Category Archives: Sex And Politics

Sexual & Racial Politics in the Age of Grindr

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Much like Facebook and Twitter, Grindr is a community of people interacting politically, revealing how our desires are shaped and politicized by culture.

By Senthorun Raj

Why am I on it? What do I want? Who do I talk to? Which profile picture should I use? Where should I hook up? When am I going to delete this?

For those of us who use Grindr, these questions probably sound familiar. I know that they haunt my subconscious pretty much every time I load the app. Some of my friends even like to joke that I spend so much time talking about Grindr, as opposed to talking on Grindr, that I’m just a “Grindr Academic.” To them, I’m the person who writes about my sex life (like I’m doing right now) and then cites Michel Foucault to give it academic legitimacy. I find the joke endearing. But, we should not trivialize the politics of Grindr.

So, what can this space of hooking-up teach us about sexual and racial politics?

Whether you are cruising for casual sex or complaining about love or procrastinating online, Grindr has rapidly transformed the way we negotiate intimacy and frame sexuality. Erotic, platonic, and/or romantic relationships are now just a “click” away on our smartphones. With millions of users worldwide, Grindr has become a source of sexual sustenance. From the moment I tap on to Grindr, I’m connected to a range of other profiles via my geographical proximity to them. I am enmeshed in a process of—as one user so neatly describes—“window shopping.” What I choose to shop for as I scroll through profiles, however, tends to vary. Some profiles display semi-nude selfies that invite “NSA” (no strings attached sex) while others display a photo of a night out in a club to indicate their interest in “friends, dates and maybe more.”

I can use Grindr to organize casual sex, professional networks, neighborhood parties, friendship, and dating. There are infinite intimate possibilities. In the words of Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, these new “sexual counterpublics” emerge to facilitate new forms of emotional and sexual labour that do not just revolve around the traditional imaginaries of reproductive or matrimonial relationships.

With such titillating possibilities, I could easily herald Grindr as a transformative and revolutionary space for queer connections. My optimism, however, comes with concern: filters cannot block the everyday cruelties of ignorance and inequality. Grindr, for example, relies on standard categories of defining bodies (ethnicity, height, weight, age) in order to mediate sexual desire. Many of the app users fashion their online identities through both visual and written statements that they are “masc” (masculine) and “str8 acting” (appearing heterosexual). In doing so, Grindr users mimic and reproduce norms of what is socially desirable.

Discussing our desires can evoke feelings of embarrassment or anxiety. We like to protect our intimate attachments from public interrogation. Apps like Grindr, however, blur such distinctions. When “personal preferences” take shape in rhetorical statements like, “Don’t be another old, ethnic, nelly bttm” or “If people can tell you’re gay … you’re not masculine,” private desires are woundingly public. Even if it is a virtual platform, much like Facebook and Twitter, Grindr is a community of people interacting politically.

Grindr users respond to these disaffecting profiles in various ways: some people angrily use the block button, more patient people try to challenge the rhetoric online, and others just take screenshots and vengefully send them to Douchebags of Grindr. For those who have not stumbled upon it, it is a website where we can revel in shaming those who shame. The idea of shaming arrogant Grindr users seems both fair and funny. But, despite this, the public “outing” and breach of privacy involved raise a number of ethical questions about how we should respond to the “Douchebag Politics” we encounter online.

We need to recognize that bigotry is a social malaise—not a personal pathology.  Grindr makes bigotry painfully apparent but this is not unique to the online platform. In making spectacles out of the purported douchebags on Grindr, we can make the more insidious forms of racialized activities seem palatable by comparison. After all, why does using overtly racist words in your profile attract moral opprobrium, while using an automatic filter to exclude certain kinds of bodies does not?

Making spectacles out of unrepentant bigots may satisfy or entertain us, but it does little to ensure that the intimate worlds we are building are inclusive and respectful. Whether we are on public transportation or networking online, racism is a systemic problem that is not just isolated to highly visceral tirades. Isolating people or profiles in order to stigmatize the individual person, rather than challenge the problematic behavior, is counterproductive. It just makes most of us more defensive (no one likes being labeled as a racist or homophobe even if they obviously are). Moreover, this usually limits our ability to confront the more insidious forms of prejudice that underscore such problematic behavior or that which is coded in terms of “preferences.”

