Why female pleasure — not sex — is the real taboo on primetime television

Monica Nickelsburg
Sorry, girls.

The common defense of television censorship is the need to protect the young and impressionable. It's all for the children. So why is it that a national broadcaster in the 21st century feels the need to bleep out a scene of a teenage girl masturbating, while the rest of television is stuffed to the gills with scenes depicting rape, torture, suicide, and sex between middle-aged adults and adolescents?

The CW's racy new period drama Reign received criticism last week after the network edited out a female masturbation scene but allowed several other equally explicit scenes to air. In the original, the teen in question and her peers get all hot and bothered after witnessing a bedding ceremony. She finds an empty stairwell and decides to quite literally take matters into her own hands.

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This scene was mostly cut from the pilot. The episode that aired implies the masturbation without explicitly showing it, before (a much older) King of France discovers her. He offers to take over and the two have sex. This, and several other graphic sex scenes, aired unedited.

As James Poniewozik at TIME put it:

This is not about slamming TV-decency advocates as prudes. If you're against the depiction of sex on TV altogether — particularly on a network aimed largely at teens — fine; I may not agree with you but that's a consistent position and your prerogative. But the idea that masturbation is somehow dirtier and more outrageous than full-on sex is absurd. [TIME]

And here's Salon's Tracy Clark-Florly:

Voyeuristic sex, prolific infidelity, a teenage girl seduced by a grown man — these things are tame enough for the CW's period drama Reign. So too are scenes of extreme violence, including one featuring a decapitated head spewing blood.

But a young woman masturbating? Good heavens, no. [Salon]

This kind of inconsistency in TV censorship is problematic, reinforcing gender stereotypes, negative attitudes toward sex, and an appetite for violence in pop culture.

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Take, for example, the famous "seven dirty words you can't say on TV." While it would probably be embarrassing if your seven-year-old dropped one of these bombs at the supermarket (sorry, mom), this is a pretty arbitrary selection. Most of these words (with one noteworthy exception) don't target or degrade one demographic.

Your favorite television stars can, however, say bitch, whore, slut, and countless other slurs based on gender, sexual orientation, and/or ethnicity. It's hard to see how a frustrated character uttering the word "shit" at no one in particular is more damaging than a male character calling a female character a bitch — unless we're using an outdated, subjective system that reflects certain unpleasant biases.

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Singling out female masturbation for censorship gets even more absurd when you consider the graphic stuff on television that is streamed every day without controversy. Consensual, stylized sex scenes between two attractive, heterosexual characters are so abundant they're hardly worth mentioning. And sexual violence is incredibly prevalent in primetime; it is the central premise of shows like Law and Order SVU and CSI, which week after week churn out episodes focused on rape, abduction, and violence against children.

Meanwhile, the CW's Gossip Girl and NBC's Friday Night Lights, both geared toward teens, have jarring attempted rape scenes. The CW's choice to omit the masturbation scene sends the message that pleasure, not sex, is the real taboo.

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While not advocating for more censorship, such inconsistent and illogical methodology telegraphs to viewers that rape, sex between adults and minors, and violence are less obscene than a harmless scene depicting an activity most teens are probably already familiar with. How sick is that?

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