One Is Fun?

Confronting the taboos of masturbation

Perhaps my favourite quote from my hero, Woody Allen, is his famous line ‘don’t knock masturbation – it’s sex with someone I love’. However, masturbation is something that people do knock regularly. It is seen as being somehow less than sex between two people, not remotely as pleasurable or fulfilling. To be overheard having sex may be something to laugh about or even be proud of, to be overheard wanking would be mortifying. Masturbation is something to be embarrassed about and ashamed of, something only done by hormonal teenagers and sad losers who can’t get a partner. Well I can challenge that perception straight away. I have five partners but I still engage in solo sex on a regular basis and enjoy it immensely, and so do all of my lovers. So I can’t help but wonder, is there really anything wrong with wanking?

Where do our hang-ups about self-love come from? Well, historically masturbation has been seen as a negative thing. Up until the early twentieth century it was generally regarded as a sin, to be avoided at all costs. Doctors and psychiatrists advised people against masturbation as late as the 1960s. It was regarded as immature, perhaps a sign of ‘fixating’ at some point in childhood rather than reaching adult sexual functioning. Even in these more accepting times the words ‘wanker’ and ‘tosser’ are common insults, so negative perceptions of masturbation are deeply entrenched in our everyday language.

Let’s start by dispelling some of the common myths: Masturbation doesn’t make you blind. It doesn’t make your palms hairy. It doesn’t make your penis shrink or lead to sterility or hair loss. It doesn’t deplete your energy (as some religions believe). You can’t overdo it. It isn’t just for kids or single people (most adults do it, as do most married people). And women do it as well as men (2/3 of women in one survey). It is also something that many people do from a very young age. Boys often start masturbating early because their genitals are external, unlike girls’, and they have to touch them when they wash and go to the toilet so they easily learn that such touching can feel pleasurable. However, it isn’t just boys who start masturbating young. I remember being surprised and pleased when I confided in a school friend that I’d been touching myself since I was four or five to find that she had the same experience. It is for this reason that I consider myself something of an expert on the topic. And I believe that rather than denying and shying away from this act, we should embrace it, explore it, and, as always, talk about it.

What are the good things about masturbation? Well first it is about the safest form of sex you’re going to find. You’re not going to catch any STDs from yourself! It’s also good exercise, at the very least it gives your heart a good work-out and it can tone other muscles too depending on how vigorous you are. It’s a good stress relief because of the exercise component and the positive feelings it induces. The New Scientist even reports that frequent ejaculation through masturbation can protect men from prostate cancer. Finally, as I said in my previous column on sex communication, masturbation is a great way of figuring out what you enjoy and want sexually. You can learn how your body works and the physical sensations that give you pleasure and orgasms. It can also help you to pinpoint images, ideas and fantasies that turn you on if you pay attention to the thoughts going through your head as you wank or the visual or written things that particularly excite you. In fact, sex therapists recommend masturbation for all kinds of sexual problems. It can help men who ejaculate prematurely to learn to control their orgasm and those who find it difficult to come to feel less inhibited about letting go. Many women are not in touch with how their bodies work, often to the extent of finding sex difficult or not being able to climax. Masturbation can really help in these cases, as can generally confronting the negative messages they have about sex.

There are no rights and wrongs of masturbation. The most common ways of wanking may be hand stimulation of the cock (for men) and finger massage of the clit (for women) but I know plenty of people who don’t work those ways: men who reach orgasm rubbing against a pillow or women who come from internal stimulation. Accepting what works for you is an important step in becoming comfortable with how your body functions and this can be very useful if and when you do share sex with other people. I would highly recommend that all first sexual encounters involve mutual masturbation so that people can learn what works best for their lover from the expert. There is also the bonus that masturbating with others can be extremely sexy in itself. Asking somebody to strip and masturbate for you, to show or tell you what they do when they are alone, or to share their masturbation fantasies, can be incredibly horny. I explored this in one of the erotic stories, Tempted, which I wrote when I was first figuring out my sexuality:

She stands in the middle of the room swaying to the music, her eyes ahead, her lips still parted in the ghost of a smile. For a moment I’m convinced that she’s looking directly at me, but her eyes are misty, unfocused, the pupils large and dark. She traps a nipple between two of her fingers and squeezes it. Her mouth opens a little wider and she gasps at the touch. At her own touch. My mouth drops open and I feel an urgent tug between my legs. I’m standing here in this wardrobe where I certainly shouldn’t be and she’s about to masturbate right in front of me. I can’t believe my luck. I can’t belief the enormity of what I’ve done. I’m incredibly aroused and I’m utterly terrified.

Masturbation can help a great deal with sex with partners. I never reached orgasm in my first few sexual relationships because I assumed that, in sex, you had to climax from penetration. It was a revelation when I realised that I could touch my clit during sex, or get my partner to do so, and reach orgasm that way. The notion that the only acceptable orgasms are through penetrative sex is another good one to challenge. There are both men and women who never orgasm through that kind of stimulation but who find other, equally exciting, ways to enjoy themselves together, often rooted in how they pleasure themselves. Different kinds of masturbation can also help people to discover other ways in which their bodies work. Many women first learn g-spot orgasms through using vibrators and both men and women can explore the incorporation of anal stimulation or becoming multiple orgasmic (tip: just don’t stop because you’ve come!)

For those who haven’t discovered the joys of masturbation there are many books and websites on the topic, for example Betty Dodson’s ‘Sex for One’. Most recommend that you start by putting plenty of time aside, relaxing yourself with a bath and using body lotions or oils, and that you explore your whole body to find out what kinds of touches feel good without putting pressure on yourself to reach orgasm. Shops like Sh! (www.sh-womenstore.com) sell many vibrators and other gadgets for exploring different types of stimulation. So what are you waiting for?

Next edition I will be writing the first of a series of articles on the rules of love. I want to explore the messages we get about relationships in magazines, pop songs, romantic comedies and self-help books and to explore whether these are really the most healthy and helpful ways of approaching love. This is part of a bigger book project that I’m currently working on, so I’d be very interested in any of your ideas or thoughts on the issue.