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Undoing the STIgma: Normalizing the discourse surrounding STIs

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April is STD/STI Awareness Month.

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Let’s talk about sex. It’s fun, it’s natural.

Now, considering that April is STD/STI Awareness Month, let’s take it one step further and talk about sexually transmitted diseases and infections, or STDs/STIs.

They’re not so fun and not “natural,” per se, but they can and do happen to many people. In fact, according to the American Sexual Health Association, or ASHA, “one in two sexually active persons will contract an STD/STI by age 25” and “more than half of all people will have an STD/STI at some point in their lifetime.”

Yet for the most part, society hasn’t entirely accepted the reality of STIs. Instead, mainstream conversations about STIs rely on seeing them as punchline. This quote from “The Hangover” is a good example: “Remember what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Except for herpes. That shit’ll come back with you.”

If STIs aren’t portrayed as comical, then they’re seen as shameful.

“Some people believe that having an STI is horrible and people who have them are bad,” explained John Baldwin, UC Santa Barbara sociology professor and co-author of “Discovering Human Sexuality.”

In other words, there is a stigma associated with STIs.

“It’s not a death sentence.”

– Reyna Perez

Reyna Perez, the clinic lead for UC Berkeley’s Sexual Health Education Program, or SHEP, defined STI stigma as “shame with oneself (about) having an STI or amongst other people.”

“(They think) they’re ‘dirty’ or (use similarly) negative terms,” Perez said.

She went on to explain that campus students often think contracting an STI is the end of their sex lives and lives in general. But this is not true.

“It’s not a death sentence,” Perez said. “Most of them are curable or at least treatable.”

Despite the prevalence of STIs, people don’t know much about them. This lack of understanding reinforces the misconceptions surrounding them.

To help resolve this issue of ignorance, Baldwin first shed light on the difference between STDs and STIs.

“STD is the common language that a lot of people use and (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the CDC) uses because it communicates with large numbers of people, but medical doctors sometimes like to use ‘STI,’ ” Baldwin explained.

According to Baldwin, the term “STI” is more inclusive because it also considers people who don’t have symptoms but are infected and could infect others.

It’s true: People can be asymptomatic and transmit STIs to their partners.

“Large numbers of Americans have HIV and no symptoms and have sex with lots of others and infect others,” Baldwin said.

Additionally, sexual intercourse isn’t the only method by which STIs can be transmitted, a fact that more people should be aware of. There are many ways in which STIs can be spread, but they often go unnoticed.

According to Perez, “(People) don’t realize how you can contract them and there’s a gap in knowledge.”

Perez said STIs can be transmitted through oral sex or, in rare instances, fingering, which many people are unaware of. She also pointed out that HIV can be spread through non-sexual bodily fluids such as blood and breastmilk.

STIs can also be transmitted by something as simple as skin contact — Elizabeth Wells, lead and co-facilitator of the Sex 101 DeCal, said genital warts and herpes can be spread this way.

Even when it comes to sexual intercourse, the way by which most people believe STIs are spread, people don’t always take preventative measures.

“It’s not like everyone is consistently using condoms or barrier methods,” Perez said.

Another notable fact is that some STIs aren’t even viewed as STIs at all. For instance, cold sores on the mouth region are a form of herpes.

“They don’t realize it until someone brings it up to them,” Perez said. “Once you attach the title of ‘STI,’ suddenly it becomes something to be ashamed of. But it shouldn’t be that way.”

When the facts are laid out like this, it becomes apparent that there’s no reason to make STIs something to feel ashamed about. Many people contract them at some point, and although there are preventative measures such as condoms and other barrier methods, there are many possible avenues through which people can get them.

“Shit happens,” Wells said. “Who are we as individuals and society and people who are sex positive to vilify people that made decisions in the heat of the moment, or it just happens (that) the condom breaks?”

Yet the stigma surrounding STIs persists, largely because of the long societal tradition of suppressing discussions surrounding sex as a whole.

Baldwin expressed his belief that the stigma stems from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Judeo-Christian culture has been a prominent force that has shaped society’s views for hundreds of years. It frowns upon sexual activity, and looking down on STIs — perceived to be spread through sexual means alone — is part and parcel of that general disapproval.

“Society doesn’t evolve very fast in terms of thinking that I think you still see that mindset permeating today,” Wells said. “(STI stigma) is rooted in this idea that we’re not going to be talking about sex.”

