Again With the Demonizing of Women’s Sexuality

Hi all, sorry for the late start over here, but I’m Monica from The American Prospect and PostBourgie. I was happy to get an invite to blog for a couple of weeks, and will work really hard to squeeze in time between my work at Tapped and PB.

I wanted to kick it off by bringing up a minor annoyance of mine: the assumption that the sexual exploration of a pre-teen always necessarily means she was sexually abused. That’s the discussion over at Slate, in the comments section, about the latest episode of MadMen. In a pivotal scene, Sally’s friend’s mom catches her masturbating on the couch, and rushes Sally home to complain to Betty. Some commenters wonder whether this brings up uncomfortable possibilities about Grandpa Gene’s closeness with his granddaughter. His death, Betty points out to the psychiatrist Sally is taken to see after the episode, precipitated Sally’s misbehavior.

Child abuse is a serious issue and, truthfully, is most often perpetrated by family members and friends. It’s not impossible Gene was an abuser, and maybe that’s where the show’s producers are taking it. But honestly, a ten-year-old boy masturbating wouldn’t arouse the same suspicions, and it’s not crazy that a ten-year-old would start exploring his or her sexuality. We have a tendency to think of the middle part of the last century as this pristine era, right before the sexplosion of the 60s, in which girls wouldn’t have known how to do those things. But think about it: did anyone have to tell you what to do? We certainly don’t talk much about masturbation now, and lots of girls do it.

So, while the commenters have pointed to a lot of creepy-in-retrospect scenes from last season, I’m not convinced. I don’t remember anything seeming weird or untoward, but, chances are, if I viewed them with a suspicious lens, I would now. It doesn’t mean that’s not where the show is taking the Sally storyline. It just means I’ll be disappointed if it is.

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24 comments for “Again With the Demonizing of Women’s Sexuality

  1. August 24, 2010 at 4:32 pm

    I’ve been open about the fact that I was abused, but I started masturbating at 12. Female friends who have been honest with me have admitted that they started even earlier than 10, though they often had no words to assign to what they were doing.

    The other side of this is that often when girls are being sexually abused, they do masturbate, but often in inappropriate places and at inappropriate times. Similar behavior by boys, however, is often assumed as “boys being boys”. As to whether or not that’s a sexist assumption or not, I have to say I’m not entirely sure.

  2. August 24, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    I haven’t watched this ep yet, but I just don’t see it. It’s far more likely for MM to take on masturbation and taboo in the 1960s.

    One issue is that people lurve to problematize shit they don’t understand — masturbation in children is considered perfectly normal unless certain circumstances exist simultaneously that indicate abuse. Second issue is that people have to remember how effing taboo masturbation was — and *is* in some circles! female masturbation at that! — compared to today’s relatively more open culture. We can pooh-pooh the sexual revolution for its limitations, and sure there were plenty, but there are so many ways we are better off. Today’s Sally might get scolded for touching herself in an inappropriate location (like, erm, on the couch at her friend’s house), but she almost certainly wouldn’t get carted off to a psychiatrist. Thirdly, today’s Sally would probably have been given a talk, or have learned peripherally, about sex at some point, and would at least understand what was happening to her body.

  3. Caro
    August 24, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    Yes, thank you for writing this! I’ve been noticing these comments on the threads of Mad Men posts and doing a double take every time. The assumption that a girl touching herself must have been abused is a pretty big leap, despite whatever hints people think there may have been about Grandpa Gene. I really hope that’s not where they’re going with it.

    It almost seems as if these commenters are buying into Betty’s assessment that there must be something “wrong” with Sally for her to be “acting out,” rather than acknowledging she was doing perfectly normal 10-year-old girl things, like rebelling about her appearance and exploring her sexuality. I feel like this whole storyline was more to remind us that a) Sally is growing up and this is going to cause friction with Betty’s inability to parent and b) Betty has some problems dealing with her own sexuality and women’s sexuality in general.

  4. August 24, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    There’s an interactive fountain I take my son to. Almost every girl I see playing in the fountain deliberately stands so the water jet sprays up between her legs, then squeals with delight. Whenever I see this, I am happy for them in their enjoyment of their bodies and afraid for them because someone may try to take that away from them before long.

    The thing I love about Mad Men is that the show never takes the easy way out of a storyline. I don’t think they’ll go there with Grandpa Gene. It’s too simplistic and overdone. Dealing with the cultural norms surrounding childhood sexuality is much more interesting and envelope-pushing than another abuse story. And they’ve already hinted at Sally’s sexuality coming under scrutiny. I remember an episode in which Betty jokingly called Sally a “little lesbian.” And Sally seemed to have a crush on her female teacher at one point. The friend’s house as setting could be significant.

  5. Paraxeni
    August 24, 2010 at 7:14 pm

    > “it’s not crazy that a ten-year-old would start exploring his or her sexuality”

    You’re so right. For that matter, it’s not odd that *humans* explore it. Anyone who’s spent any time with babies knows that even they have an awareness that certain actions,or touches, feel good. They have no inhibitions, no sense of shame, and some of them will spend literally hours at a time humping away at their favourite stuffed bear!

