October - November 2001


We think of masturbation as a solitary act, but it did not start that way. We begin masturbating far before we're aware of what it is, and in the presence of, or awareness of, our parents, siblings and other caregivers. Their feelings toward us and our perceptions of what they think, profoundly shape how we relate to ourselves, and by extension, to others.

Self-exploration, it would seem, is about relationships. We've all experienced the strangeness, shame and guilt when masturbating, at the thought: what would so-and-so think if they knew I was doing this?

Yet I believe this reveals that we need to be seen, felt and understood by others as we are, as vulnerable, raw and embarrassing as such experiences may be -- and we know it. We live in a world that seems to force us to lie, to conceal ourselves, and to reduce ourselves to nothing.

I know that many people crave a glimpse of what it might mean to be acknowledged, to free up that inner Self trapped at the holy core. This is surrender. I think everyone knows that carrying inhibitions chokes off our life force. Many of these feelings involve our erotic life, but they extend far beyond it. With an experimental view of sex, a sense of humor and a touch of adventurous spirit, it's quite a journey to let these feelings free.

I embarked on one such experiment with one male friend and three female friends in 1999. Two were accomplished photographers with very different styles. All of us were learning to be less inhibited. We created a series of photo sessions documenting one another's masturbation. I don't know what this sounds like to someone who has never tried it, but most of us found it pretty easy to let go, including a friend visiting from Japan who was just loosening up some pretty tight inhibitions and modesty. She participated in one session as a model, including a series of her masturbating in front of an 80-year-old mirror.

In one early session, I was photographed by my friend Neal, someone I'd known for about 12 years and never had a sexual relationship with. It was just the two of us in my room, which was set up as a studio, with medium-format cameras and fashion strobes. Add a little atmospheric and mood enhancement, and we were off.

I started fully dressed and ended up in a wild frenzy of self-disclosure. I cannot begin to express the range of emotions I had experienced in those 75 minutes during the slow unraveling of my pleasure and self-exploration, in front of a close male friend, as each move was being documented. Eagerness, fear, passion, inhibition, disgust, joy, shame and raging erotic fire all came forth. For the most part, I related to myself aware of Neal, but not directly interacting with him; I just did what I needed, or did what felt good, and got lost in myself as the flash system went off again and again. But at other times, I was fully conscious of showing him something that it felt very good to reveal. At one point he held up a mirror so that I could see something of what he was seeing. What I can say is I eventually reached a state of mind in which embarrassment was obliterated. The only descriptions I've heard of similar experiences came from women who gave birth with their family in the room.

When I was ready to surrender, the experience was a moment of totality, where all I could do was release control and dive into the experience. Kneeling up, penetrated, more turned on than I can express, I came into my palm as my face was documented in mid-orgasm four times. Then he photographed my hand. I smelled and tasted my semen. I collapsed in delighted exhaustion.

{Months later from the original writing, I will share this email to Neal with you:}

I just want to say that it was beautiful masturbating in front of you and
your camera. In retrospect it fulfilled a long and deep need: you, with your
presence, fulfilled this. I felt so good exposing my yearning and desire to

Going over the photos was another kind of journey for all of us because they were seen days later, in a normal state of mind, not the altered state of ecstatic Eros. As you can imagine, it's not entirely comfortable, but one has no choice at that point; there are the pictures. Have a look, and then it's amazing. We discussed them openly, with all the feelings accompanying. The fact that the images exist means that there is no longer any hope or possibility that my self-given pleasure can be strictly private or denied. And the change that this required, the adjustment of reality, went deep into me and affected every part of my life. In that photo session with Neal, a sample of which is above, I let go of something deep and dark and freed my spirit one more time, one more way.

One of the more deeply moving experiences has been getting acquainted with the image of my face in orgasm, learning to cross some kind of inner abyss that separates me from my completion, and love the man I see.