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Consent and BDSM: What You Should Know

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Because there are no fifty shades of grey, just black and white.

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We can say “Consent is sexy” all we want and wear it on every crop top we own, but with a rising interest in kink and BDSM, and the ever-prevalent rape culture, understanding the intricacies of consent can become more complicated — and are more important than ever.

You know basically the entire plot of Fifty Shades? Like how Ana is an unknowing virgin who’s whisked into a life of BDSM with a handsome, extremely screwed up billionaire? Well, I’d argue that though Ana is presented a contract, she isn’t truly consenting to almost anything that happens to her in Fifty Shades.

Sure, she’s into the white wine kisses and the grey tie bondage part, but Christian Grey essentially coerced an inexperienced novice into a world of kink— she consented, but she didn’t even know what she was consenting to. That is problematic and it is wrong. Others will disagree with me. Critics of this stance say that Ana said ‘yes,’ therefore her consent was given.

How can a clear willingness or unwillingness to participate in a sexual act become so many shades of grey, when it should be black and white?

It is so essential to a teen’s educational understanding, this is the teen’s guide to understanding consent in BDSM.

The blurred lines are confusing AF

When it comes to mainstream representations of BDSM in the media, understanding where bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, and sadomasochism aligns with consent can be confusing. It’s not just hazy for teenagers, trust me. The lines appear blurry for pretty much anyone without a deep understanding of kink.

What you may not know is that consent is actually the foundation of BDSM play. Before you can “play,” you need to discuss the boundaries and comforts levels of each person involved in the scene.

“Consent is just as important in vanilla sex, but often, we get so used to the vanilla experience that we forget to ask for or enthusiastically express consent. In BDSM, however, you’re off the established script. Experimenting with bondage or other non-vanilla play is different from the kind of sex we’re used to seeing in the movies or on TV, which makes it essential that you and your partner communicate regularly and clearly to make sure that everything you’re doing is okay and enjoyable.” Sandra LaMorgese Ph.D., author, former dominatrix, tells Teen Vogue.

How can you be a sexual slave to someone, and also be fully willing? How can you want to be spanked, or whipped, or punished and be down for it at the same time? How does the person you’re having this kinky sex with know where the limits lie? How do you say yes or no?

Trying BDSM means having a trusting relationship

First and foremost, BDSM play should only be tried with someone you trust implicitly. Scenes should be discussed thoroughly beforehand, and between partners who know what they are doing — don’t go tying any crazy knots if you don’t know how to tie knots, or dripping regular candle wax that isn’t meant for bodies on someone’s skin.

If you want to use a crop on your partner, you must have a thorough understanding of the boundaries. You have to ask if your partner is fine with it. BDSM is absolutely NOT about causing someone harm or pain who doesn’t want pain inflicted upon them.

BDSM should never be done only to please another person. You should only engage in a sexual act if you feel comfortable doing it. There is nothing OK about coercing someone to try something they have zero interest in trying.

Both parties must give enthusiastic consent for a BDSM scene to work. Meaning, both parties have to be totally feeling this 100%. It does not mean one person feels lukewarm.

‘Yes’ does not mean ‘yes to all’

When it comes to consent, saying ‘yes’ to one thing in the bedroom does not mean you’ve said yes to all things in the bedroom. If you clearly discuss certain things as having “blanket consent,” it means you are fully comfortable with certain things happening without being asked, such as biting or tickling. You can always take away this kind of consent, as with all consent.

“Blanket consent is a different approach to consent—instead of asking if what you’re doing is okay every time you do something different sexually (regular consent), you tell your partner to stop if something they’re doing starts to cross a line.” Says LaMorgese.

When venturing into kink, both partners must stay within the previously discussed scene. For example, if you have agreed to let your partner tie you to the bed and use a feather tickler on your body, that is fine. But, if your partner then brings out a whip and hits you with it, without having asked if you were OK with that, it’s NOT OK.

For instance in Fifty Shades, Christian’s contract comes with some heavy baggage: “A ‘yes’ is only meaningful if it can be taken away at any time without consequences. ‘You must sign this BDSM contract or I will break up with you and fly away on my helicopter’ is not actually good consent.” Laura Schroeder, an Account Director at Fun Factory tells Teen Vogue.

