The simplest definition of masturbation refers to the incentive of touching, stimulating, caressing, embracing one’s own experience of intimate touch potentially on the genitalia, pussy, vagina, cunt, dick, willy, penis. Although I see that masturbation is a personal adventure in the way you feel and experience it, I shall refute the convention that masturbation is exclusively a solitary pleasure and refers only to a genital touch. Masturbation does not have to end with an orgasm; it can be the simple act of pleasuring myself, yourself, ourselves and it comes in all variable shapes, smells and colours, in all parts of the body, if you so wish. I am not going to try to define masturbation in detail; as much as it is impossible to define orgasm, I am going to let you, reader, interpret this word, and therefore experience your own intimate adventure.
‘Masturbation is a form of learning and practice that is known in every culture. It’s also a hobby, and like many hobbies, it can be practised frequently or rarely’ (Tierfer, 1995:134). Hence, I am going to make my first assumption: I think you masturbate. ‘Masturbation is possibly the most common of all sexual activity across the world - and the least discussed.’ (Plummer, 2015:120). So we are going to discuss it, now, together. Maybe you are not masturbating, not right now, maybe not last night, maybe it is not your hobby, maybe you do not like it, maybe you are scared, maybe you love it, but at some point in your life, you have masturbated. You may deny that, you may, it is your free will - but I think you are lying.
I do not aim to make a topography of the world’s variety of masturbatory experiences, to document the history of masturbation, nor to detail and review any kind of scientific research. My focus lies in a simple question: how can we (potentially) win, gain, accomplish a little freedom against the system in place and perform an act of resistance through the use of masturbation? I believe that masturbation is a way of taking time for ourselves and helps us to get into the headspace of pure relaxation. However, this is a personal interpretation of the act and everyone has different ways, tools or ideas to reach a similar mindset, such as walking alone in the forest, reading a book, cooking, chilling out, meditation etc...
Through the past, present, and most likely for future generations, masturbation is a controversial subject. It is something to be whispered about, acknowledged as a subject of secrecy and negative connotations. However, it is also a natural activity, one that is instinctive and comes with many emotional attachments: a basic need, urge, wish, pleasure, with shame and desire. In the privacy of our own thoughts and physical environment, the way it is experienced by us all can remain unarticulated, undefined; these things do not necessarily need to be expressed or examined to heighten the pleasure.
I wish to argue that the modern way to repress masturbation as a way to control the population is made by attacking the soul. The repressive institutions follow the dogma of science, which, to this day, dictates what constitutes the normative body and acts. Rather than being individual ‘problems’ (or matter, bliss, joy), science has infiltrated private lives as the medical ‘expert’, whether we like it or not. ‘As they legitimise existing power relations and structures by defining what is ‘normal’, alternative or ‘oppositional’ subject positions are not usually perceived as desirable or even possible alternatives’ (Davies, 1989 in Allen 2003:216). It is the government (the law) and science that grant the permission and set the norms for what is a ‘normal’ masturbation practice, saying this is good or bad, you are bad, you are wrong, you are normal, you are bizarre. For instance, the UK law on porn production, (BBFC, passed in 2014) banned the act of squirting - a biological part of some women’s sexuality: an invalidation of (and therefore a threat to) sexual autonomy. And in England itself, there is still minimal medical and counselling support for survivors of female genital mutilation, an invalidation of female pleasure. Still, in 2018, English medical staff are required to ask patients to wrap themselves in a ‘modesty blanket’ when undertaking gynaecological examinations ‘down there’. This is an invalidation of the female body and genitals. Who is ashamed of what here?
Willhelm Reich (1897-1957) argued that ‘the only social purpose of compulsory marriage for life is to produce the submissive personality type that mass society requires’ (in Kipnis, 2003:37), sharing the similar idea of Freud’s that ‘suppressing sexual curiosity leads to general intellectual atrophy, including the loss of any power to rebel’ (Kipnis 2003:37). Accordingly, we can argue that by repressing our physical freedom of access to masturbation and sexuality in general, the aim of society is to have submissive ‘docile bodies’ buying rather than revolting (or considering alternative ways of experiencing life). Let’s be honest, open relationships and other non-traditional sexual partnerships are still not accepted as ‘normal’; the hetero male-female
couple remains the norm. Society set the norms, telling us what is acceptable to explore with sexual trends, e.g. if you are a female then use a dildo – but where is the dildo for men? This encourages people to make purchases in order to enhance their masturbatory experience as almost a kind of duty. You must have amazing orgasms. You must ‘work’ on those orgasms to have more/better/wetter. Thus, it is suggesting that, if intellectual atrophy is taking place, people would not even be able to understand their vulnerable position, hence transforming them into ‘slaves’ of society. ‘How we participate in the creation of masturbatory meaning is crucial to how we interact and experience our body and other’s bodies. How we imagine ourselves and others, by seeing and being seen, in addition to what we learn in interaction with the surrounding world, does impact what we ‘do’ and how we ‘become’.’ (Blinne 2012:964). The powers that be may dictate how we have to behave but, for now, they do not have the power to dictate what happens in the enlightened comfort of our minds.
Foucault developed the argument that ‘where there is power, there is resistance’ (1978); he explains by stating: ‘as soon as there’s a relationship of power there’s a possibility of resistance. We’re never trapped by power: it’s always possible to modify its hold, in determined conditions following a precise strategy’ (Foucault, 1980:13 in Allen 2003:216). The power in the dominant discourse is not monolithic; there is room for disruption and action. The query is now: me, you, us, what can we do to challenge the general
perception of ‘yes but’ and go beyond and investigate this self-imposed silence in order to make changes and enhance masturbation as a free tool to heighten our human experience? Maybe embrace this personal space?
