May 2001

The Other Sex

It is May -- Masturbation Month -- and today I begin with a question: When you masturbate, is it just about sex, or is it about the expression of erotic feelings within the context of a committed, loving relationship?

We hear this question a lot applied to the subject of partnersex. Erotic expression, which we condemn so casually, becomes partially vindicated as long as there is some faint notion of commitment, affection, or maybe even love. Sex is even okay if you "might marry" the guy you brought home from the bar drunk last night. But masturbation? Jerking off? Getting off on the shower massage or fucking your lubed fist, experienced as an expression of abiding love and commitment?

Most people would see this as a joke. Perhaps this is because of the inherent shame associated with masturbation. Masturbation is the private corner of sexuality, the aspect of ourselves we usually hide the most carefully with denial and concealment, even when it's obvious, say, to friends or family members, that we're obsessed or actively engaged in masturbation. It's not something we are generally ever seen doing, unless we are caught in the act. "Caught in the act" implies that there is an element of wrongness, guilt or fear involved, and none of these emotions could rightfully be called love.

As it turns out, there are two universes of sex -- the one we do where there are other people feeling, experiencing or otherwise aware of us, and the one we do, for the most part, secretly. Kids taunt one another when the secret of masturbation is revealed; there are lots of stories of adults doing the same thing to one another. I have heard tales of controlling husbands and boyfriends hatefully banning their wives or lovers from masturbation, even erupting in threats or controlling rages similar to how they would respond if their partner had another lover. Children are (still) punished, guilted and shamed for masturbation, and some are forced to stop doing it. Historically, shock therapy, physical restraint and cutting off the clitoris have been "remedies" for masturbation.

In the modern world, even among many people who admit that sex is okay, there is often a special place of derision and embarrassment for self-given pleasure, where masturbation lives like an abused child in a dark basement. Yet even if we escape the worst ravages of our culture's values, so many people experiences tinges of guilt and twinges of shame when they masturbate that it's often seen as a normal part of the territory.

How did this come to be?

Even if you compensate for our culture's hateful views of sex, you still come up short of accounting for why masturbation has a special place of ridicule, stigma and exile. While hateful views have been propagated by medicine and religion for generations, we are not much further along today than we were a century ago. In fact, the "sexual revolution" had completely ignored masturbation until 1973, when a fine-art illustrator from Wichita, Kansas named Betty Dodson stepped up to the microphone called bullshit; she reminded sexual revolutionaries that they had forgotten one little itty-bitty thing of enormous importance, and went public with her dildo and vibrator.

This Shameful and Criminal Act

A glance at the recent history of masturbation may prove insightful. In 1876, that is, in post-Civil War America, the book Satan in Society by Nicholas Francis Cooke was published. It appeared anonymously, "By A Physician." The Cooke Book addresses the sexual vices, from promiscuity to prostitution, sounding the alarm and sending warnings across the countryside. (If this were a video documentary, I would use stock footage of telegraph operators and Pony Express riders. Fortunately it is not.)

"Viewing the world over, this shameful and criminal act is the most frequent, as well as the most fatal, of all vices," opines Dr. Cooke, introducing the topic of male masturbation. "In our country, however, it is second in frequency -- though not, surely, in importance -- only to the crime of libertinism [the old word for "promiscuity"]. It is encountered in all ages, from the infant in the cradle to the old man groaning upon his pallet. But it is from the age of fourteen to twenty that its ravages are most frequent and most deplorable. Nothing but a sense of inexorable duty, in the hope of effecting a radical reform by awakening the alarm of parents and teachers to the enormous frequency and horrible consequences of this revolting crime, could induce the author to enter upon the sickening revelation."

Oh, brave social reformer!

Views like this do not grow out of a vacuum; they fester over a long period of time within a social environment, or culture. When such books are lost to obscurity, the qualities of the culture, unfortunately, do not vanish as easily. And when ideas are introduced in earlier generations, they have a way of working their way into the present in a wide assortment of shapes and colors.

Dr. Cooke was no less concerned about female masturbation, of which he laments, in opening that particular chapter, that "such a term is possible," begging young innocent people to skip the chapter lest they plunge into its vices (yeah, right!). "We conclude that only a wide-spread existence of the crime could justify this public description of its consequences. We believe that a smaller number of girls than boys are addicted to it, but the number is nevertheless enormous, and the dangers are all the greater, that their very existence is so generally ignored."

