Male Masturbation Squirmed Its Way Into American Film and Television—And Look At Us Now

In the long line of powerful men being brought down by credible allegations of sexual harassment, assault and rape, one of the most surprising discoveries is how many men apparently like to masturbate in front of unwilling women (even if the men ask first and don’t complete the act). Masturbation as a tool of attack is not, of course, worse than rape, but it is worse than groping, and while it’s shocking to no one that a lot of men like to masturbate a lot, it was news to many of us that this was such a popular vehicle for abuse.

Historically, male masturbation has been shamed by “proper” and religious society (even while they were all doing it, too). The fact that our current crop of powerful and wealthy abusers use masturbation as a self-shaming fetish (Louis CK) or as an egregious means to strike fear into women (Harvey Weinstein) fits with the historic notion that masturbation is dirty and bad. Except that men are no longer ashamed of masturbation. That’s good, of course—lots of people masturbate, it’s certainly not unhealthy from any physical standpoint (within reason), and it’s basically a normal part of adulating for men and women. But masturbation pride is a newer thing, and film and television are behind the surge.

Prior to writer Cameron Crowe’s 1982 film Fast Times at Ridgemont High, in which a masturbation-shaming scene famously proved endearing to men and boys who were done feeling the sting of guilt, American male film characters rarely talked about masturbation or did it on screen. During the 1970s, the maverick decade of cinematic male archetypes and filmmaking, masturbating was the lonely refuge of the unwanted, the loser, the socially awkward. It was a teenager’s problem that he’d overcome once he grew up and learned how to properly court a woman for sex or a relationship. The most popular male action stars of the time—Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson—would never have masturbated, let alone talked about it.

By the 1990s, male masturbation as a comedy device began to appear in mainstream films. While it was still often depicted as awkward and humiliating (There’s Something About Mary, American Pie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), seeing so much masturbating must have been liberating for men. That’s also okay—film is allowed to reveal the dark, gritty underbelly of humanity, as well as create visibility for people or actions that may or may not be misjudged by society. Fairly quickly, however, masturbation moved from comedy device to a sign of male power, and instead of being seen as the desperate act of the frustrated, pulling one off several times a day was now a sign of male virility—thanks, in large part, to porn.

Porn has risen to such an acceptable level that groundbreaking films such as writer/director Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s critically acclaimed 2013 film Don Jon, which addressed the overuse of porn and masturbating, were misinterpreted by many men. Madeleine Davies, senior writer at Jezebel, gave a disturbing firsthand account of viewing the film with the masses, the highlights of which were men cheering the objectification of women and grumbling when the film’s actual message was revealed. Other reports and exit polling told the same story—many men saw Jon as a hero. But Jon is all screwed up. He watches way too much porn and masturbates way too much to it—to the point that he eventually can’t even be satisfied by his smoking-hot girlfriend (played by Scarlett Johansson).

On the other hand, films depicting female masturbation are rare. When writer/director Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader included an act of female masturbation in its original cut, the film received an NC-17 rating. American Pie, also released in 1999, received an R for similar fare. Not Another Teen Movie contains a rare instance of female masturbation humiliation used for comedic effect, but more often, female masturbation is presented as erotic, serious—or seriously screwed up.

One of cinema’s first widely viewed depictions of female masturbation came via Naomi Watts in David Lynch’s 2001 neo-noir Mulholland Drive. Furiously banging up her vagina while weeping, Watts fails to climax—twisting her masturbation into a masochistic bludgeoning instead of passionate self-pleasure. Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film Black Swan utilizes a brief scene of failed female masturbation to allude to the psychotic Nina’s inability to connect with herself, and there’s always the classic masturbation scene from The Exorcist, in which a demon-possessed little girl impales her vagina with a crucifix. All of these stories were written by men, not incidentally.