This is not to suggest we can turn to anti-discrimination law in order to redress our sexual grievances. We should not treat desires as justiciable. There is little value in policing ourselves to desire others on the basis of exclusion. Finding someone solely attractive because of, or in spite of, their difference—whether it is their perceived “Asianness” or a specific body type—turns people into fetish or pitied objects to be consumed.

But, we do need some uncomfortable reflections. We live in a society that privileges certain kinds of body types, genders, ethnicities, and ages. From eroticizing heterosexual masculinity or whiteness to repudiating effeminacy or fatness, Grindr is saturated with social hierarchies that are pervasive in society. Grindr shows us how our desires are shaped and politicized by culture. Few of us would deny that.

While we are often quite willing to confront the scenes of bigotry that our visible to us in public forums, we need to extend this ethic when reflecting on the prejudices that operate at the most banal and emotional level of our lives.

Grindr is a tool for sex. It’s also a tool for politics. In the words of Audre Lorde, “our visions begin with our desires.” So, let’s be open about that. The political is personal.

Complete Article HERE!

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Assertive sexuality – yet again, we must fight the politicisation of sex

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Everyone has the right to have sex as they choose and we must make sure we protect that right

A gay couple kisses during the Gay Pride Parade in Medellin, Colombia, in 2015.

By Emily Witt

Sexual equality – the right for consenting adults to love who they want, the way they want it – is a human right. In 2017 the right to have the kind of sex we want is still under threat.

Once again gay people, single women, the non-monogamous, the kinky, and many other people whose sexuality does not conform to the heterosexual, child-producing marital bedroom, will be forced to articulate their right to sexual freedom. For many adults, merely having sex, and being sexual, will become a political act. Welcome to the year of assertive sexuality.

In the 21st century the state wields control over sexuality through access to healthcare. In the United States, Donald Trump has appointed an orthopaedic surgeon, Tom Price, as his secretary of health and human services. Price has a record of opposition to LGBTQ and abortion rights and has voted in the past to deprive non-profit organisation Planned Parenthood of taxpayer support.

Even if Trump chooses not to revoke the Affordable Care Act, it’s likely the mandate that covers contraception will be repealed. A woman’s sexual freedom depends on her ability to access affordable contraception, treatment for infections and abortion services. Trump, who has a lifetime of boasting about his sexual promiscuity (both consensual and not), wants to impose a paradigm of risk on women, who will lose autonomy and safety and will face unnecessary and prohibitive expense and inconvenience in their pursuit of sexual happiness.

The United Kingdom also saw an attempt to thwart sexual freedom by denying access to healthcare in 2016. It was only after a successful lawsuit filed by the National Aids Trust and persistent lobbying by activists that the NHS announced in December that it would fund a three-year clinical trial that will make pre-exposure prophylaxis available through the NHS to 10,000 people at risk of contracting HIV. This was a shift from earlier in the year, when the NHS had made it clear that it would limit availability of PrEP to 500 men “most at high risk”.

Denying healthcare to certain populations in a misguided attempt to influence their sexual behaviour is a form of social control and exclusion that arbitrarily codes certain sexual acts as good or bad and certain lives as more dispensable than others. The point of such efforts – and other forms of sexual censorship, like the attempts of the Conservative government to block pornographic websites that show female ejaculation or that break the “four finger rule” – is to assert a hierarchy of sexual cultures in which heteronormativity occupies a place at the top and alternative sexual preferences are maligned as risky or obscene.

Tom Price, US secretary of health and human services, has a record of opposition to LGBTQ rights.

Attempts to re-establish a notion of “normal”, “conventional” and “responsible” sexuality come at a time in which consensus about what an adult life should look like is rapidly dissolving. In the United States and the United Kingdom, adults are getting married later or not at all. In the years of their lives in which they are dating and having shorter-term sexual relationships, technology has offered new ways of meeting people, of fantasising and of finding sexual community.

A shift in cultural morals has opened space for the articulation of a broad spectrum of sexual identities, orientations and gender identifications. If the first decade of the new century was about broadening access to institutions such as marriage, the second might be about taking pride in sex as an end in itself.

The culture finds itself at a crossroads: either attempt to restore a false consensus about what constitutes a legitimate sexuality, an ideal of monogamous fidelity that always contained hypocrisy, that not even the president-elect of the United States can claim to have upheld; or embrace a more honest view of the contemporary way some people relate to each other.