It is in all-girl boarding schools, he warns, where young ladies are "too frequently introduced to the disorders of masturbation. This practice is dissembled from the impenetrative or careless eyes of the teacher under the guise of friendship, which is carried, in a great number of cases, to a scandalous extent. The most intimate liaisons are formed under this specious pretext; the same bed often receives two friends..." [incomplete sentence in original, leaving it up to us to decide whether these young critters masturbate together, or go exploring in more curious ways]. He cites a medically-documented case of a "young heiress" whose doctors tried to cure her of masturbation, and in the process investigated how her illness was caused. It turned out, he warns, that her much older governess, who had taught her to masturbate, was the culprit.

We can laugh about this today, but remember that every schoolmaster, teacher, doctor or minister who got hold of this book influenced thousands of lives, influence which then spread down the generations exponentially. And it's unlikely this was the only work of its kind; more likely, it represented a whole genre of published materials or, in the case of Kellogg, cereals, which were formulated to help calm the libido and reduce the incidence of masturbation.

In 1914, a less obscure author, Dr. Sigmund Freud, known today as the Father of Psychoanalysis and whose work is currently taught in all the colleges and universities of the world, and carefully preserved in all its libraries, had this to add to the discussion: "The word narcissism is taken from clinical terminology to denote the attitude of a person who treats his own body in the same way as otherwise the body of a sexual object is treated; that is to say, he experiences sexual pleasure in gazing at, caressing and fondling his body, till complete gratification ensues upon these activities. Developed to this degree, narcissism has the significance of a perversion, which has absorbed the whole sexual life of the subject; consequently, in dealing with it we may expect to meet with phenomena similar to those for which we look in the study of all perversions."

In English: according to Dr. Freud, masturbation to orgasm (i.e., "complete gratification") is perverted, and once you start, it is so powerful that it will take over your sexual reality; you will no longer want to fuck, and this means you are sick.

The Times are Barely Changing

Eighty-five years later, the propaganda is sometimes more subtle, yet nasty attacks persist, and millions of children are exposed to them in religious education. Masturbation is known to be a sin, or at least it is shameful. Mormons are particularly aghast at masturbation, and invest considerable resources into attempts at breaking young people of "the habit" (as they call it). The text of Cooke's chapter on male masturbation appears on a current Mormon web page, for example, and their famous, hateful treatise on the subject is widely published. Ex-Mormons I have spoken with say this program did nothing to actually stop them from touching themselves -- it just polluted their pleasure with guilt. The more they masturbated, the more guilty they felt, but they persisted. Interesting formula.

It is not just the Mormons; it is reasonable to say that it's the position of every major religion except for Paganism and Hinduism (the two most sexpositive religions) to downplay, shame or ban masturbation; I am curious in hearing about more exceptions if you know of any.

In our culture, masturbation has been assailed and condemned like no other form of sex. No doubt, by the astute, paranoid guardians of chastity who populate our social institutions, as well as by freaked-out parents, masturbation is considered the budding flower of erotic consciousness, and if we nip the bud, the tree bears dried and shriveled fruit. We get the seeds, but not the juice. ("If she keeps playing her fiddle she'll turn out to be a slut," said the father of one young woman I know, who then proceeded to punch her in the face after seeing her masturbating.)

This does not happen in all households, though I'm continually reminded of how many people are "busted for masturbation," as one of my struggling clients recently described her childhood experience. But what does happen almost all of the time is that when a child begins masturbating, generally before the age of three, the uptight vibes of the parents are projected onto him or her, and the association is made intuitively and energetically that this activity is wrong. But usually this happens before developing children have differentiated sexual and non-sexual pleasure; everything is just feeling and sensuality and there are no moral constructs by which to rate the sinfulness of sucking one's thumb versus playing with one's penis. We may think we were not sexually abused, yet if we grew up around people who were uptight about sex, we got a dose of the same poison.

