Maybe self-loving does make you blind

Today's narcissistic celebration of masturbation stems from a deep disdain for risk, passion and human relations.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Books

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 their sexuality’.

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 performance.

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 emotions.

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.

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 models.

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.

Killing passion

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 addiction’.

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 them instead.

Frank Furedi is author of Therapy Culture. Buy this book from Amazon(UK) or AmazonUSA.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today