Ménage à Moi is not about female desirability; nor does it treat sex, alone or with a partner, as precious.
Jennifer Sullivan for “Ménage à Moi,” used with permission.
THE GOOD NEWS:
Talking about pleasure is a way to encourage open dialogue about sexuality without desirability.
A few months after Chelsea Beck launched “Ménage à Moi,” her podcast about female masturbation, she found a guest via an unusual source: the Nextdoor app. Beck posted to ask if anyone living nearby wanted to talk to her about masturbation.
Then she met Ellen.
“To the extent to which I’ve read anything about masturbation,” mused Ellen, the third guest on “Ménage à Moi,” which launches its second season in April. “I’ve read tales of women saying that they’ve never achieved orgasm or that they were afraid or that there was some hang up.”
A 60-year-old lawyer with a husky voice, Ellen is the hardest-hitting guest Beck has had so far – she refers to masturbating as “busting a nut” and believes women should take responsibility for their own gratification. “I don’t understand why you’ve kind of tripped yourself up in trying to find something that’s self-satisfying in the most primordial way,” Ellen said.
In November 2016, Beck left her job as an assistant curator at The Broad Museum in downtown Los Angeles to pursue a “personal project” — a book about female masturbation. Soon after, over brunch, she told three friends about the project, and they started sharing their own masturbation stories. Women often swap sex tales, but conversations like this happen much less often.
“It dawned on me during this brunch that I was going to do this,” says Beck of the podcast. It would be research for the book and a chance to share stories that don’t get shared. “There’s not the body of work that women can refer to about masturbation,” she explains. “What’s available is instructional or about trying to achieve things.” Google “female masturbation,” and plenty of Cosmo and Glamour how-tos pop up as do clinical articles. It’s harder to find in-depth chronicles of the evolution and variety of women’s experiments in self-pleasure.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]There’s a messiness around female sexuality that’s rich and complicated.[/quote]
“My favorite thing that happens on the podcast is when guests say, ‘I’m saying this out loud for the first time,’” says Beck. Bianca, guest six, says this before explaining her love of sinks as a masturbation tool. Nikki, guest seven, says it before explaining that she first orgasmed with a medical back massager. “I want these kinds of conversations to happen more often,” Beck says.
Image by Jennifer Sullivan for “Ménage à Moi,” used with permission.
“Ménage à Moi” was not at all conceived with the post-Harvey-Weinstein wave of frankness and call outs in mind. But it does bring conversations about pleasure unabashedly to the forefront at a moment when journalists, feminists, and activists are figuring out how to address rampant sexual assault without making discourse around sexuality more puritanical than it already is. When violence and coercion are part of the story, negative messaging tends to overshadow the positive, sometimes even when the positive is the main point.
After actress Natalie Portman spoke at the January 2018 Women’s March in Los Angeles, media outlets, like Time and CNN, led with headlines about how she called out “sexual terrorism.” She did use that term, describing early experiences with harassment, but she also called for a new focus on desire: “Let’s declare loud and clear, this is what I want,” Portman said. “Let’s find a space where we mutually and consensually look out for each other’s pleasure.” In a recent essay for The New York Times, critic Nona Willis-Aronowitz tried to pinpoint where pleasure got lost in feminist conversations about ending violence: “Protection from violence became the narrow, defensive definition of feminist sexual politics,” she wrote, “and the concept of pleasure became synonymous with narcissism and self-indulgence.”
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]I’m tired of the beauty conversation and the how-to-be sexy conversation.[/quote]
An indirect response to this challenge, “Ménage à Moi” takes each guest’s agency and self-knowledge as a given. Each episode begins with sexy, ethereal music by Brooklyn-based musician Anni Rossi, and each segment is tightly edited, a 20- to 25-minute story about one woman’s experience. The first episode, with an academic affairs officer named Jessa who also responded to Beck’s Nextdoor post, set the stage for subsequent episodes. “I don’t know what women do or what women don’t do,” says Beck. “I don’t necessarily feel like female masturbation has stigma,” responded Jessa. “I just get a sense of absence.” Beck agreed and then, as she always does, started delving into her guest’s early experiences, learning about the washcloth a very young Jessa would request from her parents before bed. “If you haven’t tried balling up a towel and humping it, let me tell you, it feels really, really great,” said Jessa.
In another episode, Cayden, a clinical psychologist and a trans man, discussed the way hormone therapy can affect sex drive and how he grapples with the relationship between fantasy, masturbation, and gender identity. Jenée LaMarque, who made a film about a lesbian woman struggling to orgasm, remembers her mother taking her to the pediatrician as a child because she was masturbating so often. “She’ll make a man very happy someday,” the male doctor commented.
The new season of the podcast kicks off in April 2018 and explores the relationship between masturbation and motherhood. Beck acknowledges that sex is portrayed often in various media, but there’s little room for discussion about the principles of pleasure. “Sex is everywhere right now, but I don’t think that means people are any better at talking about it,” Beck says.
She appreciates the larger role female masturbation has begun to play in pop culture: Ilana on “Broad City” goes to a sex therapist to “find” her lost orgasm, and Elisa, Sally Hawkins’ character in “The Shape of Water,” routinely rubs one out before breakfast. “But there has to be some deeper conversation too,” Beck adds. “I’m tired of the beauty conversation and the how-to-be sexy conversation.”
Her show is not about female desirability nor does it treat sex, alone or with a partner, as precious. “There’s a messiness around female sexuality that’s rich and complicated, and there’s no map for it,” she says.