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Channel 4 tugs the masturbate-a-thon

February 4th, 2007

Dr Petra

Channel 4 television has withdrawn a planned series of programmes in their delightfully named ‘wank week’. Whether this is a permanent decision or a temporary response to recent criticism of the channel over the mismanagement of Celebrity Big Brother is unclear.

The ‘masturbate-a-thon’ was originally set up in the US by a small group of sex educators and activists with the aim of celebrating sex and raising money for good causes (e.g. HIV/AIDS charities). Their slogan was ‘come for a cause’ and the idea behind the event was people could join in at home or at designated centres to masturbate as much or as little as they wished, collectively or alone. People could watch those who wanted to show off on a web-cam and others could tune in and enjoy the show. The idea was to empower people about sex, pleasure and masturbation.

Unfortunately last year when the event made its way to the UK it all went very wrong. Although the plan of ‘coming for a cause’ was maintained with the event supposedly raising cash for Terrance Higgins Trust and Marie Stopes International the whole thing was hijacked from the outset by Channel 4 who aggressively promoted the event via the media (presumably because they wanted lots of folk to turn up and toss off so they could film them).

There was lots of media coverage but it was spun in ways that completely detracted from the original ethos of the event. Papers asked who could have the most orgasms, who would have the best orgasms, and set up competitions between men and women about who might win in the masturbation battle of the sexes. There was no mention of the activism, education, pleasure or empowerment that underpinned the original masturbate-a-thon events.

I was critical of the event (or at least Channel 4′s involvement) at the time. As a result I got lots of emails from members of the public who had been interested in joining in, supporting good causes and having a go at celebrating sex. The majority of those who showed up for the event said it felt very oppressive and stage-managed. A number of porn actors/actresses seemed to have been dragged along, ‘real’ members of the public appeared to be few and far between. There were loads more men there than women and a lot of the men who turned up didn’t want to participate but did want to watch women masturbating. The atmosphere, according to those I heard from, felt very unsafe, predatory, competitive and uncomfortable.

I gather the event was still filmed and a number of additional programmes were also made about ‘masturbation’. I’ve heard that these have apparently been of a high standard but colleagues I know who work extensively in this area either had negative treatment by those making the programmes (they felt they weren’t treating it all that seriously) or key experts weren’t contacted at all. And anyone who did speak out against the series in its planning stages seemed to be automatically excluded from any part in the programmes being made.

I don’t think it’s any great loss if they shelve the series since I think Channel 4’s involvement in the masturbate-a-thon ruined a really good idea and made many people feel very uncomfortable and distressed. Which again brings us back to asking ethical questions about the channel and the way it commissions and approaches programming.

I find it depressing that because the channel is under scrutiny they automatically axe anything remotely sex related. However they seem happy to continue showing other equally dubious programmes featuring dodgy experts (some of whom are so bad they inspire people to write songs about them), tedious home improvement shows, or sensationalist and misleading documentaries that always seem to be about Islamic fundamentalism.

I’m just hoping this will signal the end to the Channel’s involvement with the masturbate-a-thon and if it does happen in the UK this year it will be in a much more sex positive and celebratory way.

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