Why Is Female Masturbation On TV Still The Biggest Taboo?

We take a look at how female sexuality on the small screen has changed since that Fleabag scene

Fleabag Phoebe Waller-Bridge

by Bonnie McLaren |

Fleabag might be over, but the show - led by the titular, messy af anti-heroine - leaves behind an honest portrayal of what it’s like to live, and have sex, as a single young woman. If you haven’t watched it - and if you have, then you probably can’t forget it - one of the standout scenes (and there’s a lot to choose from) is when, in a flashback, it’s revealed that Fleabag and her boyfriend broke up because she was caught masturbating to a Barack Obama speech. Hilariously funny, yes; toe-curlingly awkward, also yes. But it was also a candid approach to female sexuality, albeit one which is very rarely shown on screen. And that’s why, even though it was way back in the opening episode, the scene is still talked about.

At the time, it might have been shocking - but it wasn’t something which was included to titillate the audience. “Part of what Fleabag does is connect with us, which is part of her pushing other people away; it’s also part of her wanting to shock the audience because she’s constantly trapping us into moments that are very uncomfortable,” explains Faye Woods, a lecturer in Film and Television at the University of Reading. “It’s the same with Chewing Gum, both of those series draw us very close into female intimacy - to a level where the comic discomfort is pushed to the edge. [Masturbation] is one of the things Fleabag can do to push taboos. But it’s also a way of welcoming us like a female friend, so when we’re involved in that sex act, we’re pushed even closer than Boo [Fleabag’s dead best friend] would be, who we’re kind of replacing in season one.”

So that’s Fleabag for you. But even now, three years since that episode was aired, female masturbation scenes on TV are still few and far between - in the UK, at least - and when they are shown, it’s still purported as a big deal. Take for example last month’s Cheat, which was shown at the primetime slot of 9pm on ITV. When lecturer Leah Dale was captured masturbating in the toilet and fantasizing over another man - not her husband, who she was trying to conceive with - it was reported by The Sun that half a million viewers promptly changed the channel. (Yet when Grazia Online contacted Ofcom, a spokesperson said they didn’t receive any complaints about that scene, whereas two people complained about the cat being killed off.) While thousands might have apparently been too mortified to look, one person who certainly wasn’t embarrassed was centre of the headlines, leading actress Katharine Kelly. “It really takes a lot for me to be embarrassed,” the former Coronation Street star told the paper. "I have had two children and after childbirth, you are not embarrassed by anything.”

But that leaves the question, just why did so many people turn off? Probably because female masturbation is still a taboo subject, Lynn Enright, author of Vagina: A Re-Education says. “I find it surprising, because even when you watch the scene, it’s not very explicit, but I suppose all I can do is presume that people don’t feel comfortable with it,” the journalist tells Grazia Online. “I think female masturbation is quite a taboo subject,” she adds. “We grow up acknowledging the fact that boys and men masturbate because we generally see male sexuality as more dominant, but I think there hasn’t been a traditional openness that women masturbate. I do think that, probably, that's changing in certain cultures, but the fact that it still causes such a fuss when it's on ITV shows that there is still a powerful taboo that surrounds it.” Alice Levine, one of the hosts of My Dad Wrote A Porno, agrees. “I feel it’s taboo because you don’t see it and you don’t hear about it,” says the Radio 1 presenter. “How often do you see a male masturbating in a TV show? Probably quite a lot. It’s probably [so taboo] because of the lack of coverage of that. In our podcast, we talk a lot about the male gaze and that porn is so often from the male perspective, for a heterosexual male’s enjoyment.”

Though masturbation on ‘the main’ TV channels in the UK, like the BBC and ITV, still feels quite novel, it’s something that’s been happening outside the mainstream - and over the Atlantic - for years, with all the women I spoke to citing US examples such as Comedy Central’s Broad City - which has just ended - and The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend as sex-positive shows, because they’ve been written by women. (The first episode of Broad City began with Abbi scheduling her masturbation session for the week; in another episode, Ilana’s pre-masturbation ritual is shown by eating oysters, loading up some porn and placing a mirror adjacent to herself.) “Broad City is a show that’s focused a lot on female sexuality,” adds Alice, “but, on a terrestrial channel, you just don’t see it.”

