Earlier this year, one of the Planet Waves editors posted to our blog an article she found about the odd relationship options offered by Facebook (for example, the category “it’s complicated” being a stand-in for everything other than something supposedly normal, without saying what; the insinuation is “more than one partner”). Following that article back to its source, a blog called Onely.org, I discovered the existence of a singles movement.
This is about people for whom conventional relationship models do not work, or more simply put, a movement of people who want to go solo. They don’t want to date in any conventional way, they don’t live with the expectation of marriage, they don’t cohabitate, and they don’t do the boyfriend-girlfriend thing. They don’t want to be half of a couple, in the immortal words of Erica Jong; they want to be a whole person, and the easiest way for them to facilitate that is to be single.
They might count all their friends on an equal par, on the basis that all relationships have value. One is not on a higher rung than another. There’s substantial questioning of how society compels many people to embrace relationship options that might not (or absolutely do not) work for them. There is as much questioning of heteronormative conditioning as there is in any queer community. In case you haven’t heard that word, it’s a keeper—a concept to contain all the rules and regulations you’re supposed to follow in a world oriented primarily on heterosexual relationships, which are considered the norm.
The idea of a singles movement immediately sounded revolutionary because much of the relationship discussion is about what form of long-term committed relationship one chooses (mono or poly, married or living together, gay or straight), rather than questioning the orthodoxy of relationship. Many people have the feeling that if they’re not “in a relationship,” they’re not normal. Many places having a partner or spouse is the equivalent of fully vested citizenship. Once you have someone on your arm, you’re allowed into society.
Exploring other websites in this genre, the discussion I read was often politically astute and a bit indignant. Why should the dentist be asking about your marital status? Is that vaguely relevant to getting your teeth cleaned? If they need to notify your next of kin that you have cavity, they can call your sister.
Out of curiosity, I started typing the word “masturbation” into search engines on various singles movement sites and getting nothing back (with the exception of one derogatory reference to “mental masturbation”). I thought this lack of discussion was interesting and more than a bit strange. Here was a movement advocating living freely and being detached from relationship expectations as a vocal choice. We all know that many people stay in relationships to assure a supply of sex, even if those relationships don’t serve their other growth needs. To be free of these dysfunctional relationships, it would help (in my fantasy world) to have an idea of sexual independence we could aspire to. But the movement advocating how you can be free of these relationships, at least that I could find that evening, had nothing to say about sex with oneself.
This was the last place I would have guessed there was a taboo on discussing solo sex. Clearly, if you’re single and want to be, that implies that sex with oneself is not a substitute for anything, and also that (assuming you have a sex drive) it’s an entirely necessary state of affairs. If being single implied having a low sex drive, Thomas Edison would have never invented the singles bar.
I wrote to the editor of one of these websites, and after a round of e-mails that went on for a few weeks, she basically told me that they just didn’t feel comfortable talking about self-sex. I admit to being a bit naïve, but truly, I was stunned. Okay, just a little stunned. The lack of authentic sexual conversation is normal fare in our culture. In exploring the many reasons why masturbation is still taboo, we must include that as one of them. But I think it goes deeper. It’s fair to say that considerable embarrassment surrounds the topic of masturbation. It’s private, and most people would rather keep it that way (unless you count their fantasies of getting caught).
Now that it’s May, which was officially designated Masturbation Month back in 1995 by the Good Vibrations toy stores in Berkeley and San Francisco, we have 31 days of cultural sanction for the conversation. What, exactly, is Masturbation Month? It’s a little like Chrysanthemum Appreciation Week, only it involves masturbation and it lasts a month—and it’s a lot more radical. I don’t think Obama signed a proclamation, but we can pretend.
What would the conversation be about? I would propose that masturbation is about a lot more than masturbation—and that’s the nature of the taboo. First, I would say that masturbation holds the key to sexuality. It’s a kind of proto-sexuality, the core of the matter of what it means to be sexual. I mean this in an existential sense. Masturbation is the most elemental form of sexuality, requiring only awareness and a body. Whatever we experience when we go there is what we bring into our sexual encounters with others—whether we recognize it or not. Many factors contribute to obscuring this fact.
