By the way, the above stories are certainly not meant to imply that masturbation is an unhealthy form of sex. On the contrary, modern sexologists see it as a form of sperm quality control: in that way it can never become old and over-ripe. Truman Capote said the interesting thing about masturbation was that he didn’t have to get dolled up for it, and even fifty years ago a popular American professor was telling his students that masturbation had many advantages: ‘It saves time and money, it avoids quite a few unhappy relationships and obligations, it makes no one unhappy and there is no risk of infectious diseases.’ The Hollywood director Woody Allen hit the nail on the head with his quip: ‘Don’t knock masturbation – it’s sex with someone I love.’ However, all in all it’s not very sensible, for example, to masturbate five times in quick succession: the seminal glands will empty and eventually all that will come out is a little fluid, or in the worst case blood.

Internet sites like www. nowscape. com list literally hundreds of slang terms for (male) masturbation in addition to the ‘standard’ terms ‘wank’ (uk) and ‘jerk off’ (us). Some the more inventive euphemisms include:

assault on a friendly weapon, beating your meat, being your own best friend, charm the cobra, couch hockey for one, crank­ing the shank, Custer’s last stand, disseminating, flogging your dong, getting in touch with your manhood, hand job, holding all the cards, manual override, one-handed clapping, peel the carrot, playing with Dick, play the stand-up organ, pocket pool, popping the porpoise, pull off, pumping for pleasure, punishing Percy, ride the great white knuckler, rope the pony, rounding up the tadpoles, self love, shaking hands with the governor, shooting Sherman, slammin’ the salami, slap-boxing the one-eyed champ, spanking your monkey, squeeze the lemon, walking the dog, whacking off, whipping the pony, winding the jack-in-a-box, etc, etc.

The activity features frequently in song lyrics, for example in Jethro Tull’s teasingly ambiguous ‘Roll Yer Own’:

Roll yer own, roll it when there’s something missing and those wild cats howl, running in the moonshine.

Roll yer own if you can’t buy readymade; you won’t be satisfied when you feel the sudden need to unwind.

Roll yer own: you got to hit that spot.

Roll yer own when your hands are hot.

In novels, though one can find plenty about sexual dissipation, mastur­bation does not usually figure prominently. In English-language fiction the great exception is Philip Roth’s classic Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), whose protagonist’s sexual obsessions, and specifically his compulsive masturbation, reflect his revolt against his parents, his Jewishness and social injustice.

In his Confessions Jean-Jacques Rousseau chronicles his lonely battle with masturbation:

I learned this dangerous supplement which deceives nature and leads young men of my disposition to many excesses at the expense of their health, their vigour and sometimes even of their lives. This vice, which shame and timidity find so convenient, is, moreover, particularly attractive to active imaginations: it allows them to dispose at will, say, of the entire female sex, and to make a tempting beauty serve their pleasures without need­ing to obtain her consent.

The Russian writer Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol (1809-1852), perhaps best known for his Diary of a Madman, was an extravagant mastur­bator, which was undoubtedly connected with his melancholy disposi­tion, and the same was true of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Masturbation was actually the preferred form of love­making of the English poet Philip Larkin (‘Love again: wanking at ten past three’). He had diffident relationships with women, never wanted to marry, disliked children and defined sex as ‘one of those social activities that worlds removed from me, like playing baccarat or clog­dancing’. For most of his rather solitary life he was librarian of the University of ‘dull Hull’, which suited him down to the ground.

It has even been said of Goethe that when young he frequently ‘took matters into his own hands’, probably prompted by a passage in Truth and Fiction, in which he describes his student life in Leipzig. He loses his sweetheart there because, so he believes, he has neglected her. He relates how he took his frustration out on his own body:

I had lost her really; and the frenzy with which I revenged my fault upon myself, by assaulting in various frantic ways my physical nature, in order to inflict some hurt on my moral nature, contributed very much to the bodily maladies under which I lost some of the best years of my life: indeed, I should perchance have been completely ruined by this loss, had not my poetic talent here shown itself particularly helpful with its healing power.

Does everyone do it?

