Scott Haldeman, "Bringing Good News to the Body: Masturbation and Male Identity" in Björn Krondorfer, ed. Men’s Bodies, Men’s God’s: Male Identities in a (Post-) Christian Culture. Ch. 6, NYU Press, pp. 111-124.


Bringing Good News to the Body: Masturbation and Male Identity


I masturbate. I do it often and in a variety of ways. I do it most often in the shower. As water flows over my body, rinsing away the grime of New York City and awakening me to another day, I feet refreshed and renewed. I touch my body, all of it, to wash, yes, but also simply to touch. Sometimes I linger. Sometimes my touch takes on an urgency that corresponds with a feeling of excitement inside that manifests itself in an erection. Then, I touch myself quite a bit. My penis catches my attention but I feel pleasure all over from the water, from the soap, and from my wandering hands.

Sometimes I rush to orgasm, frustrating myself with too quick a climax. Sometimes I pound away until my skin is raw. Sometimes, fantasies are not enough and I ache for the touch of another. At those times I am lucky if my wife is home because sometimes she will join me in the shower or just reach in to touch or kiss me. Sometimes, though, when she is home, I feel like I have to be secretive and spend more energy worrying about being caught than enjoying myself. Sometimes I build up slowly and then stop to relax before building again. Sometimes I find just the right rhythm.

Then, my body tenses. My pelvis begins to rock. The muscles in my arms and legs contract. Blood comes to the surface of my body; my chest and face redden. And I come. Release. Endorphins. I stagger a bit, feeling flushed. The fluids that my body creates come out; my life-force overflowing. Then, I am calm, at peace, happy, ready for the day. I am my body. My body is me. I am one and I am connected that let me rest and that awakens me now for my work.

Masturbation, for me, is a means—to relax when I am tense, to calm down when I am agitated, to energize me when I nodding off while trying to work, to satisfy an urge when my wife isn't in the mood or too tired, and to allow me to feel lovable when I feet unattractive. Sometimes it's an escape. Sometimes it's a way to deal with tension by not dealing. Sometimes it's a way to avoid the hard work of being in a relationship. But also sometimes it's a way back into relation—it's a means of self-affirmation which makes me feel worthy of asking for, even fighting for, what I need. It can also be a time for letting go of my self-control; of falling into freedom where I find myself and tap my creative energy. Masturbation is a spiritual practice for me, a way to express my yearning for love and life, even though my desire is rarely satisfied and even when it is, the satisfaction is temporary, ambiguous, and fragile.

Masturbation influences many aspects of my life, always with the potential to move me toward more mutual and responsible relationships with myself, others, and my God, or of allowing me to slip further into isolation and self-centeredness. My experience reveals the richness of masturbation as a means to investigate men's lives but also the ambiguity of its practice. It is no wonder that many cultures are skeptical of this practice that I would like to call "self-loving" but which is more commonly known as "self-abuse."

Mark Twain, in an 1879 essay entitled "Science of Onanism," illustrates the ambivalent attitude toward masturbation that still exists today. He begins,

I will continue [my predecessor's] good work in the cause of morality by cautioning you against that species of recreation called self-abuse, to which I perceive you are too much addicted. (Neider 1987: 58)

After quoting short lines from many sources both praising and criticizing masturbation, Twain concludes:

As an amusement it is too fleeting. As an occupation it is too wearing. As a public exhibition there is no money in it. It is unsuited to the drawing room. And in the most cultured society it has long since been banished from the social board. It has at last, in our day of progress and improvement, been degraded to brotherhood with flatulence. Among the best bred these two arts are now indulged only in private. . .

My illustrious predecessor has taught you that all forms of "social evil" are bad. I would teach you that some of those forms are more to be avoided than others. So in concluding I say, "if you must gamble away your lives sexually, don't play a Lone Hand too much." (Neider 1987: 59-60)

I share Twain's ambivalence about masturbation but not for the reasons he gives. I am concerned with the relation of male masturbation to the construction of masculine identity in and by our society. Masturbation, depending on the critical awareness and choices of practice of its performers, both reinforces and challenges the hegemonic definition of male identity given to and reproduced by U.S. men.

But here I need to make a few caveats. First, my sources are, almost exclusively, white, privileged, well-educated U.S. men (although, both gay and straight), and some women. My research indicates that masturbation is not a topic that has generated much public discussion outside this group. Perhaps practice and meanings would be different for men from other racial/ethnic or socioeconomic categories, perhaps not. At this point, I cannot be sure. In addition, the subject, as it is related to leisure activity (no matter how necessary I may want to argue masturbation is for a healthy identity), may not be a priority in the day to day survival struggles which occupy men from so-called minority or poor communities.

