by Eric Francis
May is International Masturbation Month, as decreed nearly a decade ago by the Good Vibrations people in San Francisco and Berkeley. This is a reprint of an article Eric wrote in 2000, with additional resources below. This article originally appeared in Common Ground magazine in San Francisco in May 2000. We’re republishing it today as part of the Monday archive series while Eric is on sabbatical.
I see you looking around at the people on the street
Well things aren’t what they seem.
If you push them hard enough,
You’ll find that most of them
Do not feel worthy of love.
Now how did this come to be?
— Jane Siberry
EVER been caught masturbating?
There’s an old saying about masturbation that everyone either does it or denies it. Yet for most people, there’s a definite charge around the idea of being caught. Since most of us barely feel confident being seen nude, I’d hazard a guess that the American population would be skewed in the direction of shame to outright horror at the notion of being exposed in this singularly private aspect of existence. And most people seem, for the most part, content to keep it that way, including lots who are supposedly open and free about sex.
But masturbation is the most natural thing in the world, right? A fact of life, right? The safest sex, no? We all know about it; we all do it; we’re all becoming more enlightened around the issue. And we think sex, in general, is great. So what’s the big deal?
If we get caught masturbating — and the very language has an aura of wrongness about it, because we also get caught stealing and get caught lying — we are witnessed in a physical act of solo sex, a biological function. That is one thing. Yet we’re also exposed expressing an intimate relationship with ourselves. When we get caught doing one thing, we’re found out about the other. So it’s not just the fact that one masturbates that is a secret to be concealed, but also the fact of communing with oneself in a very direct way. And there is, it seems, something deep within that relationship we feel we need to hide, because in fact, we hide it.
Guilt around masturbating may range from subtle to raging, masking as discomfort, shyness, purity, fear of retribution by God, or a very strong preference for privacy, even from an intimate lover. It can show up as the uneasy sense that “someone is watching” or wondering what someone else would think. And two of guilt’s most deadly varieties are judgment and attack of the sexuality of others. Remember that guilt is the original master of disguises, appearing in countless forms. And guilt has a purpose. Suppress masturbation, create nervousness, or foster shame around it, as our culture surely does, and you do the same to the person’s inner relationship. If we have a good relationship to ourselves, we are powerful, aware and clear. If not, we are weak and easy to manipulate. Do we need a better explanation for religion’s attacks on masturbation, sustained over the centuries? Has this not been a perfect formula for creating selfhatred through turning people (particularly women) against themselves, just as they are beginning to blossom sexually — just as they were becoming their own lover?
It is in that very moment that we are programmed for dependency on others. So, becoming one’s own lover is the most important step in sexual healing and clearing the vast array of sexual traumas to which we are subjected, all of which lead us to close down, to not trust ourselves or to outright hate ourselves. We begin to heal as we begin to surrender to ourselves, and release the pain and sexual darkness we are carrying. Again and again, this effort fails in the context of relationship with others. It can only be healed in relationship with ourselves.
The idea of selflove is confusing to many people precisely because of all the pain we carry. It is a difficult concept to grasp. But consider how it works with trust. Before we can trust another, we must trust ourselves. This is because all trust is selftrust, because in the end, we must trust our choice to trust, and that is an internal affirmation. Then we extend it outward. It works precisely the same way with love. Without real selflove, love is not possible because we don’t know what love is. Everything else we call love is a substitute, which is why it seems so transient and prone to failure. Before we can love, we must draw ourselves near.
This holds for sex as well. It was Wilhelm Reich who said that if you want to know how a person feels about sex, ask them how they feel about masturbation and you’ll get your answer. In other words, we say we like sex, but usually we carry mixed feelings (for example, a tad of rage at the opposite gender’s games, coupled with resentment that they seem to be the only ones who can fulfill our needs). Reich’s idea suggests that masturbation is the closet in which we hide our real feelings about pleasure, desire, yearning, lust and, as it turns out, guilt. As long as that closet is full of old and often-rotting junk — painful, shameful memories that reside at the core of how we feel about ourselves — then it will be very difficult to have sane relationships to other people.
I would take it a step further. If sex resides at the core of the psyche, or if it is very core — and, being the impulse responsible for the creation of life and extending the species, that is plausible — and if masturbation is at the core of sex, then a person’s feelings about masturbation will reveal a picture of how they feel about everything: existence; life; death; creativity; freedom; love.
Is it mere coincidence that people who go from being uptight about masturbation to consciously freeing themselves and becoming excited about it also experience a long-sustained rush of release and liberation? They often experience an increase of all kinds of energy — certainly, sexual, but also creative and intellectual, and often physical and emotional as well. We feel better about ourselves. A burden has been lifted — the burden of guilt. Practicing conscious masturbation, being clear with ourselves about what we want, and giving it to ourselves, and reflecting on our experiences: all are pathways straight into the core, into the very genetics of our psychic structure. And in this process, we learn so much about ourselves that a new relationship forms. We improve communication with ourselves. Communication and the quality of sex in a relationship are usually one and the same. And this relationship becomes an intimate journey.
