This whole article? NSFW. Just. Saying.
So, tell me. When was the last time you slapped the salami? Choked the chicken? Killed a kitten? Or, for the ladies…brushed the beaver, fed the bearded clam, or trolled the Bermuda triangle?
Cripes. These terms. They paint a dozen visual images, and none of them are good. But they’re preferable to the historical treatment of masturbation as ‘self-abuse’ – a habit variously held to indicate devil possession and bad character, and to cause cancer of the womb, urinary diseases, blindness, impotence, epilepsy, insanity, and mental and physical debility.
But here’s the thing. Masturbation is good for us. As Canadian sex therapist Judith Golden explains, masturbation can relieve stress, ease menstrual cramps, put you in touch with your sexuality, help you achieve orgasm during intercourse, improve men’s ability to achieve and maintain erections, and help with insomnia. Can’t sleep? Have a wank. Works for me, every time.
Toddlers do it. Teenagers do it. Men do it, and women do it. Animals do it – witness this dolphin, getting friendly with a decapitated fish. You do it, and I do it.
Yet we invoke the terms ‘wanker’ and ‘tosser’ as insults, and treat masturbation as a dirty joke. In our collective consciousness, consenting sexual activity with another involves the ego stroke of external validation, while the solitary pursuit of masturbation is tinged with loneliness, an inability to pick up or connect with another, and a big fat ‘L’ on the forehead. What’s with the frowny face, society?
“Masturbation is a normal part of life: more people do it than are prepared to admit to it. I work with adults and teenagers, and I’ve observed a massive stigma around masturbation, especially for women, who often link it to bodily shame,” says Vanessa Thompson, Head Sexologist at NSW Sexology Services.
“Sometimes, I’ll recommend masturbation to clients, for example if someone is having trouble reaching orgasm with a partner. The suggestion makes some people incredibly uncomfortable; many have been socialised to think that it’s bad or dirty by their parents. But of course, if you can learn your body you can teach your partner. Masturbation is an important part of sexual development.”
I blame religion. The influence of its anti-sex, anti-self, anti-fun doctrine stains our culture, like a stubborn brown streak on the underwear of the world. From the 13th through to the mid-20th centuries the church cautioned against masturbation. Its emphasis on pleasure over procreation was considered a sin of irrational and selfish gratification: a moral flaw, and a crime against nature.
Intellectuals followed suit, arguing, as Swiss physician Samuel-Auguste Tissot did in his 1760 medical text L’Onanisme, that semen is an essential oil and stimulus that when lost from the body in great amounts, causes all kinds of physical decrepitude, including blurred vision,gout and rheumatism, and blood in the urine.
And then there’s the prudishness of the Victorian era and its rollover into 20th century social puritanism, where anxiety about the big M is expressed not in the faux-medical language of Tissot and his cronies, but in the new scientific language of child-rearing. This American health pamphlet from 1922 favours exercise, willpower and healthy eating over ‘”self-abuse”, a “selfish, childish, stupid habit” which may “…seriously hinder a boy’s progress toward vigorous manhood.”
Doctor John Harvey Kellogg, a.k.a. Mr Cornflakes (1852-1943), was an especially zealous campaigner against recreational sex, and masturbation. Of 644 pages in his 1881 book, Plain Facts for Old and Young, 97 address “secret vice (solitary vice or self-abuse)”. He believed it caused cancer of the womb, urinary diseases, nocturnal emissions, impotence, epilepsy, insanity, and mental and physical debility.
Prevention was the thing. Kellogg, and a host of paediatricians and psychologists that came after him, recommended bandaging or tying children’s hands, covering their genitals with patented cages, sewing the foreskin shut and electrical shock. He also recommended burning off the clitoris to prevent masturbation in girls, and male circumcision WITHOUT ANAESTHESIA to prevent masturbation in boys.