Second, I will not review the history of moral teachings about masturbation; that has been done by many—a good summary of Judeo-Christian teachings is provided by James Nelson in his work, Embodiment (1978). The etymology of the word may suffice here. "Masturbation" is derived from the Latin words for "hand" and "defilement" (Allworthy in Woods 1981: 7). The history of repression is significant in its effect on the construction of our experience of separation of our minds from our body, with the former being valued as superior. Traditional teachings also magnify our sense of guilt and shame in giving ourselves pleasure and "wasting the male seed." Fortunately, notions of the psychological or physical harm resulting from masturbation are being dissipated by new, and less biased, research (cf. Dodson 1987; Woods 1981; Zilbergeld 1978).

But what is this "male identity" that I claim masturbation influences and challenges? No monolithic "male identity" exists; many masculinities are identifiable within any given culture. For men of different racial, economic, educational, and sexual orientation classes, the options of how to act as a man are variously open or confined, supportive or defiant of the social structure, and conducive or destructive to their struggle to develop a healthy sense of self-esteem and relational identity.

I do believe that, although the identity of a given man would result in different interpretations of the same phenomenon, there are certain facets of men's self-understanding that are influenced by their decisions about masturbation. These are the relationship of a man: to his physicality, to his sexuality, to his spirituality, to those with whom a man finds himself in intimate relationship, and, finally, to women in general. It is not easy to draw distinctions between these areas; overlap is evident. However, the delineation of this structure allows us to identify some of the problems and gifts of the practice of masturbation.


Men like the strength of their muscles. They like to play sports and do "man-ual" tasks that push them to new limits of endurance. Men like to punish their bodies, to conform them to their control, to "whip them into shape." But I don't know if men like their bodies. James Nelson, commenting on professional football, addresses the ambivalence toward the body of male acculturation. He writes, "For all its celebration of bodily toughness, it depends upon dissociation from the body—not listening to its feelings of tiredness or pain or tenderness" (1988: 68-9). The body in this culture is less than the mind and so our attitude toward the body is one of instrumentality. In other words, we ask how can we use our body to the greater goals of the mind, such as victorious competition, economic success, or emotional imperviousness.

I believe, on the whole, men are alienated from their bodies. Most men are—to use Dodson's phrasing—"out of touch" with their own needs for touch, receptivity, and a realistic understanding of their physical limits and vulnerability. This cuts men off from their own true strength, the reality of their inter-dependence with other people and the world (Nelson 1988: 101-5). In turn, this out-of-touchness shuts off access to their feelings (Lowen 1990: 70ff) and, therefore, to empathy with others. Marvin Ellison writes:

Disassociation from the body and from the emotions is at the root of this absence of moral sensitivity to the suffering men inflict on ourselves and on others. Since we are connected to ourselves and to the world only in and through our bodies, when we no longer feel and experience our bodily connectedness, we literally lose touch with reality. As men who batter others give ample testimony, those not able to feel their own pain are more likely to inflict pain on others. (1991: 192)

Masturbation can, at least, serve to put men back "in touch" with themselves. Men cannot jerk off without some physical contact with their bodies. Unfortunately, masturbation often reinforces, rather than addresses, the alienation of men from their bodies when it is focused solely on genital stimulation and release. Zilbergeld writes:

Because of these feelings [guilt and shame], and also because men have had little permission and practice in being sensual, many men do not derive as much pleasure as they could from masturbating. It is usually done very quickly, the whole object being to achieve orgasm and to get it over with. Masturbating this way presents some problems. It develops a habit of coming quickly, which may carry over to sex with a partner. And it also reinforces our tendency to ignore bodily sensations more subtle than orgasm and reinforces our inability to linger over and prolong pleasure. (1978: 168)

Orgasms, sometimes without pleasure, are the focus of attention and not the variety of physical sensations, fantasies, and feelings that accompany the basic act of touching oneself.

On the other hand, masturbation can be an attempt to move beyond simple gratification towards self-knowledge and the reintegration of the body, mind, and heart. Dodson writes of the power of masturbation to break through addictions, conditions which, I think, are related to the shutting off of feeling, low self-esteem, and insecurity. She writes: "We can all heal ourselves with massive doses of selflove and orgasms by designing and practicing our own individual rituals of pleasure" (1987: 129). If one can pause to let the feelings come as well as the ejaculate, the deadened parts of our physical and emotional selves may come forth.


The renewal of a man's relationship with his body is related to, and a part of, a man's image of his sexuality. Men think of their penis as the definitive sign of their identity as men. And, of course, it is not just their penis but their erect penis—hard and straight and ready for action (Monick 1987). But such a definition is one of exclusion. We are also our larger selves and the rest of our bodies. To define ourselves as those people with penises is to equate women with those who don't have penises, clearly an identification few women are willing to accept. Dworkin writes:

Men renounce whatever they have in common with women so as to experience no commonality with women; and so what is left, according to men, is one piece of flesh a few inches long, the penis. The penis is sensate; the penis is the man; the penis is human; the penis signifies humanity. (1989: 53-54)

Men's sexuality is formed by this in-group and out-group mentality (cf. Stoltenberg 1991). Their sexuality is tied up with violence against those who are not men, or not "real men."

[T]he continuing urge to masturbate must mean that the boy is attracted to the male body—his own. