It’s a Friday night. You look outside, it’s raining and there’s no way you can attend that Derek Zoolander look-alike contest you’ve had on the calendar for months. The humidity from the rain, combined with the hood of your charcoal peacoat, will deactivate all that styling gel. You’re sad, disappointed and a little bored. Then out of this foggy and forlorn mist, you hear the sounds of sexual healing.
First, the four heavy, lustful wah-wahs lure you in. Then the drums — powerful and immediate — hook you in. A sensual, smooth, raspy voice croons, “I’ve been really tryin’, baby.”
“I know Marvin,” you say to yourself. “I know you been tryin’.” You light some ginger spice candles your mother gave you two Christmases ago and you say (again, out loud to nobody), “Screw this rain. Tonight, let’s get it on with me.”
Taming the trouser snake, frosting the pie, unlocking the chamber of secrets, battling the purple-headed yogurt slinger — we all know what these phrases really mean. For one thing, they mean I have a highly questionable Google search history. And for another, they mean masturbation. It’s been around since human beings first realized hands could be useful for something other than high-fiving and biting one’s thumb in insult.
In ancient Malta, around the fourth millenium B.C., inhabitants would carve clay figurines of men and women in the act of self-pleasure. In 1879, Mark Twain delivered an entire speech about masturbation (formally called “onanism”) in which he parodied the contemporary aversion to the act with the following advice: “When you feel a revolutionary uprising in your system, get your Vendome Column down some other way — don’t jerk it down.” And in a 1992 episode of “Seinfeld,” Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer make a bet as to who can go the longest without being “master of their domain.” In short, the topic spans the length of human existence. It penetrates a core aspect of our physical and emotional being, but its history is awash with dramatic debate.
UC Berkeley history professor Thomas Laqueur specializes in studying these contests over sexuality and sexual behavior. In his 2003 book, “Solitary Sex,” he traces the complex and bizarre story of modern masturbation from its precise inception between the years 1708 and 1716. During that time, an anonymous author published a track entitled “Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self Pollution, and All its Frightful Consequences, in both SEXES considered…”. The title goes on and for Laqueur, this “short tract with a long title not only named but actually invented a new disease and new highly specific, thoroughly modern … engine for generating guilt, shame, and anxiety.” Modern masturbation is, in his opinion then, “ a creature of the Enlightenment.”
What about that old story about how masturbation would cause blindness, anxiety or even madness? These myths were, according to Laqueur, medical responses to an increase in the public awareness of masturbation. Tracts, novels, plays and public speeches warned against this private vice in an era when the division between the public and private spheres was blurry. It was a secret, selfish act that “partook of the wickedness of subterfuge, fraud, fakery, the very opposite of natural transparency.” But despite the overwhelmingly negative aura that surrounded masturbation, the art itself still persisted among both sexes.
In Sarah Ruhl’s play “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play),” which premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2009, the topic of self-pleasure takes a humorous turn. Based off Rachel Maines’ study of hysteria and the invention of the vibrator, “The Technology of Orgasm,” Ruhl’s comedy reflects the drastic change in society’s attitude toward masturbation over the past 100 years. What was in 1913 a tool advertised in brand name catalogs (alongside vacuum cleaners) as a device for youth revitalization has become, in Maines’ words, “an overtly sexual device.” What was once a source for public derision and private shame has now become a source of mostly open and positive discourse.
It’s no surprise. however, that masturbation is still controversial. At the end of “Solitary Sex,” Laqueur notes that the act “remains poised between self-discovery and self-absorption, desire and excess, privacy and loneliness, innocence and guilt as does no other sexuality in our era.” The plethora of movies, songs, TV shows, plays, books, scientific studies and political statements about one’s ability to pleasure oneself are a testament to Laqueur’s statement. It is an activity that “touches the inner lives of modern humanity in ways that we still do not understand,” Laqueur says.
Masturbation may be confusing, complex, great and strange all at the same time. But it is as fundamentally human as enjoying the soft serenades of Marvin Gaye on a Friday night. So let’s learn from the master. “There’s nothing wrong with me … Let’s get it on.”