Public masturbation used to be associated with sad old
men wearing dirty raincoats. Now it is no longer seen as
a sordid exhibition, but rather as an exercise in raising
awareness about safe sex. So hold on to your hats ¡V the
public masturbation exhibition is coming to London on 5
August! We are all invited to ¡¥come for good causes¡¦ by
the organisers of Europe¡¦s very first ¡¥Masturbate-a-Thon¡¦
is about to be rebranded as the ultimate expression of responsible
sexual behaviour. Get rid of your dirty raincoat: exhibitionism
has been given a clean bill of health by sexologists, sex
educationalists and the media. With great fanfare, this
weekend¡¦s public display of narcissism ¡V ostensibly performed
to raise money for charity ¡V will be promoted as an act
of civic virtue. Willing masturbators will gather at a converted
photographic studio in Clerkenwell, London, on Saturday,
to pleasure themselves for the cameras and a charitable
cause. Predictably, Channel 4, whose commitment to the highest
standard of public service broadcasting is well known, has
enthusiastically embraced this opportunity to transmit yet
another of its ¡¥brave¡¦, ¡¥pioneering¡¦, ¡¥agenda-setting¡¦ and
¡¥taboo-breaking¡¦ reality shows: it will be filming and televising
the Masturbate-a-Thon. Since Channel 4 has courageously
invested its reputation in this venture, it is guaranteed
to be conducted in the best possible taste. Which is why,
according to the organisers, ¡¥fully clothed people will
not be allowed into rooms set aside for masturbation¡¦.
of this spectacle claim the objective is to encourage people
to ¡¥explore safe sex¡¦ and ¡¥talk about masturbation and lift
the taboos that still surround the subject by coming to
a public place and coming in a public place¡¦. I have always
suspected that sexologists love to talk ¡¥dirty¡¦ ¡V that is
why they attach such significance to ¡¥vagina monologues¡¦
and talking about wanking. They claim that openly discussing
masturbation is an important part of an overall enlightened
sexual etiquette. According to a leaflet produced by the
Family Planning Association, Masturbation ¡V Support Notes,
talking about it ¡¥encourages safe and non-judgmental environments
in which people can explore their sexuality¡¦.
event should provide suitably wholesome entertainment, if
the literature promoting it is anything to go by. The Masturbate-a-Thon
crew clearly enjoys a laugh, never missing an opportunity
to crack a crude double entendre and continually using the
word ¡¥come¡¦ in different, apparently witty ways. ¡¥Who can
come?¡¦ ask the organisers, before pointedly imploring: ¡¥So
come on¡Kdon¡¦t be shy.¡¦ Why? Because ¡¥you can come for good
causes¡¦. This is playground humour, and it sounds forced
and more than a little vulgar. The organisers of this initiative
have turned otherwise unexceptional words ¡V exhilaration,
pleasure, relaxation, liberation ¡V into salacious and crude
But there are
rules. The event sponsors, who clearly buy in to today¡¦s
health-obsessed ideology, forbid participants from doing
drugs, drinking alcohol or smoking. Though you can bring
your own toys, you are asked not to ¡¥share them or to offer
them to anyone else after you¡¦, since ¡¥this constitutes
a clear risk to others¡¦. And no cheating! There will be
monitors on hand ¡V sort of ¡V to clock the duration of your
contribution and count your orgasms. With a hint of self-parody,
participants are warned that ¡¥monitors shall carry a clipboard
to keep notes on time and consistency of self-pleasuring¡¦.
And while taking
pleasure in yourself, you are obliged to take pleasure in
diversity, too. Apparently anyone demonstrating ¡¥prejudice,
disrespect and intolerance of other people¡¦ will be asked
to leave straight after the critical moment has been reached.
This is clearly an inclusive event fully committed to the
ethos of diversity. You¡¦ll be pleased to know that ¡¥people
of both genders and sexual orientations¡¦ will masturbate
in this inclusive performance.
and the new moralism
frequently flatter themselves by labelling their work as
¡¥erotic art¡¦. Now, with the Masturbate-a-Thon, narcissistic
voyeurism is represented as an exercise in public service;
a low-life show for Peeping Toms masquerades as a public
health initiative. The Masturbate-a-Thon aims to ¡¥raise
awareness of, and dispel the shame and taboos that persist
around, this most commonplace, natural and safe form of
sexual activity¡¦. Are we supposed to believe that the public
is totally unfamiliar with the practice of masturbation?
