Masturbation and Female Empowerment in Photos (and the Law?)

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In The New Republic Ruth Franklin asks, Is Female Masturbation Really the Last Sexual Taboo? That’s the title of her review of a book of photographs by Will Santillo called La Petite Morte: Female Masturbation, Fantasies and Orgasm (Taschen 2011).

Open any women’s magazine—not only Cosmopolitan—and you’re likely to find a reference to masturbation as part of a normal sex life. If Joycelyn Elders were surgeon general today, her notorious comment about promoting masturbation as a form of safe sex would be unlikely to get her fired.

And so there’s something sleazy about Taschen’s fanfare over La Petite Mort—not the photographs themselves, heavily shadowed and with the models’ limbs artfully arranged, but the rhetoric of liberation that accompanies them. Santillo claims that, in the women’s post-shoot comments, “the single most common word was ‘empowering.’” In interviews with Hanson, a few of the subjects—whose brief commentaries are interspersed with the photos—used similar language. “I hope that all the women depicted, and that in particular the women among the viewers, feel emboldened, feel that women can break the stereotypes of our culture about beauty, and that this collection can help to remove any sense of shame or isolation about expressing their sexuality to themselves and to the world,” Santillo’s wife, who was among his models, comments. But paradoxically, all this revolutionary language only reinforces the old ideas. “If orgasm is the little death, is masturbation the little suicide?” Hanson asks in her introduction. That doesn’t sound so empowering to me. * * *

People who feel genuinely liberated, after all, don’t make a point of pronouncing how liberated they feel. This is something that men writing about sex seem always to have known, but that women are just discovering. * * * [T]his seems to me to be the definition of sexual freedom—the fact that women have come to regard sex more in the way that men do, as an elemental part of life, no less essential than eating or breathing, and thus no more in need of cheerleading. Masturbation, for men of Woody Allen’s generation, isn’t an act of empowerment; it’s just “sex with someone you love.” Likewise, sex for women today—in all its forms—is just something that we do, not something for which we need special permission or forgiveness afterward.

The full review is here.

I’m not sure, but I take Franklin’s point to be that the book’s “masturbation = empowerment” message seems hollow, and that if women were really empowered by their masturbation, there wouldn’t be a book about it (?), or perhaps not this book.

I don’t know if review copies are available from Taschen, but anyone searching for an idea for the Michigan Law Review’s next Annual Survey of Books is welcome to this one.

-Bridget Crawford

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