Delving even deeper into the issue of STI stigma shows that it is further problematic because it is linked to racism.

According to a 2015 report by the CDC, STIs are more prevalent among certain racial or ethnic minorities than they are among white people. Being part of a racial or ethnic minority group also entails a plethora of issues that make it generally more difficult to find and receive appropriate sexual health services.

“It’s largely an issue of access, and you’re seeing a lack of comprehensive sexual education in those areas,” Wells said.

To vilify someone for getting an STI when they don’t even have the resources to know how to prevent them is to vilify them for not having access to sexual health resources. It is to vilify them for structural inequalities in access to education — inequalities which they did not ask for and cannot control.

“Being part of a racial or ethnic minority group also entails a plethora of issues that make it generally more difficult to find and receive appropriate sexual health services.”

Not only is it problematic to treat STIs as a taboo subject when this attitude stems from sexually repressive and prejudiced notions, but STI stigma also is harmful because it inhibits people from seeking medical treatment.

“If someone has an STI, we shouldn’t stigmatize them,” Baldwin explained. “We should try to help them get the best medicine and treatment.”

STI stigma also causes “intense emotional distress,” according to Perez.

“It’s so difficult to start support groups at the Tang Center because there’s stigma,” Perez said.

Considering all these facts and issues, the obvious final question is, “How do we get rid of the stigma surrounding STIs?”

One key component is awareness.

Awareness that people with STIs can and do lead normal lives helps. Modern science has allowed for medication that can either cure or treat STIs.

“It’s a world changer,” Perez said.

When engaging in sexual activity during an outbreak, there is also world of possibilities.

“There are creative ways to have sex while having an outbreak,” Perez explained.

She expanded upon this statement to say that, for instance, partners could use strap-on dildos when the involved parties are having a herpes recurrence.

“I believe that we are moving away from the preceding era of ignorance and successfully moving to have more scientific knowledge of STIs and their treatment so that more people are, in fact, getting good care,” Baldwin said. “Our society is moving in the right direction.”

“The need for action if you are diagnosed with an STI is further reason to destigmatize STIs –– so people can recognize the symptoms and be unafraid to seek help.”

To promote awareness, according to Perez, the Tang Center and SHEP offer programs for people who are curious to find out more about STIs as well as for people who have already been diagnosed with an STI who desire health coaching and/or emotional and mental support.

Awareness includes being conscious of preventative measures.

“Just being aware of sexual health resources (is) also really important,” Wells said. “A lot of people don’t know about it because it’s not talked about, because sex isn’t talked about.”

Wells explained that, for instance, people can take pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, before having sex with someone who has HIV or AIDS. This will lower the chance that the partner without HIV/AIDS will also get the infection. Similarly, taking post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP, after sex with someone who has HIV/AIDS will help prevent transmission of the disease.

Although STIs aren’t the end of the world, if left undiagnosed or untreated, they can become serious health risks. The need for action if you are diagnosed with an STI is further reason to destigmatize STIs –– so people can recognize the symptoms and be unafraid to seek help.

According to Wells, on the last Friday of every month, the Tang Center offers free STI tests that take approximately 20 minutes. She clarified that there is, however, a six-month period after the initial infection in which the tests might not detect its presence.

Another key factor to destigmatizing STIs is simply talking about them. To emphasize this point, Wells quoted a SHEP saying: “Communication is lubrication.”

In other words, people need to start talking about STIs so that it will become acceptable to talk about them as well as to prevent them.

“It shouldn’t be uncomfortable for people because the way I see it, it’s mutual respect within relationships,” Perez explained. “I’m respecting my partner and getting myself tested and taking preventative measures, and my partner should respect me back by also being open to talking about STIs and … getting tested and (taking) those preventative measures as well.”

The way in which the discussion around STIs is being framed is also something to consider. For instance, discerning between STDs and STIs is important. Likewise, it’s crucial not to define people by their STIs.

“We don’t even like to use the word ‘HIV-positive,’ ” Perez said. “We like to use the phrase ‘a person living with HIV’ because they’re a person first before their STI.”

Awareness and communication aimed at undoing the stigma around STIs are imperative for the sake of public health but also for the sake of true sex positivity.

Complete Article HERE!