Yet for all our supposed efforts at maturity and understanding, and for all million copies of Sex for One by Betty Dodson that are circulating in the world, one of which might even turn up under Grandma’s bed after she has died, we have crude and ugly views on the topic. The most common associations with masturbation are isolation, loneliness, selfishness, self-indulgence, boredom, shame, guilt and sin. Needing or wanting to masturbate can be seen as a signal that we’re not acceptable to others. It is “not real sex.” It is a substitute; a routine. It’s unnecessary, or just a necessity rather than a pleasure; it’s dumb. If we described sex with another person in those terms, it would be more than reasonable to question whether it was happening in the context of a healthy relationship. One might even rightly suspect abuse.
Let’s make a note that here in the first seasons of the 21st century, we have a little problem with relationships. Most of them are boring. The divorce rate is the tip of the iceberg, and is artificially inflated by many who attempt marriage three to nine times. Meanwhile, what’s the real domestic violence situation? What about the insidious problems of jealousy and control, and the repeated incidents of lying to our partners about sex, or concealing our sexual realities from them? What about the countless women who have told me they were used for sex under the age of 10, or were raped and could not say anything about it for decades, blaming themselves?
Could these all be expressions of one thing, namely, the painful, guilt-laden relationships we are conditioned into having with ourselves? This doesn’t always show up as sexual guilt, nor does sexual guilt always show up as what shrinks call “generalized guilt.” But guilt is guilt, and it has a lot to do with sex. For many people, the two words are practically synonymous.
Fritz and Laura Perls, early pioneers of Gestalt Therapy, taught that guilt is resentment turned against itself. Generally speaking, children, being the powerful yet powerless little critters they are, take upon themselves the notion of “fault and blame.” They cannot imagine adults (who are personifications of the gods and goddesses) making an error. If they do, it’s still the “fault” of the child. “If only I would’ve done this or that, daddy wouldn’t hit me.” “If I was more quiet, mommy wouldn’t drink.” And so on. Since they are at “fault,” they are “guilty,” and since they cannot rage against the adults very successfully or have a real impact on the direction of events, they turn the resentment at being pruned, modified, corrected, disciplined, strongly directed, or dictated to, back at themselves.
That is guilt. It’s fair to say that our lives, so often filled with the idea that we cannot influence the direction of events, so often caught in the web of control, of bosses, of taxes, of children, and yes, of our sexual relationships, are often holographic copies of these original crushing relationships with parents and teachers. Yet as adults, the programming, the patterns, are contained within us. They are internalized. Check it out: do we have especially creative jobs? Dare we say what we feel, go where we want, be who we are, or have sex with who we desire? Or are we pruned, modified, dictated to, and denied out of existence by our own self-control?
< >If you want to be your own lover, the first thing to do is wage an insurrection against guilt. It can be done, with understanding and a little bravery. It’s important. Make no mistake: the guilt we hold is the means by which everyone else controls us. If you want to eliminate guilt from your consciousness, and thus take what may be your first real steps toward being in an alive relationship with yourself, try starting with masturbation. It’s easy, it’s fun, and you need nobody’s permission.
Let curiosity lead you. Curiosity is the key that turns the lock on generations of negativity, ignorance, fear and shame. Curiosity always seems to trump the rules about what we shouldn’t do, and this is one reason why it’s so strictly punished in childhood. As you open up to your curiosity, experience your independence. There is nobody to control you. Nobody to deny you. Nobody to judge you. It’s just you. Curiosity means approaching the mystery of you as attentively as you would approach that of another person. So pay attention. Unplug the phone. Practice having more fun than you’ve ever had, and practice taking your time. Invest in the sex toys you want, and experiment. Get in front of the mirror and watch — especially your eyes. Tape yourself, and listen as you masturbate again.
The next step I propose is explore masturbating with an intimate partner. Some people already do, but I would propose some guidelines. For one, let it be just about watching, listening and sensing — in other words, no touching. Really show your lover how you are with yourself. Then, let your partner be who they are and show you. Honor one another this way. Many men, in particular, cannot just observe and keep their hands off their female partners when they are masturbating. This is about jealousy and control. Being a detached witness to your partner’s masturbation and selfsurrender is the first step in giving up your jealousy. Their relationship with themselves is not about you; it is about them. Let them be.
As you develop a sense of intimacy in this space, explore opening up your mind to your partner, and sharing all your fantasies out loud in a free-association build to orgasm. Grant one another total amnesty, that is, the freedom to imagine and share about anyone or anything. Watch what it does to your relationship.
Finally, I propose opening up to a few selected friends — not a lot, but more than one. With a little practice, you’ll get a sense of how fun and freeing it is to have some people in your life with whom masturbation is not a secret at all, whom you allow to ask you anything, and vice versa. You will soon get a sense of how ridiculous it is that we keep this beautiful aspect of ourselves secret. This affirms to the people you care about and share life with that you are a self, that you are independent, and that you feel good about all of you. If you get brave (really, just extra curious) consider sharing masturbation with a friend or two. It’s easier than you think. You may decide it’s more fun than sex. In many ways, it’s more intimate.
This kind of affirmation helps us immensely, and it’s surprisingly helpful to us when we affirm the selflove of others. The gift is that masturbation is about a self-to-self relationship, and when we relate self-to-self, then we’re our own lover. This allows us to relate to other selves as a whole self: self-to-self. The romantic model, as we tend to live it out, is to be half-a-self searching for another half-a-self. But when you’re your own lover, you surely don’t need that old game.
Personally, I think masturbation is a lot of fun. But lately I’ve really been getting off on leaving fresh flowers on my desk. ++