“Physics is to mathematics as sex is to masturbation.” – Richard Feynman
Learning how to love is a complex set of equations. Knowing how to love is no more an inborn skill than being able to compute algebraic equations. Physical loving turns these basic math facts into the complex calculations which is the glue of the physical universe. Seen in this light, masturbation is like learning our basic math facts. Our physical and sexual anatomy is at once universal and individual. Gaining an understanding of the functionality of our own sexual organs and discovering reliable pathways to pleasure is prerequisite for any possibility of a paired enjoyment.
Although saying the word ‘masturbation’ will successfully silence conversation in almost any room, the truth is that it is the most common sexual practice the world over. Since the 1950s repeated studies have shown that the percentage of men who masturbate is close to 100 percent and for women, the percentage is not far behind at 82 percent. Besides that, masturbation for those who allow themselves the practice is one that is enjoyed throughout our life span. Yet we won’t discuss the subject, even with our partners and closest friends.
Certainly it is a topic that could do with a little airing out, if based only on its checkered history alone. It wasn’t all that long ago that boys were tortured with all kinds of strange contraptions to stop them from experiencing the terrible act of masturbation, as masturbation was purportedly sure to make them blind or insane. Hard to believe, but the most educated people around perpetrated these myths in the form of medicine for years. It has been ugly indeed, and the church damning anyone who ever thought of self-pleasure to eternal hell didn’t help.
Cultural myths die hard and the history of abuse that has long been attached to the practice of physical self love still carries a heavy doses of guilt, shame and anxiety with it for many people. Even without much religiosity in your life, the act of self pleasuring carries an enormous silence. As I have been studying the topic, I can tell you it only takes saying the word out loud to silence a crowd.
Feeling isolated and alone with our sexuality is standard in this country. The little sex education that is provided through adolescence, is an exercise in naming body parts at best and in some institutions is a drawn out diatribe of abstinence theory and the sinfulness of sexuality in general. Historians have suggested, that “the forbidden fruit” that is referenced from Adam and Eve is the experience of orgasm, so it is not surprising that this first gate of knowing and loving ourselves through masturbation has been continuously affirmed in most religions as sinful.
Yet, this is not the state we are born into. If you have ever watched a small child explore their own body and the look of happy surprise when they discover the highly enervated erogenous zones that have no other meaning than pleasurable sensation, it is clear that the shame and discomfort that replaces this healthy curiosity is part of our collective education, to which we are all subjected, even as it ranges in severity depending on your own family’s reaction to sexuality in general.
Anna Freud famously wrote that “sex is something you do, sexuality is something you are.” Imagine the dinner time discussions in her home. This distillation of her father’s lifelong inquiry into sexuality is meaningful in this conversation about masturbation because it recognizes the essential truth: we are all sexual beings. The degree to which we are driven by this part of our nature is as variable as is the way each of us interprets and acts on this part of our human nature. But between the recent scandals in the church regarding priests and kids, and the damaging sexual relationships that so many people live victim to, I think it is fair to say that we have come to the point where we might rethink and embrace the idea and practice of healthy self pleasuring.
Indeed, there are many sexual educators and therapists that consider the ability to self pleasure as the cornerstone of sexual health. It’s not really a stretch to consider that a large percentage of the sexual dysfunction that so many people suffer from might easily have begun with the shame and anxiety about touching oneself. There is a clear correlation between the degree of guilt that early physical curiosity met and the ability to experience sexual pleasure in adult life. Finding comfort with our sexual selves is one of the most genuine, intimate and life affirming ways we can know ourselves. It is the first gate of understanding for both the raw experience of pleasure and the root of our primary sexual identity which is so basic as to be prerequisite to a fulfilling sexual relationship with others.
Wendy Strgar is a loveologist who writes and lectures on Making Love Sustainable, a green philosophy of relationships which teaches the importance of valuing the renewable resources of love and family. Wendy helps couples tackle the questions and concerns of intimacy and relationships, providing honest answers and innovative advice.“I feel like I am inventing a language to give intimacy back to the people, take the fear away and open a space for physical love to serve as the glue that holds relationships together.” Wendy lives in Eugene, Oregon with her husband, a psychiatrist, and their four children ages 11-20.