For the growing population of adults who have failed in one way or another to live up to an ideal of what a “good heterosexual” looks like, either because they have never married, or have divorced, or because they are not heterosexual at all, attempts by politicians to marginalise their sex lives would be comical if they didn’t come at such a high cost.

The only response that feels right, at this juncture in history, is to dispense with euphemism. Don’t call contraception “family planning”. Don’t limit the idea of sexual freedom to the right to marry (although even that right remains threatened.)

Don’t let the enjoyment of pornography be pathologised. Don’t meekly try to make your sexuality palatable to the people who are determined to deny its legitimacy.

In 2016 cautious appeals for responsibility lost out to ostentation and lies; 2017 is not a time to be demure.

Complete Article HERE!

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A graphic history of sex: ‘There is no gene that drives sexuality. All sexuality is learned’

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Changes in sexuality over time have made the modern family what it is. What next? Homa Khaleeli asks the authors of a groundbreaking graphic guide, The Story of Sex

The Story of Sex … some images from the book. Illustration: Laetitia Coryn

The Story of Sex … some images from the book. Illustration: Laetitia Coryn

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Philip Larkin famously announced that sexual intercourse began in 1963 (“Between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban / And the Beatles’ first LP”). Being French, and a psychiatrist to boot, Philippe Brenot takes a rather longer view. In his latest book, The Story of Sex, a bestseller in France, he runs an anthropological eye over the sexual mores of human societies from prehistoric times to today. Yet Brenot believes that the sexual revolution did spark a dramatic change, creating the modern couple, which is the basis of our families today. Now, however, he thinks this partnership of equals is under assault from all sides.

The academic, who has the wonderful title of director of sexology at Paris Descartes University, has spent his life studying sexuality. The Story of Sex is an irreverent, graphic novel (in both senses), filled with fascinating – if alarming – history. Cleopatra used a vibrator filled with bees; the word “trousers” was considered to be positively pornographic in Victorian England. Illustrator Laetitia Coryn’s extremely cheeky, but never sordid, pictures liven up the page and keep the narrative zipping along. The book was a real collaboration, says Coryn, who says it was made easier by Brenot’s firm ideas – and the fact he liked her jokes.

The illustrator admits she hesitated slightly over collaborating on the book. “I told my publisher we have to be careful with the drawings and with the jokes – we have to be sensitive,” she says, because she wanted the book to have as wide an audience as possible. “I didn’t put any porn in it!” As a reader, however, the frankness of the pictures still shocked me (you, er, might not want to whip out the book on public transport or in the office).

philippe-brenot-and-laeticia-cory

Philippe Brenot and Laeticia Cory.

Talking to Brenot over the phone (through charmingly accented English that becomes somewhat eccentric as he struggles with the complexities of his ideas) it’s impossible to escape the psychiatrist’s anxiety about our attitudes to love and intimacy today. We have never been freer to define our own relationships, and follow our own pleasure, he says, but despite this we are far from satisfied; and the modern couple is looking dangerously fragile.

“It’s incredible the difficulties couples have,” Brenot declares, in a tone that makes me imagine he is throwing his hands in the air in despair. Of the couples he sees in therapy, he says, “there is nothing wrong with them psychologically, but still they cannot communicate quietly, live calmly and have sexual fulfilment”.

While we think of lovers as a timeless relationship model, it has been the family that has been paramount in society for most of history, the 68-year-old says. “The couple used to get together for the sake of the family,” he explains. And the idea of equality in long-term pairings is even more recent, with “traditional” marriages putting men firmly in charge of their spouses.

“Love marriages have only been widespread for a century or so, and homosexuality was condemned until very recently,” Brenot notes.

“Since the 1970s, we have begun to invent modern couples with respect for each other and equality between the sexes,” he says. “This only came about after ‘marriage’ as a concept began dying out. Not because people stopped getting married, but because marriage stopped being seen as a sacred union – couples instead started developing on their own terms.”

Yet the rise in divorces since the 1970s and breakups of long-term relationships shows that the modern couple is not surviving, Brenot argues. In part, he says, this is because we are demanding more than ever before.

