… 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.