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How Straight Men Who Have Sex With Men Explain Their Encounters

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The subject of straight-identifying men who have sex with other men is a fascinating one, in that it shines a light on some extremely potent, personal concepts pertaining to identity and sexuality and one’s place in society. That’s why some sociologists and other researchers have been very eager to seek out such men and hear them explain how they fit same-sex sexual activity into their conception of heterosexuality.

The latest such research comes in the journal Sexualities, from Héctor Carrillo and Amanda Hoffman of Northwestern University. They conducted 100 interviews, with men who identified as straight but sought out casual sex with men online, hoping to better understand this population. A big chunk of the article consists of snippets from those interviews, which were primarily conducted online by three female researchers, and at the end Carillo and Hoffman sum up what they found:

They interpret that they are exclusively or primarily attracted to women, and many also conclude that they have no sexual attraction to men in spite of their desire to have sex with men. They define sexual attraction as a combination of physical and emotional attraction, and they assess that their interest in women includes both, while their interest in men is purely or mainly sexual, not romantic or emotional. Moreover, some perceive that they are not drawn toward male bodies in the same way as they are drawn to female bodies, and some observe that the only physical part of a man that interests them is his penis. Men in the latter group do not find men handsome or attractive, but they do find penises attractive, and they thus see penises as ‘living dildos’ or, in other words, disembodied objects of desire that provide a source of sexual pleasure. Finally, as a management strategy for judging that their sexual interest in women is greater and more intense than their interest in men, they sometimes limit their repertoires of same-sex sexual practices or interpret them as less important than their sexual practices with women. That way, they can tell themselves that their sexual interest in women is unbounded, while their sexual interest in men is not.

All this contributes to their sense that they qualify as being called straight or heterosexual, even when some also recognize that their sexualities do indeed differ from exclusive heterosexuality, which in turn leads them to adopt secondary descriptors of their sexual identities. As indicated by the variety of terms that they used, those descriptors often reinforce a perception that, as a sexual orientation category, heterosexuality is elastic instead of rigid — that some degree of samesex desire and behaviour need not automatically push an individual out of the heterosexual category. And while some men are willing to recognize that their sexual behaviours might qualify their being called bisexual — and they may privately identify with that label — they feel that there is no contradiction between holding a private awareness of being bisexual and a public persona as straight or heterosexual. Again, this conclusion is strengthened by a lack of social incentives to adopt bisexual identities.

It’s interesting to keep that interpretation in mind as you read the interview snippets. Take, for example, the men who sought to make it very clear that while they sometimes got with men, they really liked women:

I know what I like. I like pussy. I like women … the more the merrier … I would kiss a woman. ANYWHERE. I can barely hug a man … I do have a healthy sexual imagination and wonder about other things in the sexual realm I’ve never done … Sometimes I get naughty and explore … That’s how I see it. [Reggie, 28]

Women are hot … I can see a beautiful woman walk down the street and I instantly can become hard and get horny. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a guy walking by and got a boner. Also, I would not want to kiss or make out with them or love them. They would be more like a sexual experience. [Charlie, 32]

Some of the men did think that their behavior possibly qualified them as bisexual, but didn’t quite want to take the step of identifying as such:

I think everybody is a little bi. Isn’t that what this research is about? There’s the Kinsey scale … It’s not like Bush saying you’re either with us or with the terrorists. I think I’m probably bi but what I present to the world is a heterosexual man. Internally I’m bi, but that’s not something most people know. I’m not ashamed, but the majority of people are ignorant and close-minded. [Simon, 27]

I am not openly bisexual to society except in sexual situations … I don’t have relationships with men; I am in a relationship with my wife and only love her. [I’m bisexual] only with men behind closed doors. [Dustin, 28]

In addition to being perhaps the first instance in recorded history of someone comparing their sexual orientation to George W. Bush’s counterterrorism doctrine, Simon’s statement contains an important point: Carrillo and Hoffman note that many of their respondents simply “see no real personal or social advantages that would stem from publicly adopting an identity as bisexual or gay.” In many cases, it may not be in their interests to do so — hence the compartmentalization of their same-sex encounters.

Another reason for such compartmentalization is that it allows some men the opportunity to explore parts of their identities they feel they couldn’t safely in heterosexual settings:

For most of my sex life I’m in control of things. I’m not a boss at work anymore but I’ve been in situations where I’ve managed a hundred people at a time. I take care of my family. I take care of my kids. I’m a good father. I’m a good husband in providing material things for my wife … I’m in charge in a lot of places … There’s times when I don’t want to be in charge and I want someone to be in charge of me … that’s what brings me over [to] the bisexuals … it’s kind of submitting to another guy or being used by another guy. [Russell, 54]

“Interestingly,” write Carrillo and Hoffman, “being dominated by a man seemed to them less threatening than being dominated by a steady female partner, perhaps because it could be construed as a temporary fantasy, instead of meaning a permanent change in the gender balance.”