The result is that as we grow up, we develop, literally from the beginnings of our lives, in environments of shame around sex and pleasure, and these attacks are focussed on masturbation. We then generalize these feelings into all states of pleasure and excitement, because we can't distinguish the difference. This creates tremendous inner tension. Then, long before we are old enough to comprehend language and symbols, we are being sold products, in the form of relentless advertising, loaded with sexual imagery that hooks right into our guilt-based repression and its corresponding sexual yearning. By this time, guilt and shame have become a way of life. We are fish who have never lived in clean water; we have lived in the outflow of pollution from a factory of lies, denial and repressed feelings.

Primary Sexual Wounding and Masturbation

This poison soaks into the core of who we are, at a time when the psyche is not fully formed and is therefore wide open to influence; the influence is basically permanent. The effect is to contaminate our ability to feel, and feel ourselves, and usually prevents our experience of arousal and pleasure without the simultaneous experience of anxiety. But my take is that this profoundly affects our entire sense of self; our sense of existence; our sense of reality (whatever you want to call it). Yet the primary wound is sexual, inflicted at a time when our sexuality is developing. And it was inflicted at a time when the only sex was masturbation.

People who are sexually abused in more aggressive ways at this time experience more severe wounding, but in a strange way, they often hold a lot of that wounding around masturbation. One of the inherent messages of childhood sexual abuse is that the child is told "You are not your own." One of the inherent messages of guilting the masturbation of a child is "You are not your own." So they have the same message, though to different degrees. As a result, the association of all sexual pain is, quite often, directly connected with masturbation. Most of us, the huge majority of us regardless of whether we were sexually abused, develop with an untended wound from the beginning of our conscious lives. The barbed-wire of guilt and the razor-wire of shame are wrapped around our core of sexual pleasure, and at that sexual core is masturbation.

Yet there is another twist. Since so much of the attack on masturbation is justified using religion, another message is "God will not love you if you masturbate." This is what you could call a cosmic wound, which can cause us to perceive ourselves as wrong in the eyes of God for being who we naturally are. The more natural we are, the more we will experience sexual feelings and the more we are likely to masturbate, and therefore, the more harshly God will judge us. Now, if we grow up believing that God hates us because we make ourselves feel good, it is reasonable to believe that this will cause more complicated psychological and spiritual problems later in life.

As we begin to develop conscious feelings about ourselves, we refer inwardly to our emotions and our sense of judgment of others for reference; we can begin to hate ourselves because guilt has made us feel so wrong. But it is self-referential; we think that because we feel guilt we are wrong. Few people ever stop to question this logic, and end up hating themselves to one degree or another.

Masturbation can then trigger those feelings of self-hatred, though when you filter it through all the layers of the psyche, it comes to the surface disguised as anxiety, guilt and shame.

"The Other Sex" is Born

As we grow up, we continue to receive a variety of messages around sex, both "positive" and "negative," including the moralistic teachings of authority figures, ministers, teachers and parents, concurrently with advertising messages, peer pressure and the examples of adults aggressively urging us to be sexual; but by the time we reach puberty we don't need ads. Hormones are telling us the same thing in much bolder colors. Masturbation is our primary form of sexual expression at this point, even if we have sexual contact available. Meanwhile, the guilt and shame we carry are working their painful effects deep within us.

There can be a sense that we "have something to hide." I am sure that most people are confused about whether this "something to hide" is erotic feeling in general, or masturbation, or the guilt and shame -- but the three live so closely together it's often difficult to differentiate them. This sense of living with something to hide can have a powerful effect on the personality as it develops, as pleasure and pain become confused.

At some point when we are beginning to express sexuality outwardly, a split happens. Masturbation becomes the symbol of "bad, shameful and guilty" sex. Partnersex becomes the symbol of "good, necessary and loving sex," of approval and acceptance by others, and is a sign of being acceptable to oneself. Masturbation is often experienced as a symptom of being unacceptable to others, that is, undesirable as a partner, and therefore is connected with the thought that something "must be wrong with me if I have to do this." That association is added to the primary sexual wound we already carry: the feeling that our masturbation is inherently shameful or wrong; and because masturbation resides so close to who were are, so close to the core operating system of the personality, the association reaches in very deep. We can begin to identify completely with that wrongness -- and all the more if we have been sexually abused or raped, experiences for which most people blame themselves.

I suspect that in a great many people, the more guilt and shame they feel at their core sexuality, the more aggressively they may pursue sex and relationships outwardly to compensate for that guilt and shame, and the associated unworthiness. I believe that this is what Wilhelm Reich meant when he said that if you want to know how a person really feels about sex, ask how they feel about masturbation and you'll get your answer.