The idea that
talking about masturbation is a powerful taboo is a self-serving
myth peddled by solo-sex crusaders who never resist the
temptation to discuss their obsession. As any school child
will confirm, masturbation is hardly a taboo topic. There
is a veritable industry devoted to praising its virtues
and ¡¥raising awareness¡¦ about it. In case you¡¦re desperate
for information, you can consult Martha Cornag¡¦s The Big
Book of Masturbation, which addresses ¡¥the myths and questions
that have plagued society for centuries¡¦, according to its
publisher. Cornag also respects diversity and ¡¥presents
masturbation from a variety of perspectives¡¦. If you are
feeling a tiny bit unsure about the experience, then flick
through Edward L Rowan¡¦s The Joy of Self-Pleasuring: Why
Feel Guilty About Feeling Good? Then there is Walter O Bocking¡¦s
Masturbation As a Means of Achieving Sexual Health or Betty
Dodson¡¦s Sex for One: The Joy of Self-Loving, both of which
claim to do a bit of taboo-busting.
critics of Saturday¡¦s voyeuristic event may view it as a
sign of our unhealthy hedonistic culture. But the advocacy
of masturbation today has little to do with a hedonistic
desire to validate sexual pleasure. Rather, the solo-sex
crusade can be profoundly puritanical and moralistic. The
moral entrepreneurs who dreamt up Masturbate-a-Thon promote
a dogma that regards passion itself as a disease. Old-fashioned
moralists told people to ¡¥just say no¡¦ and left it at that.
Their target was promiscuity, homosexuality and extramarital
sex. Today¡¦s sex education establishment is far more prescriptive.
It demands that we ¡¥say no¡¦ to all passionate relationships
that carry risks and consequences. The new lobby of moralists
are not just wary of sex but of all forms of passionate
relations. Yes they talk about pleasure, but according to
their ideology it must be an experience that is robbed of
The two most
highly stigmatised words in the lexicon of the sex education
lobby are ¡¥risk¡¦ and ¡¥consequence¡¦. They are not simply
concerned with the risk of catching a sexually transmitted
disease, but also with the risk of emotional pain that invariably
accompanies relationships. Traditional moralists sought
to discourage people from having pre-marital affairs; today¡¦s
sex education lobby hopes to divest sex from passion. Why?
Because when you have passionate sex, anything can happen.
You might forget to take your pill; you might get too emotionally
involved with your partner.
International, one of the sponsors of Masturbate-a Thon,
warns that ¡¥in our work all over the world, every day we
see the consequences of fertile orgasms¡¦. The denigration
of the experience of a fertile orgasm expresses a profound
sense of unease with human passion, particularly when it
has life-creating consequences. Here, traditional prudishness
is displaced by a far more lifeless dread of acting on spontaneous
desire. Sadly, this dread also haunts sex education in schools,
as instructors attempt to scare children from having sex
by emphasising the emotional costs of such an experience.
As one factsheet targeting teenagers claims, masturbation
is ¡¥satisfying without risks¡¦. From this standpoint, whether
an act is morally right or wrong is determined by whether
it has consequences.
Another of the
sponsors of the Masturbate-a-Thon says they are proud to
be associated with this ¡¥risk- and consequence-free method
of sexual expression¡¦. The promotion of ¡¥risk- and consequence-free¡¦
behaviour represents a radically new moral outlook on the
world. In previous times, moral codes were developed in
part to assist people to evaluate the consequences of their
actions. Such codes also sought to help human beings assume
a sense of responsibility for what they did. In contrast,
today some would seek to insulate people from activities
that involve risks and consequences. Freeing us of the tyranny
of risk and consequence is meant to protect us from the
emotional turmoil that is associated with everyday life.
In fact, it encourages the estrangement of people from one
another. Solo-sex has no risks or consequences for the simple
reason that it exists outside a relationship. Betty Dodson
celebrates masturbation because it distances people from
the powerful emotions involved in a sexual relationship.
