Possessing the secret of joy and self-pleasure: manhood, self-love and (re)learning intimacy in the post-colony

Possessing the secret of joy and self-pleasure: manhood, self-love and (re)learning intimacy in the post-colony

 … Now you can love yourself. It’s already possible – James Baldwin.

One of the questions I often ask my (mostly) male informants in my current research is “what kind(s) of non-penetrative forms of sex did you know about before you had sex for the first time”? Depending on how they answer, I usually have to probe further and ask: did you know about masturbation? Did you know you could masturbate as a means of sexual pleasure? Did you practice masturbation? How did it make you feel? Did you know about intercrural sex? And so on. These are questions that I have asked to 18 year old men to very old and aged ‘traditional’ men and yet the reaction is almost always the same.

However open or resistant the participant is, the reaction I get is often one of shame, giggles, and timidness. I ask this question because I am interested in finding the different ways in which men find sexual pleasure without penetration with a woman. Where do men find sexual pleasure, joy and happiness without women? I want to address one form of self-love and self-pleasure common with men and that often occurs without the physical assistance of women: masturbation.

Phil Constable notes that “from spanking the monkey or jerking off, to fingering, squeezing the peach, and parting the red sea, masturbation is one colourful topic – and seldom discussed in polite society. In that respect, masturbation is a bit like picking your nose or farting: just about everyone does it, but barely anyone will own up to it…” In his book With the Hand: A History of Masturbation, Mels von Driel informs us that “90% of males over 15 masturbate and that 70-80% of women over 18 do as well.” Yet despite this commonality, Stephen Greenblatt notes “Masturbation is virtually unique, in the array of more or less universal human behaviors, in arousing a peculiarly intense current of anxiety.” [My emphasis]

Masturbation is often controversial because in heterosexual society, sex is seen through the lens of procreation and thus necessarily involves a man and a woman. Barry and Bonnie Hewlett who study the Aka and Ngandu people of central Africa report in the journal African Study Monographs that masturbation (and homosexuality) “appeared to be foreign to both groups” throughout their time working with the group. The researchers report that in both these central African cultures, sexual intercourse is seen primarily as a “work of the night” the intent of which is the reproduction of children. Accordingly  “semen is understood by the Aka and Ngandu to be necessary not only to conception, but also to fetal development.” They thus conclude that “homosexuality and masturbation are rare or nonexistent [in these two cultures], not because they are frowned upon or punished, but because they are not part of the cultural models of sexuality in either ethnic group.”

However the situation of the Aka and Ngandu is not representative of the whole situation in Africa. While there is very little data in southern Africa, James D. Shelton notes that “in a small study in Zimbabwe, male and female student nurses and midwives commonly reported having ever masturbated, and the practice was also found to be fairly common among unmarried adolescents in Tanzania.” In South Africa, the Health24’s Great South African Sex Surveys for 2008 and 2009 showed that “between 71 and 82 percent of South African men confirmed that they masturbate (the figures for women are between 67 and 75 percent) and more than 85 percent say they first started to masturbate before the age of 18.”

Many of my participants at first seem ashamed, almost as if there is an impure stain left by the thought that they could masturbate or please themselves. Many often try to hide that they have masturbated before, that they still do it or have thought about it. This is despite the fact that a lot of my male informants often talk candidly about their sexual experiences, with them as the instrument of pleasure for women and yet it seems many ever turn inwards to look critically at how they please themselves sexually. Self pleasure and love, despite its commonness still remains a taboo topic for a lot of men.

I find we men are happy to share with other male friends and family our experiences of love, sex and intimacy in our relationships, yet the topic of how we men find pleasure outside the confines of sexual relations with others (be they heterosexual or not) is rarely talked about. We still often perceive self love as a sign of weakness and not as a measure of strength and self awareness.

My sexual awakening came very late in comparison to most of my peers. Yet I remember as early as Grade 8/9 in high school being peer pressured into faking stories about sex to my male peers who at the time always ensured every Monday there would be a debriefing session at ‘break time’ where everyone shared the great (often false) stories of the weekend of sex we ‘had’. Through my work, I am beginning to learn that I was not alone, that there are many other young men too who found themselves pushed into the sexual domain often half-dressed and ill prepared. I am learning that there are many men too who long for more self-awareness and yearn to be ‘freed’ from the confines of restrictive masculinity focused on sexual performance as proof of attaining manhood.

