Do you remember your first masturbatory orgasm? One minute you're just exploring down there and the next, an otherwordly new realm of feeling eclipses your sensory perception and releases explosions of previously unknown delight, a magic new paradigm, a dimension that you didn't know existed. They say a miracle is a shift in perception. The first masturbatory orgasm is a miracle. The ones that follow are the resurrection.
For me, masturbation is the cosmos's way of saying, "You contain God. You contain mystery. You contain the ability to create something beautiful out of nothingness." Many times, following a mediocre sexual experience with a partner, I've thought, Why didn't I just stay home, masturbate, and eat snacks? Even during the best sexual encounters I often need to masturbate in order to reach orgasm. Sometimes the person I'm with can feel a bit excluded. One partner asked if it would help if he left the room. Another said I looked like Houdini trying to escape a water torture cell. One said he physically felt like my vagina was trying to expel his penis as he tried to fuck me while I masturbated.
I know that not everyone is as introverted, dissociated, or locked into the bittersweet grip of an epic fantasy life as I am. But the question still remains: Why, with porn in abundance, sex robots on the horizon, toys that simulate cunnilingus, and a good pair of hands, do we still bother looking for ass outside ourselves? I decided to put the question to a few creative human beings I know.
"I think there's still hella reasons: millennia-old biological urge; fear of loneliness; (good) sex is still better than rubbing one out; cuddling; fear of AI; sex robots probably are boring and uncreative; AI hasn't mastered natural speech so they're probably bad at talking dirty; as much as people hate other people they deep down love or at least need other people and can't be without them," says musician, writer, artist, and sometime-VICE contributor Kool A.D.
"Sex is both a stabilizing and destabilizing force," says comic Jaboukie Young-White. "Pornhub has never made me feel like I needed to deep clean my room in 20 minutes before I could watch it. Masturbation never made me go three years back into my hand's tagged photos. Until AI, VR, or whatever can replicate the nuances outside of the physical experience of sexual intercourse, fuckin' is here to stay."
I get it. No one is an island, even if we think we want to be.
"An analogy could be made to music," says writer Christopher Zeischegg, also known as former porn performer Danny Wylde. "Maybe seeing my favorite band perform my favorite song in a small, club setting is amazing. Especially when I was 15 years old… But right now, the song is stuck in my head, and all I have is YouTube and my iPhone. I still get some enjoyment out of listening to that compressed, digital single streaming online—that's like masturbating for two minutes to a PornHub clip, right? The older I get, the more there needs to be incentive. Otherwise I don't care. I'll jerk off and keep working, or I'll go to sleep, or whatever. It's the same with going out to see a band. The process of getting dressed and showing up for a live show and waiting around in some shitty club is so fucking obnoxious to me these days, so I have to be VERY invested in the outcome."
Shame around masturbation doesn't seem to be what it was when I was first engaging in the practice many moons ago, but I remember my own adolescent confusion around it. At 13, I lost my best friend when she suddenly decided masturbation was disgusting, and she wasn't going to do it anymore (we had both previously admitted to masturbating and experimented with her father's issues of Playboy). A few years later, I met a girl who was cool, sexy, and rode horses. She was very open about the fact that she masturbated, and when she said it, nobody fucked with her. She inspired me to go into the school year with a renewed attitude that I should be proud of my habit.
"I think the absence of judgment is one great thing about porn," says Alissa Nutting, author of the brilliant Made for Love, in which the novel's protagonist flees her tech mogul husband (who uses an orgasm machine and wants to have a chip put in her brain) to go stay with her father (who is in an intimate relationship with a sex doll). "It's hard sometimes to navigate explanation with a partner—like, 'So I actually would never want to do this, but it gets me off,' or, 'I'd only want to do this in these hypothetical circumstances with a brunette of this Myers-Briggs personality type,' or, 'This turns me on if I think about this detective from Law & Order: CI doing it.' It can be nice to just have your weird solo stuff. And maybe there's some or total overlap between your weird solo-stuff and your weird with-another-person stuff, but I don't think there always is. What gets you off alone can be really different."
Writer, artist, and game designer Porpentine Charity Heartscape DMs me something of a numbered koan as a response to my query.
"1) Has anyone ever had sex with another human?
2) People want something outside of their own understanding. To not know what happens next.
3) Sex feels like part of an ongoing eternal galactic convalescence. I like having sex with myself with others. Holding her hand, so I don't get sucked into the black hole. There's no cure for being turned into glass, but there are tender ministrations.
4) Much like the current state of sex robots, I'm hilariously broken and fucking me is a crime against nature."
I, too, can feel like having sex with a partner is like having sex with myself—but with company. Conversely, I've experienced masturbation that has felt more intimate and loving than partnered sex. Looking back, I remember sacrifices I had to make for my beloved masturbation. At sleep-away camp, I would fake an illness so as to be sent to the infirmary for a night: just to have a private place to masturbate. Yet while masturbation can be an effort, relationships can be even more difficult.
"As a cis woman, I've had enough bad fucks that masturbation is not only safer emotionally and physically but it's definitely faster and has a much higher rate of satisfaction," says artist Addie Wagenknecht. "Sex has always been cis male centric. Like when he cums it's done and for cis women it's about the man's needs. So many cis women are having so much bad sex or having complex messy hookups and relationships that sex robots just eliminate men from the equation. We get what we need when we need it without having to think about STDs or if he has stalker mentalities. But why do I fuck men? Where my vagina goes my heart follows. I don't have sex outside of a relationships because of that, so sex in some aspect is intertwined entirely with emotional intimacy for me. I can't easily separate them."
I wonder if it's my heart that still leads me to have sex with other people? It's true that masturbation can sometimes be sad and lonely. Occasionally I'll watch a porn featuring two beautiful people having sex and forget that it's porn, and then I'll remember again and feel melancholy. There's also a loneliness I can experience after a solo orgasm, where I feel extra existentially isolated. This can happen especially if I've engaged in a romantic fantasy and I long for the object of my dreams to still be there after I've come.
Then again, these feelings of sadness and cosmic isolation are by no means relegated to masturbation. Some of the most profound disconnection I've felt from fellow human beings has occurred after just having shitty sex with another person.
"I definitely think our collective conscious/thinking is guided to make us believe that sex is only fun or special when it's with someone else when honestly, most of the time fucking someone else kind of sucks because most people don't know how to communicate about sex or really even pleasure each other (ESPECIALLY when it's a new partner)," says artist Molly Soda."That being said, I think sex with a partner isn't always so much about getting off as much as it is about someone else being there. I think culturally we're expected to get a lot of validation from having sex with someone—you know, you hear people complaining about how they haven't 'gotten laid' in a long time, stuff like that. I think that collectively we sort of feel a lot of pressure to be more sexually active than maybe we even want to be."