  6. August 24, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    Wow, you post reminded me of an earlier post I created—->

    It is pretty personal, but at that point of my life I had to let it out in the open.

  7. August 24, 2010 at 7:44 pm

    Wow. I don’t watch mad men, but I can say this: I distinctly remember masturbating at age 7 and I was not abused by anyone. Hey, it feels good and you don’t have to be 18 to figure that one out. I have to wonder about those commenters

  8. oldlady
    August 24, 2010 at 7:48 pm

    I was in trouble for masturbating when I was four years old. I think we are born knowing that it feels good to touch our genitals. Then the trouble starts.

  9. Jadey
    August 24, 2010 at 8:24 pm

    Not a Mad Men viewer, but, yeah, I’ve been masturbating since I was at least two, possibly earlier (I know two because I was not exactly discreet about it and my mother gleefully reports on the time that I started going at it in front of a visiting minister – ha!). Mercifully my parents, aside from expecting that I learn appropriate timing, did nothing to shame or dissuade me, and I was never led to believe that such behaviour was wrong or a sign of something catastrophic. I know in my adolescence I would absolutely have been vulnerable to all manner of unhelpful perceptions of the meaning of my behaviour had I been aware of them.

  10. Jadey
    August 24, 2010 at 11:32 pm

    On a more media-relevant note, I think this sort of viewer interpretations are also related to just how common it is to throw a hint of sexual abuse into a female character’s background or development in order to “spice” it up a little, or the way rape is used as a convenient plot device (I’ll be kind and not link to TV Tropes directly). As a viewer I’m often disappointed but rarely surprised by the way that sexual violence and child abuse are used conveniently and simplistically. Hopefully the writers of Mad Men are more imaginative than some of their audience.

  11. Jadey
    August 24, 2010 at 11:33 pm

    *this sort of viewer interpretation is

    Sorry, writing fail.

  12. August 25, 2010 at 1:14 am

    Betty’s objection to Sally’s behavior (which was very ambiguous from what we were shown; she could easily have just been scratching an itch on her leg) is classic “do as I say, not as I do.” Betty has been shown getting her own rocks off several times on the show (although, of course, not in front of anyone). I think she’s more embarrassed that somebody caught Sally and made an issue out of it; Betty’s social standing, after her divorce, ain’t what it used to be. (Also, her belief that masturbation leads directly to early intercourse is just plain inaccurate, although I suppose most people back then thought that.)

    And no, I don’t see them going into Something About Amelia territory with this story line. That’s a little too on-the-nose for these writers. The bigger issue here is that Sally has no idea why her parents had to get divorced, and Betty can’t tell her the real reason, because she can’t tell anybody.

  13. ads
    August 25, 2010 at 4:50 am

    Girls, even little girls masturbate at all ages. Five and six is not uncommon. When I was at med school, one of our paediatric consultants told us about his daughter who used to like sitting on the tip of her teddy bears nose and playing ” horsey “, she was 4. The way he handled it was by saying ” darling its fine to ride teddy, but may be not when we have guests around for dinner”.He was very grounded about his daughters sexuality and seemed to rejoice in the fact that she would grow up to be an unencumbered liberated woman. The trick is not to shame children, which is what happens to us particularly as little girls. Who doesn’t remember being told to ” sit like a lady” even though it was patently more comfortable at six to sprawl legs akimbo all over the floor. My concern is that with the avent of increasing sexual abuse awareness and the infiltration of porn into younger and younger age groups of boys, a lot of the natural,appropriate, childhood innocent exploration like ” doctors and nurses” and ” I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” will be lost or worse corrupted.

  14. Kylara7
    August 25, 2010 at 5:00 am

    Thank you for saying this, here and at other MM sites. I am also annoyed by the assumption that a girl couldn’t figure out masturbation all on her own without someone (read: “a male”) showing her what it’s all about it…it’s just another reflection of the cultural assumption that women do not have an innate sexuality that they own and explore and act on, that it’s something that has to be “given” to them by a man (or boy). I figured out the masturbation thing as a youngster and though I didn’t get dragged to the shrink, my parents definitely freaked out about it and tried to tell me it was wrong and I was dirty….luckily, I didn’t listen. I strongly feel that “my secret” was a key in developing a healthy sexuality and a belief that orgasm was something that I was naturally capable of and entitled to…and when I started having sex, I was initially unimpressed b/c I could do it much better myself without dealing with any teenage boy awkwardness before/during/after. I probably had LESS sex as a teen/young woman simply BECAUSE I was good and familiar with getting myself off…contrary to the “OMG…if she learns about this (sex or birth control or masturbation or whatev’s) she’ll go out and do anyone and everyone!” stupidity. I thought the moment in the MM ep was very real and sadly, so was the reaction. Glad to hear that we’ve moved on and kids aren’t getting that same shame message, or at least not as much!

  15. Jackie
    August 25, 2010 at 5:35 am

    Meowser, while I haven’t seen this episode of Mad Men, do you believe they’d be able to go much farther than ambiguity regarding the situation?