What if an environment was created where it was enough for men to be sexually satisfied without having to prove ‘manhood’ through sexual relations with women? How many young boys unintentionally become teenage fathers in the pursuit of proving manhood to fellow peers? How many men go forcing themselves on women thinking that is the only way to achieve sexual satisfaction? What if it was embraced as a sign of strength and bravado that men too can singlehandedly bring themselves to self-orgasm without women? What if we men shifted focus inwards to ourselves – to truly learn and discover our sexuality before seeking external validation for our manhood? How do we break the harmful cycle of men who everyday add a tick to the number of women they have ‘banged’/’fucked’ as a form of bravado to fellow men?

I have focused primarily on masturbation here to show that while this is supposed to be one of the most celebrated forms of sexual pleasure for men, social mores still make this a taboo topic for many men. In Masturbation: Breaking the Silence, James D. Sheldon  notes that “we too often obediently bow to the social taboo that masturbation is a topic to be avoided.” He notes for instance that even beyond self pleasure, there are many benefits to men learning to please themselves that include the prevention of unwanted pregnancy, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. He contends that masturbation “has a particular merit in a number of specific HIV intervention arenas. For example, the long-term physical separation of partners, especially for work is a significant factor in the initiation of multiple sexual partnerships by both men and women. In the age of cell phones, the shared intimacy of telephone sex between separated partners might not only forestall the impulse to have secondary partners, but even help maintain a primary relationship.”

“Tshepo” in Sello K. Duiker’s book “The Quiet Violence of Dreams” – after immersing himself in Cape Town’s subculture of male prostitution and seeking sex from many men and women finally remembers in the end that — “My sister once told me a secret once. I was happy that it was sacred enough to be explained in time. She said in letting go, in suffering, we are investing our hearts in love, placing deep treasures in silences that make us weep and remember when we are sad. In keeping still we hear more. In choosing less we get more. And in trusting more, we trust ourselves. We must always trust the process. I know where my greatest treasures lie. They are within me.”

What if we knew this as men—that we are own greatest treasures? That true satisfaction comes first from knowing ourselves through learning self love, self pleasure and self affirmation. I,  for one, am willing to learn and begin the process to discover these hidden treasures — in me. As we continue to excavate the place and current state of love, sexuality and intimacy in the post-colony, we need to realise that intimacy starts inwards and that our sexual relationships are enhanced by the practice of self love. As Achille Mbembe in On the Postcolony states, our research on Africa needs to move beyond formal structures of power to the spaces where we can examine “how the implicit and explicit are interwoven.” How we treat ourselves in the private sphere, and the level of self regard we take, ultimately influences how we influence structures and institutions in the public sphere. Let us start with self love.

Gcobani Qambela

Gcobani Qambela is a Graduate Student in South Africa with an interest in African masculinities, HIV/AIDS research and public health in general.

7 Responses to Possessing the secret of joy and self-pleasure: manhood, self-love and (re)learning intimacy in the post-colony

  1. there is a quote that says: “99 percent of men of all ages masturbate regularly and the other one percent are liars.”
    As a result i find that AKA and Ngadu people research- masturbation and homosexuality are rare- not to be true (however, i may be wrong. men dont need to be taught how to masturbate- one reaches the stage and everything falls into place. i believe that all men have, at some stage,masturbated especially before penetrative sex. great piece Gcobani

    • Thanks for the comment and for reading the piece Akhumzee.

      One of the things the researchers working with the Aka and Ngadu say is that – the argument is not necessarily that masturbation (or homosexuality) do not exist, but they certainly could not find someone who had experience with it in the period of their work. Part of the reason for this (and I allude to this briefly in the piece) is because they place a heavy emphasis on sex for reproduction/procreation (and a little time is focused on pleasure).

