“Have you ever done it?” All the girls in the room turned their heads towards me, as I nervously sipped my blue WKD. I gulped and finally – after a suspiciously long pause – stuttered the only answer I could: “Of course not.”
It was 2008 and I was at my first party with alcohol. The conversation had turned to what was only referred to as the “M word” – a subject so taboo that to even say it in full was virtually impossible.
The truth was, I had. But I was too terrified to admit it. At 14 years old, I had been taught about sex at school and seen it on TV, but I was never taught about masturbation, let alone whether it was OK or not. I am sure that some of the girls in that room were in the same boat as me, and I am certain that those who were not likely hadn’t masturbated at all, whether through shame, fear, or misinformation.
Eleven years later, it seems very little has changed.
Love Island’s ban on masturbation teaches viewers – young and old, boys or girls – that having sex with yourself is less important, or inferior to, having sex with others.
The nation is currently gripped in Love Island mania, with the series drawing in a record 6-million views earlier this week. A show already steeped in controversy after suicides, accusations of domestic abuse and now gaslighting, Love Island’s producers have assured us that they are doing everything they can to protect the wellbeing of their cast. Rules have been implemented when it comes to sex, with contestants now required to speak to a psychiatrist if they engage in sexual contact, and trained professionals are also on hand to help with arguments, relationship worries and breakups.
But critically, the show is still failing when it comes to one rule in particular: the islanders are not allowed to masturbate.
Love Island bosses reportedly have strict rules on “acceptable behaviour” in the villa – with masturbation failing to make the cut. This is not a new rule, as confirmed by various ex-Islanders from previous years, but has hit headlines several times this series, firstly amidst speculation concerning Sherif’s removal from the villa and now after contestants have reportedly been caught masturbating in the shower.
We get to decide who is allowed to touch our bodies and when, and, similarly, we decide when we want to touch our own.
While a ban on masturbation in public places is perfectly reasonable, a ban on masturbation as a whole is absolutely not OK.
Adults should have full autonomy and control over their own sexual behaviour. We get to decide who is allowed to touch our bodies and when, and, similarly, we decide when we want to touch our own.
By revoking the islanders’ rights over their own bodies, and categorising masturbation as “unacceptable behaviour”, Love Island takes agency away from its contestants, putting it instead in the hands of the producers. For a show with such a controversial history, this violation of consent is incredibly concerning, especially when we consider the reasoning behind such a seemingly nonsensical ban. Though a spokesperson has yet to officially confirm the rumours, it seems that masturbation is prohibited in order to encourage the contestants to have sex with each other instead. In an already-pressurised environment, where condoms are littered throughout the villa and sex is utterly inescapable, the Islanders are essentially coerced into intimacy through abstinence. This is an incredibly irresponsible mistake from a show that, in all other areas, is supposedly striving to protect its cast members’ mental health and wellbeing.
It’s not just those on-screen who are affected either.
Ridiculing masturbation as something desperate and hilarious, as demonstrated by coverage of Love Island’s recent shower incidents, is still a bit too American Pie for 2019.
As much as parents and teachers are trying to prevent it, Love Island is an extremely impressionable show — and behaviour copied from the show has now made its way into primary schools.
Love Island’s ban on masturbation teaches viewers – young and old, boys or girls – that having sex with yourself is less important, or inferior to, having sex with others. While society has come a long way towards destigmatising sex and understanding that women, in particular, feel and deserve sexual pleasure (I’d like to think Love Island’s Miss GB incident would not occur in 2019, though I cannot be sure), masturbation is not given the same level of attention. In the eyes of many, it is still seen as a shameful, unwanted act, especially for women, and as a result, is usually omitted completely from TV and film. When masturbation is shown, it is seen merely as a stepping stone or an alternative to intercourse, rather than something that can be enjoyed alongside sex. Men may think they’re free of stigma but ridiculing masturbation as something desperate and hilarious, as demonstrated by coverage of Love Island’s recent shower incidents, is still a bit too American Pie for 2019.
I am not asking Love Island to air masturbation footage. It has already cut down on graphic sex scenes as part of its contestant care plan, but by explicitly forbidding masturbation to take place we are increasing the stigma around self-love. In a show where coupling up is the ultimate end goal, we should be teaching young people that it is not about one or the other – you can both masturbate and enjoy sex.
It is something that I wish someone had told 14-year old me, struggling to stutter out the truth in a sea of stigma. I eventually did admit that I masturbated and embraced it, like many other women in my life have done – but years and years later, long after I had lost my virginity and spoken openly about sex. I wish it could have been the other way around.
Laura Holliday is a freelance journalist.