Women pleasuring themselves in pop videos and lyrics isn’t new – what’s different is that male pleasure is no longer part of the equation.
Annie Clark, aka St Vincent, surprised fans with Birth in Reverse, which featured the line: “Oh what an ordinary day, take out the garbage, masturbate.” Thereafter, a salacious video for Miley Cyrus’s Adore You materialised, in which the singer runs a sly hand down her body to signify that she too will procure her own pleasure – a routine she’s also decided to play up on her tours. Not long after Adore You appeared online, Nicki Minaj sneaked up on fans by releasing a remix of the song Boss Ass Bitch and from it sprung the words: “It’s a holiday, playing with my pussy day.” In none of these instances is masturbation presented as titillating, prurient or provocative. It is normal and routine.
In a carnally confident style akin to Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein yowling through Sleater-Kinney’s Let’s Call It Love, or PJ Harvey lasciviously panting, “Lick my legs! I’m on fire!” on Rid of Me, female pleasure in popular music is on its own. When female rappers and R&B icons of the 90s and early 00s used this method (Tweet’s Oops Oh My, Janet Jackson’s Take Care and Lil’ Kim’s Queen Bitch to name a smutty few), it was a powerful tool which pushed back on the idea that women needed men. But the shock value of a woman masturbating – at least as a lyrical device – has at last begun to depreciate. It is no longer an act of flirty deviance to be monetised; it is merely normalised. Sure, Cyrus almost certainly knew the Adore You video would spark a prudish outcry, but it’s still the least flashy thing she’s done. Similar is the “DIY” T-shirt Rihanna sported, which showed a woman masturbating. With it Rihanna wore a long skirt and a toque. If the point was to be seen, it was also: “And so what?”
While female pleasure in music is nothing new, the shift that has appeared is largely based around an absence of the man: take for example Janet Jackson’s Take Care, where she sings: “I’ll lay here and take care of it ’til you come home to me.” For Jackson, masturbation is a bookmark. The Divinyls’ I Touch Myself – a pro-masturbation anthem if ever there was one – contains the line: “I’d get down on my knees, I’d do anything for you.” When it came out in 1990 it was intrepid. But the song is just as much about giving pleasure as getting it.
In an interview with CNN, Kathleen Hanna, feminist leader of Bikini Kill, questioned the purpose of Katy Perry’s sexual presentation on Perry’s debut single I Kissed a Girl. “The whole thing is like, ‘I kissed a girl so my boyfriend could masturbate about it later,’ said Hanna. “It’s disgusting. It’s exactly every male fantasy of fake lesbian porn.”
Considered alongside a line by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Is It My Body? – “The body’s not theirs anymore,” she writes of rock stars. “It’s a public domain and public perception” – the discussion over whom a woman’s pleasure serves seems more relevant than ever. A handful of casual references in which pleasure is one’s own are slickly antithetical to any male musician – from Serge Gainsbourg to Skinny Puppy – who ever plunked the sound of a woman moaning into a song for the sake of masculine bravado.
Additionally, the dust finally settling on female masturbation makes room for some gloriously guileful subversion. On Backseat Freestyle, Angel Haze reverses the double standard by laughing pitifully at the male who goes home alone – “Just keep on masturbating,” she says. After that she avows, “Poppin’ pussy’s irrelevant.” This is not dissimilar to Lil’ Kim’s “a lot of napkins” dig in the opening track of her 1996 debut album Hard Core.
St Vincent, Cyrus and Minaj don’t fight for the right to pleasure, they just do it and they do it themselves. Until this point, most lyrics on the subject of female masturbation have undermined and corrected the illusion that pleasure can’t be DIY.
Now the message is that pleasure still exists when pleasure is self-serving.