Linda Troeller explores masturbation, female orgasm, and her own sexuality

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Currently on display at New York’s Museum of Sex, Troeller’s celebratory images capture women in moments of pleasure

The female orgasm is regularly depicted on film – sex scenes in movies to porn, readily available on any device. But most of these are empty impressions directed by men. In the 1970s, decades before the female gaze became a mainstream point of discussion, Linda Troeller started capturing empowered images of women in moments of pleasure. Her visceral photographs, exploring masturbation, orgasm, and her own sexuality, are currently on show at New York’s Museum of Sex in an exhibition titled ‘Self Power | Self Play’

“It started aged 20 when my parents sent me on a trip to Europe,” says Troeller, who is now 73. “I was from a small town in New Jersey, and I saw classical and contemporary nudity that felt different.” Two years later in the summer of 1971, Troeller was assisting at Ghost Ranch, a retreat and education centre in Mexico. “We had our lunch with Georgia O’Keeffe. I had my camera with me and she said, ‘Go outside and see what the spirits tell you.’ I walked to the canyon and took my top off. I just wanted to do that; I was alone. The next summer I was a nude model for the Ansel Adams workshops. I liked squirming naked in the earth for 40 photographers. I continued this path whenever I could.”

© Linda Troeller.

The images Troeller takes of herself – masturbating; dressed up; at one with nature – are often instinctive. “An emotional experience will come over me that calls me to investigate myself,” says Troeller, who still makes images of herself now. “During Covid, I packed my bag and took the first bus out of New York City to my summer house. I automatically got out a pair of high heels and started taking self-portraits. I realised I was going to look and feel different as I had no one to look at me in the neighbourhood. But I could put on a pair of heels and feel hot.”

Depicting other women in intimate moments requires nuance and sensitivity. Her 2013 book Orgasm: Interviews on Intimacy combines conversations and images of women discussing their most memorable orgasm. Trauma and pleasure are often interlinked, highlighting the complexity of sexuality in a world where many women have simultaneously painful and ecstatic memories woven through their bodies. 

“Whatever the women offered, I would move in close and participate in finding dignity,” she says. “Many of my pictures have a spiritual aspect to them. Sometimes I am bearing witness to traumatic things that have happened to women. With Orgasm, I asked the women to look at every frame; if there was something that didn’t feel right, I deleted it.”

© Linda Troeller.

“The female gaze has exploded. The multiplicity of how women are seen is so important. We are many-layered”

Self-Portrait, Sex Shop North Beach, San Francisco, 1975 © Linda Troeller.

Troeller is excited about the open discussions around masturbation, pleasure, and equality that have happened in recent years. “People more than ever want to feel fulfilled,” she says. “They aren’t as afraid of masturbation. I think during lockdown people silently learned a lot about themselves. If they were lonely, they would find a way to pleasure themselves. And the female gaze has exploded. The multiplicity of how women are seen is so important. We are many-layered.” 

But the artist also recognises there is a long way to go. “One of my famous pictures is Bridal Rite [depicting a woman’s legs, vulva, and ripped bridal dress hovering above a large cactus]. The cactus is the male penis, which was always in my way. When I was taking the image, I said to myself, you don’t have to be a regular wife anymore. But it was about so much more. That picture affects people today because there are still the pricks; a world run by men.” 

Self-Portrait, Mineral Tub, Bad Gadstein, Austria, 2013 © Linda Troeller.

Troeller has continued taking intimate images of herself as she has aged. It is unusual to see older naked bodies in art, let alone those exploring sexuality. Age is sadly still a deep-rooted taboo. “I believe in ageing justice,” she tells me. “We have left behind many words, but ‘senior citizen’ is still around, ‘grandma’, ‘nana’. If you’re sexy and still attractive, you’re a ‘cougar’. I think that’s so disgusting. The healing of our culture should involve respect for older women, and respect for older women masturbating. There are all kinds of creams now that create sexual comfort. There is no reason you can’t be a functional, healthy sexual person at any age. Pleasure is a wonderful thing.” 

Self Power | Self Play by Linda Troeller is on display at Museum of Sex, New York, until 19 January 2023.