Why is masturbation more shocking than sex?

The CW cuts a female masturbation scene from "Reign" -- but leaves in the public sex

Topics: Sex, Love and Sex, Masturbation,

Voyeuristic sex, prolific infidelity, a teenage girl seduced by a grown man — these things are tame enough for the CW’s period drama “Reign.” So too are scenes of extreme violence, including one featuring a decapitated head spewing blood.

But a young woman masturbating? Good heavens, no.

The original pilot shows the teenage Queen of Scotland and her handmaidens spying on a “bedding ceremony,” in which a couple has sex in front of an audience to consummate their marriage. This gets the girls rather hot and bothered, so one of the ladies-in-waiting steals away in a stairwell to pleasure herself. As Entertainment Weekly’s James Hibberd reports, “Her self-pleasure is unexpectedly interrupted by none other than the King of France (Alan van Sprang), who smugly offers his assistance (‘May I?’) and takes over.” However, the version that will premiere this Thursday has been edited down — not to remove the bedding ceremony or sex with the creepy King, but rather to remove all but the subtlest hint of masturbation, according to Hibberd. As he puts it, “The moment went from a clear ‘I can’t believe they’re actually showing this’ to ‘Was she doing what I think she was doing?’”

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So, why is it that partnered sex was deemed passable while masturbation was not? James Poniewozik makes an excellent point writing for Time:

Maybe it speaks to how desensitized we are by now to two-person sex scenes. Or maybe it says something about the nature of what really shocks people in a depiction of sex. In a self-pleasuring scene, after all, the focus is on the pleasure and not the display of flesh. It’s graphic in a sensual rather than visual way, and that depiction of enjoyment – raw, primal, without attachment to a relationship – is, oddly, more shocking to people than two stylized bodies wrestling in a bed.

We’re thoroughly comfortable with women’s bodies being sexualized — but not so much with women being sexual. That is not to mention that we’re still unaccustomed to depictions of female desire that emphasize sexual longing as opposed to manipulation or a narcissistic want to be wanted. Many were shocked when HBO’s famously raunchy “Girls” showed Marnie locking herself into a bathroom to jill off: As Nerve’s Rachel Krantz wrote at the time, “OMG. A girl totally masturbated for about three seconds on HBO’s Girls last night. And apparently, that’s still a big deal.” That’s because women are supposed to be the un-desiring sex — or rather, the sex that desires the things we can get through intercourse, not the act itself.

Female masturbation forces us to acknowledge that women are sexual creatures, and that can be deeply disturbing for some. After all, we’re supposed to be the gatekeepers holding humanity together — and if we’re not at our post, then who is?

Tracy Clark-Flory
Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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