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28 January 2016updated 21 Jul 2021 1:10pm

Selena Gomez’s “Hands to Myself” and the policing of female masturbation

From music videos to TV and film: female masturbation often signals psychosis on screen.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

This week, Selena Gomez released the video for her single “Hands to Myself”, a song about, well, how she can’t keep her hands to herself. Lyrically, it’s obviously focused on the desire to touch another person, but the video plays with this conflict between desire and boundaries. Selana touches only herself, but transgressively: she arrives at the house of a generic handsome actor type, breaks in, uses his bath, watches his movies on his sofa, tries on his shirts and cologne, and seemingly masturbates on his bed (TMZ opted for the conservative take, “the video kinda hints at masturbation”) before falling asleep. The video ends as the police arrive to arrest her for breaking, entering and wanking: put your hands where we can see them.

This is a bizarrely specific scenario, but not one that is unusual in popular culture. The video immediately reminded me of a scene from the second series of Skins, where the character Maxxie is being stalked by a girl on his estate, Lucy. Lucy, like Selena, spends several weeks collaging her victim’s face (as we all know, if you’re an on-screen stalker, research is just doing a creepy collage), before sneaking into his bedroom, putting on his clothes, and masturbating on his bed.

Despite the fact that almost 90 per cent of stalkers in the US are men (the numbers are similar in the UK), the furiously masturbating female obsessive has real cultural prominence, as pop culture academics have noted. In Nineties thrillers, it was everywhere, as masturbation was often used to signal a disturbed or violent streak in a female character. In Single White Female (1992), a scene shows Hedra masturbating while Allison watches, utterly appalled. Despite the voyeurism at work, this moment paints Allison as an innocent bystander, and Hedra as the opposite: it’s one of the first signs of her moral deviance, and she is ultimately revealed as an impersonating stalker prone to extreme violence. Similarly, in the The Temp (1993), protagonist Peter watches the temp Kris masturbating through a window: we later realise that Kris is a crazed serial killer obsessed with Peter. In Body of Evidence (1992), Madonna’s masturbation scene is used to confirm that her control over her sexuality makes her character dangerous (and possibly murderous). In An American Affair (1997), a scene in which Barbara touches herself while talking to Sam on the phone precedes his realisation that she is using her sexuality, alongside his wife, to plot against him.

The message is clear: masturbation is a sign of perversion, because normal, good girls don’t pleasure themselves. It’s a gateway crime, too: if a woman will go to such lengths as touching herself to get her kicks, who knows where her debauchery will end!? If these scenes are anything to go by, presumably in a bad haircut and a body count.  

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This linking of women’s autoeroticism and moral corruption, of course, has roots much further back in culture (The Exorcist makes this fear of female sexuality explicit – Blair’s infamous masturbation scene is proof that she is possessed by Satan), and has continued well into the twenty-first century. In Ashes and Sand (2003), Hayley’s self-stimulation is connected to her criminal behaviour: she joins a violent girl gang, stalking single men and robbing them. In Black Swan (2010), Nina’s masturbation is seen as part of her attempts to access the darker, seductive part of her personality needed for her performance in Swan Lake, and precedes her violent hallucinations and self-harm. In Stoker (2013), we first question India’s “innocence” when we see her touching herself in the shower after witnessing a murder: later we see her murder two people herself.

In all these varying depictions, female masturbation is used to demonstrate characters’ lack of appropriate inhibitions and boundaries: often these characters ultimately go to extreme and violent lengths (stalking, framing, murder) to satisfy (or avenge unsatisfied) desires. This patriarchal logic rests on the assumption that, as a woman, to have agency over your own body is to crave and demand agency over the bodies of others (mainly men’s).

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“Hands to Myself” is, to some extent conscious of these tropes: like Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space”, the video creates a character at least in part to dismantle it. Although it would be fair to say that the video falls into the same space as videos like Miley Cyrus’s “Adore You”, which feature pornographic conceptions of masturbation as a sexual performance for the male gaze, our knowledge of Selena’s fame and history of being stalked helps us feel that she is attempting to play with existing power dynamics. But, while the twenty-first century has seen an increasing number of normalised depictions of female masturbation on screen, these troubling associations demonstrate the need for positive and fun portrayals of female masturbation. Much as I think “Hands to Myself” is a nice little song, I’m more excited by the emerging canon of empowering pop songs about jilling off: Hailee Steinfeild’s “Love Myself”, Charlie XCX’s “Body of My Own”, FKA Twigs’s “Kicks”. Long may it continue.