Language shapes reality and writing this essay has made me reflect on the female/male duality: I had always taken for granted that there are two sexes, men and women. I came to understand how many of those standards (the norm) I had within my own social construction and simply accepted things that I consider to be ‘normal’. I kept referencing female masturbation and genitals with cute-ish names, such as through feline-related vocabulary, but I did not name penises in the same way. Willy, dick, member, cock; these all already have their own connotations, and in euphemisms for masturbation, they can sound aggressive. How strange that the same act of self-pleasure can create such different moods and set of metaphors, depending on which type of genitalia is being caressed.
‘Subjectification operates through the internalization of those norms. We modify our behaviours in an endless attempt to approximate the normal, and in the process, become kinds of subjects. Norms also
further the objectification by reducing individuality to a communal measure: we can all be reduced to a dot on a curve.’ (Oksala, 2007:59). My question was to explore how masturbation could be used as a tool to empower people from an oppressing society. I would argued that as Westerners, we consider freedom may not be a reality but only a social confinement. People are tied into their beliefs of normality, not wanting to be different from ‘others’.
Ultimately, I suggest that western society is repressive and punitive, where punishment (for those people acting outside the norm) is used to protect society.29 However, there is a paradox between the idea of ‘protection of the society’ and ‘punishment’. It suggests that one is the truth and one is wrong, needing to be punished; ‘the aim of all punishment is the protection of those social values which the dominant social group of a state regard as good for ‘society’ (Rusche&Kirchheimer, 2003:xlviii). The lack of promotion of masturbation (and let’s be honest, repression through the use of shame) is a way of controlling the population in serving capitalism. Imagine a world where instead of retail therapy, instead of taking antidepressants30 or promoting Flibanserin31 (i.e. serving the medical industry32), or instead of inducing anxiety in people by telling them that they should be achieving more pleasure, masturbation – an instinctive act with no economic value – was promoted and encouraged for the wellbeing and health of the people? A world where feelings are encouraged, feelings such as: tingly, warm, comfortable, freed, intent, lascivious, horny, vulnerable ,wild, begging, relaxed, wholesome or strong?
A capitalist economy does not care for happiness; it only wants consumers. Is there a utopian future for us, away from punishment where there is free and accessible pleasure for all, created right here in our own bodies? What about the generous economy of the flesh? There is a need not for alternative but for parallel ideas.
29 ‘Every social group, every organized political society imposes punishment upon those who violate its rules. These rules have developed because the society in question has created or adopted social values by which it sets some store and which it wants to defend against aggression.’ (Rusche&Kirchheimer, 2003:xlviii)
30 See Leonore Tiefer for more research on the medical industry
31 Female Viagra
32 1994, Dr. Joycelyn Elders at the UN was asked if masturbation should be promoted in order to prevent riskier forms of sexual activity to the young people. ‘I think that it is part of the human sexuality’ (…) and perhaps should be taught’ (Our bodies, Ourselves, 2011:161). She has been dismissed from her role as a UN Surgeon General as a result of this comment, ‘on the utility of reassuring children of the ‘normality’ of masturbation’ (Bennett&Rosario1995:2). A female doctor, fired by a male president who himself brought discourse about oral sex into the public eye. Cornog argued: ‘how many people thought that instead of firing Elders, Clinton should have taken her hint, playing with himself instead of with Monika Lewinsky?’ (2004:300).
Is the disruption the act of revolt the self-emancipation of the individual? The holistic act of embracing the experience of masturbation with the symbiosis of the mind and the body? A utopian world where masturbation is promoted as a health benefit, a world where pleasure is free and not a source of shame for men and women. A world where taking the time to pleasure yourself is encouraged? Where do you want to concentrate your energy? What values are you going to stand and fight for?
If we are to remain silenced on the act of masturbation then one way we can honour it is to treat it as a piece of art. Analyse it, explore it enjoy it, devour it, be aware of every stroke, texture, sound, smell. It requires creativity; a unique composition never to be experienced again and you are in control. I will let you choose, reader - which world do you want to live in?
Reader, this text is not intended to convert you to the religion of masturbation, it is not proclaiming that we should all masturbate together, nor that masturbation should be compulsory, but rather, that if you want to do it, do it without shame, and if you want to talk about it, do it without shame. It is a way to take a moment for yourself only, a moment that no one can take away from you, a moment of self-introspection that is yours and yours alone (or shared, if you like).
Maybe you can read that as a manifesto of masturbation and of the freedom to escape, but at the end, the only thing I wish for you is to find your own path and take the matter into your own hands, whatever the method may be.
I want to invite you to feel yourself.
Allen, L. (2003) 'Girls want sex, boys want love: Resisting dominant discourses of (hetero}sexuality'. Sexualities, 6(2) :215-236.
Blinne, K (2012) Auto(erotic)ethnography, Sexualities 15(8): 953–977, The Author(s) 2012
Cornog, M (2004) The Decloseting of Masturbation. Book Review in The Journal of Sex Research, 41 (3):310-318
Kipnis, L (2003) Against Love, A Polemic. Pantheon Books: New York
Oksala, J (2007) How to Read Foucault. Grenta Bokks London
Plummer, K (1995) Telling Sexual Stories, Power, Change and the Social Worlds. Routledge London New York
Ruscher, G & Kirchheimer, O (2003) Punishment and Social Structure, 3rd Ed. (1939) Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick and London
Tiefer, L (1995) Sex is Not a Natural Act and Other Essays. Westview Press
Tuck, G (2009) The Mainstreaming of Masturbation: Autoerotism and Consumer Capitalism in Atwood, F (2009) The Sexualisation of Western Culture, Mainstream Sex, Ed by Atwood, I.B Tauris