Read more: All the best moments between Fleabag and the hot priest

Gallery

All The Best Moments Between Fleabag And The Hot Priest - Slider

'So hot!'
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Where it all began... Fleabag and her sister agreeing that The Hot Priest is in fact hot after the first time they meet him.

'So you're a cool priest now then?'
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'So you're a cool priest now then?'

THP then inviting over Fleabag for a cup of tea, only then to crack out the M&S canned G&T. (The store has since said sales have gone up by 24%)
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THP then inviting over Fleabag for a cup of tea, only then to crack out the M&S canned G&T. (The store has since said sales have gone up by 24%)

The first sign they were meant to be... 'I haven't been asked a question in 45 minutes' cue The Hot Priest asking, 'So, what do you do?' before she can even finish her sentence.
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The first sign they were meant to be... 'I haven't been asked a question in 45 minutes' cue The Hot Priest asking, 'So, what do you do?' before she can even finish her sentence.

Absolute power move, flirting with The Hot Priest after going to church literally just to see him.
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Absolute power move, flirting with The Hot Priest after going to church literally just to see him.

The painting falling down when she says she doesn't believe in God.
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The painting falling down when she says she doesn't believe in God. Cue THP shouting, 'I love it when he does that!'

THP: 'You were in my prayers last night.'  Fleabag: 'Likewise.'
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THP: 'You were in my prayers last night.'Fleabag: 'Likewise.'

The look of realisation when she utters: 'Oh God, I fancy a priest'
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The look of realisation when she utters: 'Oh God, I fancy a priest'

THE INVESTIGATION AS TO WHETHER PRIESTS CAN HAVE SEX BEGINS.
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THE INVESTIGATION AS TO WHETHER PRIESTS CAN HAVE SEX BEGINS.

'Do you really want to fuck the priest, or do you want to fuck God?'
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Fiona Shaw making a guest apperance from Killing Eve as Fleabag's therapist.'Do you really want to fuck the priest, or do you want to fuck God?' 'Can you fuck God?''Oh yes.'(She correctly predicts what is going to happen too, all powers to Fiona Shaw.)

Fleabag: 'She orgasmed when she finished it.'  The Hot Priest: 'Whatever gets you there.'
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Fleabag: 'Don't say it, don't say it. She actually orgasmed when she finished it. I just said it, appaently.'The Hot Priest: 'Whatever gets you there.'

'Arm touch, oooh.'
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'Arm touch, oooh.'

'I can't believe Iu2019m asking this, but can I get that coconut back? Theyu2019re actually on hire. Iu2019m not sure if all of them are real, which is morally a bit dubious actually.'
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'I can't believe I'm asking this, but can I get that coconut back? They're actually on hire. I'm not sure if all of them are real, which is morally a bit dubious actually.' (The disappointment on her face that he hasn't asked for something else is v sad.)

The Hot Priest being scared of foxes.
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The Hot Priest being scared of foxes.

WHEN HE BREAKS THE FIFTH WALL AND NOTICES FLEABAG TALKING TO THE AUDIENCE. ALL THE PROOF THAT THEY ARE MEANT TO BE. Also excruciatingly awkward.
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WHEN HE BREAKS THE FIFTH WALL AND NOTICES FLEABAG TALKING TO THE AUDIENCE. ALL THE PROOF THAT THEY ARE MEANT TO BE. Also excruciatingly awkward.

Fleabag helping The Hot Priest choose his robes. Couple goals.
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Fleabag helping The Hot Priest choose his robes. Couple goals.

'HIS NECK!'
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'HIS NECK!'

The Hot Priest laughing to himself after Fleabag gets up to say 'I sometimes worry I wouldn't be much of a feminist if I had bigger tits.'
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The Hot Priest laughing to himself after Fleabag gets up to say 'I sometimes worry I wouldn't be much of a feminist if I had bigger tits.'

'And then, for some reason, I was thinking about your tits which kind of ruined it.'
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'And then, for some reason, I was thinking about your tits which kind of ruined it.'