Christian website Christwire (“Conservative values for an unsaved world”) might be a parody, but its post on the anti-masturbation movement’s greatest inventions showcases 14 medieval-esque devices that are the real deal – including Kellogg’s intention that cornflakes could be used to make an irritating vaginal douche to discourage women from pleasuring themselves.
Professional attitudes started to shift in the 1940s, when parents were advised to ignore, rather than shame their self-pleasuring children. Sexologist Alfred Kinsey insisted that masturbation was an instinctive behaviour for males and females, and in the 1980s social theorist Michel Foucault argued masturbation taboo was “rape by the parents of the sexual activity of their children.”
Then, slowly but surely, popular culture started to embrace the taboo. In 1984, Cyndi Lauper released ‘She Bop‘ – a catchy new wave number, and one of her most commercially successful singles ever. The song was about masturbation, and its racy content inspired the Parents Music Resource Center (a.k.a. the Washington Wives) to add it to their Filthy Fifteen list, and led to the creation of the ‘Parental Approval required’ music sticker.
Prince’s ‘Darling Nikki’ (“I knew a girl named Nikki / I guess u could say she was a sex fiend / I met her in a hotel lobby / Masturbating with a magazine”) also made the list.
Just a few years later, Christina Amphlett and the Divinyls had a number one hit in Australia with a red-hot ode to female masturbation, ‘I Touch Myself‘. The song also reached the top five on the US Billboard Hot 100, and has been covered by numerous performers, includingWeird Al Yankovic and Pink.
Popular culture is one thing; politics, another. In 1994, when then Surgeon General of the United States, Dr Joycelyn Elders, condoned teaching schoolchildren to masturbate as a way of avoiding the spread of the AIDS virus at a United Nations conference on AIDS, she wasforced to resign.
I was eight in 1984 and I *loved* ‘She Bop’, but I had no idea it was about masturbation. I thought, as Lauper intended her younger fans to think, that it was about dancing. It’s a mistake to impose an adult understanding of and interest in sexuality on kids – as per the online posters describing the Frooze pop, a hard candy sucker that oozes sweet goo when sucked and squeezed as “lewd and unhealthy”. Oh, please. Is a child going to think they’re simulating a sexual act when sucking the shit out of a gobstopper-like sweet? No. That’s adult talk.
“I realised that the toy may offer a more than sensational experience. The broomstick has cute sound effects and ***VIBRATES*** when they put it between their legs to fly. Come on – what were the creators of this toy thinking? She’ll keep playing with the Nimbus 2000, but with the batteries removed.”
Uh huh. Boo to you, killjoy Mum. Tell me this: how can we be open to sharing our bodies with another, if we’re not okay with exploring it on our own? How can we realise our capacity for sexual pleasure, if we don’t explore our own potential? How can we learn to please another, if we’re not sure how to please ourselves? And how can we be varied and interesting lovers, if we’re not encouraged to explore all that’s possible for ourselves, first and foremost?
Olivia Bryant, founder of Tell Me Darling, runs creative sexual empowerment workshops and courses for women. Self-pleasure is part of the homework Bryant gives the women she works with, but she’s observed that they often don’t do it.
“Many people don’t prioritise pleasure, but it’s important we take the time to make ourselves happy – for lots of reasons! In terms of our relationships, feeling happy gives us the energy to be a positive and engaged friend and partner,” says Bryant.
“I advocate indulging in pleasure until you feel full and giving from there – not running on empty. The chemicals released during arousal and orgasm have been linked to our sense of purpose and connection. They give us the juice to get out there in world, make connections and contribute.”
“Find a time when you’re not going to be interrupted, and turn off distractions. Have a bath, light candles. Begin by enjoying your whole body – use your showering or bathing to massage and explore sensitive non-genital areas. You could read erotica in the bath to get you in the mood, or think about your own fantasies. I recommend further exploration in a comfortable space that is not the bath so you can feel your own lubrication, and also apply lubrication if necessary. Make sure you breathe! Count four big inhales and exhales.”
Go on – treat yourself to some quality solo time. You deserve it.