A History Of Female Masturbation On TV

Photo: Joseph Del Valle/NBCU Photo Bank.
There's no doubt that "The Contest" is a groundbreaking episode of TV. On November 18, 1992, the 51st episode of Seinfeld introduced masturbation to network TV, without ever once mentioning the word. The action throughout the half-hour is entirely centered around a competition between Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine to see who can go longest without self-gratification. It's an example of a situation in which morality constraints actually improved the story — mentioning the word explicitly would eliminate some of the most memorable lines. (Tell me you don't think of it anytime uses "master" and "domain" in the same sentence.)
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But looking back, what I find most impressive about this episode is the way it explicitly acknowledged female masturbation. In fact, Elaine's story line about struggling to go without after flirting with John F. Kennedy Jr. in her aerobics class is arguably the best in the episode. And the fact that the men are initially reluctant to include her in the bet at all, claiming, "It's easier for a woman not to do it than a man," both acknowledges common misconceptions about women's sexuality, and debunks them when Elaine bows out early on in the episode.
Speaking to Vulture for an oral history about the creation of the episode, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, author of Seinfeldia, points out that Seinfeld ended in 1998, the same year that Sex and the City premiered on HBO. "I still have this weird fantasy where I want Elaine to meet the Sex and the City girls. I think she’d have a better time," she said. "I’m not saying they’re perfect, but I think it would be a better life choice for her than hanging out with these guys."
The timing isn't coincidental. Though vastly different, both shows broke barriers of what was considered acceptable for television — both on network and cable. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld have spoken about how difficult they found writing a believable female character — so much so that Elaine wasn't actually in the pilot. That's reflected when, only four episodes after "The Contest," George and Jerry are at a loss about how to write their Elaine character stand-in into their show about nothing. Yet, as Elaine Benes, Julia Louis Dreyfus still paved the way for other strong, funny, and overtly sexual women on TV.
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In the time since "The Contest" aired, male masturbation has become almost ubiquitous. Female masturbation, however, still remains taboo enough that any portrayal on television still makes headlines. In honor of the episode's 25th anniversary, we take a look at all the women who took matters in their own hands.
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Sally Draper, Mad Men (Season 4, Episode 5) — 2010

Even in a slideshow like this one, this scene stands out. Ten-year-old Sally Draper's (Kiernan Shipka) sexual awakening by means of The Man From U.N.C.L.E is a rare look at budding sexuality in a child. It's worth noting that we never actually see Sally masturbate in this scene. Rather, it's implied in the camera work, and confirmed by her mother's reaction when she's later brought home in disgrace.
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Marnie, Girls (Season 1, Episode 3) — 2012

Having seemingly perfect Marnie Michaels surrender control and masturbate in a public bathroom after flirting with artist Jonathan Booth is just one of the things that made Girls such an important show for millennial women. It wasn't the only scene to depict masturbation on the show (far from it), but it was the first, and the most memorable.

"I feel like it’s an important scene," Allison Williams told HuffPost at the time. "It’s one of many for Marnie. It’s funny because there are moments where — yes, that was challenging, but there are other things that are so hard. Sometimes fake laughing is hard once you’ve done a scene 18 times. I don’t want to brag, but I have a reputation for being very, very good at that. It’s funny finding what’s challenging about acting as you go. A scene like [the masturbation scene] just gets added to the pile and gets smushed in. It’s been really interesting being interviewed and being asked about it so much, because I’m like, “Oh, yeah, well there have been seven episodes since that scene.” I also feel like we are showing these very intimate, private and specific moments in our characters’ lives and it just sort of is a part of Marnie’s puzzle."
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Kenna, Reign (Season 1, Episode 1) — 2013

The fact that a CW show featured a woman masturbating in its pilot episode is noteworthy in its own right. The fact that the scene was altered to be less explicit before airing for the public makes it all the more interesting.

The scene in question shows Kenna, a lady in waiting to Mary, Queen of Scots, who after watching Mary and her new husband Francis consummate their marriage, is so turned on that she hides in a corner to masturbate. And who should surprise her in the act than Henry, the KING of France, who proceeds to literally give her a hand.

“This is the thing: I don’t care about being naked on screen. I don’t care about masturbating on screen; I don’t care about sex scenes on screen," Australian actress Caitlin Stasey told DuJour Magazine. "The aftermath is fine; I don’t care who sees it. It’s the actual process of filming it that sucks. It’s unsexy, it’s incredibly technical, it’s incredibly boring and also incredibly embarrassing. You’re just like writhing around in front of a group of maybe 30 dudes because the set is primarily men… but the act of a woman actually taking care of herself in that way is incredibly powerful.”
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Big Boo, Orange Is The New Black (Season 1, Episode 4) — 2013

Masturbating with a stolen screwdriver isn't far from the most shocking thing Big Boo's done on this show. (Remember the time she got oral sex from a dog?) But Orange Is The New Black has been instrumental in bringing attention and nuance to the real experience of being a woman in prison. Sexuality, both between two women and alone, is a big part of that.