In the media it is claimed that everyone does it, but that’s not true. Scientific research by G. Van Zessen and T. Sandfort published in 1991 showed that 18 per cent of men and 45 per cent of women never masturbate.

Nowadays most sex manuals suggest that masturbation is a good way of discovering your own body, and helps an adolescent to be better prepared when he or she starts having sex with a partner. This implies that masturbation is fine, but unnecessary once one has a relationship.

Based on changes in sexual attitudes in the last few decades it is assumed that in general masturbation no longer poses a problem. How­ever, large-scale surveys among young people of upbringing, sexuality and early childhood experiences reveal that just under half of young people under sixteen have had concerns about it, occasionally or more often. Analysis of interview clips shows that the concerns can be grouped in four categories: guilt feelings, fear of disease, and doubts and uncertainty due to ignorance. These categories can easily be traced back to the traditional myths about masturbation. All this takes place against a background awareness that, in short, solo sex is becoming more and more popular. Who could have imagined thirty years ago that the sexual revolution would implode into mass masturbation at one’s own computer? Only forty years ago many boys were ticked off when their mothers had trouble getting their sheets clean. How many of those parents, themselves brought up as children of the sexual revolution, prepare their own sons or daughters for what awaits them in puberty with a nice friendly chat? That might prevent a few years of guilt feelings. Why not simply say that masturbation is a ‘normal’ activity?

In A Conspiracy of Dunces the American writer John Kennedy Toole (1937-1969) describes how pleasant and satisfying it can be. The novel is set in New Orleans and tells the story of Ignatius J. Reilly, an unforgettable, Quixotic protagonist: overweight, burping, terrorizing those around him intellectually. His insufferably arrogant character, together with the unimaginable aura of bodily odours than envelops him, has not brought him much success in job interviews. But when he does land a job at Levy Pants, he organizes a wildcat strike and is fired; he ends up as a hotdog seller. John Kennedy Toole committed suicide at the age of 32, and A Conspiracy of Dunces appeared posthumously in 1980, thanks to the efforts of the author’s mother. In the following passage Ignatius reflects on the place of masturbation in his life:

Ignatius touched the small erection that was pointing down­ward into the sheet, held it, and lay still trying to decide what to do. In this position, with the red flannel nightshirt around his chest and his massive stomach sagging into the mattress, he thought somewhat sadly that after eighteen years with his hobby it had become merely a mechanical physical act stripped of the flights of fancy and invention that he had once been able to bring to it. At one time he had almost developed it into an art form, practicing the hobby with the skill and fervor of an artist and philosopher, a scholar and a gentleman.

A survey of 2003 showed that for both men and women in the area of sexual taboos, self-gratification stands incontestably at number one. Erection problems and sexually transmitted diseases were at numbers two and three respectively. Women tend to talk more openly but in the case of masturbation they find it more difficult than men (47% as opposed to 32%). Masturbation is certainly not a standard topic of conversation. Is it perhaps that there is so little of interest to be said about it? One may wonder if it comes under the heading of sex at all. For a while it was fashionable in America to tell young people in sex manuals that masturbation is a safer option than sex. This is a sop to sweeten a recommendation of abstinence, and of course it doesn’t work. One activity has simply nothing to do with the other. Whatever one may understand by sex, it is at least something social, while masturbation goes in the direction of private grooming activities like picking scabs or squeezing spots.

Taboos are things one doesn’t talk about with others in one’s immediate environment, either because one is ashamed or because it isn’t done to talk about them. The respondents in the above-mentioned survey were also asked what taboo in modern society should no longer be a taboo. And the result in respect of masturbation? Only 8 per cent of women and 16 per cent of men felt the taboo should go. Conclusion: the taboo on masturbation will therefore remain. Is that so terrible? I don’t think so. When all’s said and done, a little sperm does get spilt. And don’t let’s forget the trees felled for the millions of paper tissues!

‘Can masturbation harm you? No. Does it do you good? Just for a second. But apart from that it’s a rather silly occupation,’ as a colum­nist once put it. ‘Silly – like wolfing down a cake or a snack – and call­ing it supper.’ Who’s to argue with her?

chapter ten