This same dynamic popped up the last study on this subject I covered — the idea that men “get” something about sex that women don’t, and that because there’s a fully mutual understanding that what’s going on is just sex, same-sex experiences can be set off safely away from the rest of one’s (heterosexual) identity. You can be a “good father,” which many men imply to mean being a strong, straight man, while still messing around with men on the side. From these men’s perspective, they can have it both ways — the privileges of identifying as straight and the pleasure and excitement of same-sex relationships on the side — without their identity being threatened.

Complete Article HERE!

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How To Get Your Partner Into Sex Toys

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By Jess McIntyre

Whether you’re in a new relationship or a well-established one, there’s every reason to introduce toys for your mutual sexual happiness. Put simply, the couple that plays together are more likely to stay together – and there’s some science behind that.

First of all, the excitement of trying out sex toys stimulates the production of dopamine – the chemical that plays a big role in both sexual arousal and pleasure in general. Meanwhile, for the large majority of women the simple in-and-out of vaginal penetration alone isn’t usually the route to orgasm, but add some clitoral stimulation and you’re far more likely to score a “Yes!”. Having an orgasm produces oxytocin – also known as the ‘bonding’ hormone – which has the long term effect of making people feel closer to and more supportive of their partner.

So, the science is great – but if you’re not yet using sex toys together, how do you get past any potential embarrassment, and avoid either partner being made to feel defensive about their bedroom technique? Here are some possible dilemmas and corresponding suggestions that could help you set off on a new adventure together.

I’ve just started a new relationship. How do I admit to my partner that I already use sex toys?

It’s always best to be honest, but be sensitive and approach the subject in a casual manner outside of the bedroom. Maybe mention that you recently saw lubricant for sale in your local supermarket and how it made you smile! Judging by your partner’s reaction, you’ll know right away if you could immediately let on about your sex toy collection, or whether to stick to a more subtle hint such as, “Do you think we should pick up some lube next time we’re out?” By keeping the conversation light-hearted and jovial, you can easily disperse any tension and it will be easier to gauge what they think of the idea. It’s always a good idea to be honest from the beginning.

My partner says that if I was satisfied with them, I wouldn’t need a sex toy. How do I convince them this isn’t the case?

The trouble is that people who aren’t familiar with sex toys are often thinking of huge dildo vibrators that are, quite frankly, intimidating! But these are really just a fraction of what’s available. The most popular toys are actually things like small bullet vibrators for clitoral stimulation, or stretchy cock rings for happy erections, and they’re far from scary.

Reassure your partner that you find your sex life fulfilling but that you don’t want them to feel under pressure to be responsible alone for bringing you to orgasm. Using a mini vibrator or a cock ring can provide pleasure for you both.

A great way to turn a man’s prejudices on their head might be to buy a male toy for you both to enjoy using on him first. A textured stroker sleeve adds a whole new dimension to a hand job, and could prove to be the path to his sex toy enlightenment…

It should be noted that toys are not supposed to replace nor detract from what your partner brings to your play time in the bedroom. If anything, toys should be seen as a treat designed to enhance the experience and discover more about each other.

We do both want to use sex toys together, but we don’t know where to start

It’s a great idea to choose something together. Cuddle up with a glass of wine on a weekend evening and browse the Lovehoney website – you’re sure to find something you both like. There’s lots of advice in the ‘Help’ section to assist you, too.

If you’re in a male/female couple you could start with a toy that stimulates you both at the same time. The Tracey Cox Supersex Twin Vibrating Love Ring is great for getting you both off, for example. The stretchy cock ring part can give him a bigger, harder erection and more powerful orgasm, while the vibrating bullet in the top provides vibrations to both her clitoris and his testicles.

Same sex relationships benefit from toys just the same as hetero relationships. And strap ons aren’t just for the girls! Guys are also both using and allowing their partners to please them with these helpful and amazing tools to enhance their experience between the sheets..and anywhere else!

Or why not go for a vibrating wand massager? Originally created for soothing tired muscles, wands are also great for stimulating erogenous zones such as inner thighs or the nape of the neck, plus intimate parts such as the labia, testicles and more.