“It is difficult to live intimately, because we want perfect love and perfect sex and that is very difficult in a long-term relationship. We want a lot more than a reliable person to raise kids with.”

The solution, he says, is for us all to learn more about sex – which is where his book comes in. “It’s not possible to understand our intimate sex lives without looking at centuries of history, and even the origins of human life,” he says. “We understand what we live today if we understand from where we came.”

For instance, he says, if we look at the way relationships were formed in early human societies we can see echoes of our own problems. “We came from primates, but in chimp society there are never couples or families. There are lone males and females with children.” It was only as our brains evolved and emotions developed – including love – that monogamous relationships set in. For the first time (“somewhere between 1 million BC and 100,000BC”), it was possible to know the paternity of a child.

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While the beginning of family life may sound like a wonderful moment, Brenot argues that it was also the start of women’s subjugation, with men taking possession of their female partner and offspring – which traditional marriage legalised. “Paternity is the beginning of male domination,” says Brenot simply. “The day that happened, men took possession of women.”

In the animal kingdom, Brenot argues, there is none of the domination of female partners that has been a hallmark of human societies through history, nor is there domestic violence. Instead, among animals “males fight against other males and females fight with other females,” he says.

“Violence between men and women is only in humans – because of marriage, which puts men above women.”

During antiquity, meanwhile, a woman’s role was to provide a child – and female sexual pleasure was dismissed. But this role was also a dangerous one. “There were so many impediments to female pleasure. In the 18th and 19th centuries, one in six pregnant women died in childbirth. Then there were the infections and sexual violence.”

For men, of course, things were different. “Men have always done what they wanted,” says Brenot.

Even for men, sex for pleasure was something that happened “outside the home – for instance with prostitutes. Women were seen either to provide offspring or pleasure.” In ancient Rome, these rules were so strictly upheld that women could take their husbands to court for ejaculating anywhere but inside her body during intercourse, “because sex within marriage was for procreation, and the wife’s role was to receive sperm”.

Even during periods that today we think of as being golden ages for same-sex relationships, such pleasures were “reserved for the elite” – and the reality was often less accepting than we think. In ancient Greece, for instance, it was only the man who was “receiving” who was not stigmatised in a pairing. Similarly for the libertines in the 18th century, “there was a fluid sexuality, but it was also the top end of society – the intelligentsia and aristocracy. Throughout the centuries and the world’s rural populations, to be gay – or for women to have control of their own sexuality – has always been frowned upon.”

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Today too, Brenot argues, while much has been written about more people exploring fluid sexualities, entering polyamorous relationships and breaking down gender norms, “we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that this is trickling down to all sections of society”. And he warns too about a backlash from “new moralists” who oppose gay marriage, and will, no doubt, do the same for trans rights and alternative relationships as they gain more legal rights. Coryn says this is one of the reasons she enjoyed creating the book. “In France, people who don’t want gay people to be married, is a huge phenomenon. It’s awful. We say in the book this is a misunderstanding of sexuality; homosexuality is normal. I hope this is one topic on which people will change their mind in reading the book.”

For heterosexual couples, relationships began to look up about the time of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Up until this period, “men were having fun outside the home – hunting animals or chasing women. While women were always at home,” says Brenot. But the new spirit of education and the pursuit of knowledge changed this. Finally, says Brenot, men and women could be friends and even have platonic love.

Yet it took contraception for men and women to gain a semblance of equality. Previously “women were immobilised by marriage. They can’t get out of it, they don’t have the possibility of working or being free. The story of sex is, first of all, the story of marriage and the difficulties [it creates] for women.”

To start combating the problems that these historical inequalities have left us with, the psychiatrist insists, we need better sexual education, and one that starts at an early age. “People think sexuality is just an instinct,” he says, “that it is natural like eating and drinking. No. There is no gene that drives sexuality. All sexuality is learned.”

Because of this, says Brenot, the models for our sexuality are very important. Today, talking about sex is still taboo, and the dissemination of pornography has filled the void. “People say pornography changes adolescent life. But it changes everyone’s sexuality,” he says. “We have sex differently now; we try to imitate what we see [on our screens]. People feel bad and say, ‘I can’t do what they do.’”

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To displace this dangerous model, “sexual education should teach the rules that should govern relationships; it should teach us about communication, about consent and respect. This is not natural [to us]. We have to learn this.”

