Masturbation! Trust me, I say this not to shock, but to remove the awkwardness from the word. And it’s likely not just myself who finds it awkward – if you search for masturbation slang, you’ll find that Urban Dictionary lists over 20 definitions, all of which are objectively worse than those four syllables.
I have a responsibility to say that masturbation is 100% normal, healthy, not in the least bit shameful, and will definitely not summon sex demons. Neither will dildos – although if you told me that dildos had been used in Satanic and pagan rituals for centuries, I’d be all the more likely to buy one. Whether you’re a man or woman or neither, there’s every reason in the world to masturbate. One of the best is that it helps you to get to know your own sexual preferences and to figure out what gives you the most pleasure, without all the stress that comes with trying to find a partner.
A cultural re-frame on masturbation has been going on recently, with many Health and Lifestyle magazines writing their own “Five reasons to…” lists, while papers like The Independent (RIP) have articles about the benefits of masturbation. The indomitable Caitlin Moran’s frank writing on the subjects of sex (amongst others) are partly responsible. She and many others are putting to bed the stigma attached to masturbation, especially for women. So why do I, (privilege check: a straight, white, cisgender and able-bodied man) still feel peculiar talking about it?
There’s a stereotype about guys (particularly teenage boys) that they always speak about masturbation and porn, in lurid and explicit details. For many this is undoubtedly true, but not for everyone. Sure, I wanked from an almost criminally young age – as soon as erections start appearing with the slightest regularity, you get curious as to why. But the sex education provided by my school never addressed the subject of wanking, for girls or boys. And who can blame the teachers for that? They’d all feel as weird about it as the students did, only far less likely to start giggling at impromptu instances. But when masturbation is only being openly talked about by the ‘lads’ in the corner (who don’t seem to have particularly enlightened views about sex or women) that leaves the rest of the kids who don’t fit in with them with a discussion deficit. I’m not a fan of debating how far semen can go when watching that one porno with the ‘chick with huge tits’, who looks kind of like one of your classmates. I’ll keep those thoughts inside my head, like a slightly sexually repressed British gentleman, à la Harry Hart.
If young people cannot have these conversations with their peers however, they must rely on teachers, parents, or the internet to provide information about masturbation. And although it was only a few years ago that I personally was a teenager, the cultural re-frame I mentioned wasn’t even close to happening. If I was going to end up reading anything about masturbation, it would probably have been erotic fiction on porn sites.
Porn is not inherently bad. Obviously it’s all fantasy, and that’s cool, but if you’re 11 years old and being introduced to the world of sex through these fantasies, things can get complicated and confusing. Because it’s not so much that porn is bad, but that our relationship with it can be (and I’m specifically talking about men, as they are the demographic for whom the vast majority of Porn is produced). If for instance, you start to believe that everything you see is real and authentic, or if watching porn is the only way you know how to masturbate, the former will impact your expectations of yourself and your partner during sex, whilst the latter can hinder your ability to achieve an erection without the aid of porn.
That last one is in particular interesting to me. Mainly because it’s so expected of men to be furious masturbators, through routine porn consumption. While women, are seen as subsisting on exhaustive, detailed fantasies, which allow them to ride a unicorn along a beach of rainbows, wielding a dildo spear as they charge into a battle against the patriarchy, fully loaded with hormones, men just crack open a laptop, and ‘arrive’ – a total anti-climax. The reality doesn’t have to be so one-sided: obviously women watch porn, and men do use fantasy.
Where does this leave us? Things could go in a positive direction, even as David Cameron’s government insists upon not having sex education in schools, so that parents can address the subjects themselves. Tablets and smartphones are so prevalent for tweens and teens, and there’s far more progressive writing about masturbation and porn to be found from reputable sources online, that those children who are nervous about airing the subject with their parents can find information online. That’s hardly a perfect solution however. As for me, and the people my age, I’ve still got no intention of starting a face-to-face conversation about masturbation, yet that doesn’t make me incapable of having one. For anyone else uncertain about talking about the topic, I recommend starting with “wanking, am I right?”, to break all that tension.
Although maybe you should know the person you speak to first.