If you’ve listened to the radio lately—and I mean really listened closely—you’ve probably noticed a song or two about female masturbation. Maybe you caught Carly Rae Jepsen singing about “making love to myself” in “Party for One.” Or perhaps you heard Demi Lovato belting “I do it solo” in Clean Bandit’s “Solo.” Singing about female masturbation has become not just acceptable, but cool—but it’s also worth wondering whether that’s as sex-positive as it seems.
It may not have been the first, but the most notorious OG of female-masturbation anthems is undebatably Divinyls’s “I Touch Myself,” in which the band’s late lead singer Chrissy Amphlett pines over an unrequited love interest. When the song came out in 1990, eight years before Sex and the City premiered, it was radical simply for its acknowledgement that women, well, masturbated. In a culture where female desire was—and still is—too often viewed as an accommodation to male libido, it featured a woman with desires that not only arose independently of anyone else’s but may not even have been reciprocated.
Yet another person is still the focus. It’s protagonist isn’t touching herself simply because it feels good; she’s resorting to self-stimulation because she can’t have sex within a relationship, singing “When I feel down, I want you above me/ I search myself, I want you to find me/ I forget myself, I want you to remind me,” she sings. That the song was cowritten by a male songwriter gives lines like “I’d get down on my knees/ I’d do anything for you” a more submissive read than Amphlett’s own phrasing does: Rather than show that women can want pleasure for its own sake, “I Touch Myself” keeps it deeply intertwined with (presumably heterosexual) love.
Since “I Touch Myself” came out, a narrative of masturbation as women’s liberation has found its way into pop music, thanks in part to the mainstream embrace of feminist sex-toy shops and longtime pleasure activists like Betty Dodson. Take the Pussycat Dolls, whose 2005 song “I Don’t Need a Man” directly resists the view that sexual satisfaction is dependent on anyone else (“I can get off when you ain’t around”) as part of its larger theme of independence. Like Nicki Minaj’s 2014 hit “Feeling Myself,” masturbation in “I Don’t Need a Man” is a metaphor for confidence and self-reliance. Back in 1994, Tori Amos was even more defiant: “Icicle” depicts the musician’s self-love routine as a substitute for religious devotion: “[W]hen they say take of his body/ I think I’ll take from mine instead.”
Most recently, this attitude is exemplified in Hailee Steinfeld’s debut single, 2015’s “Love Myself,” in which masturbation is depicted as an expression of her independence and self-reliance with lyrics like “Gonna love myself, no, I don’t need anybody else” and “I’m gonna put my body first.” The song was notable in part because of Steinfeld’s youth (she was 18 at the time), her good-girl image combined with the single’s not-overtly-sexy video was a way to present masturbation as something everyone—not just “bad girls”—does.
Yet even “Love Myself” carries the legacy of “I Touch Myself.” The premise of the song—“When I get chills at night/ I feel it deep inside without you”—suggests that its narrator is masturbating to compensate for a breakup or an otherwise missing partner. This substitute-partner storyline is even more obvious in this year’s “Party for One,” in which Jepsen laments “I’m not over you” and accepts self-stimulation as a consolation prize (“If you don’t care about me/ I’ll just dance for myself”). In last year’s “Solo,” too, Lovato sings, “Since you been gone/ I’ve been dancing on my own.” Like Amphlett, who doesn’t “want anybody else,” Lovato declares to her ex, “You’re the only one I’m coming for.” Even her solo sex is an expression of loyalty to a partner.
To be fair, the cultural notion that masturbation is inferior to partnered sex is not only imposed on women. Plenty of songs by male artists have reflected this same idea. The narrator of Elvis Costello’s 1978 “Pump It Up,” for example, is masturbating as a response to the frustration of having his sexual advances rejected. Here, the act isn’t an expression of longing devotion to any one woman; it’s borne from pent-up physical urges. And that kind of raw, unspecific physical need is still considered—in pop music, at least—the sole province of men.
But that may be changing with newer artists like synth-pop trailblazer Von, who used her orgasmic contractions—as measured by the smart vibrator Lioness—as inspiration for the sound waves of her 2018 debut single, “Action.” The lyrics are simple and straightforward: “Don’t need you to make it happen/ one-woman show with the action.” Rapper Miss Eaves offers a similar message in 2017’s “Hump Day” with sassy lyrics like “Hand down my pants I flick the bean/ My boo ghost but I don’t need him.”
The fact that a woman masturbating is interesting enough to be the focal point of several pop songs indicates that society stills views female masturbation as out of the ordinary. Singing about female masturbation to make a statement isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But often, songs on this topic seem to use it just for shock value—“I do it solo” and “I touch myself” are surprising enough statements to belong in a refrain.
Male masturbation, on the other hand, sometimes sneaks its way into songs on tangentially related topics, acknowledging that it’s an everyday part of men’s lives. “With my own hands/ When I make love to your memory/ It’s not the same,” Billy Bragg sings in 1984’s “St. Swithins Day.” Unlike Jepsen or Lovato, he’s not centering the song around masturbating in the absence of a lover; he’s using it to paint a larger picture of his heartbreak. Male artists are afforded the ability to be multidimensional—to be emotional and intellectual and masturbate—while a woman who masturbates is, at least for the duration of that song, just focused on sexuality.
Male artists are afforded the ability to be multidimensional—to be emotional and intellectual and also masturbate—while a woman who masturbates is, at least for the duration of that song, just focused on sexuality.
When it’s not mentioned casually, male masturbation is sometimes used for humor—but rarely is it thrown into a song to titillate the listener. It’s a common pop culture trope: Male sexuality is depicted as humorous or gross while female sexuality is, well, sexualized. Contrast, for example, the way Jim Levenstein’s (Jason Biggs) masturbation is the butt of several jokes in American Pie, yet his female peer Nadia’s (Shannon Elizabeth) masturbation is a scene for Levenstein and his friends to ogle at. This pattern is evident in music as well. The Buzzcocks’s 1977 song “Orgasm Addict,” for example, pokes fun at a teenage boy for constantly masturbating. And songs like Violent Femmes’s 1983 song “Blister in the Sun,” which admits “I stain my sheets,” aren’t afraid to talk about the less sexy aspects of masturbation.
Yet the most popular female masturbation songs have not quite crossed this boundary, and their videos often sexualize women. The “Solo” video features a woman in a bikini touching herself, and the Pussycat Dolls don lingerie and heels and gyrate their hips for the “I Don’t Need a Man” video. But just as shows like Girls and Broad City have begun using female bodies and sexuality for humor, some newer artists are playing with humor in songs about female masturbation. In her video for “Hump Day,” Miss Eaves jokes around with her audience by wearing a cat hoodie—and the diverse women performing their intense and sometimes awkward masturbation faces are intended not for sexiness but for both realism and humor. And Peaches’s 2000 song “Diddle My Skittle” refuses to even use metaphors, instead appropriating “male” depictions of masturbation with the phrase “diddle my skittle.”
Ultimately, any positive mention of female masturbation in music is better than none at all. But we have a long way to go before it’s acknowledged as a normal, everyday, humdrum part of many women’s routines. Hopefully, one day, female artists will be able to casually drop masturbation into a verse as a simple reflection of their lives, rather than as a ploy for shock value or sex appeal, an ode to a man, or a political statement. The more that can happen, the more everyday women will come to embrace masturbation as a normal and healthy part of their lives, and the more they’ll view their sexuality as existing for themselves, not just their partners. But for now, songs like “Hump Day” and “Action” may be necessary to work toward a world where that’s possible.