Coryn says that while the Story of Sex is not a sexual education manual, “we wanted it to be uninhibited”, to make talking about sex seem as natural as it should be.

“From the time children are little girls and boys, we have to teach them that everyone should be respected and to start accepting difference,” says Brenot. But, he says, while men and women are equal, that does not mean that they are the same. Railing against the teaching of “gender studies” departments, he says that a refusal to admit this difference is allowing gender inequality to become entrenched.

“They say, ‘Don’t speak of differences – a man is the same as a woman. Society is guilty of making differences, but underneath we are the same.’”

Unpicking these ideas, he says, is the only way to combat our most pressing problems. For example, “physical strength is different from a very young age. So [children] need to understand boys are stronger and take that into account – because that is the start of domestic violence, which is a real problem.”

If we leave this teaching too late, he says, the battle is already lost: “In children’s fairy stories it is the boy who seduces the girl, so there is power play early on.” Then there is the fact men have always been free to have multiple partners throughout history, because men don’t get pregnant. It is only by introducing the idea early on that “contraception is a joint responsibility” that we can challenge this.

Today’s modern couple, he points out, faces new challenges from the rise in options for dating to “new forms of relationship,” says Brenot. Yet Coryn stresses, as does Brenot, that there has never been a better time for people to live in terms of sexuality. Yet one thing has not changed, says Brenot – everyone still wants to find somebody to love. “People are afraid to be alone at the end of their life. They are afraid not to find the perfect person to live with. It is a difficult problem for everyone today.

“We have to learn how to live together anew.”

Complete Article HERE!

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Here’s What Could Get You Committed If You Were a Woman in the 1870s

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Many of things that got women committed in the 1870s would be considered normal behavior today.

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Woman in the 1870s

Despite all the effort made today to de-stigmatize mental illness, the history of mental health and its treatment isn’t pretty. Even as late as the 1970s, lobotomies were widely practiced in the United States to “cure” things such as depression, anxiety, and even homosexuality. Now, imagine yourself in the late 1800s … let’s say around 1875. The germ theory of medicine had barely been worked out, let alone any sound understanding of the human mind and mental illness. People were still treated with bloodletting, mercury, and other dangerous practices. The definition of “insanity” was flexible, and often used to strip inconvenient family members of their money and land. Protections against being committed to an insane asylum in the late 1800s were few … and even fewer if you were a woman. With only the signature of a husband or a male guardian, women could be committed for the rest of their lives for “illnesses” that are now recognized as normal, healthy sexual behavior.

 

Complete Article HERE!

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A handy history

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Condemned, celebrated, shunned: masturbation has long been an uncomfortable fact of life. Why?

by Barry Reay

A handy history

The anonymous author of the pamphlet Onania (1716) was very worried about masturbation. The ‘shameful vice’, the ‘solitary act of pleasure’, was something too terrible to even be described. The writer agreed with those ‘who are of the opinion, that… it never ought to be spoken of, or hinted at, because the bare mentioning of it may be dangerous to some’. There was, however, little reticence in cataloguing ‘the frightful consequences of self-pollution’. Gonorrhoea, fits, epilepsy, consumption, impotence, headaches, weakness of intellect, backache, pimples, blisters, glandular swelling, trembling, dizziness, heart palpitations, urinary discharge, ‘wandering pains’, and incontinence – were all attributed to the scourge of onanism.

The fear was not confined to men. The full title of the pamphlet was Onania: Or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, and all its Frightful Consequences (in Both Sexes). Its author was aware that the sin of Onan referred to the spilling of male seed (and divine retribution for the act) but reiterated that he treated ‘of this crime in relation to women as well as men’. ‘Whilst the offence is Self-Pollution in both, I could not think of any other word which would so well put the reader in mind both of the sin and its punishment’. Women who indulged could expect disease of the womb, hysteria, infertility and deflowering (the loss of ‘that valuable badge of their chastity and innocence’).

Another bestselling pamphlet was published later in the century: L’onanisme (1760) by Samuel Auguste Tissot. He was critical of Onania, ‘a real chaos … all the author’s reflections are nothing but theological and moral puerilities’, but nevertheless listed ‘the ills of which the English patients complain’. Tissot was likewise fixated on ‘the physical disorders produced by masturbation’, and provided his own case study, a watchmaker who had self-pleasured himself into ‘insensibility’ on a daily basis, sometimes three times a day; ‘I found a being that less resembled a living creature than a corpse, lying upon straw, meagre, pale, and filthy, casting forth an infectious stench; almost incapable of motion.’ The fear these pamphlets promoted soon spread.