'I think you played with my guinea pig quite enough.'
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'I think you played with my guinea pig quite enough.'

'I can't read a Winnie The Pooh quote without crying. Fuck.'
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'I can't read a Winnie The Pooh quote without crying. Fuck.'

Piglet.
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Piglet.

'Sometimes, I worry I'm only in it for the outfits.'
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'Sometimes, I worry I'm only in it for the outfits.'

That confession scene.
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That confession scene.

When the sexual tension is finally broken, only for Fleabag to freak out whether he is wearing a skirt AND trousers.
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When the sexual tension is finally broken, only for Fleabag to freak out whether he is wearing a skirt AND trousers.

Olivia Colman eloquently shrieking that The Hot Priest a cunt (as soon as he leaves, obviously) when he says he can't officiate their weddding.
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Olivia Colman eloquently shrieking that The Hot Priest a cunt (as soon as he leaves, obviously) when he says he can't officiate their weddding.

'Please don't come to the church, I mean that with the greatest of compliments.'
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'Please don't come to the church, I mean that with the greatest of compliments.'

'Nine times?'
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'Nine times?'

'I can't have sex with you because I'll fall in love with, and while I won't burst into flames, my life will be fucked.'
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'I can't have sex with you because I'll fall in love with, and while I won't burst into flames, my life will be fucked.'

'We're going to have sex, aren't we? Mm, yeah'
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'We're going to have sex, aren't we? Mm, yeah'

The inevitable happens, obviously. Oh God.
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The inevitable happens, obviously. Oh God.

Gallery
View Gallery
31 photos
'So hot!'
1 of 31

'So hot!'

Where it all began... Fleabag and her sister agreeing that The Hot Priest is in fact hot after the first time they meet him.

And on these programmes, while the actual act isn’t always shown, there’s the acknowledgement and discussion that - surprise, surprise - women wank too. “Essentially masturbation is a thing that is done on your own, it’s quite interesting when it is performed on screen,” Lynn adds. “It can be a bit corny or even performed for a male gaze, where I think it’s quite interesting that it’s an aside and more kind of spoken about as a fact of life in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. I think that’s a show has a very fun and honest relationship with women’s sex lives and women’s sexuality.” And Faye agrees. “There’s two aspects to it; the depiction of it, of the act, which itself is still taboo in that way; but then there’s the discussion of the act which is talked about a lot more in female written and led comedies,” the lecturer adds. “The vibrator is something that is talked a lot, and shown a lot, in female led comedies like Broad City and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”

It might have been been twenty years since Sex And The City broadcast the episode where Charlotte was introduced to the Rabbit - “Oh, it’s so cute! I thought it would be scary and weird, but it isn’t. It’s pink! For girls!” - but there’s still a long way to go. And female sexuality will continue to be shown on the small screen in a progressive - and positive - light, according to the experts, with the help of more female writers. “I think it’s almost become a cliché to talk about the male gaze but it has been really true in how we’ve seen sex scenes and how we’ve seen female masturbation, because it's been through the male gaze,” says Lynn. “So it will be interesting as more and more women become involved in TV and as we get greater equality in TV and film to see how that changes sex scenes.”

Faye cites another show - again, an American programme - which shows female masturbation candidly, but only because there was a woman on set fighting to break the taboo. “If you read Maggie Gyllenhaal talking about her work on The Deuce [the David Simon show about sex workers in 1970s New York]; she plays Candy, who’s a sex worker - and she has sex with her boyfriend, then she moves away and masturbates, because it wasn’t quite what she wanted. But she had conflict with the male writers and producers on set because she wanted to make sure it was filmed as an authentic orgasm through masturbation, and how she had to push for that with the male creatives who just didn’t think about that.”

Thanks to female writers, times are changing. And while Fleabag might be gone for good, but, hopefully, female sexuality will continue to be represented more - and more accurately - on screen. Or at least post watershed. “Maybe we shouldn't see female masturbation on The One Show at like 5pm," Alice Levine laughs. "But I think we see male sexuality depicted so often so we should definitely see female sexuality - but it’s going to take some smart people to write it. You don’t want to make it titillating either, you sort of want it to be as run of the mill as you would see.”

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