Much of the anxiety and guilt that must have permeated the masturbatory act for Freud’s generation, as for members of following generations, may not have been engendered only by fears about masturbation per se, which given the folk psychologies of the day were considerable, but by the still greater anxieties and guilt about what was being done within the realm of the imagination. It is the content of the masturbatory act, the specific and sometimes imagined cast of characters, scenic references, gestures, utterances, costumes, and explanations, that has been ignored. The physical act of masturbation may be less a desire for an object or act than a quest for the construction of a self, however provisional, that is appropriate to such desires (Burke 1941). Among the pleasures sought in masturbation may be that of experiencing oneself within a context of scripted social action where a version of the self is experienced as more free from conflict or ambivalence than may ever be achieved in real life. In this sense, the pursuit of orgasm through masturbation or other forms of sexual activity may be less a primary end than a means of experiencing a construction of the self different than that required by the established identities of everyday life (Lichtenstein 1977; Davis 1983; Simon and Simon 1958).

The masturbatory fantasy most commonly involves a scripting of social life that makes possible a nearly perfect balance of desire, honor, and justice. However unpleasant or self-punishing such a fantasied realm sometimes appears to be, it has a wholeness that often compensates for its lack of reality, while reality rarely affords compensation for its frequent lack of wholeness. Freud argued that one of the dangers implicit in masturbation was that in the fantasies accompanying masturbation “the sexual object is elevated to a degree of excellence which is not easily found again in reality” (1908:200). “The degree of excellence” to which Freud refers is clearly not necessarily the same as that of the idealizations of the sexual as portrayed in prevailing cultural scenarios. This excellence can also refer to the intensity of sexual excitement generated when the fantasy is more in the control of the individual’s psychic reality than is usually the case when the “wish” is compromised by the pragmatic interactional constraints of social life.

The realm of fantasy is a realm where there are no secrets; the motives and experiences of the other or others are fully, if inarticulately, available. As Ferenczi noted, “[t]he onanist feels (a) alternatively the emotions of two people, (b) finally of both at the same time” (1931 [1980]:266). Such empathic projections speak directly to the interpersonal, and possibly intersubjective, character of all forms of erotic activity. This neglected aspect of the empathic component implicit in masturbation, and possibly all sexual behavior, should remind us that no form of behavior is more subject to the constraints of the dialogical than is the sexual, where all gestures are both a response and the anticipation of a response, where the presence of an other is an absolute necessity (Bakhtin 1981). From this perspective, masturbation must be seen not as an act but as an enactment, a fully dramatized representation of the self. It is in this context of the intrapsychic that so many dimensions of sexual possibility are enacted with new meaning and within a consciousness far more knowing than could possibly describe most prepubescent children.

It is within the dramaturgically enriched arena of masturbation that the other dimensions of psychosexual development most generally initially occur, if only in the guise of an internal rehearsal. They do not in specific overt acts, but in interpretations and projections that range from obsessively ritualized performances compacting meanings often lost to the untutored observer, something akin to Stollar’s “microdots”, to minimalist collages that can claim no surface coherence beyond the shifting intensities of sexual arousal.

The qualities of sexual enactment implicit in the experience of masturbation— except for those who believe that it can be done with thinking about what is being done—may well have their origins in the unarticulated panics and possessions of childhood. However, their subsequent articulation in the idioms and costumes of a time and place is a critical moment of the sexualization and desire the effects of which may endure at least as compellingly as any in the continuing production of semiotic chains of desire.