The most important part of using sex toys together is to communicate. Go ahead and experiment, and if at any point you start to feel numb or uncomfortable, speak up – your partner won’t know unless you tell them. By the same token, if you especially enjoy something, let your partner know – the joy of discovering a new favourite sensation together is what sex toys are all about!

Complete Article HERE!

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Let’s Talk About Sex (for Trans Men)

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By Buck Angel

buckangel1-s

Here is a simple fact that not a lot of people realize: Many trans men choose not to have what we call “bottom surgery.” That is to say they chose not to have any surgery on the genitals they were born with. This means that the world has a significant number of men with vaginas. I have spoken with a lot of trans men through my life and work, and I would estimate that around 90 percent of trans men around the world — I have interviewed men from Sweden, the U.K., Brazil, Mexico, and other countries — have not opted for bottom surgery.

For some this decision comes for financial reasons, for some a fear of complications, and for some it’s more of a “one step at a time” kind of vibe: “Let’s see how this first stage (chest surgery, hormones) feels, and I will take it from there.” Regardless of the reason, the newly transitioned trans man’s body is a new landscape for him, and perhaps one that isn’t very well understood or accommodated, even by the man himself.

When I first transitioned, I was worried that I might not be able to find a partner or even love. I was worried that people would simply be turned off by the idea of a man with a vagina. I’ve since interviewed and spoken with hundreds of trans guys who echo the same anxieties. Kevin, 30, who lives in Brooklyn, said, “Deciding not to go with bottom surgery was something I went back and forth on for many years. It wasn’t until I saw videos online of your work (a docu-series that I make called Sexing the Transman) that I realized I didn’t need a penis to become a man. I was worried about sex, but surprisingly, most of my sexual partners have been very open to me and my body, even if it’s unfamiliar territory for them.”

I personally will always remember the exact moment I realized that my genitals were OK — that my vagina was a part of me and that is was OK to be a man without a penis — and it was through masturbation and orgasm. It was one of the first times that I penetrated myself, and I felt a bit guilty that I actually climaxed. It was a weird feeling to enjoy my vagina for the first time — it had always been something that I was not connected to and even hated. But that orgasm changed everything for me. It was really a turning point in my identity and my self-love.

Masturbation became a daily ritual for me, which is true for many other trans men I have spoken with. Because of this we are always looking for new ways to get off. There was nothing in the sex toy world that was designed for our bodies. What makes trans male vaginas and vulvas unusual is that they become enlarged, specifically the clitoris, because of the testosterone usage, and with that our vaginas also become a little bit more sensitive. Guys talk about a newly heightened sexual awareness and desire for sex. When that is combined with a detachment from your body or a lack of information or resources, trans men are at risk of not experiencing their best sex lives.

Because there was nothing made for trans men in the sex toy (or “pleasure product”) world, I had to be very inventive!  I would cut up products made for the cisgender man and women to fit my anatomy, like dildos that had a suction cup backing, rip that out, and use the hole in the end to masturbate with. I would find things like snakebite kits, which are used to suck out the poison from the bite of a snake, or toys like nipple play suction cups, and adapt them to fit me. Some trans guys showed me how they used the ends of water bottles filled with water to create suction. One guy would even use a small hand towel filled with lube to rub on. Its pretty amazing how you can engineer things just to masturbate.

Jim, a 23-year-old trans man from Philadelphia told me, “Masturbation is something I do daily. It was not easy at first for me to find the space to feel comfortable touching myself; it felt weird because I never did it before I transitioned. Though through that I realized that I love sex and that I needed to feel myself and let that be a good thing.”

Buck-OFF - Buck Angel FTM Stroker

Buck-OFF – Buck Angel FTM Stroker

When I was finally able to love my body and be comfortable with it, I was more comfortable on so many levels that went far beyond sexuality. For this reason I’ve been on a mission to teach trans guys to love their bodies and through that to love themselves. These conversations are so important to our well-being, and it’s why it’s been a years-long dream to actually create a toy that is just for us. It’s validating; it says, “Your body is real, it deserves to have pleasure, and you are not alone.” I’m really hoping to use the Buck-Off to start conversations outside of the trans male community as well to create larger awareness of trans male bodies and their specific needs. This is important not only for us, but for our potential partners, teachers, health care providers, and legislators.

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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