Loving You is Loving Me

The teaching that how we feel about others has everything to do with how we feel about ourselves is not so easily realized. I feel the reason for this is that it's difficult for us to love ourselves because this entails admitting our misgivings and self-hatred. It is obvious that most of us don't really want to go too deeply into how we feel about ourselves; after all it is not usually so good. It's much easier to love other people; we are not (at first anyway) experiencing their internal sense of wrongness, and loving them gives us an escape from our own internal sense of wrongness.

The problem with this plan is that we inevitably bring how we feel about ourselves directly into how we feel about other people, and sooner or later it will manifest in the relationship. In sexual exchanges, we bring the deepest qualities of how we feel about our own masturbation into our erotic sharing with them. We cannot really prevent this.

All sexual experience will on some level be connected to early sensations of masturbation because so many of the same sensations that we experience in sex are involved. And all the feelings we accumulate about masturbation from later life will also be associated or recalled, perhaps subtly, in any sexual encounter. Given that masturbation becomes the secret hide-away for "bad sex" and the feeling of being shameful, wrong and unacceptable, that can be a lot of negativity. It is no wonder why so many people need to be obliterated on alcohol before they can allow themselves to experience erotic feelings -- they need a pain killer!

If we are lacking clues as to why our relationships get so weird, we really need look no further than this. If at the core, we judge ourselves and/or hate ourselves and/or feel guilty about being alive and/or feel shame about being sexual, this will show up in our relationships as guilt trips, resentment, feelings of abandonment, love/hate patterns, violence and so on.

So much of what we do in relationships, when they are working, is hold open the space of selfloving for our partner. We give our partner an innocent space to be in, a safe space in which to love themselves. We forgive them for the things they condemn themselves for. Yet if a person is not inherently selfloving, or using the opportunity of love to learn how to become selfloving, this can become very difficult. Maybe you know what I am talking about; think back on your relationship situations. Remember the times when "you loved someone and they did not love themselves." Were you not trying to hold open the space of selflove for them? Were you not trying to judge them innocent when they were holding themselves guilty, hoping they would catch on? Have we not all been down both sides of this street?

So, in relationships, selflove is precisely the issue. Of course that is not what the advertisements, advice columns and movies say; this is not what the "Venus and Mars" books say; it's all about the other. We may wonder what selflove has to do with love, but dig this. Good luck loving someone who does not love themselves. Good luck loving if you do not love yourself. Our relationships fail not so much as a result of a failure to love one another, but rather from a failure to love ourselves. When we judge ourselves harshly, we judge others; when we give ourselves no room to live, we give others no room to live.

If attacking and shaming masturbation were not used as the main vehicles to teach us to hate ourselves, we would not need to go there for healing. But history and experience point straight to this as a source of the injury, and therefore the first place to look if we are interessted in removing the blocks to the awareness of love and selflove. We can begin to heal all our sexual wounding through selfloving and masturbation. Honest masturbation, where we face and release guilt, fear and shame, leads us to love ourselves; it leads us back to ourselves. When we love ourselves, we join a network of light that is supporting the world, and that reminds us that it is safe to exist.

Sexual Healing Through Masturbation - Selfloving Rituals for One, Two and Three or More

Using masturbation as a sexual healing process is returning to the scene of the original injury. If we want to heal sex and open up our capacity for love, if we want to release shame, guilt and repression, and if we want to understand our sexuality and its relationship to existence, masturbation is the place to start. Masturbation is the prime and primal form of sex. If we are not consciously masturbating, we will be unconsciously masturbating, and calling it "sex." We will be experiencing guilty sex and calling it "love."

I suggest that we all loosen up about the subject and treat it as a normal part of life. I suggest that we acknowledge that we all have masturbation lives regardless of who we are, and honor that about one another. I suggest we begin to recognize masturbation as the universal sexual language and remember that it transcends sexual orientation, age, gender and our social status.

And I suggest we all have a lot more fun with it.

