'Masturbation has come of age!' rejoices sex expert Betty Dodson. Jennie Bristow will not be wishing it happy birthday
When I was at high school six years ago, masturbation was one of the last sexual taboos. Boys did it and never talked about it; girls talked about everything else, but would never admit to touching their own genitals. Although I missed the generation when it was supposed to make you go blind, the term 'wanker' was still an insult.
Now, masturbation is everywhere. Open a women's magazine at the feature on 'how to get an orgasm', and you are likely to be told that 'self-help' is the thing. The supplement to February's Cosmopolitan approvingly quotes research showing the popularity of masturbation among thirty-somethings--particularly career women. The new edition of The Joy of Sex has 13 entries on masturbation for both sexes (Alex Comfort MB DSc, 1996).
Even for kids, masturbation is no longer supposed to be such a guilty secret. 'Growing up' guides for young people always include a section on masturbation, stressing that it is normal and that everybody does it: as Just Seventeen's agony aunt Anita Naik writes in one of her 'answers to all the questions you're too embarrassed to ask': 'Masturbation is actually a perfectly normal and natural way to learn about your body.' (Am I Normal?, 1995, p89).
No doubt the new-found openness about masturbation is reassuring for those who still believe the myths. But there is a fine line between a pragmatic acceptance of masturbation as something that everybody does sometime, and a celebration of wanking as a positive activity in and of itself. The new celebration of masturbation is the biggest turn-off of all.
Last year Crown Trade Paperbacks reprinted Sex for One: The Joy of Self-loving, by American 'sex expert' Betty Dodson PhD. Dodson originally published it herself in the mid-seventies under the title Liberating Masturbation. She says that, with this reprint, her 'commitment of liberating masturbation has been accomplished'. 'Masturbation has come of age', she writes, and 'the list of famous masturbators will be growing by leaps and bounds and it will continue right into the next millennium'.
Dodson's argument is that the taboos surrounding masturbation have led to a psycho-social repression that goes way beyond sex. Sex, for Dodson, is fundamentally about understanding your own body. She sees the ability to become sexually self-sufficient, in a world where vibrators and sex toys have a larger role to play than mere mortal partners, as a blow against all the conventions surrounding sex and relationships.
Dodson is well aware that she is teaching people far more than the ins and outs of jerking off. She is re-defining the sexual act as something which has nothing to do with love, intimacy, fun or any kind of attraction between two people. At which point anybody who has ever had real sex might ask, why swap it for DIY versions? Masturbation might be something to do when there is no alternative, but it is hardly an adequate substitute.
Dodson's descriptions of masturbation make it look even more boring than it is. By pitching herself against romantic love and the convention of 'sex for two', Dodson reduces sex to a mere sensation, comparable to the sensation following 'a massive evacuation of the entire large colon'. She sneers at all those who dispute her orgasm-first ideology:
'I can hear the Romantic Feminist Matriarchy screaming, "That's disgusting! She thinks an orgasm is like taking a dump". And I'd answer, "A lot of orgasms aren't nearly so satisfying".' (p101)
In Dodson's world, sensation is everything while meaningful relationships are a myth. For her, spending hours playing with yourself is not only a good use of your time: it is the most fulfilling night's sex you are likely to get. But there is more to life--and more to sex--than having a decent crap.
If the only point of sex is to produce some kind of physical sensation, then masturbation is a quick and easy way to get it. But so what? Whatever else you say about sex, it is at least interactive; and whatever you say about masturbation, it is anti-social. To make out that there is something liberating about masturbation is no more convincing than the idea that celibacy is a political statement. Even to take the term 'sex for one' seriously means being obsessed with your own body, scared of relationships, and scared of sex. Dodson is nothing more than an excuse-maker for sad wankers who have too much spare time, too little imagination and too few partners.
Reading Dodson, and hearing rumours of 'masturbation education' among school children in America, makes me glad that in Britain we seem a bit more repressed. Although masturbation is openly discussed, it is usually presented either as 'a form of quick sexual relief' (Cosmopolitan), or as part of a preparation for normal, two-people sex: 'finding out' what turns you on so you can show your partner.
While teenage magazines emphasize the normality of the practice, they are careful not to condemn people who feel slightly more cagey about it. In response to a letter from a girl describing how her mum had seen her masturbating, 'Dear Russell' of Sugar magazine explains that 'almost no one' admits to masturbating, and that 'to be fair, your mum was probably so embarrassed that she doesn't feel able to talk to you about it' (Real Life Special). But still, you might ask why anybody would want to engage their mum in a conversation about masturbation.
Unfortunately, in a world where safe sex rules, Dodson's ideas stand to gain ground. But don't panic: there are two possible antidotes. The unini- tiated could do worse than to read the 'essential' growing up guide for boys by Nick Fisher, Just Seventeen's agony uncle. Pointing out that, despite its 'selfish side', masturbation has its uses, he gives this advice to horny lads:
'To be excessive or over-zealous about giving yourself repeated pleasure is too self-absorbing. Practised in moderation, masturbation is a wholesome exciting release. Too much is just an indulgence.' (Boys about Boys: The Facts, Fears and Fantasies, 1993, p61)
As for the rest of you, how about a shag?
Reproduced from LM issue 98, March 1997