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Guest Voices: The Love That Hears Its Name Whispered, With Laughter

(Note: As they sometimes say on NPR, the following is by no means explicit but does acknowledge the existence of sex.)

I had a great idea for this entry. I was going to talk about the way pop culture, from movies to TV shows to popular music to comic books and more, has a gender disparity in the way masturbation is portrayed depending on whether the person engaged in the act is male or female. It could be summed up in what the activity suggested about the person as a social animal: If the character is a female, this is an empowering act that shows “she doesn’t need a man” to have a satisfying sexual life, but if it the character is a male, the act is humiliating proof that he “can’t find a woman.”

(Apologies for the heteronormativity and gender binary-ness of it all.)

The thesis fits the pop culture I’m most familiar with. And therein lies the flaw at the heart of the experiment: a pitifully small sample size, even though some people think of me as a walking encyclopedia.

Thankfully, you and I have been rescued from a likely embarrassing outcome by someone else with the time and resources to actually do the research correctly: Australian academic Lauren Rosewarne’s Masturbation in Pop Culture: Screen, Society, Self (Lexington Books, 2014) is a soundly researched look at the phenomenon using more than 600 instances as its evidence base.

And now I will say a novel thing you never hear online: I was wrong.

To the extent that masturbation is talked about, it’s often in the sense of an “everyone does it, but we don’t talk about it” talk from parent to child. But the “caught in the act” scenario applies to men and women, the “sad and lonely and looking for release” depiction goes both ways, and there are even examples like Michael Winterbottom’s NC-17 indie film 9 Songs where not only is the character involved with someone, they might even be in the same bed.

Rosewarne’s book is a fascinating read, though it’s priced as a college textbook, so reader be rich (sic). So instead of going off on a bunch of anecdotes — which would not constitute data — I’ll instead leave you with one anecdote and a recommendation, not in that order.

* The Recommendation: Chynna Clugston-Flores’ indie comic Blue Monday (available in collected editions from Image Comics) is a must-read for anyone who likes post-punk and New Wave music, manga aesthetics, and the high school comedies of John Hughes and his imitators, or preferably all of the above. But John Hughes is now problematic, I know, so I’ll add that those problems are not on evidence here.

 Volume 4 of the series, Painted Moon, has a riotous sequence in which the core group of friends discovers that two of their own have never learned to manage their tensions, so to speak, and peer-pressure them into (separately) getting in touch with themselves. Queue up the Buzzcocks’ punk classic “Orgasm Addict” as hijinks ensue and Bleu, our aquamarine-tressed heroine, suddenly starts getting a lot of bathroom passes.

The whole series is a delight, but this installment of the series turned the “horny boy/shameful girl” stereotype on its ear to hilarious effect.

* The Anecdote: I don’t know why I didn’t know until … more recently than I care to admit … that Cyndi Lauper’s hit single “She Bop” was an empowering anthem about masturbation, but I’m absolutely positive that neither of the junior high teachers who used the song for a unit on verb conjugation knew anything about that, even though the song was one of the reasons records eventually got labeled. (Cyndi Lauper, Guns ’n Roses, Sam Kinison, 2 Live Crew, they were all alike, right?)

In the same way that Bleu Finnegan or Drew Braverman of TV’s “Parenthood” may have loved themselves a little too much and too often, that song was bored into my brain as we tortured the rhyme scheme with such verb tenses as “they shall have bopped.”

(The voice of Cyndi Lauper was also present for a more poignant and strange moment in my high school years when I was picked to play the color Green in a teacher inservice about a possibly pseudoscientific personality model called “True Colors.”

I love Cyndi Lauper now because I am not history’s greatest monster, and I hope she got some royalties for those bits of strangeness. But 30 years after its release, if I hear “She Bop” coming on the radio, I’m still changing the station.

Jason Tippitt is a recovering seminarian and mostly recovered former journalist living a few miles beyond that place you stop to use the restroom off Interstate 40 between Nashville and Memphis.

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