Shotgun Review

I Masturbate…

By Shotgun Reviews May 4, 2013

The Center for Sex and Culture (CSC) is exhibiting the photographer Shilo McCabe’s portrait series I Masturbate... through the end of May as part of their celebration of National Masturbation Month. Though masturbation does not often warrant its own art exhibition, the CSC is an apt venue to consider how documenting this private act could enable new power relationships within the practice of portrait photography. McCabe premiered these photographs in 2011 as a sex-positive web series. Each day, she posted an image of an individual with his or her statement. The show presents twenty prints from this original set and two additional images.

McCabe’s photographs promise to turn masturbation into a team sport. She describes each session as a collaborative process that privileges consent over control. Because of the stronginfluence of each sitter’s taste, the style and scenarios of the photographs vary widely. Day Ten (all images mentioned are from 2011) is a highly stylized and posed picture of a woman finding a new use for a kitchen gadget. Day Sixteen is a quiet portrait with natural lighting of a woman in her own bathtub. In Day Twenty-five, a rubber-clad dominatrix appears to be having a torrential orgasm.

Most erotic photography welcomes an objectifying gaze, in which the sitter’s activity is for the viewer’s benefit, but McCabe’s work explores whether sexual material can inspire other models of spectatorship. The photos’ stress on the subject’s agency encourages the viewer to identify. Commenters on the original web publication marveled that people masturbated the ways they did, ways that some previously believed to be wrong.

Shilo McCabe. From the series I Masturbate..., 2011. Courtesy of the Artist and the Center for Sex and Culture, San Francisco.

In the web platform, McCabe had ample space to articulate her concerns. Here, the sitters’ written statements are no longer displayed with the portraits (though they are available), but the message is nonetheless legible across the diversity of images. Her message is echoed in the larger program at the CSC, including their annual Masturbate-a-thon, which embraces masturbation as an acceptable topic for discourse and as integral to most people’s healthy sexuality. McCabe’s photographs feature a wide variety of body types, races, ages, and identities. McCabe argues that if we do not see people like us in images, including sexual images, we slowly acquire the belief that people like us are not worthy of being seen. She strives for inclusivity to try to stop the negative feedback loop. By recognizing aspects of themselves in a variety of activities regularly framed as unhealthy or immoral, viewers can celebrate their own psychosexual particularities.


I Masturbate... is on view at the Center for Sex and Culture, in San Francisco, through May 31, 2013.


Barbara Alfeo is a graduate student studying feminist performance art at Stanford University.

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