The following post is about masturbation. It is not graphic, but please do not read on if you are likely to be offended.
“I write in praise of a solitary act…” So runs the opening line of New Zealand poet Fleur Adcock’s paean to masturbation, Against Coupling. At the outset of International Masturbation Month, which climaxes (ahem) on 28 May with Masturbation Day, I write a modest tribute of my own.
First, a little context: masturbation month was started in 1995 by San Francisco’s Good Vibrations store in response to the firing of paediatrician and sex education advocate Joycelyn Elders from her post as U.S. Surgeon General. This was because Elders dared to say masturbation “is part of human sexuality and a part of something that perhaps should be taught.”
I cannot truthfully claim that ‘we all do it’, but it appears most of us do. A 2010 survey in the US found that 94% of men and 85% of women say they masturbate, across all age groups. Come on ladies! I thought, then saw that the The Gossard ‘Big M’ Survey in the UK of 1,000 women aged 18-30 found around nine out of 10 young women masturbate, two-thirds of them thrice a week. Maybe there’s a national difference, but given the different age ranges involved in the two surveys, it seems more likely things are getting better.
I say ‘getting better’, because it’s not something I would like people to miss out on, ideally. We can be brief about the physical benefits of masturbation, not least because the benefit we’re most interested in is so obvious. But pleasure aside, here are some that have been put forward:
- A variety of health benefits: those indicated include prevention of cervical infections and urinary tract infections in women, and helping reduce likelihood of prostate cancer in men.
- Increase in cortisol levels, which can regulate immune functioning.
- Stress reduction, perhaps thanks to dopamine, the chemical released by the brain that gives a sense of pleasure, also aiding sleep.
- Possible pain control, for example a lot of women report masturbation helping deal with period cramps.
- Sex positivity: it’s a safe, natural way to explore your body and find out what you like – whether for your own purposes or to share with a partner. So that means better sex, and we’re back to the pleasure principle again…
It’s also mighty convenient if you’re on your own (by choice or by design) and have the urge for gratification. After all, who knows what you like better than you do? And it can, if you choose, be quick. As Fleur Adcock goes on to write:
Five minutes of solitude are
enough – in the bath, or to fill
that gap between the Sunday papers and lunch.
As far as I know, there not a large number of notable masturbation scenes in literature. And of those, the tendency appears to be comedic, at least for the men. Think of Alexander Portnoy’s compulsive encounters in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint with, variously, a candy wrapper, fruit, and a piece of raw liver. I am aware that in James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom treats himself to a most poetic-sounding wank (jerk-off), but I have to confess I never managed to finish the novel and had to look that one up to check.
I don’t know if female masturbation is less represented in fiction or whether this is bound up with women writers not having as much of the spotlight until recently (a separate subject!). I remember, years ago, reading Faye Weldon’s Leader of the Band (1988) wherein the main character Sandra, frustrated in her lover’s absence, employs a door handle to useful effect. Also, stealing a read of my mother’s copy of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, famous for its frank portrayal of female sexuality, in which Isadora Wing has no hesitation in giving herself a nice time as her indifferent other half slumbers on, oblivious. Well it helps her get to sleep. Reading these descriptions as a teen-ager, I found them reassuring rather than disturbing. And sneaking a peak at literature for adults was necessary as there were no or few books for teens that referred to masturbating.
There is an oft-quoted passage in Judy Blume’s Deenie, which mentions that “I have this special place and when I rub it I get a very nice feeling. I don’t know what it’s called or if anyone else has it…” highlighting the fact girls can lack a vocabulary and references for their own body parts and natural urges. Or they did back in 1973, when the book was written. More recently and more forthrightly, Caitlin Moran’s coming-of-age novel How to Build a Girl (2015) is open about masturbation as an adolescent rite of passage. I also understand it’s a subject Young Adult fiction now addresses. That represents a big move onward since the 1970s and ’80s then. My own daughter is not quite at the age of reading YA fiction yet, though I am happy to be frank with her about this subject.
Back to the grown-ups, in erotica, as you’d expect, there’s a raft of fiction that involves self-pleasure, by various means. It can be a turn-on watching someone masturbate and, as noted above, can provide a useful way to understand a partner’s preferences. But beyond personal choice, is masturbation ‘sexy’ per se? The obvious answer is, it doesn’t matter. Within reasonable bounds of safety, responsibility, and privacy, this is a case doing what feels good. A case of, might I say, what comes naturally.
Photo by Valeria Boltneva from Pexels