Make sense? The ‘yes’ you give has to come with no strings attached. You are not subject to the will of the dom, unless you WANT to be. End of story.

BDSM covers a lot of territory

BDSM is not all about chains, whips, and ball gags, despite what you’ve seen in the movies. It is about the giving and receiving of control over anything else. Both the submissive and dominant consent to the submission and domination.

That’s actually what makes BDSM so erotic to many who enjoy it.

For subs, it is the release of control to someone who lets you escape from your worries; for the dom, having control in the bedroom can often substitute for a perceived lack of control in his or her everyday life.

Just because BDSM covers a lot of different behaviors, doesn’t mean you’re expected to try every single thing. You may be down to try some light spanking, but that doesn’t mean you want hot wax dripped on you; you might want to be in control during one sexual encounter, but want to give it up to your partner in another, “Like the word ‘sex,’ ‘BDSM’ covers a lot of different behaviors and activities, and trying one doesn’t meant that you have to try all of them.” Schroeder says.

It also doesn’t look any particular way

You and your partner are human beings. BDSM does not always look the same for every couple and that is completely fine.

For instance, Schroder tells us that a someone may like to have their lower lip bitten between kisses or perhaps one partner wants to use a sex toy and kneels in front of the other to present it for approval. These actions are about control rather than pain.

At the end of the day, remember that kink is just a game. It’s not something to be afraid of. If you’re with someone you trust, and understand the boundaries, it can be super fun and pleasurable.

Most importantly, remember that the fun starts and stops with your consent. If something is making you feel weird, gross, or just plain sucks, tell your partner to stop. Consent is the most valuable and sacred part of BDSM. It is about exploring boundaries and learning about yourself — it’s about growing, not losing something.

Complete Article HERE!

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Dominant Submissive Relationships In The Bedroom – Part 2

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Look for Part 1 HERE!

Why BDSM Couples Like Having Rough Sex

4. BDSM: All About Communication

BDSM is still viewed as an unconventional sensual, erotic, and sexual behavior, yet couples who practice this tend to develop a better sense of self. These couples are more likely to communicate their likes and dislikes with their partner. In the previously mentioned 2013 study, Dutch researchers found BDSM lovers were more extraverted, more open to experience, more conscientious, less neurotic, less sensitive to rejection, more securely attached, and higher in subjective well-being. Specifically, all three BDSM subsets, including dominants, submissives, and switches, outscored controls on “subjective well-being”; the difference was significant for dominants.

So, what’s the connection between BDSM and healthy relationships?

It’s a combination of self-awareness and communication. BDSM helps couples recognize their sexual identity and desire. Communication is a standard in BDSM activities because couples must be able to negotiate boundaries and safe practices. According to O’Reilly, some couples feel their overall levels of communication improve with kink play.

“These benefits spill into other areas of the relationship (e.g. parenting, division of labour, emotional expression) and serve to deepen their existing bond,” she said.

Communication and consent are critical in BDSM, especially when it comes to pain play.

5. Pain Is Pleasure: Why It Feels So Good

Several couples will admit they get pleasure from experiencing pain, or inflicting (consensual) pain on others. Yet, some of us will yell in pain when we twist our ankle or break a bone, and even a papercut can produce misery. There’s actually a difference between good pain and bad pain.

“Interestingly, our brain processes social rejection in the same place where it processes physical pain. When we experience pain in a sexual act, we’re going to enjoy that pain differently, because we have a different interpretation to it than an accident where we don’t have control,” Wanis said.

When we experience bad pain, this indicates something is not right, and needs immediate attention. However, when we feel good pain during sadomasochism — giving or receiving pleasure from the infliction or reception of pain and humiliation — it is enjoyable. A 2014 study found sadomasochism alters blood flow in the brain, which can lead to an altered state of consciousness similar to a “runner’s high” or yoga. Brain changes were seen in the prefrontal and limbic/paralimbic pain regions when participants either received pain or gave pain.

Here, the pain led the central nervous system to release endorphins, which are proteins that act to block pain, and promote feelings of euphoria.

It seems pain and pleasure have always been intertwined.

There’s one other reason pain may sometimes feel good: The range of interests in BDSM could possibly possess an evolutionary advantage.