The strange thing is that masturbation was never before the object of such horror. In ancient times, masturbation was either not much mentioned or treated as something a little vulgar, not in good taste, a bad joke. In the Middle Ages and for much of the early modern period too, masturbation, while sinful and unnatural, was not invested with such significance. What changed?

Religion and medicine combined powerfully to create a new and hostile discourse. The idea that the soul was present in semen led to thinking that it was very important to retain the vital fluid. Its spilling became, then, both immoral and dangerous (medicine believed in female semen at the time). ‘Sin, vice, and self-destruction’ were the ‘trinity of ideas’ that would dominate from the 18th into the 19th century, as the historians Jean Stengers and Anne Van Neck put it in Masturbation: The Great Terror (2001).

There were exceptions. Sometimes masturbation was opposed for more ‘enlightened’ reasons. In the 1830s and 1840s, for instance, female moral campaign societies in the United States condemned masturbation, not out of hostility to sex, but as a means to self-control. What would now be termed ‘greater sexual agency’ – the historian April Haynes refers to ‘sexual virtue’ and ‘virtuous restraint’ – was central to their message.

Yet it is difficult to escape the intensity of the fear. J H Kellogg’s Plain Facts for Old and Young (1877) contained both exaggerated horror stories and grand claims: ‘neither the plague, nor war, nor smallpox, nor similar diseases, have produced results so disastrous to humanity as the pernicious habit of Onanism; it is the destroying element of civilised societies’. Kellogg suggested remedies for the scourge, such as exercise, strict bathing and sleeping regimes, compresses, douching, enemas and electrical treatment. Diet was vital: this rabid anti-masturbator was co-inventor of the breakfast cereal that still bears his name. ‘Few of today’s eaters of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes know that he invented them, almost literally, as anti-masturbation food,’ as the psychologist John Money once pointed out.

The traces are still with us in other ways. Male circumcision, for instance, originated in part with the 19th-century obsession with the role of the foreskin in encouraging masturbatory practices. Consciously or not, many US males are faced with this bodily reminder every time they masturbate. And the general disquiet unleashed in the 18th century similarly lingers on today. We seem to have a confusing and conflicting relationship with masturbation. On one hand it is accepted, even celebrated – on the other, there remains an unmistakable element of taboo.

When the sociologist Anthony Giddens in The Transformation of Intimacy (1992) attempted to identify what made modern sex modern, one of the characteristics he identified was the acceptance of masturbation. It was, as he said, masturbation’s ‘coming out’. Now it was ‘widely recommended as a major source of sexual pleasure, and actively encouraged as a mode of improving sexual responsiveness on the part of both sexes’. It had indeed come to signify female sexual freedom with Betty Dodson’s Liberating Masturbation (1974) (renamed and republished as Sex for One in 1996), which has sold more than a million copies, and her Bodysex Workshops in Manhattan with their ‘all-women masturbation circles’. The Boston Women’s Health Collective’s classic feminist text Our Bodies, Ourselves (1973) included a section called ‘Learning to Masturbate’.

Alfred Kinsey and his team are mainly remembered for the sex surveys that publicised the pervasiveness of same-sex desires and experiences in the US, but they also recognised the prevalence of masturbation. It was, for both men and women, one of the nation’s principal sexual outlets. In the US National Survey (2009–10), 94 per cent of men aged 25-29 and 85 per cent of women in the same age group said that they had masturbated alone in the course of their lifetime. (All surveys indicate lower reported rates for women.) In the just-published results of the 2012 US National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, 92 per cent of straight men and a full 100 per cent of gay men recorded lifetime masturbation.

