For a usually private act, masturbation has been receiving a lot of public attention lately. First there was that thing in Sweden where public masturbation was sort of legalized. Shortly after, a Cosmo writer secretly masturbated on a New York subway, which was, of course, followed up by the requisite mediocre backlash. Channel 4 released yet another flimsy “neuroscience” rehash of how jerking off to porn somehow hurts your brain, and a California punk band filmed one of their members masturbating on the lawn of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. Governments, media, feminists, scientists, musicians. Why is fucking ourselves showing up in public conversation now?
It is, at least in part, because right now, masturbation is deeply linked to internet freedom, and threats of internet censorship.
Internet censorship is usually carted out to “defend” us from one of two things: pornography or piracy. The phony battle against piracy, including the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), was hugely unpopular, but pornography and its companion, masturbation, have proved an easier target, because rather than incite well-reasoned and thoughtful discourse, they tend to elicit strong emotional responses.
The latest and largest threat comes from UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s “opt-in” model for internet porn, unveiled a few months ago. If Cameron has his way, residents of the UK will have to outright tell their service providers—Catholic-confessional style—that they want porn. Many people have scoffed at this opt-in model, saying it will never actually take. But last year, when Google created its own mini-version of the opt-in porn model—in which the safe search settings were eliminated and users have to type the word “porn” to get adult results—little protest was raised.
Cameron’s plan, from its inception, could deceptively censor a handful of other arbitrary “evils” because, though underreported, the opt-in checklist may also include things like violence and eating disorders. In other words, it’s a classic example of how emotionally confusing issues like porn (and by association, masturbation and sexuality) are used to manipulate other freedoms by allowing fervor to trump reason.
This is why there’s been a push by Cameron supporters and others for the shift of focus in anti-porn crusades like the Channel 4 documentary. “This is your brain on porn” pseudoscience has left behind the old and mostly-discredited arguments of “objectification” and emphasized the problem with masturbation itself. These neurofundamentalists tell us that science has proven masturbating to internet porn is physiologically addictive and can erode relationships. Of course, one cursory scientific look into the data of these studies, or a critical eye toward their conclusions and the claims fall apart.
Cybersecuity expert and WikiLeaks collaborator Jacob Applebaum recently told Motherboard that it’s not exactly the internet itself we should have anxiety about, but how those in power are using the internet “to control physical space, and people in physical space.” Since censoring porn is a testing ground for widespread censorship, regulating masturbation becomes a testing ground for controlling people in physical space.
Cue the articles. In each of them self-pleasuring— by definition a personal act—is used as a peg to discuss a social concerns. It’s a governmental issue or a tool for sexual liberation; it’s an exhibit for anti-porn propaganda or a protest tactic. Cultural tensions are causing people to care enough about solitary sex enough at this moment to elevate it into an issue.
Unsatisfied with the idea that solo sexual exploits should stay between an individual and his or her browser history, Cosmopolitan had writer Anna Breslaw push boundaries a step further and recorded her public-but-secret rub out session (she put a small vibrator in her underwear before boarding the train). The article was at once funny and fascinating. The support for her exploit was about sexual liberation—that women should have access to pleasure. The backlash was emotional, stating that her experiment was offensive nonsense.
Compare the Cosmo article to feelings about punk band Get Shot! filming their bass player masturbating on the lawn of the Westboro Baptist Church. The stunt garnered them fans and praise.
In both cases, masturbation was a protest against old guards of power—the over-emphasis of male/neglect of female pleasure in one case, religious fundamentalism in another. The expression of sexual openness was a signal of a new way of thinking, opposing the old. In both cases, a behavior that was formerly practiced behind closed doors was done, to varying degrees, in the open.
Breslaw and Get Shot! subverted the expectation that sexual desire in our real lives should be contained to our online lives—a message that could easily be broadened to include the way we air our grievances, have online fights, attack political figures, and express our personal lives publicly on the internet.
If the connection between masturbating and freedom sounds a bit too theoretical, it’s only because the cultural roots of masturbation shame—and its related power frenzy—has been all but forgotten. All of this has an 18th Century precedent.
In 1712, a little book—which went on to sell tens of thousands of copies—was released in England. It had a rather cumbersome title: Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self Pollution, and All its Frightful Consequences, in Both SEXES Considered, with Spiritual and Physical Advice to Those Who Have Already Injured Themselves by This Abominable Practice. And Seasonable Admonition to the Youth Of the Nation of Both SEXES.
The book—for the first time in recorded history—linked masturbation to health issues, with the revelation that all sorts of ailments stemmed from this previously unexamined cause.
The anonymous writer of the tract had claimed authority after talks with a doctor, who offered cures to those who had already damaged themselves through what would soon be called “self-abuse.” The publisher encouraged readers to buy the cures, and, well… you can see where this was all going: The author and the publisher were in cahoots, and no such doctor existed.
Groups from every point on the social spectrum seized on the opportunity to gain power. Because of the tract’s success, many other publishers jumped on the money-making wagon. The church used the unsubstantiated medical evidence (and the anonymous author’s use of Onan in the title of the tract) to bolster their dwindling power; if everyone who was touching themselves would think about sin and displeasing God each time their hands strayed downward, then the church would again loom large in public consciousness.
Secularists like Voltaire used the opportunity to demonize the church: If monks and priests and nuns weren’t supposed to have sex, well then they must be masturbating, which meant the church was full of sick people. The philosophical pillar of the time, Emmanuel Kant, told the world that masturbation didn’t just make people sick, it eroded moral bonds.
The upshot was that little boys had their hands tied to beds at night, intellectuals called for nationwide genital examinations to determine who had masturbated and who hadn’t, and people who previously fondled themselves innocently now felt guilt at every turn.
So masturbation in the 18th Century became widely-publicized and politicized as a way to seize control. Then, as now, masturbation was all tied up in who had power.
Today, we also have religious fundamentalists, governments, and secularists fighting over how we masturbate. Instead of hairy palms, we’re told by people in power that we have messed-up brains. Instead of looking at our genitals, employers and organizations scrutinize our browser histories. Instead of selling us a medical cure, we’re sold deadened, empty internet service.
All this is to say that if we’re talking about masturbation more, it’s because we know—perhaps subconsciously—that it’s linked to other freedoms. And so do our governments.
Crawling out of the mess of the 18th Century took a while, but since then, we’ve gained some understanding—via earnest feminist (as opposed to ulteriorly-motivated anti-sex and anti-porn) advancements, good science, genuine spiritual movements, and LGBT activists—of how our bodies are connected to our freedoms.
We shouldn’t view the gathering of attention to masturbation as a quirky news-of-the-weird sort of thing. Masturbation is linked to basic human freedoms and, in this moment, specifically, to internet freedom. And if we choose to be aware of that connection, it may inspire us to jerk off more, not less. So really, it’s a win-win.
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