6. Evolutionary Advantage: Is BDSM A Reproductive Strategy?

BDSM involves role playing, with aspects like dominance and submission, which can be roughly translated into lower and/or higher-ranking partners. In mammals, high hierarchical status is linked with increased reproductive success, and Czech researchers believe BDSM-induced arousal could be a manifestation of a mating strategy.

In a 2009 study, published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine, researchers found sexual arousal through overemphasized hierarchy, like dominant-slave play, can represent a reproductive strategy. Role play allows someone who has a need to be dominant to feel dominant, and someone who is submissive to be able to reproduce. It joins two people who have varied, but complementary, sexual preferences to reap benefits from each other.

People who engage in BDSM also show adaptability and knowledge of various sexual behaviors. They’re able to relate in socially and sexually unconventional ways that can give them an evolutionary edge. In other words, BDSM can make someone become more open-minded, self-aware, and more expressive in communicating their needs and desires, which is advantageous in any relationship — not just those that are intimate.

7. BDSM: The ‘New’ Way To Have Sex

BDSM has been a thing for a very, very long time, so it’s hardly “new”, but Fifty Shades expanded the conversation around it. The movie inspired people to explore their own sexual preferences, and embrace their naughtiest desires. However, it’s important to note its representation of BDSM is problematic; it is indeed shades of grey.

Couples seem to be enticed by BDSM because it steers away from the conventional, and encourages the exploration of the unknown, or taboo. It’s against society’s norms, and solicits more intrigue.

“We want to break the taboo, and that becomes sexually exciting,” Wanis said.

If we’re willing to hand over our physical, mental, emotional, and psychological safety to our partner — that’s more than just kinky sex, that’s trust. Hopefully, that trust has been earned.

Complete Article HERE!

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Untying that knotty BDSM

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Not abusive or deviant, this sexual kink is based on communication, consent and trust, says a ‘professional’ Sub(missive) Asmi Uniqus. Here’s a quick myth buster

By Barry Rodgers

“While it’s great that people are exploring their sexuality,” says Asmi Uniqus, an active BDSM practitioner and lifestyle coach, “it’s frustrating that there are so many misconceptions.” For example, BDSM does not have to be driven by sex or risky forms of play that involve drawing blood, asphyxiation or other such extreme practices.

According to Uniqus, “BDSM is a different form of expression of intimacy, love and care. It is sacrosanct consent. It’s about shared responsibility for safety and sanity, and detailed communication. Anything that violates consent, manipulates it or abuses the trust is not BDSM,” she says. “When trust supersedes the possibility of harm, the result is something incredibly erotic and intimate.” She would know. Uniqus has been a lifestyle submissive for over 10 years and has written several e-books on the subject. Here are some myth busters:

1. You can’t trust anyone blindly. Basic safety checks, personal responsibility and support systems are a must.

2. Uniqus calls it one of the most nurturing and intimate forms of human contact and play. “In vanilla or non-BDSM space, people can jump into bed without conversation, negotiation, or emotional connection. In BDSM, the players always arrange things in advance with clear, intimate communication.

3. Finding the right partner to ‘play’ involves communicating what works and what doesn’t. For instance, the Dominant partner may be a sadist, but the Sub may not want pain. “However, while not many people communicate clearly in vanilla sex, in BDSM that choice of not communicating isn’t there,” says Asmi.

4. “There are pre-decided safe words,” she clarifies. “These may or may not indicate that I want to close the book on the entire session. ‘Red’ may indicate closing the book, while ‘amber’ is for when I’m done with a particular aspect of it. ‘Green’ means I’m in my comfort zone.” When using gags, people decide on non-verbal cues to indicate distress.

5. Submissives in erotica are portrayed as doormats manipulated into ‘slavery’ by smarter dominants. “I am not coerced into being a submissive,” says Uniqus, “It is a lifestyle choice. The sexual aspect of my relationship is completely separate from other aspects of it.”

6. Alpha men, who always call the shots and men, in general, are expected to be in control all the time. For them, it helps to ‘let go’ in a safe environment, with a trusted partner.

7. “For some, BDSM may not be about sex,” says Uniqus. “There is an emotional connect between a submissive and dominant, but there may not necessarily be sexual contact. Some submissives are into domestic servitude and derive pleasure out of maybe just washing their partner’s dishes. I could kneel at my dominant’s feet without shedding a thread of cloth and still be satisfied. It is as gratifying as a sexual act.

