Getting Intimate with…
October 20, 2023
Interviewed by Laura Clarke
Vic Liu (she/they) is an NYC-based author and artist. The first edition of her book Bang!: Masturbation for All Genders and Abilities was published in 2021, and they have recently published an expanded second edition, diving into even more masturbation-related topics.
In this month’s Getting Intimate, Vic talks to me about the parts of masturbation that we rarely discuss as a society, pleasure as a way of living in the moment and connecting with your emotional self, and how the social acceptability surrounding sex toys comes with terms and conditions.
There are a lot of books out there about sex that touch upon masturbation, but not many that dedicate themselves entirely to the topic. What inspired you to write a book solely focusing on self-pleasure?
There are a lot of books about sex and masturbation, but there aren't many that are super inclusive — a lot are directed at very specific bodies. Something I noticed was that there’s a gap in books that hold space for multiple identities, multiple bodies, multiple orientations.
It feels like the sex ed I was raised on — and hopefully this is starting to change — was directed at cis people and also wasn’t very racially conscious. A lot of illustrations of white bodies. And that was a gap that I wanted to close with Bang!
Additionally, I think that masturbation is a little bit neglected in general in the world of sex ed books. But masturbation is such a crucial and large part of our sexual identity because, for many of us, it's the first way that we start to figure out what feels good and interact with our sexual bodies.
Also, reading about other people's masturbation journeys can really help establish a foundation for sexual empathy. It’s a super important and valuable way to think about someone else's body.
The new edition has lots of exciting new content, such as sections on masturbation and ageing, ethical porn & sex toy shopping, and sensuality — can you talk about your decision to create a second edition and your favourite new element of the book?
I think there's always more to write about when it comes to sex in general, and that definitely also applies to masturbation. There are always new topics that we want to consider. We were due for a reprint, so luckily we had the opportunity to expand and add even more.
In terms of favourite parts, let's see… it's hard for me to ignore how much of an honour it is for Adrienne Maree Brown to have written the foreword. That is huge to me. I still haven't processed it. (Laughs) It’s pretty incredible.
It also just feels so good to include sections that I've been thinking about even before the first edition came out. For example, sex while ageing is so under-discussed. I feel like part of what's really important about Bang! is that it makes a lot of aspects of the human experience canon.
Typically, a lot of things, like ageing, or being trans, or masturbating while in a wheelchair are relegated to the annex, to the appendices, or to their own separate book. But having everyone under one roof is so important, because then you can read about other people's bodies and experiences.
You start your book by saying “masturbation is not a competition or a destination” — in recent years, when self-pleasure has become more socially acceptable, do you feel like the tables have turned slightly from a pressure to NOT masturbate, to a pressure TO masturbate?
It definitely depends on what population you live in, but I do think there is an unfortunate trend in that direction. I actually wrote an article sort of related to this for Refinery29, and basically my hot take was that I'm a little bit annoyed and disappointed with where we are in the sex toy world right now.
There's a trend towards owning super cute, adorable vibrators that are kind of expensive, so it's like you're allowed to masturbate if you make it cute and luxurious and chic. But we aren't as accepting of other ways of being, and we aren't even accepting of our own genitalia within that realm. These vibrators are so sexless — they’re always pastel purple, pastel pink, or pastel green. Those are your options.
They always look like something that could be a contemporary sculpture in the MoMA. Part of me wonders if we are actually being accepting of our bodies and our sexualities if we are not actually showing them.
It kind of seems like an attempt to sanitise masturbation…
Right! I do hope that we're moving towards a place where you can masturbate or not masturbate — whatever suits your fancy, whatever suits what you need in the moment — but I don't think that is necessarily the case.
It does feels like very pretty, sculpturesque sex toys have become acceptable, but toys like realistic dildos are still the butt of the joke, a bit sad or gross. It’s really weird that we sort of pick and choose…
Yeah, why haven't we normalised all sex toys equally? It’s something that I'm very confused by. Like, for example, penis enlargers. Why is that something that we aren't cool with?
The increase in self-pleasure activism is very gendered — the message that masturbation is empowering for cisgender women but still seen as lonely, seedy or embarrassing for cis men. What are your thoughts on this, and are there steps we can take to celebrate men’s masturbation in the same way we do women’s?
Okay, so to have this conversation, we need to first establish that, in general, men win, right? (Laughs)
(Laughs) Oh yeah, definitely.