However, people who are comfortable with their sexuality in general are likely to be comfortable with masturbation. It also works the other way; self-sex is a path to self-knowledge, which is a very helpful in mature, healthy relationships. The less mature relationships can be mazes of ignorance and codependency, and often, sexual dependency is a major ingredient in the glue that bonds these encounters together.
This, in my opinion, is why masturbation, and by that I mean conscious self-sex, is so revolutionary. In contemplating the masturbation taboo, I figured out something that turns out to be a factor in the oldest literature that insists masturbation must be forbidden: It has a tendency to open up one’s fantasy life. And we all know this knows no bounds. That, in turn, can point to desire for sexual and relational options other than what one has at the moment, outside the rules. Far from being a mechanical experience of sexual maintenance that it’s often portrayed as being, self-sex helps us open up an inner world of possibilities.
Within that world are two basic elements: what we want, and what we keep in the shadows. Where pair-bonded relationships are the norm, desire for anything other than we have in the current relationship is often regarded as forbidden territory. If you have sex with yourself, who are you thinking about? That can open up a can of worms. If you have a partner or spouse, I ask you—can you reveal the contents of your fantasy life to him or her? Some brave couples may be able to do this with powerful results. As one of my favorite authors once wrote, only the truth is erotic. Pretend for a moment that the contents of your imagination are not private.
Consider the possibility that the people closest to you, or even those who pick up on your energy, might catch on to what’s going on in your inner world of desire. The more perceptive people in your world can see through you, and those with whom you’re sexually intimate, or attracted to, might be able to tap right in. Yet what we call the ego puts up all kinds of blocks to this awareness.
For many people, knowing that their partner is thinking about past or potential lover (or a current secret lover) would lead to some deep insecurities coming to the surface. So when we stash away masturbation, we’re stashing away the desire element, as well as papering over those insecurities. They will then tend to surface in our relationships in other ways.
The term “shadow material” from Jungian psychoanalysis fits well here. Shadow is all this stuff we contain within ourselves, including guilt, shame, the fear of abandonment, rage, hatred and all their cousins. These are emotions we tend to project into relationships. For example, we might see them as qualities in others but not ourselves. They might become ‘issues’ in the relationship. It’s easy to understand how this works. An insecure person is much likelier to be jealous of a partner than someone who is confident. In that case, jealousy would be a projection of insecurity (and/or envy and/or the fear of abandonment).
Conscious masturbation, and by that I mean your inner erotic reality experienced as part of your ongoing relationship with yourself, is one way to into these dark feelings rather than projecting them outward. If you experience any embarrassment, shame or misgiving around masturbation (and most people do), consider the possibility that these things obscure something deeper, that being your point of contact with yourself. You can call that self-love or self-esteem; you can call it being centered in your reality. I am talking about an authentic inner journey, the kind that usually gets categorized in the bin with the label “spiritual,” but which has a distinctly sexual sensation.
Given that religion has not only made sexuality allegedly bad but also built its fortune on doing so, it can take quite a bit of determination to go here. We are all influenced by religion’s misgivings and open hatred of sex. The fact that so many people experience forms of false modesty, embarrassment, shame and guilt, in many facets of life, and also where masturbation is a factor, suggests that there is a connection.
I will leave you with an idea that I’m developing in other venues this month, which is self-centered sexuality. I know, this is the thing we’re supposed to avoid in we’re “not supposed to be selfish.” I’m not talking about selfish, I’m talking about self. Self-centered sexuality means being centered within yourself.
I would propose as part of this that couples explore getting closer to one another by masturbating in one another’s presence. This is perfectly intuitive for some people and just as counterintuitive for others. In the experience, I suggest including the full content of your mind and not just your body. In case you experience embarrassment, I would offer you the idea that the very hottest sexual experiences are just on the other side of that veil.
For those who consider themselves “not in a relationship,” this opens up many possibilities, including a great option for “friends with benefits”—but absent most of the usual worries about sex. It’s a way to share sex without the baggage of thinking you have to get married.
You’ll also have an opportunity to encounter material that has come up in your past relationships, and (for example) explore the healing of your self-esteem, body issues, or sexual shadow material. Imagine if you could enter your encounters with others from a confident and self-aware place, understanding who you are and what you want. That would give you a new basis for choosing a partner, or allow you to consider the idea that you might not want to be in a conventional relationship.
So, the sex toy stores may be calling this Masturbation Month. I would revise that to Self-Awareness Month.