8. Then, isn’t BDSM the same as submitting to one’s elders or authority figures? “In a socio-cultural context,” answers Uniqus, “we do submit to our elders’ authority, but we do not develop sexual bonds with them. BDSM may not always be about sex, but it has an undercurrent of physical and sexual intimacy, even when fully clothed,” she says.

9. “Choosing BDSM as a lifestyle just because you’re going through a bad phase in life is the wrong way to approach it,” says Uniqus. “Fifty Shades of Grey did help bring BDSM out in the open in India, and when its popularity increased, people’s sensitivity towards it decreased. Now 20-year-olds want to try it because it is a fad.” She warns that considering the legal ramifications involved, with some kinky acts coming under the purview of Section 377 (anal penetration, or oral pleasure, for instance), it is important to figure out which activities are medically and legally safe.

10. There are international books to guide you through the technique, however they have a different cultural context. There’s also Uniqus’s BDSM Concepts: A Practical Guide.

11. Keep a First Aid kit handy, and also arrange a ‘safe call’ i.e. a trusted friend who can come and rescue or support you, should anything go wrong.

12. Monogamy is still the leading form of relationship in the dominant and submissive equation. Couples who enjoy BDSM together, do not feel the need to add other people to the mix.

13. So what happens when only one partner is inclined towards BDSM? “Most spouses stay restricted to an academic interest in the lifestyle. People value families, relationships and marriages,” says Uniqus. “Some people may experiment outside wedlock, but there are also marriages where a spouse has been patient enough to slowly and lovingly initiate the other into the lifestyle, sometimes taking 10 or 15 years to do so.”

14. Those who enjoy pain are not necessarily wired that way because of trauma. “Pain acts differently for different people. For some, it is cathartic. For others, it’s as an aphrodisiac. Think of the adrenaline rush a heavy workout gives you. Although your body is sore, that pain gives you a high,” she illustrates.

Complete Article HERE!

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9 Things Everyone Gets Wrong About BDSM

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Christian Grey should not be your only source for this.

By Zahra Barnes

How Many Americans Actually Engage In BDSM Play

Hello and welcome to almost 2017, a time when millions of people have pledged their hearts (and vaginas) to a fictional character named Christian Grey who likes to engage in BDSM. Although the 50 Shades of Grey fervor is alive and well, especially as the second movie’s premiere approaches, tons of myths about BDSM persist.

“‘BDSM’ is a catch-all term involving three different groupings,” Michael Aaron, Ph.D., a sex therapist in New York City and author of Modern Sexuality, tells SELF. First up, BD, aka bondage and discipline. Bondage and discipline include activities like tying people up and restraining them, along with setting rules and meting out punishments, Aaron explains. Then there’s DS, or dominance and submission. “Dominance and submission are more about power dynamics,” Aaron explains. Basically, one person will give the other power over them, whether it’s physical, emotional, or both. Bringing up the rear, SM is a nod to sadism, or liking to inflict pain, and masochism, liking to receive it. It’s often shortened to “sadomasochism” to make things easier.

Got it? Good. Now, a deep dive into 9 things everyone gets wrong about BDSM.

1. Myth: BDSM is a freaky fringe thing most people aren’t into.

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding about how common this is,” Aaron says. “A lot of people may think just a small minority has these desires.” But sex experts see an interest in BDSM all the time, and a 2014 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine also suggests it isn’t unusual. Over 65 percent of women polled fantasized about being dominated, 47 percent fantasized about dominating someone else, and 52 percent fantasized about being tied up.

“It’s 100 percent natural and normal [to fantasize about BDSM], but some people come and see me with shame,” certified sex coach Stephanie Hunter Jones, Ph.D., tells SELF. There’s no need for that. “It’s a healthy fantasy to have and one that should be explored,” Jones says.

2. Myth: BDSM is always about sex.

Sex isn’t a necessary part of the action. “BDSM doesn’t have to be sexual in nature—some people like it for the power only,” Jones says. It’s possible to play around with BDSM without involving sex, but for some people, incorporating it into sex ratchets things way up.

3. Myth: You can spot a BDSM fan from a distance.

All sorts of people like BDSM, including those who seem straitlaced. For them, it can actually be especially appealing because it offers a chance to exercise different parts of their personalities. “Some of the most conservative-seeming individuals are into BDSM,” Jones says.