There has certainly been little silence about the activity. Several generations of German university students were questioned by a Hamburg research team about their masturbatory habits to chart changing attitudes and practices from 1966 to 1996; their results were published in 2003. Did they reach orgasm? Were they sexually satisfied? Was it fun? In another study, US women were contacted on Craigslist and asked about their masturbatory experiences, including clitoral stimulation and vaginal penetration. An older, somewhat self-referential study from 1977 of sexual arousal to films of masturbation asked psychology students at the University of Connecticut to report their ‘genital sensations’ while watching those films. Erection? Ejaculation? Breast sensations? Vaginal lubrication? Orgasm? And doctors have written up studies of the failed experiments of unfortunate patients: ‘Masturbation Injury Resulting from Intraurethral Introduction of Spaghetti’ (1986); ‘Penile Incarceration Secondary to Masturbation with A Steel Pipe’ (2013), with illustrations.

‘We are a profoundly self-pleasuring society at both a metaphorical and material level’

Self-stimulation has been employed in sexual research, though not always to great import. Kinsey and his team wanted to measure how far, if at all, semen was projected during ejaculation: Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, Kinsey’s biographer, refers to queues of men in Greenwich Village waiting to be filmed at $3 an ejaculation. William Masters and Virginia Johnson recorded and measured the physiological response during sexual arousal, using new technology, including a miniature camera inside a plastic phallus. Their book Human Sexual Response (1966) was based on data from more than 10,000 orgasms from nearly 700 volunteers: laboratory research involving sexual intercourse, stimulation, and masturbation by hand and with that transparent phallus. Learned journals have produced findings such as ‘Orgasm in Women in the Laboratory – Quantitative Studies on Duration, Intensity, Latency, and Vaginal Blood Flow’ (1985).

In therapy, too, masturbation has found its place ‘as a means of achieving sexual health’, as an article by Eli Coleman, the director of the programme in human sexuality at the University of Minnesota Medical School, once put it. A published study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology in 1977 outlined therapist-supervised female masturbation (with dildo, vibrator and ‘organic vegetables’) as a way of encouraging vaginal orgasm. Then there is The Big Book of Masturbation (2003) and the hundreds of (pun intended) self-help books, Masturbation for Weight Loss, a Womans Guide only among the latest (and more opportunistic).

Self-pleasure has featured in literature, most famously in Philip Roth’s novel Portnoys Complaint (1969). But it is there in more recent writing too, including Chuck Palahniuk’s disturbing short story ‘Guts’ (2004). Autoeroticism (and its traces) have been showcased in artistic expression: in Jordan MacKenzie’s sperm and charcoal canvases (2007), for example, or in Marina Abramović’s reprise of Vito Acconci’s Seedbed at the Guggenheim in 2005, or her video art Balkan Erotic Epic of the same year.

On film and television, masturbation is similarly pervasive: Lauren Rosewarne’s Masturbation in Pop Culture (2014) was able to draw on more than 600 such scenes. My favourites are in the film Spanking the Monkey (1994), in which the main character is trying to masturbate in the bathroom, while the family dog, seemingly alert to such behaviour, pants and whines at the door; and in the Seinfeld episode ‘The Contest’ (1992), in which the ‘m’ word is never uttered, and where George’s mother tells her adult son that he is ‘treating his body like it was an amusement park’.

There is much evidence, then, for what the film scholar Greg Tuck in 2009 called the ‘mainstreaming of masturbation’: ‘We are a profoundly self-pleasuring society at both a metaphorical and material level.’ There are politically-conscious masturbation websites. There is the online ‘Masturbation Hall of Fame’ (sponsored by the sex-toys franchise Good Vibrations). There are masturbationathons, and jack-off-clubs, and masturbation parties.

It would be a mistake, however, to present a rigid contrast between past condemnation and present acceptance. There are continuities. Autoeroticism might be mainstreamed but that does not mean it is totally accepted. In Sexual Investigations (1996), the philosopher Alan Soble observed that people brag about casual sex and infidelities but remain silent about solitary sex. Anne-Francis Watson and Alan McKee’s 2013 study of 14- to 16-year-old Australians found that not only the participants but also their families and teachers were more comfortable talking about almost any other sexual matter than about self-pleasuring. It ‘remains an activity that is viewed as shameful and problematic’, warns the entry on masturbation in the Encyclopedia of Adolescence (2011). In a study of the sexuality of students in a western US university, where they were asked about sexual orientation, anal and vaginal sex, condom use, and masturbation, it was the last topic that occasioned reservation: 28 per cent of the participants ‘declined to answer the masturbation questions’. Masturbation remains, to some extent, taboo.