  16. ellid
    August 25, 2010 at 6:25 am

    I wasn’t abused, and I started masturbating when I was 2 or 3 (yes, really. I didn’t figure out what I was actually doing until I was about twelve, but I knew it felt good). I used to do it in my crib/bed at night.

    And of course my parents caught me, and of course they FREAKED. They even took me to the doctor and told her I was wiping myself too hard after I used the bathroom. She probably knew exactly what was going on, and God bless her, she was perfectly calm and reasonable, which is why I wasn’t sent to a child psychiatrist or somesuch.

    I *did* learn to conceal masturbation from my mother (although she knew I was still doing it, and still disapproved – never knew why), and I still do it. I’ve never had trouble with orgasm, and I think it’s because I knew how good touching myself could feel.

    So to me, Betty’s reaction to Sally is spot-on, and a sign of nothing more than the sexual repression of the early 1960s. The only thing I question is that Sally didn’t start long before this. Late bloomer much? :)

  17. August 25, 2010 at 11:21 am

    Jackie: Meowser, while I haven’t seen this episode of Mad Men, do you believe they’d be able to go much farther than ambiguity regarding the situation?  

    I don’t think so. The young actress who plays Sally, who is the same age as the character, says she’s not even allowed to watch the show in its entirety; her mother screens it ahead of time and then lets her watch the scenes she’s in (which are the only ones she gets script pages for), and maybe a few others that she thinks are “safe” for her. The way it was shot, if she watched only the scenes she was in, she might not even know exactly what the context was. I do think they are being very careful with her because she’s only 10. (FWIW, this episode had a woman writer and director.)

  18. Jacob
    August 26, 2010 at 5:37 am

    I’d think it’s even MORE likely a girl be masturbating at 10. As far as I remember it wasn’t until after puberty I had the right kind of erections and feelings or any chance of orgasm. Whereas I’ve got lots of female friends who’ve been at it forever.

    I just started watching season one, it’s really interesting… Especially how “other” the mainstream of the 60s feels.

    I totally concur with the annoyance at the instant association of masturbation with abuse… Like masturbation=unnatural=damaged goods=abuse victim.

    fuck that

  19. August 26, 2010 at 8:52 am

    Matt Weiner (creator and showrunner of Mad Men) has been quoted saying he was shocked and surprised that Grandpa Gene’s relationship with either Betty or Sally has been interpreted as abusive.

    In Season 2, Gene, in a moment of dementia, mistook his daughter, Betty, for his late wife and grabbed her breast. This lead to a long discussion of people wondering if Gene had been a sexually abusive father. Although I applaud the ability to discuss the issue, I honestly never thought that (and neither did Weiner).

    In Season 3, Gene moved in with his daughter’s family and developed a relationship with Sally that meant an enormous amount to her. They read together, ate ice cream together, and he gave her driving lessons (which was pretty demented but which made her feel powerful in the midst of her powerless life). His death devastated her. Again, people questioned what went on there, but I kind of feel like television is conditioning us to see EVERY adult man with a young girl as unwholesome. I never saw anything that struck me as pedophilia.

    The notion that a child masturbating is “caused” by a history of sex abuse kind of horrifies me. Do we not know that children have bodies and experience pleasure? Really?

  20. August 26, 2010 at 9:59 am

    *Slight Spoilers*

    I’m not 100% sure how relevant this is, but it seemed pretty clear that Sally had no idea that she was touching herself: she was simply pre-occupied with the men on the TV, and was apparently not paying attention to what she was doing. Again, I can’t say how that factors into the abuse question, but it’s a datum not to be overlooked.

    I was *very* interested in how the “narrative” among the characters has run away with itself: suddenly, everyone’s talking about how she masturbated “in front of another child,” as if Sally were engaging in exhibitionist behavior, which she absolutely wasn’t. I wonder if that misunderstanding will take hold, and have consequences for plot.


  21. August 26, 2010 at 10:30 am

    I myself wrote:
    it seemed pretty clear that Sally had no idea that she was touching herself

    I should probably hasten to clarify that I’m *not saying* that conscious masturbation in a ten-year-old would be less healthy, or in any way troublesome, or anything like that. My only interest here is in the details of plotting and characterization, as a fan of the show who wants to know what’s coming down the pipe.

  22. Emily
    August 31, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    Although I only casually follow Mad Men, I wouldn’t be entirely disappointed if that’s where they took the storyline. I wouldn’t be disappointed because the way that child sex abuse was viewed in the sixties is every bit as problematic, as the way any other sex- or gender-related issue was viewed at the time. Also, the treatment of sexual abuse at the time fits in so well with the “everything is falling apart inside, but we’re making sure it’s all perfect on the surface” theme that runs through the show and so many of the characters’ lives.

    So, I think whichever direction the show might take, the writers and directors are capable of handling it quite well.

  23. September 2, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    hi, uh, i couldn’t find a place to email monica, but I just wanted to offer my support for your post on fat. i wanted to support feministe for running it as well. i am frustrated with the lack of investigation and general unwillingness to discuss certain issues as it relates to fat in the fat activism and feminist community. thanks! feel free to contact me.

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