People are “gobsmacked” at an advert that alludes to a woman masturbating – but why?

In paid partnership with The Body Shop

When a Body Shop advert for self-love hit screens this week, the response said a lot about the way society views women.

“Go and grab the most phallic object you can find!” yelled the Maid of Honour on my laptop screen. It was the first lockdown, I was on a virtual hen do, and we were indulging in some organised fun. The game required us to run around our houses, bringing back various items of hilarity as quickly as we could – points were awarded for both speed and comic effect. Naturally competitive, I sprinted towards what I was certain would be the winning object. Long, thick, and rounded at the top: my Le Creuset pepper grinder.

But as I proudly waved my ceramic kitchen apparatus in front of my webcam, my eyes landed on what one of the other hens had presented: a Rampant Rabbit. In an instant, I felt the warmth of colour flushing my cheeks. Not sure I’d have been that brave, I considered. But almost as quickly as the thought arrived, I pushed it away. Why shouldn’t she acknowledge the existence of a sex toy in a safe space; among a group of like-minded women? Or for that matter, in any domain she felt comfortable bringing it up?

Because here’s the thing: society would have it that women’s sexuality is not to be discussed in a public forum. Men, on the other hand? No problem. It’s a double standard that has only been further reinforced following the reaction to the release of The Body Shop’s new ‘Self Love’ advert. Broadcast for the first time this week during a Love Island commercial break, it quite clearly alludes to a woman about to masturbate.

The 30-second ad introduces viewers to three housemates: Fran, Leila and Olivia. It follows them as they encounter various different insecurities triggered by the demands of modern day life; being trolled online, having low self-esteem, struggling to find anyone decent on a dating app. Then, it shows the different ways in which they overcome these low moments – by making themselves feel good with acts of self-love. For one of the women in the advert, that act is self-pleasure, and we see her close the curtains before reaching down into her underwear.

Sure, it’s perhaps not something you’d expect to see just before the 6 o’clock news (and it’s not broadcast at that time for exactly that reason). But it equally didn’t warrant the shock reaction from some viewers that it received. The words “gobsmacked” and “weird” were thrown around Twitter in response, with one person even describing it as “obscene.” But doesn’t it say more about our own stigma around women’s sexuality than anything else, if we can’t abide the thought of a woman exploring her own body for pleasure? No explicit or graphic scenes were shown, yet it was still described as “risky” and “sick” by commentators on social media.

Woman closing the curtains in her bedroom

We’re not used to hearing women talk openly about orgasms. Perhaps it’s rooted in the fact that, in centuries gone by, masturbation was deemed a moral sin by various different religions. But shame and resulting silence on the topic has continued to feed the cycle into our modern world, meaning other women don’t feel able to volunteer information about their own sexual experiences either. Conversely, it wouldn’t be unusual to hear a man down the pub describe in great, light-hearted detail, the story of his first wank.

“For decades we’ve seen and accepted men as the more sexual of the gender,” says therapist and principle researcher at sex therapy app Blueheart, Dr Laura Vowels. “There’s this ongoing narrative in society that men are constantly in the mood for sex and that generally, they have a higher sexual appetite than women. Whereas women who watch porn have often been criticised and labelled as ‘anti-feminists’ as well as being called a whole host of other misogynistic names.”

“More women in the UK own a vibrator than a dishwasher”

“The issue here is that these outdated beliefs that men are more sexual and women should be ‘virginal’ and ‘pure’ are so ingrained in society that it will take a long time to shift them,” Dr Vowels explains.

The fact is, women masturbate. There are more women in the UK who own a vibrator than a dishwasher, and what’s more, it’s good for you. It’s been recommended as a way for people to familiarise themselves with their body and their own sexual responses, and it’s also used as a treatment for premature ejaculation and orgasmic disorders in women.

Non-graphic images of women enjoying self-pleasure

So if it’s happening, and if doing it is only going to provide greater good, then what’s the issue with talking about it? Especially when maintaining a veil of silence over the issue may be doing active harm. “Maintaining female sexuality as a taboo topic continues to feed into patriarchal perspectives that female pleasure isn’t important,” says Dr Vowels. “It’s time to level the playing field and grant women the opportunity to empower themselves and their sexuality.”

What we don’t see, we don’t always feel comfortable with – but that doesn’t mean we should all stay in our sheltered boxes forever. Just like Bodyform in 2017, who showed period blood on screen for the first time ever, adverts like this from The Body Shop take strides in normalising something that simply shouldn’t be taboo. They start conversations, and conversations lead to progression. So let’s keep progressing.

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