Come on now! Why TV needs way more female orgasms

Women masturbating on screen was once the stuff of taboo, but a new wave of refreshingly radical shows are closing TV’s pleasure gap at last

You’re not trying to squash a bug ... Jessi and a talking vulva (Kristen Wiig) learn about female pleasure.
‘You’re not trying to squash a bug’ ... Jessi and her talking vulva learn about female pleasure in Big Mouth. Photograph: Netflix

Being introduced to Netflix’s Big Mouth has been such a thrill. My girlfriend’s 16-year-old daughter sold it to me, promising a talking vulva voiced by Kristen Wiig, a sassy hormone ‘monstress’ (Maya Rudolph) and a whole world of inclusive, body-positive bits about the messy reality of growing up. It is clever, pleasingly surreal and an absolute hoot. I was sold from the first watch.

The new series focuses on the obstacle-strewn path young women tread when exploring their sexuality in adolescence. To me, it is the best yet. Watching episode six, How to Have an Orgasm, feels quietly revolutionary. In it, Jessi – a droll, whip-smart girl you wish had befriended you at school – learns how to come for the first time. Watching it feels new, exciting and radical because the business of female pleasure is rarely dealt with so centrally and without shame.

It begins with Jessi’s vulva – a separate, talking entity – holding a microphone and hosting a game called “Do the Thing!” Connie (Rudolph’s hormone monstress) cheers her along with a rallying cry of “let’s touch our genitals” as she experiments under the covers with her hand. Pleasure is elusive. Her vulva offers continuous feedback: “That’s a little pokey, you’re not trying to squash a bug.”

Turning to porn for inspiration, Jessi comes across a video called Bethany’s First Orgasm, in which Bethany uses a vibrator. Jessi goes to a shop with her friend Missy (Jenny Slate) to see what’s available. A talking Harry Potter vibrator falls off the shelf and buzzes across the floor. She doesn’t buy anything but the conversation between the two friends, in which Missy plainly states that “a glow worm and a bath faucet really gets the job done”, is striking, considering how much shame still exists around how women experience pleasure.

The first woman to have an orgasm on the BBC? ... Wanderlust. Photograph: BBC/Drama Republic

Indeed, whether it’s humping a pillow, angling a shower head or using a vibrator, the idea of women young or mature putting their pleasure first has been historically controversial. I remember my heart sinking when Sally Draper was carted off to a psychotherapist for masturbating in Mad Men, but such was the pervasive attitude of the era. Women were pleasure-givers, not receivers; or, if pleasure was received, it was incidental. Luckily, contemporary TV writers are now centralising female pleasure in both celebratory and matter-of-fact ways.

Last year, Toni Collette claimed to be the first woman to have an orgasm on the BBC with Wanderlust; a show that ruffled feathers with its scene involving her masturbating, screwed-up face and all, in front of her partner. We had Phoebe Waller-Bridge wanking over a Barack Obama speech on her laptop while her boyfriend sleeps in Fleabag. In Broad City, Ilana Glazer makes a meal out of masturbation with extensive ‘self-seduction’ rituals that include lighting candles, putting on lipstick and eating oysters. Bumping back to reality, Insecure saw Issa (Issa Rae) scramble round the house looking for batteries for her vibrator while, ironically, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word ‘hump’.

Issa Rae in Insecure
The scramble for vibrator batteries ... Issa Rae in Insecure. Photograph: HBO

In Gentleman Jack, though nowhere near as racy a series as one hoped, it was quite thrilling to watch Suranne Jones’ Anne Lister timing and recording her lovers’ orgasms. I remember being taken aback watching the first series of Top of the Lake, in which Robyn’s boyfriend pulls her into a pub toilet to go down on her, because it is usually the other way around. It is telling that all these shows have female writers or directors.

All these instances carry a little revolutionary spark because it has always seemed that when women come on-screen (if indeed they do) it is a quick, smooth and penis-centric affair involving penetration. This does not reflect most women’s realities. (At least two-thirds of women having heterosexual sex cannot come this way; fingers, tongues and vibrators are much more effective.)

Gentleman Jack.
Quite thrilling ... Gentleman Jack. Photograph: Matt Squire/BBC/Lookout Point/HBO

We need to do more to educate young people about female pleasure. Jess Phillips was absolutely right when she said it was vital to discuss female pleasure in compulsory sex education to break down the culture of power imbalance between men and women. Heterosexual women orgasm less with a partner than any other demographic.

The reasons for this orgasm gap are multifaceted. It is not down to biology, rather any combination of lack of anatomical knowledge, the indifference of a partner, not feeling safe enough to ‘let go’ or confident enough to self-advocate. Much of our confidence in sex will come from experimenting privately and, hopefully, being with a partner who wants to learn the language. We need to encourage this through awareness from a young age. As Phillips has said, we’re not teaching kids to masturbate – we’re talking to them about what they’re already doing.

As of next year, the Department of Education is reforming sex education lessons for the first time in 17 years. Thank the lord. So much of the shame we carry as adults stems from what we experience when we’re pubescent. My mind would have exploded if I’d seen something as bold and right-on as Big Mouth at 14. If I were making the rules, I’d make watching this episode a compulsory part of the curriculum.

  • Big Mouth is available on Netflix