, one foot up on the clawfoot tub, the water splashing gently around her as she quickly rubs one out. It’s just one part of a morning routine that involves boiling an egg and shining her shoes. The film’s director Guillermo del Toro very intentionally sandwiched Elisa’s morning delight between these mundane morning tasks.
“We are used to either never depicting female sexuality, or depicting it in a glamorized, artificial way,” the director told IndieWire in an earlier interview. By that token, del Toro aimed to show sex in the least exploitative way possible, which extended to the ordinariness of the masturbation scenes. “She dreams of water, uses water to boil her eggs, and then goes and gets in the water, and masturbates, shines her shoes, and goes to work. A perfectly acceptable routine by any standards,” del Toro said.
In “Princess Cyd,” which recently hit Netflix after earning rave reviews from its festival run, the teenage protagonist is shown masturbating in another artful rendering of autonomous sexuality. Filmmaker Stephen Cone films Cyd’s (Jessie Pinnick) sexual exploration with respectful sensitivity, carefully crafting a quietly radical scene that doesn’t forego sensuality for character development.
As in “The Shape of Water,” it’s a short scene, splashed between two conversations with Cyd and her Aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence). The camera pans up from Cyd’s feet, as we see her hand pulsing lightly inside her gym shorts. Fully clothed with a hand resting gently on her chest, Cyd does not writhe, moan, or deliver any of the phony trappings of pleasure often imagined for the screen. A consummate minimalist, Cone does not need to show the subject of Cyd’s fantasy in cheesy flashes; the scene arrives shortly after she dances sheepishly on a rooftop with Katie (Malic White), an androgynous barista with a mohawk and a killer smile.
Most importantly: Showing Cyd masturbate enriches the coming-of-age story; it’s not extraneous or thrown in for the sake of titillation.
Courtesy of BAM
“It’s one foot in front of the other,” Cone said. “Cyd has to entertain the possibility in her imagination before she can actually move forward. Even if she’d been presented with the opportunity to have sex with Katie earlier, I don’t know that she would’ve done it. She needs a little bit of space to imagine herself into this slightly new place.”
Neither of these scenes can compare to the infamous “peach scene” in “Call Me by Your Name.” Elio’s rush of creativity and subsequent flush of shame will go down in history as one of the most inventive and nuanced portrayals of teenage desire ever put on film. The peach scene spawned cheeky memes, and led to speculation and admissions that Luca Guadagnino and Timothee Chalamet actually tested out the mechanics. (They did).
We have a long way to go before women’s desire gets as messy and wild a treatment, and it’s up to women directors and writers to lead the charge. Maggie Gyllenhaal was a producer on “The Deuce,” and convinced director David Simon to show her character masturbating (after a disappointing night with a man, naturally). Ilana Glazer, Abbi Jacobsen, and Amy Poehler are executive producers on “Broad City,” which has always treated women’s pleasure with frank playfulness. In “Lady Bird,” the heroine makes light of losing her virginity while on top, but it’s a stark contrast to the standard positioning that seems very intentional from writer/director Greta Gerwig.
In the absence of truly sex-positive sex education in this country, representations of sexuality in movies and TV matter immensely. Not everyone has a radical parent to hand them Dodson’s “Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving,” to teach them that sex with yourself is the foundation sex with anyone else. Last year delivered two excellent films with women masturbating. But just like sex in real life, we want more, more, more.