Remember when masturbation was something everybody did but no one talked about? It was not most people’s idea of a conversation starter. Certainly nobody boasted about being a self-abuser. It was seen as a sorry substitute for sex, a sad stand-in for intimacy.
Not any more. Masturbation has been reinvented as ‘self-love’, a healthy and positive form of self-exploration. Where once schoolboys were told it was a sin, now they’re told it is essential to good health. An NHS leaflet distributed in schools advised teens to masturbate at least twice a week, because ‘an orgasm a day’ is good for cardiovascular health. The BBC is getting in on the act, too: its teen advice site insists masturbation is ‘good for you as it helps relieve stress’ and ‘can help you sleep, and it may even help your genitals keep in top working order. It also allows you to explore what you enjoy.’ And we wonder why so many teenage boys become addicted to internet porn.
Last month was International Masturbation Month, the brainchild of Good Vibrations, a purveyor of sex toys for singletons. Its aim? To spread the message that ‘self-satisfaction is a healthy, accessible form of pleasure’. ‘It’s Masturbation Month! Give yourself a hand!’ say the organisers. According to the Good Vibrations brigade, masturbation is just as good as having sex with someone else, and in some ways better. It is ‘the safest form of sex a person can have’. Your hand is unlikely to give you an STD or break your heart, so it’s preferable to intercourse with another living, breathing, unpredictable human being.
As part of International Masturbation Month, launched in 1995, there have been ‘masturbate-a-thons’ across the western world. Individuals are sponsored to get to it, alone or in groups, to raise money for charity and to raise awareness about sexual health. The aim is to ‘come for good causes’. Jesus wept. Britain’s first such event took place in Clerkenwell in 2006, bringing together a bunch of pervs — sorry, awareness-raisers — who were sponsored for every minute they could pleasure themselves without… well, you know. It was supported by Marie Stopes International, Britain’s leading abortion provider, which said the event was about ‘dispelling the shame and taboos that persist around this most commonplace, natural and safe form of sexual activity’.
If you’re too bashful to be a charity onanist, you can always sneak on to Amazon and buy any number of books dedicated to celebrating the subject. Recent titles include: The Joy of Self-Pleasuring: Why Feel Guilty About Feeling Good?; Sex for One: The Joy of Self-Loving; Masturbation as a Means of Achieving Sexual Health; and The Big Book of Masturbation: From Angst to Zeal.
All these tomes are devoted to stripping away the awkwardness and redefining the act as a legit form of sex, even an act of love. It speaks to the narcissism of our times that it’s considered good to have a sexual relationship with oneself. Narcissus fell in love with his reflection; today young people are urged to fall for their own genitals.
The key conceit of today’s celebrators of masturbation is that they are smashing taboos. They fancy themselves as free-spirited and open-minded, sticking one in the eye of sad, buttoned-up prigs. This gets things completely the wrong way round. The evangelists are really enemies of free love; they are driven, deep down, by a fear of other people and a desire to dodge intimacy.
Betty Dodson, author of Sex for One, openly celebrates it as preferable to the sometimes scary passion that accompanies sex for two. The problem with romantic passion, she says, is that ‘reality comes crashing in, [and] the pain and the hurt and the suffering and the breakdown follow’. The sanctification of self-abuse is in keeping with today’s general fear and distrust of Other People, who will leave us hurt and damaged. The moral rehabilitation of masturbation is fuelled by anomie, an urge to withdraw from the world, hardly a libertine impulse.
It was silly to tell children that masturbation was evil and would make them blind or loopy. But it’s sillier — and dangerous — to tell youngsters that it is preferable to sex with others because it’s risk-free and passionless. We should keep the taboo that says that it really is a bit sad. Hey kid, leave your bits alone — explore someone else’s.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 28 June 2014