She is particularly hostile to passionate romantic feelings:
¡¥We can have those feelings for a very short time, but when
reality comes crashing in, the pain and the hurt and the
suffering and the breakdown follow.¡¦ From this timid perspective
towards human relationships, masturbation is celebrated
because it does not disappoint.
that are free of risks and consequences used to be called
boring, predictable or banal. Today they are held up as
Of course masturbation
has always been a normal part of human life. Despite previous
attempts at stigmatisation, people have always sought relief
through masturbation. What¡¦s new about the current campaign
to promote awareness about masturbation is the attempt to
invest it with special virtue and moral meaning. The objective
of this moral crusade is to institutionalise masturbation
and render sex with another person as unnecessary. The agenda
of the sex-education industry seems to be to kill passion
and transform pleasure into a banal and very safe experience.
Although a tawdry
publicity stunt, Masturbate-a-Thon resonates with the contemporary
cultural imagination. In an era when passionate relationships
come with a health warning, there is considerable scope
for endowing solo pleasure with meaning. As a result, masturbation
is no longer something you do for pragmatic reasons; rather,
it is celebrated as something profound. It is frequently
discussed as an activity through which you can discover
your sexuality and your identity ¡V the real you. It is portrayed
as a unique source of uncomplicated intense pleasure. People
are told that knowing how to love yourself comes both chronologically
and logically before having relationships with others. ¡¥My
needs come before anything else¡¦ is the slogan that best
embodies today¡¦s worship of self-obsession. Sadly, the affirmation
of self-love resonates with a powerful mood of alienation
from the experience of intimate relations with others.
In recent decades,
intimate relationships between people appear to have become
more complicated. The expectation of failure and of instability
surrounds the institution of marriage, even of cohabitation.
It is now common for people to approach their private relationships
with a heightened sense of emotional risk. Popular and academic
culture contributes to this process: it helps to legitimise
our insecurities regarding the possibility of finding love
and experiencing fulfilling and passionate relationships.
culture¡¦ transmits clear signals about ourselves and our
attachments to others. We are continually instructed to
attend to our own needs in order to fulfil ourselves. Even
happiness is discussed as a problem if its realisation depends
on others. Indeed, feelings that distract individuals from
the goal of self-fulfilment are often defined in negative
terms. That is why in many self-help books the feeling of
love, especially of the intense and passionate variety,
is treated as a problem. Although love is portrayed as the
supreme source of self-fulfilment, it is also depicted as
potentially harmful because it threatens to subordinate
the self to another. The passionate feeling of love towards
another person is represented as destructive and dangerous.
Schaef, in her bestseller Escape From Intimacy, uses labels
such as ¡¥sexual addiction¡¦, ¡¥romance addiction¡¦ and ¡¥relationship
addiction¡¦ to stigmatise passionate feelings towards others.
In the past two decades, numerous advice books have warned
the public about the risks of ¡¥loving too much¡¦. Books such
as Women Who Love Too Much, When Parents Love Too Much or
For People Who Love Their Cat Too Much caution people from
allowing their feelings for others to overtake their lives.
Consequential and risky emotions are castigated for unrealistically
raising expectations, in a world where we should apparently
expect little from others.
is that love needs to be rationed, and our passions must
be curbed. ¡¥Too much love¡¦ is said to lead to the many psychological
illnesses associated with ¡¥co-dependency¡¦. So it is claimed
that parents who love too much produce dysfunctional children
who will grow to be over-reliant on the approval of others.
It is alleged that individuals who crave intimacy are not
in touch with their own needs, and are likely to suffer
from the psychological dysfunction of ¡¥sex addiction¡¦. These
health warnings, directed against the desire for intimacy,
reveal one of the most unattractive features of therapy
culture: its intense aversion to intimate, passionate and
dependent relationships. The diagnosis of ¡¥relationship
addiction¡¦ expresses a profound suspicion of intimacy, a
suspicion that therapy culture systematically promotes.
In passing, it should be noted that people are seldom criticised
for loving themselves too much; judging by the virtues promoted
by Masturbate-a Thon, you can never love yourself too much.