4. Myth: If you’re into BDSM, your past must be one big emotional dumpster fire.

“One of the biggest misconceptions is that people do BDSM because of some sort of trauma in their background,” Aaron says. People who engage in BDSM aren’t automatically disturbed—a 2013 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine actually found that BDSM proponents were as mentally sound, if not more so, than people who weren’t into it. “We conclude that BDSM may be thought of as a recreational leisure, rather than the expression of psychopathological processes,” the study authors wrote.

5. Myth: BDSM is emotionally damaging.

When done properly, BDSM can be the exact opposite. “I often use BDSM as a healing tool for my ‘vanilla’ couples,” or couples that don’t typically engage in kink, Jones says. She finds it especially helpful for people who struggle with control and power dynamics.

To help couples dig themselves out of that hole, Jones will assign sexual exercises for them to complete at home. Whoever feels like they have less power in the relationship gets the power during the role play. “This has saved relationships,” Jones says, by helping people explore what it feels like to assume and relinquish control first in the bedroom, then in other parts of the relationship.

6. Myth: The dominant person is always in charge.

When it comes to dominance and submission, there are plenty of terms people may use to describe themselves and their partners. Top/bottom, dom (or domme, for women)/sub, and master (or mistress)/slave are a few popular ones. These identities are fluid; some people are “switches,” so they alternate between being submissive and dominant depending on the situation, Jones explains.

Contrary to popular opinion, the dominant person doesn’t really run the show. “In a healthy scene [period of BDSM sexual play], the submissive person is always the one in control because they have the safeword,” Jones says. A safeword is an agreed upon term either person can say if they need to put on the brakes. Because a submissive is under someone else’s control, they’re more likely to need or want to use it. “Whenever the safeword is given, the scene stops—no questions asked,” Jones says.

7. Myth: You need a Christian Grey-esque Red Room to participate in BDSM.

Christian should have saved his money. Sure, you can buy BDSM supplies, like furry blindfolds, handcuffs, whips, paddles, floggers, and rope. But there’s a lot you can do with just your own body, Jones explains: “You can use fingers to tickle, you can use hands to spank.” You can also use things around the house, like scarves, neckties, and stockings for tying each other up, wooden spoons for spanking, and so on. Plus, since your mind is the ultimate playground, you may not need any other toys at all.

8. Myth: If your partner is into BDSM, that’s the only kind of sex you can have.

When you’re new to BDSM but your partner isn’t, you might feel like you need to just dive in. But you don’t have to rush—people who are into BDSM can also like non-kinky sex, and it can take some time to work up to trying BDSM together. And much like your weekly meals, BDSM is better when planned. “BDSM should never be done spontaneously,” Jones says. Unless you’ve been with your partner for a long time and you two are absolutely sure you’re on the same page, it’s always best to discuss exactly what you each want and don’t want to happen, both before the scene happens and as it actually plays out.

9. Myth: BDSM is dangerous.

The BDSM community actually prides itself on physical and emotional safety. “A number of discussions around consent are integral to individuals in the community—people have negotiations around what they’re going to do,” Aaron says. People in the community use a couple of acronyms to emphasize what good BDSM is: SSC, or Safe, Sane, and Consensual, and RACK, or Risk-Aware Consensual Kink.

Of course, sometimes it’s still a gamble. “A number of things people do have some danger—boxing, skydiving, and bungee jumping are all legal—but it’s about trying to be as safe as possible while understanding that there’s some inherent risk,” Aaron says. It’s up to each person to set parameters that allow everyone involved to enjoy what’s going on without overstepping boundaries.

If you’re interested in trying BDSM, don’t feel overwhelmed—you can take baby steps.

“There are a number of entry points for people,” Aaron says. One is FetLife, a social media website for people with various kinks. You can also look into Kink Academy, which offers educational videos for different payment plans starting at $20 a month. Another option is Googling for “munches,” or non-sexual meet-and-greets for kinky people in your area, along with searching for kink-related organizations in your city—most big cities have at least one major resource. They usually go by different names, like TES in New York City and Black Rose in D.C., Aaron explains, but when you find yours, you may be on the road to opening up your sex life in a pretty exciting way.

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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