Chrissy Amphlett performs as Judy Garland in the musical “The Boy From Oz” in 2006. (Reuters/Will Burgess.)
Decades before Britney Spears danced through the hallways of a high school in a little plaid skirt, Chrissy Amphlett was making a scene on stage in a school uniform and fishnet stockings. Long before Rihanna sang about the appeals of S&M, Amphlett was crooning about the fine line between pleasure and pain, asking us to please not ask her how she’s been getting off. And years before rappers like Missy Elliott and Nicki Minaj were rhyming about taking their sexual pleasure into their own hands, Amphlett was serenading the object of her affection with “when I think about you, I touch myself.”
Amphlett, the lead singer of Divinyls, one of Australia’s best-loved rock bands, died in New York City yesterday after a long battle with cancer and multiple sclerosis. She was 53.
Growing up in Australia in the 1990s, I heard a lot of Divinyls music, most of it in the car. My parents had raised us—my sister and me—on classical music and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and didn’t expose us to much pop music (though my mother did teach me the names of the fifty United States with the aid of “California Girls”). When I was 6 or 7, though, they hired a new nanny, one who had very different tastes in music. She listened to rock, and so whenever she and my sister and I were in the car, the radio was tuned to Sydney’s rock station. New names entered my vocabulary: Bon Jovi, Cold Chisel, Screaming Jets, Midnight Oil, AC/DC, INXS. I wasn’t terribly good at distinguishing these bands—they all sounded the same to my young and uninitiated ears, and I took to simply asking, “Is this Cold Chisel?” every time a song came on, much to my sister’s irritation. But I never had any trouble identifying Divinyls, partly because Amphlett’s was one of the few women’s voices you could hear on rock radio in the mid-nineties.
Two decades after Divinyls made it big (in 1991, “I Touch Myself” went to No. 1 in Australia, No. 4 in the US, and No. 10 in the UK), there are more women’s voices to be found in mainstream rock, though not as many as I’d like. And in part because singers like Rihanna and Spears, as well as Janet Jackson and Pink, have recently penned and performed songs about masturbation, it’s easy to forget how shocking those lyrics were when the song was released. But in 1991, it was still remarkable for a woman to talk openly about masturbation, let alone sing about it loudly and proudly with the full backing of a band to boot. By the early 1990s, the second wave of feminism had well and truly crested, and the backlash against it was in full swing. It was one thing to be a woman in a man’s game, but for that woman to stand on stage and enumerate her various sexual fantasies, well, that was still revolutionary.
Later in her life, Amphlett expressed the wish that “I Touch Myself” serve as a reminder to women that they should get annual breast exams, so that they might catch breast cancer early. And so it should, but of course, those exams don’t involve touching yourself. As we contemplate Amphlett’s legacy, we should also remember the power of women’s pleasure—and consider the sobering fact that it is still shocking to hear a woman talk, or sing, about masturbation.
Last week, I wrote here at The Nation about how important it is for survivors of sexual violence to tell their stories, and what civilians can learn from the US military about how not to listen to those stories.
One of the cures for that epidemic is the destigmatization of pleasure. A culture in which girls and women are taught to understand and honor their own sexual desires, and in which boys and men are taught to respect those desires as much as they respect their own, is a culture that does not permit sexual violence. In such a culture, it is a prerequisite for initiating and continuing with a sexual interaction that everyone involved will feel good. Everyone will have the vocabulary and the permission to talk about feeling good. They will consent, enthusiastically. In that culture, Steubenville is inconceivable. In that culture, bodily autonomy comes first and pleasure comes—and yes, that was entirely intentional—a very close second.
We don’t live in that culture. We live in a culture that let Steubenville happen, and that will undoubtedly let countless similar acts happen before we finally decide we’ve had enough. Destigmatizing women’s sexual pleasure isn’t a panacea, but it is one solution. Pleasure is powerful, and, as Amphlett’s own song suggests, there’s a fine line between pleasure and pain: We cannot talk about bad sexual interactions and sex crimes without also talking about what good sex looks (and feels) like. We have a sexual violence problem in America, and we have an orgasm gap. The two are related, and we won’t solve that problem or bridge that gap until we care, as a culture, about pleasure and about pain.
The first time I heard Divinyls on the radio, I asked my nanny what the song “I Touch Myself” was about. She got very uncomfortable and said she didn’t know how to explain it properly. Then she changed the station. Years later, I am still waiting for an honest conversation about women’s pleasure and pain—a cultural one, this time. We won’t solve America’s sexual violence problem without it. If we can have it, though, the implications will be nothing short of revolutionary. “I Touch Myself” can be our anthem.
Chloe Angyal last wrote about one girl’s rejection of sex education that only promotes ignorance.