      Sex is work of the night because both women and men in these societies have sex a lot during the night – think they said they see sex as WORK that has to be done throughout the night – so they can have sex up maybe 3-5 times a night and hence the need for masturbation I guess would be lessened. In western society nighttime is seen as time for rest so maybe people have sex then sleep and then throughout the day find spaces to masturbate/self please…

      I guess language, in the case of the researchers would also be a problem and they do say this too – but masturbation in the ‘modern’ sense that most of us know it, does not exist.

      But you are also right, many men I find do tend to lie and deny self-pleasing – and this is one of the cases I’m putting forward that it should *not* be so, because this has implications then for where men go to find women for sex and the methods they employ in seeking sexual affirmation for manhood. The fact that this topic is still taboo shows many men still see sex in very linear terms: men > woman. So when they look internally, it’s almost perceived as a source of shame/failure that they had to rely on themselves instead of finding someone to “fuck” – but I think you certainly understood this judging by your comment.

      Thanks a lot again for reading and engaging!

    • it is important for men’s seuxal health (significantly, the prostate) to ejaculate regularly. But is this simply enough justification to indulge in the addiction? I can see how it would be, but it would be nice to be sure of the truth. How can any of us be sure of anything in this world of expert advice? Everybody tells you different things, getting over your own denial is hard enough without everybody you meet brushing off your problems as normal behaviour’. If you talk to your male friends the answer is always the same all men jerk off all the time, it’s natural.’ Is it really natural? Maybe for a teenager discovering his body, but for the rest of your adult life? I don’t want that.

  2. WOW! That must be very awkaward to people being interviewed about this research topic. You are so brave, I wouldn’t manage to conduct this research.

    • Thank you for reading and the comment SK

      The research is deeply personal, and there are often wonderfully awkward moments where *both* the participants and I have great big laughs about the awkward nature of some of the questions.

      Although I’ve spoken to tens and tens of men on this research, I have only ever had two participants who were resistant or didn’t want to share in nearly 6 months. This tells me, yes, as awkward as these questions can be, a lot of men are dying to share, to find out: do other men do this? When did they start? Do they tell/share this experience? Why are they afraid to speak out about this (when they often talk to friends about sex with girlfriends)? What is the source of shame in this? And so on.

      Ultimately we men, like women and anyone else want to know the same thing: we want to know that what we do and say matters to those we care about. We want to know that were are good enough for our partners. And also, most importantly we also want to know we are *not* alone in our life experiences.

      You won’t believe how many men, old and young tell me the conservations we have, which often last up to 3/4 hours a session – have helped them be more self reflective. Just a few days back a 40 year old man – he was so grateful for the chat because it showed him how much he had grown. He had never had a platform to verbally articulate his life history, and sexual history in particular, our conversation helped him to see how much progress he has made and yet the areas he still needs to work. This is really not me self flattering – I get this a lot from the participants. And for me too, the research has been affirmation I guess at a personal level because I see many people from diverse backgrounds often have same fears/insecurities like me when it comes to life, and sexual experiences in particular.

      However the question about masturbation is only *one* question in a very questionnaire that’s nearly 8 pages long. So we don’t only speak about that. :)

      Thanks again for reading and the comment!

  3. Thanks for this fantastic article Gcobani. I love these conversations about black men and self-love. I have been thinking about how patriarchal society offers very little for men in terms of them taking care of themselves as they often are too busy presumably “protecting” and “providing” for “women-and-children”. It leaves very little room for different definitions of manhood that begin with there self when the very experience of manhood is something external, that is, one is only a “real man” if they do this and that for others, even in the bedroom. I agree that this external definition of manhood is a trap because you can’t offer others what you can’t offer yourself. You can’t love others if you don’t begin with yourself. It reminds of the bell hooks quotation in Athambile’s article here about the importance of emotional well-being. As hooks notes, we are often “led” by people who proclaim their “love” for us when they can’t even bare to be alone with themselves. A tragic paradox. hooks also notes that often black men learn the value of self-pleasure and solitude when they are in the confines of jails, when they are forced to look at themselves as individual human beings, not as just “providers” and “protectors”.

    The Duiker quote reminds me of Ntozake Shange’s quote, “through my tears, I found god in myself and I loved her fiercely” :-)

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