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Losing the spirit of the masturbate-a-thon?

July 19th, 2006

Dr Petra

Channel 4 television announced today that it would be screening the first UK masturbate-a-thon, and in all the media hoo-ha that’s followed it’s left me wondering if the event has lost its way.

For those of you who don’t know, the masturbate-a-thon has been running for the past few years in the US, organised by the Centre for Sex and Culture and spearheaded by Carol Queen. The aim of the event was to promote pleasure and raise money for charity.

All of which I completely support.

The UK event, to be held in London on the 5 August is set to raise cash for Marie Stopes International and Terrence Higgins Trust

A statement from Marie Stopes International said the aim of the event is “to act as a public education device to increase the use of self pleasure as a strategy for safer sex. The Masturbate-a-thon seeks to raise awareness of, and dispel the shame and taboos that persist around this most commonplace, natural and safe form of sexual activity. In our work all over the world, every day we see the consequences of fertile orgasms, in the form of unplanned pregnancies, unsafe abortions, sexually transmitted infections and HIV/Aids. So it is absolutely right that we associate ourselves with this initiative to promote this risk and consequence free method of sexual expression.”

Why am I not happy?

It’s because Channel 4 television plan to film the event and screen it later in the year as part of their ‘wank week’. Today the media was in a frenzy over the story – with the ‘story’ being a broadcast of masturbation on television. This guaranteed loads of publicity for C4. But virtually none for the charities concerned.

Predictably we had complaints in the press from right-wing groups bemoaning declining media standards and increased filth and immorality. Rather than allowing for a positive discussion about masturbation it was a case of making it seem sordid, dirty and shameful – the very labels we’ve been trying to get people to stop applying to self-pleasure for decades.

Elsewhere in the media we also had the usual approach to masturbation, which was it would only be something that men do, with the television company making the programme for Channel 4 reinforcing this with statements like: “It’s time to find out if the only things allowed to be stiff in Britain are upper lips.”

Those who take part in the event will be sponsored for every minute they masturbate. The British press has interpreted this as a competition. The aim of the masturbate-a-thon is really about pleasure and awareness raising, but today it was transformed into ‘who can last the longest, orgasm the most, ejaculate more?’ This is going to exclude many people from participation and ensures we see sex in the ‘how often’ format, rather than the ‘how enjoyable’. Those attracted to the event are probably now going to be quite different to those who have supported the masturbate-a-thons in the US in the past. They’ll be people who want to compete sexually rather than share in the spirit of sexual activism – and they’ll also be people happy to be filmed doing it.

This competitive angle has been further encouraged by statements pitting the US and UK events against each other: “The US Masturbate-A-Thon is hoping to see new challenges to the current record of 8 hours and 30 minutes. We hope to maintain the US record – but we just may lose it. If the winner of the English event goes beyond this time it will mean a new international record. If they do not then a first English Record shall be established.”

My concern is twofold. Firstly the true aim and spirit of an event that’s supposed to be about empowerment is going to be lost so that a media corporation can make profits and boost ratings. Secondly this event (and masturbation in general) could be badly affected by said media coverage.

I’m all for people having a day of pleasure and being sponsored for it. Hell, I’m all for people having more than one day of pleasure and not getting sponsored at all! I don’t care if people join in the masturbate-a-thon in the privacy of their own homes, or solo or in a group at a designated centre. I’m all for those who’re exhibitionist having a toss in front of a webcam. But I think making it into a show for a TV channel with a pretty poor record of sensitive and sex positive coverage is a mistake.

Whilst the charities will make some money you can be even surer the TV Channel will take the lion’s share.

Channel 4 have shown some explicit sex before, although they’ve always run shy of showing female masturbation. Last year during a Channel 4 series about female sexuality one woman who was filmed for a science experiment on masturbation and had to do so under a bath towel. And when I’ve spoken to programme makers for the channel about female masturbation in the past they’ve been highly unwilling to show it.

It begs the question what the show is for? If it’s going to be educational and informative they’ve kind of already blown their brief by creating a highly negative media fuss (with some groups calling for advertisers to withdraw funding). If the show’s going to be for erotic entertainment, that’s fine, but the Channel can’t show as much as say webcam broadcasts of the event can. And frankly if you want to watch someone have a five knuckle shuffle there’s plenty of other places to get your rocks off.

A Channel 4 spokesperson claimed the programme would be “exactly the type of provocative and mischievous programming that Channel 4 should be covering in the 11pm slot. Masturbation is something many people do but not many people talk about.”

Unless the programme is particularly sensitive or sexy I can’t see what it’s going to really add. We need to have more positive and arousing images of sex, as much as we need to dispel the many myths about masturbation that still exist – particularly in developing countries but also in the US and UK.

Overall I think a well-intentioned event has been hijacked by a corporation who don’t really care if we have good sex and enjoy masturbation, but just want more viewing figures. I hope people do join in and support the event, but I worry that it’ll invite more sex-negative discussions than stories that encourage masturbation.

The masturbate-a-thon most certainly has had more coverage in one day than it’s got in the past five years that it’s been running. Call me old fashioned, but I preferred it when it truly was about pleasure, education, activism and ‘coming for a cause’. Not as a replacement in Channel 4’s schedule once Big Brother’s finished.

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