In line with
the growing aversion towards intense and dependent relationships,
the meaning of the terms addiction and co-dependency has
been expanded to account for a puzzling number of experiences.
Experts who talk about the ¡¥disease¡¦ of emotional addiction
claim that the pathology of co-dependence was discovered
as a result of studying interpersonal relationships in families
of alcoholics in the 1980s. Initially, the term ¡¥co-dependent¡¦
was used to describe partners in chemical dependency, persons
living with or in a relationship with an addicted person.
Today, co-dependence is a diagnosis frequently applied to
virtually any relationship of dependence. That is why solo-sex
is so celebrated ¡V it ¡¥frees¡¦ the individual from the scourge
of ¡¥emotional addiction¡¦.
about loving others reveals a broader ambiguity about transcending
the self. The stigmatisation of ¡¥emotional addiction¡¦ has
little to do with love as such. Instead, it is directed
by an emotional script that regards all feelings for objects
external to the self as problematic. Consequently, individuals
who are emotionally caught up in causes external to themselves
¡V such as making spouses happy, caring for sick parents,
or working hard for a cause ¡V are often said to be dominated
by negative emotions. It has even been suggested that people
who have too much faith may be suffering from religious
The very idea
that a relationship of dependency can be the root cause
of emotional addiction points to a deep pessimism about
the informal world of private life. It is but a prelude
to the conclusion that people cannot be expected to conduct
personal relationships that are risky and consequential.
One way that people are encouraged to manage the risks attached
to emotional involvement is through what some sociologists
call ¡¥cultural cooling¡¦. Experts and self-help books advise
people to lower their expectations and not to get carried
away by love. Love is increasingly denounced as a risky
delusion, and we are advised not to trust the language of
the heart. Passion is castigated for causing emotional pain.
Betty Dodson argues that the best way ¡¥to deal with sex
and marriage¡¦ is ¡¥to pick somebody you had a lot of warm
friendly feelings towards, rather than hot passion¡¦. Why?
¡¥Because the hot passion is going to cool off and then what
are you left with?¡¦ This is the insecurity that the solo-sex
crusaders speak to.
of personal commitment as a risk is bad news for all of
us. The equation of love with risk is fuelled by a tendency
to accommodate to the problems experienced by adults in
their relationships. One pragmatic response to this state
of affairs is to declare that the expectations we have of
intimate relationships are unrealistic. ¡¥Be careful, you
may get hurt¡¦ ¡V that is the message that reflects the temper
of our times. The anxieties surrounding relationships have
encouraged many adults to avoid, or at least postpone, making
a serious commitment to others.
people still actively crave intimate relations and romantic
attachments, the association of these experiences with danger
has taken its toll. It is now common for people to approach
their private relations with a heightened sense of emotional
risk. Detachment from others appears to offer a measure
of protection from emotional pain. At the very least, men
and women are encouraged to manage the perceived risks associated
with intimate relationships. A variety of tactics ¡V from
prenuptial agreements to cultivating the virtues of solo
sex ¡V are used to manage the risks associated with the troublesome
experience of love and passion.
Of course the
human desire for passionate love has not been abolished,
and people continue to search for it. For many, the experience
of falling in love is still a special and unique part of
our lives. Thankfully, most young people have not been scared
off from seeking out this often-elusive experience. They
still yearn for consequential experiences and are prepared
to take risks to realise their quest for intimacy. But therapy
culture has made loving more difficult. It has done this
through inflating our fear of failure and disappointment.
Sexologists and sex educationalists contribute to this process.
The celebration of masturbation aims to reconcile people
to a life of estrangement and social isolation. Their message
that ¡¥this is as good as it gets¡¦ seeks to immunise people
from a sense of failure, through providing an opt-out clause
from participating in the search for intimacy.
There is, of
course, nothing new about warning individuals against the
unrealistic expectation of romantic attachments. But what
distinguishes today¡¦s warnings is that they recast the desire
for passionate love, the exhilaration of intimacy and the
painful disappointment of losing an intimate partner as
symptoms of a disease. But actually, those things are what
our lives are all about. Instead of encouraging people to
escape from such risks and passions, we should try living