Third Sector recently carried a news story about the 'masturbate-a-thon' that took place last Saturday and which will be shown on Channel 4 later this year (Third Sector, 26 July). As an organisation that provides support to women who have been sexually exploited, we have serious concerns about the consequences of these activities.
Although there are arguments that masturbation is a means of sexual release that does not involve exploiting another person, we are disappointed that Marie Stopes - a group that is meant to focus on women's autonomy - can put on an event that clearly offers men the opportunity to leer at women's naked bodies in the name of fundraising, as well as promoting the use of pornography "to help you get in the mood" (a quote from the event website).
To further drive home the message that this "innocent" event is inextricably linked to the sexual exploitation of women, links from the masturbate-a-thon website feature pornography describing itself as "hardcore" accompanied by images of naked women and sexually explicit language.
Both Marie Stopes and Channel 4 seem to have overlooked the socially and sexually unequal position of men and women. The majority of sexual violence is perpetrated against women. Pornographic images of women are everywhere, from music videos to advertising billboards, and lap dancing has become a mainstream form of entertainment. Women are seen as sexual objects in a way that men are not. In this context, a TV programme that features a group of women masturbating, even in women-only areas, is nothing more than straightforward titillation.
Masturbation is indeed a taboo subject; so are rape, childhood sexual abuse, female genital mutilation and sexual harassment. Speaking out against pornography as a form of harm to women usually results in being labelled an outdated prude who can't take 'a bit of fun'. Channel 4 claims to want to be provocative and mischievous, but women know all too well that 'provocative and mischievous' is usually at our expense.
Jerking off for money is akin to prostitution. Although intended to show that masturbation is a "positive, safe and erotic alternative" to penetration, the links to pornography demonstrate that events such as this don't exist in isolation, but are part of an exploitative sex industry.