Lea DeLaria has since revealed that this has become a sort of signature scene for her. "I was passing Ace Hardware and this girl ran out of the store screaming, 'Big Boo! Please sign my screwdriver!'" And that was only the beginning. "Little did I know that would become a thing. I’ve signed 40 or 50 of them since the show came out, which brings me to the question, ‘Where the fuck are these screwdrivers coming from?’ Women pull them out of their purses. Is this some new accessory?"
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Virginia, Masters Of Sex (Season 2, Episode 3) — 2014

Masters of Sex is, as its title implies, a show about sex: studying it; cataloging it; analyzing it. But from the very first episode, it was clear that Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) wasn't just there to prop up Bill Masters' (Michael Sheen) ego. In fact, where he is repressed, she is free — open with her sexuality and desires. Case-in-point, the scene in which he demands she tell him that he makes her feel good, and she responds by saying she can do it herself. She proceeds to masturbate in front of him, and revenge has never felt so good.
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Rachel, UnREAL (Season 1, Episode 5) — 2015

In a Facebook post commenting on the episode, Shiri Appleby wrote: "The opening and closing scenes of episode 105 of UnREAL really sparked a conversation. Who knew a women pleasuring herself would be so news worthy."

But I would argue that in this case, it wasn't so much the act itself that was controversial, but rather how it was presented. There were no candles, no soft music, no bubblebaths, or whatever nonsense we've come to expect from women masturbating on TV. Rachel was shown lying in her bunk, furtively pleasuring herself between takes while watching porn on her phone. The fact that scene is juxtaposed alongside a plotline requiring Rachel to pressure a woman to lose her virginity is all the more worth the attention.
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Ilana, Broad City (Season 2, Episode 8) — 2015

Ilana Wexler doesn't just masturbate. She has a pre-masturbation ritual that involves candles, a yoga mat, an iPhone lit up with the picture of Abbi Abrams, a dildo, and a mirror — strategically positioned so she can watch everything in real time. In a world where female masturbation is still often shown as shocking, or unusual, Ilana's practiced gestures heralded a new kind of heroine, who doesn't need permission or even a catalyst to pleasure herself.
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Christine Reade, The Girlfriend Experience (multiple episodes) — 2016

The show, "suggested by" Steven Soderbergh's 2009 movie, takes a look at the life of Christine Reade (Riley Keough), a woman paying her way through law school by moonlighting as a high class escort. The Girlfriend Experience doesn't shy away from portraying sex onscreen — not only between Christine and her clients, but also her own sexual moments.

Speaking to Refinery29, Keough said: "We wanted to show things that you don't really see, like the girl getting her period or the girl masturbating… You really feel like you're creeping in on this girl, so it's a bit uncomfortable. It's not like we're showing her masturbate just to have a masturbation scene. It's showing every part of this person and her private moments."
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Fleabag, Fleabag (Season 1, Episode 1) — 2016

Let me just start by saying that if you haven't yet watched Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge's six-episode gem on Amazon, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR? It's a show that will have you laughing and sobbing in the same sentence, and a rare look at a woman who isn't even pretending to be likable. Like when she admits that her boyfriend broke up with her when he realized she was masturbating to a news report about President Obama. In bed. With him.
10 of 12
Issa, Insecure (Season 2, Episode 3) — 2017

Like Broad City, Insecure's depiction of masturbation isn't particularly sexy. Issa reaches for her vibrator only to find that her batteries have died, and she runs around her apartment yelling "Fuck!" every time she comes up empty. It's a look at how masturbation is just a normal part of women's lives. You don't need a special excuse, fancy lingerie or bubble baths. You just need working batteries.

In the [writers’] room we were talking about what it feels like to be thirsty and how we don’t really get to see female characters masturbate," Issa Rae told Glamour. "Even in a funny way. Especially black women! So we wanted to portray that, while remaining true to our show and showing sexual frustration."
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Candy, The Deuce (Season 1, Episode 5) — 2017

The Deuce, HBO's new prestige drama inviting viewers into the wild world of early 1970s porn, is probably the least sexy show about sex currently on TV. The show's commitment to depicting sex work from a female point of view delivered some pretty memorable moments, including a scene in which Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) gives herself an orgasm after disappointing sex with the man she's currently seeing.
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Bridgette, SMILF (Season 1, Episode 1) — 2017

SMILF, Showtime's new comedy about a single mother trying to balance parenthood of a small toddler with a sex life, doesn't mess around. In the pilot episode, “A Box of Dunkies and Two Squirts of Maple Syrup," we see the titular character, Bridgette, fall asleep with a vibrator inside her while attempting to masturbate, an act she later accomplishes while looking at photos of her ex's new girlfriend.

“Part of what I’m drawn to when I’m writing is sort of a fantasy aspect [of women] and the secret life,” creator Frankie Shaw explained to Refinery29. “So, a lot of this is a huge discrepancy between reality and women’s fantasy lives.”
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