self-loving does make you blind
Today's narcissistic celebration of masturbation stems from
a deep disdain for risk, passion and human relations.
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 – 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’ event.
Masturbation 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 – ostensibly performed to raise
money for charity – 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’.
The organisers 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’ –
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 – Support Notes, talking about it ‘encourages
safe and non-judgmental environments in which people can explore
This weekend’s 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…don’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 – exhilaration, pleasure, relaxation,
liberation – into salacious and crude terms.
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 – sort of – 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
Masturbation and the new moralism
Pornographers 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.
Some old-fashioned 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 passionate
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
Marie Stopes 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.
Yet experiences 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 – 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.
Today’s ‘therapy 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.
Anne Wilson 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.
The message 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 – it
‘frees’ the individual from the scourge of ‘emotional
Transcending the self
Today’s hesitancy 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 –
such as making spouses happy, caring for sick parents, or working
hard for a cause – 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 emotion.
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.
The reinterpretation 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’ – 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.
Although most 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 – from prenuptial agreements to cultivating
the virtues of solo sex – 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
published on spiked, 4 August 2006