These rituals or explorations are designed to raise awareness, and not just of masturbation. If they work, your awareness will increase in many or all aspects of life. One way to facilitate this is by journaling them, taking notes or telling the stories in letters to a trusted friend. It is very good if these journal writings include your deepest sexual fantasies; you may feel that you will be "caught" or "found out" and this is precisely what you will be working to heal in recording your fantasies, and perhaps sharing them with others if you choose.

If you are exploring alone, the first thing I suggest is to masturbate differently than you normally do. A different room, on the floor rather than in bed, or using different methods will help get you out of your comfort zone into a place of real journeying. Masturbation is just like any other sexual relationship. It benefits from diversity, change and changing routines. One change we could all benefit from is to take more time when we do it. I also suggest that we get out of the habit of hiding masturbation; creating a masturbation altar (in our private space) where we leave our sex toys and favorite books and magazines in plain view can be very liberating.

Here are a few suggestions for solo experience:

  • Masturbate in front of a mirror. You may already do this, but if you do not, it is worth a few months of exploration. Get a big mirror and put it on the floor, with a couple of candles nearby. Mirror masturbation can have a variety of effects, including the sense of watching the "other person," being watched by them, or directly communicating between you and your reflection. Explore these different modes and see how they feel. More information about mirror masturbation is at this link.

  • Tape yourself masturbating and listen carefully; study yourself. Listen in different states of mind. Let yourself become really turned on by the sounds of your pleasure. Try relating to the sounds as if they were a different person. More on audio masturbation is at this link. Lots of people now have video technology that allows them to either video tape themselves or watch on a monitor. This has all kinds of potential.

  • Explore penetration. Many men and women don't penetrate themselves when they are masturbating; many have never tried. This adds a whole new dimension -- an enhanced inner reality. Women who only use vaginal penetration might try anal penetration. For anal penetration you need a special toy called a buttplug. The best ones are made of silicone. Sex toys are available at Good Vibrations or Toys in Babeland.

Here are some suggestions for exploration for couples, which can also be done between loving friends:

  • Learn to hold space for one another's masturbation. Encourage your partner to masturbate in your presence, or ask kindly for the honor. By holding space I mean creating a safe, open and loving environment in which they can be free to explore both emotionally and physically.

  • A variation on this is masturbating while free-associating your fantasies out-loud. Grant your partner amnesty: they can say whatever they want, imagine whatever they want, and it's just fine. This is fantasy and this is where we are free to explore, violate taboos and have raging sex with the hostess at the Japanese restaurant and not get in any trouble.

  • Watch one another masturbate in front of a mirror. Talk to your partner while this is happening, encourage her, tell him how beautiful he is, remind her that she loves herself. Other mirror masturbation rituals for two are discussed at this link.

  • Get a large hand mirror and take turns holding it to your partner's face as he or she masturbates. This is distinctly different from using a wall-mounted mirror because the people are closer and holding a mirror to someone's face is extraordinarily intimate.

  • Consider defining a time period of a week or a month and do nothing but masturbate together. Try going at the same time or one at a time; watcher dressed, and watcher undressed. Really go the distance, be patient and go all the way into the space of selflove=love and see where you arrive.

A lot of men feel shame about their semen. This is a replay of early shame around masturbation. Partners of men experiencing this can be very supportive in helping them experience their own semen lovingly, feeling, smelling, tasting and drinking it.

Here are some explorations for groups of three or more:

  • Single people who are close friends with a sexually-open and curious couple can inquire whether the couple would be interested in watching them masturbate, or masturbating together. I have heard of this happening with lesbian couples and a men, and heterosexual couples and people of both genders.

  • Gather a few close friends and have a masturbation discussion or video night. The Betty Dodson or Joseph Kramer videos are especially good for this purpose. Do this over the course of a few weeks or months and eventually you may have a circle of friends who is ready for a group masturbation experience -- whether mixed genders or all-one gender.

  • In intimate networks, triads and other forms of polyamory where there are multiple partners, gather all the members of the extended poly family and have a masturbation gathering. The effect will be distinctly liberating and people will have a chance to be themselves and see who other people are.

  • If you have a group willing to explore, try a ritual in which people masturbate one at a time, surrounded and held by loving friends. If you do this with six people, it could take about four to six hours, so plan it as a full-day experience, with time to talk before, during and after.

These experiences are not "too good to be true." They are true!

Enjoy your selfloving!++

Originally published on Sexuality.Org, May 2001 as The Other Sex at