A brief history of female masturbation in the movies

Inspired by The Shape of Water, we survey the various ways female self-pleasure has been portrayed.


Christina Newland


In pornography, female masturbation is a mainstay. Male fantasy dictates that it is almost always a titillating act for a man to watch before placing himself in the action. Accordingly, it tends to serve as an appetiser to the main dish of penetrative sex. Cinema, while generally less explicit, follows a remarkably similar line of logic on the subject of female self-pleasure.

The earliest example of a film depicting a female orgasm might well by 1933’s Ecstasy, in which Hedy Lamarr’s face is framed in ravishing close-up. But she’s with a man, and when there are men involved, the focus invariably shifts. Women have long been denied the physical know-how or self-confidence to take responsibility for their own pleasure – a problem fostered by both Catholic and Freudian ideas about female sexuality. For as long as masturbation was seen as shameful or psychologically suspect, cinema largely reflected that by ignoring it altogether.

When the gaze of the camera is male, the mannequins onscreen behave not only according to male fantasy, but to his ego. Sexually voracious or self-gratifying women are often there simply for titillation. Sharon Stone’s full-frontal nudity in 1993’s Sliver, for example, allows the audience and the voyeur to watch as she reaches climax in the bath. Contemporary arthouse fare such as Palme d’Or winner Blue is the Warmest Color is hardly better. What should have been a sensual exploration of a lesbian affair often reads like a straight man’s lusty portrayal of it. As Adèle Exarchopoulos writhes and grasps at her bare breasts in her masturbation scene, Abdellatif Kechiche’s camera hungrily roves over her body. These performative soft-core scenes are a far cry from the sweaty and less picturesque reality.

But autoeroticism for women can also exist in defiance of male sexual power, as a sort of challenge to his sexual supremacy. Maybe that’s the reason so many onscreen masturbators are depicted as either comic or darkly neurotic. Even respected male filmmakers are guilty of this. In Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding, Nicole Kidman’s cruel protagonist struggles to get off while the apparent ease of male masturbation is highlighted. In Mulholland Drive, Naomi Watts’ tearful masturbation scene is laden with symbolism and despair. The miasma of shame still hangs heavy around these women characters.

Even when the attitude is more freewheeling, as with Lars von Trier’s 2013 two-parter Nymphomaniac, certain issues remain. The juvenile Charlotte Gainsbourg is preternaturally at home with touching herself, and in Vol 2, she experiments in order to regain sensation in her nether regions. But von Trier’s viewpoint is jaded and miserable on the subject of sexuality, seeing nothing joyous or even particularly sexy about the act. These dismal depictions of female masturbation do it a representational disservice, perhaps even more than the picturesquely sexy ones do. Surprisingly, it’s a somewhat more anodyne film, Pleasantville, where a 1950s housewife learns the thrills of self-stimulation for the first time, which suggests that women might actually masturbate for fun.

Moving further into the realm of arthouse cinema reveals a more lax attitude towards the subject at hand. In Park Chan-Wook’s Stoker, a gothic psychodrama of delicious sexual impropriety, Mia Wasikowska’s inexperienced teen has a cathartic shower scene while thinking of her debonair Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) committing murder on her behalf.

Catherine Breillat’s often disturbing work on female sexuality, which regularly involves humiliation and rape, does offer an alternative exploration of the same subject. In Romance, a film that was likened to pornography upon its release in 199, protagonist Marie (Caroline Ducey) explores her own body with triumphant results. She may have some guilt about pleasuring herself when she has a boyfriend around, but her solo dalliances and fantasies – which feature some very explicit shots of erect penises – are nonetheless thrilling.

In Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, another film fascinated by the intricacies of power in sexual relationships, Isabelle Huppert plays a fiftysomething woman who has no problem casually knocking one out while watching her hunky neighbour out the window. It’s this ‘no big deal’ attitude toward female masturbation that seems sorely lacking in most cinema.

More generally, female desire onscreen can be a tricky subject. When the issue is not mutual attraction, but sexual longing – the kind which would engender fantasy and masturbation rather than an actual encounter – the logical conclusion is often missing. The pining women we see onscreen are not shown masturbating or reaching solo orgasm. Take Don Siegel’s The Beguiled, a film of roiling horniness and teenage hormones run amok. With a rugged young Clint Eastwood as the object of affection, it’s not surprising that the cloistered, sexless schoolgirls – and their teachers – are knotted-up nests of longing. The women of Magic Mike XXL, meanwhile, may stare and giggle, but we can only guess at what they do when they leave the gyrating Channing Tatum behind.

That longing is perhaps more easily shared by cinemagoers when sexual activity is withheld. That ability for subtlety means traditional cinema still has its fair share of arousing moments. Pornography reveals everything with the stated intent to turn you on, and while feminist pornographers like Erika Lust offer plenty to choose from, it seems that feature filmmaking isn’t far behind. For a Bustle poll where women were asked to talk about Hollywood sex scenes they masturbate to, a wide variety of unexpected choices appear. These even include shots of Megan Fox in the Transformers series. Personal taste may be fickle, but it seems that a simple lingering shot of a particular actor is as good as porn for some viewers.

Still, when it comes to truly realistic, normalised images of female masturbation, it’s television that seems to be doing it best. Broad City’s nonchalant treatment of dildo use and pencilled-in ‘me’ time normalises the act in a quietly radical way. In Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge has a ho-hum wank next to her sleeping boyfriend – until, lo and behold, a Barack Obama press conference comes on and she can finish spectacularly. It’s funny, but it communicates the similarities between women and men when it comes to masturbation. It can be earth-shattering or mundane, but there’s nothing shameful or rare about it.

Published 14 Feb 2018

Tags: Adèle Exarchopoulos Catherine Breillat Guillermo del Toro Hedy Lamarr Isabelle Huppert Mia Wasikowska Naomi Watts Nicole Kidman Phoebe Waller-Bridge

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