When the subject is mentioned, it is often as an object of laughter or ridicule. Rosewarne, the dogged viewer of the 600 masturbation scenes in film and TV, concluded that male masturbation was almost invariably portrayed negatively (female masturbation was mostly erotic). Watson and McKee’s study revealed that their young Australians knew that masturbation was normal yet still made ‘negative or ambivalent statements’ about it.

Belief in the evils of masturbation has resurfaced in the figure of the sex addict and in the obsession with the impact of internet pornography. Throughout their relatively short histories, sexual addiction and hypersexual disorder have included masturbation as one of the primary symptoms of their purported maladies. What, in a sex-positive environment, would be considered normal sexual behaviour has been pathologised in another. Of the 152 patients in treatment for hypersexual disorder in clinics in California, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Texas and Utah, a 2012 study showed that most characterised their sexual disorder in terms of pornography consumption (81 per cent) and masturbation (78 per cent). The New Catholic Encyclopedia’s supplement on masturbation (2012-13), too, slips into a lengthy disquisition on sex addiction and the evils of internet pornography: ‘The availability of internet pornography has markedly increased the practice of masturbation to the degree that it can be appropriately referred to as an epidemic.’

Critics think that therapeutic masturbation might reinforce sexual selfishness rather than sexual empathy and sharing

The masturbator is often seen as the pornography-consumer and sex addict enslaved by masturbation. The sociologist Steve Garlick has suggested that negative attitudes to masturbation have been reconstituted to ‘surreptitiously infect ideas about pornography’. Pornography has become masturbation’s metonym. Significantly, when the New Zealand politician Shane Jones was exposed for using his taxpayer-funded credit card to view pornographic movies, the unnamed shame was that his self-pleasuring activities were proclaimed on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers – thus the jokes about ‘the matter in hand’ and not shaking hands with him at early morning meetings. It would have been less humiliating, one assumes, if he had used the public purse to finance the services of sex workers.

Nor is there consensus on the benefits of masturbation. Despite its continued use in therapy, some therapists question its usefulness and propriety. ‘It is a mystery to me how conversational psychotherapy has made the sudden transition to massage parlour technology involving vibrators, mirrors, surrogates, and now even carrots and cucumbers!’ one psychologist protested in the late 1970s. He was concerned about issues of client-patient power and a blinkered pursuit of the sexual climax ‘ignoring … the more profound psychological implications of the procedure’. In terms of effectiveness, critics think that therapeutic masturbation might reinforce individual pleasure and sexual selfishness rather than creating sexual empathy and sharing. As one observed in the pages of the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy in 1995: ‘Ironically, the argument against masturbation in American society was originally religiously founded, but may re-emerge as a humanist argument.’ Oversimplified, but in essence right: people remain disturbed by the solitariness of solitary sex.

Why has what the Japanese charmingly call ‘self-play’ become such a forcing ground for sexual attitudes? Perhaps there is something about masturbation’s uncontrollability that continues to make people anxious. It is perversely non-procreative, incestuous, adulterous, homosexual, ‘often pederastic’ and, in imagination at least, sex with ‘every man, woman, or beast to whom I take a fancy’, to quote Soble. For the ever-astute historian Thomas Laqueur, author of Solitary Sex (2003), masturbation is ‘that part of human sexual life where potentially unlimited pleasure meets social restraint’.

Why did masturbation become such a problem? For Laqueur, it began with developments in 18th-century Europe, with the cultural rise of the imagination in the arts, the seemingly unbounded future of commerce, the role of print culture, the rise of private, silent reading, especially novels, and the democratic ingredients of this transformation. Masturbation’s condemned tendencies – solitariness, excessive desire, limitless imagination, and equal-opportunity pleasure – were an outer limit or testing of these valued attributes, ‘a kind of Satan to the glories of bourgeois civilisation’.

In more pleasure-conscious modern times, the balance has tipped towards personal gratification. The acceptance of personal autonomy, sexual liberation and sexual consumerism, together with a widespread focus on addiction, and the ubiquity of the internet, now seem to demand their own demon. Fears of unrestrained fantasy and endless indulging of the self remain. Onania’s 18th-century complaints about the lack of restraint of solitary sex are not, in the end, all that far away from today’s fear of boundless, ungovernable, unquenchable pleasure in the self.

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