But that being said, I do think it’s unfair. It’s something that I run into a lot when I do sex-positive design. It’s very easy for me to find uplifting imagery of femme masturbation, but it's incredibly difficult to find ways to depict masturbation for people with penises that are recognisable and not weird.
Even if you look at the sex toy realm for people with penises, there aren’t many options — basically just strokers and fleshlights. It’s also kind of weird that so many fleshlights are porn-star flavoured… like, this is “insert porn star name’s” vagina.
I think a lot of it is that capitalism is controlled by very few companies, and within the sex toy world, it's unfortunately true that most of the sex toy companies are owned by white men. So we’re really just taking their vision of sexuality and what they're into, and spreading it as a universal experience.
And I think part of it is that it goes hand in hand with the asexuality, the beauty, and the luxury of what it means to be a woman masturbating. It goes hand in hand with what it means to be a sexual man and the image of what that looks like.
This is making me think — are we only okay with female masturbation if it’s for empowerment and feminism and sex positivity? It almost has to serve something, to have a higher meaning, for it to be palatable — it can’t just be women touching themselves?
I'm all for the mediocre masturbation moment. We definitely need to have better representation of that. I think that we have too many depictions of glorious, magical masturbation moments where suddenly you see the light and everything becomes wonderful and beautiful… Why can't we just have maintenance masturbation?
For those who haven’t yet read the book, could you describe the difference between the emotional body and the pleasure body and how they relate to masturbation?
This also kind of relates to the media. I don’t think that films have figured out how to depict the emotional body very well, because emotional sex isn’t considered sexy, maybe? Purely emotional sex is just “oh, I'm just actually really in the moment right now.” But how do you depict that as an achievement? With plot? Instead, they focus so much on the physicality of it.
I think that delineation is pretty crucial because you can go out there and do the acts, but that doesn't mean that you're going to enjoy them fully because a lot of that has to do with where you are in your brain.
Apparently, our sex lives are going to get a lot better after age 50 — this is what older people say. Which is not what you’d think, according to pop culture. And I think that happens because we stop giving a shit about what we look like during sex. We've reached a level of comfort with our brains where we’re able to just be there, be present and focus on our feelings and what we're experiencing rather than what we look like.
Historically, we’ve viewed masturbation as something you do when you can’t have sex, a sort of second-best. What are your feelings on this and on terms like “solo-sex” that aim to celebrate self-pleasure as a type of sex within its own right?
I think that we probably came up with the idea of masturbation as a consolation prize out of discomfort with our own sexuality. Honestly, I've never heard of something stupider because they’re just completely different things! Partnered sex is very different from what you get out of sex with yourself.
I personally feel that the term “solo sex” is a little bit too close to partnered sex for my preference because they’re such different things. It is as worthy of being termed sexual as partnered sex, but when you say “solo sex”, it's against the default of “partnered sex”. I don't know if I am the same sort of sexual being when I masturbate as when I'm having sex with someone. For me, they are very different.
The book does a really good job of addressing physical and emotional barriers to masturbation — either due to disability, gender dysphoria, etc. — how can masturbation support a deeper connection with a body that you perhaps have a challenging relationship with?
I think it’s impossible to have any sort of relationship with your body without exploring it. I can't even picture a way to have a full relationship with yourself unless you know what your genitalia does, just in the same way that it would be very hard to have a relationship with yourself if you completely neglected another body part. It's just another part of who you are, and it can be a big part or it can be a small part.
Masturbation provides such a safe arena for you to deal with a lot of complex and often very charged topics and things that society puts on you. It's kind of like, how much of our culture is about sex? Arguably, a large percentage of it, even in the subtext. And so, how do you process that on your own? Masturbation is a very logical way to do that.
And finally, what was a question you had about masturbation in the past, and could you answer it now for anyone wondering the same thing?
You know, in a weird way, I feel like it was all just one big question around what it would mean for me when I have partnered sex. How will I be perceived? Is this something that is acceptable? Is this something that I have to hide? Am I still a virgin? I remember that being a huge question for me — am I still a virgin?
And can I answer that now? Somewhat. I think most of society is bullshit. A lot of these questions of "what does it mean to be a sexual being?” are conditioned on wanting to be accepted by the larger world. So do what you can to care for yourself and love yourself and take care of the parts of you that are often neglected.
Getting Intimate is the blog series where we interview people making a difference in the world of sex, relationships, gender and feminism. Read more interviews here.
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September 22, 2023