Imagine walking down a street, when you suddenly see a line of men waiting in front of what appears to be a telephone booth. Doing a double-take, you notice it is, in fact, a booth specially equipped with a chair, laptop and curtains for privacy. This is no mere fantasy. In down-town Manhattan the sex-toy company Hot Octopuss has launched a marketing campaign and opened up a so-called ‘GuyFi booth’ for “male stress relief”.
Precisely, not only has it been coined the ‘GuyFi booth’, but it is marketed specifically for male stress relief. What about women? Don’t we experience stress in our everyday lives? Don’t we deserve relief? And most importantly: don’t we masturbate? These booths are sending a clear message to society: it is completely acceptable for men to publically display that they are sexual beings; women, on the other hand, must remain excluded from any such expression. Booths like this could become an integral part of the cityscape we live in, which means the messages they send are vital, as they inform the younger generations about social values, whilst confirming those perhaps already sensed by older generations. Whilst this may just be a publicity stunt, it nevertheless teaches women and girls that they must supress their sexuality and cover the fact that they can, and do, masturbate. While supressing women’s self-expression of sexual drive, the booth handily includes a computer screen. I wonder what that is for. Something tells me it’s not meant to liberate women from the stigma that their bodies are only there to be enjoyed by men.
It’s easy to overlook that public statements like this not only establish expectations for what women should and shouldn’t do, but they also set standards for men. By actively excluding women, it implies that masturbation and a public display of one’s sex drive is an inherently male activity. Therefore, a damaging belief is established that to be ‘a real man’ one must consistently and visibly prove it through engaging in sexual activity. This is similar to the idea perpetuated by ‘lad culture’ which posits that men must have as much sex with as many women as possible, while bragging about it and shaming the women for it. In particular the marketing strategy highlights the expectation that men have an uncontrollable libido, claiming that “male alone-time” will “enhance productivity in the work place”. What such claims really do is put pressure on both men and women to act in certain ways deemed as appropriate to their gender.
This is no longer a mere question of masturbation. Rather it forces us to consider what boundaries our society creates in the expression of sexuality. Hot Octopuss was not just successful in gaining publicity for itself, but in sparking a much-needed debate. In a time of thriving and occasionally stifling political correctness, controversy is crucial for the continued development of society’s values. For we have come a long way. As late as 1858 doctors believed that female masturbation caused hysteria, mania or even death, only preventable through surgical clitoridectomy. Another popular theory led to the vibrator, which was seen as a cure to female hysteria. Yet even that remained subject to male control, as it required a clinical environment. The apparent belief was that masturbation forged male self-sufficiency and that once women discovered their own independence, they would apply this new concept to all aspects of life. Thus men, too, have suffered from belief systems surrounding masturbation. Of course, certain religions tend to see masturbation as sinful; the Talmud compares spilling seed with spilling blood, whilst Catholic and Protestant religions see it as selfish and wasteful of God’s seed.
Its continued relevance is obvious though. Hugo Schwyzer even claims masturbation is ‘at the root of the culture wars’. Today, feminists like Easton and Hardy argue that the “fundamental sexual unit is one person”, which may be enhanced through others. Accordingly, they say sexual pleasure centres the locus of power in oneself. So masturbation is a way, perhaps, of getting to know, work with and love oneself in a way that comes from none other but the self.
Clearly, sex has always been about more than just pleasure. Nowadays, masturbation in general is increasingly advocated. May has been named the National Masturbation Month. Studies focus on the health benefits, showing how masturbation sends out endorphins, eases menopausal problems in women, is good for male fertility and maybe even decreases cancer risks. Simultaneously, studies prove that masturbation is, in fact, a common phenomenon and something most people seem to engage in. According to TimeOut, 39% of people do it at work.
So why do we still refuse to openly talk about it? And refuse even more when it comes to female masturbation?
Whilst the ‘GuyFi’ booth may enrage people of all genders due to the expectations it creates, it must be applauded for getting the world to talk about something it hates to talk about. Perhaps it offers the opportunity to overcome the past which has shrouded masturbation in shame. Hopefully, it will get people to think about the ultimate question: the purpose of sex. Is it merely for propagating? Is it about forging a bond with another person? Or, is it about finding pleasure in our own bodies?