Conversely, in Lisa Rubin’s quickly canceled Netflix series Gypsy, Watts again rubbed one out, this time while fantasizing about a younger women she’s manipulating (a long, complicated story). While the urge was rather warped, the execution was not, in itself, twisted. Writer/director Jennifer Kent’s 2014 horror flick The Babadook includes a scene in which a lonely single mother tries to vibrate her broken heart away. Essie Davis’ life is a nightmare, with her excitable son seeing demons, the two of them cooped up together all day long, and her missing her dead husband—and a good climax is what she deserves as she attempts to sort the flurry of paranormal shenanigans that have taken over her life. Her son intrudes at just the wrong moment, as kids always do, and the scene is neither erotic nor a slam on female desire, instead invoking our sympathy.

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Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, co-written with Vanessa Taylor, includes two harmless scenes of female masturbation because they’re a set-up for the fishy love story—and it’s a rare instance of a male writer (with female help) steering clear of male-gaze erotica or female derangement.

The innocuous art of pulling one off certainly branched into abuse in Abel Ferrar’s 1992 film The Bad Lieutenant, as a demented street cop played by Harvey Keitel masturbates in front of two teenage girls he’s erroneously pulled over. It’s a harrowing, sickly scene of assault, yet comments on the YouTube clip include remarks such as “my hero” and “makes me wish I was a cop.” That’s expected from the YT dregs, of course, but in the 1990s, Lieutenant was actually included on a list of “films to watch” by the sex-toy shop Good Vibrations when it proclaimed May “Masturbation Month” after Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders was fired for making pro-masturbation remarks during a United Nations conference.

In a film that’s near impossible to get through these days, 1999’s American Beauty offered dads lusting after their teenage daughters’ friends the soft hand of sympathy, if not straight up approval, and justifies Lester’s (Kevin Spacey) statutory rape fantasies by making the girl appear loose. She finds his ogling “cute” (really?), and when he masturbates to thoughts of her while in bed next to his sleeping wife, who awakens and calls him out on it, it is the wife who is presented as unreasonable. The film won Best Picture the following year.

Director Martin Scorsese’s intended skewering of greed and corruption in 2013’s Wolf of Wall Street, which was instead received by many audiences as an ode to both, contains massive amounts of debauchery, which makes the pathetic Jonah Hill pool-party masturbation scene, aimed at Margot Robbie, rather tame in comparison. Still, it’s a very public masturbation, and the consequences are nil. And in 2017’s season five of Showtime’s Brit-American comedy Episodes, the chairman of a network recounts in a phone call to Matt LeBlanc the story of him masturbating in front of a woman in a Times Square telephone booth, which left the woman shrieking and calling the cops. LeBlanc, unnerved, hangs up fairly quickly, but it’s all played for laughs.

Male masturbation as a weapon takes on a more contemporary and much more malignant tone in Tig Notaro’s look at workplace masturbation harassment. In the second season of her Amazon series One Mississippi, written by women, a male radio-station boss masturbates under his desk in front of his female employee, and the scene makes no mistake in its presentation of the act as a potential weapon of abuse. We also now know that Notaro based this vignette, in part, on her former friend, Louis CK.

So, film and television have freed male masturbation from the hairy-palmed shackles of its past, but how much of this liberation is responsible for the onslaught of abusers currently falling on their swords? We know that abuse is about power, not sex, and that abusive men have been whipping out their dicks for centuries. We also know that masturbating doesn’t automatically make men perverts. But the line separating the two has been erased and the context lost—as evidenced by so many men feeling perplexed that a woman could be traumatized by an experience of unsolicited masturbation.

It’s clear that as a creative industry, and as the audience who continues to buy tickets and integrate the media arts into our lives, we’ve changed. Those who believe they’re outside the influence of entertainment media are always shocked to realize how much of what they think they know they’ve actually gotten from film and TV—such as cigars indicating power (it’s just tobacco). The media even convinced us that blue is for boys and pink is for girls, even though in the early 20th century, it was exactly the opposite.

Freedom of expression is essential, of course, but when we tell ourselves there are no rules, that we can say, wear and do whatever we like, everything becomes fair game. That includes talking about sex and talking about, as well as showing, masturbation. The problem is, women and children—in Hollywood, in the Capitol, in Alabama, in diners, and on migrant-worker farms—aren’t being attacked with sloppy or outrageous fashion or a particular brand of salty humor. They’re actually being attacked by masturbating dicks.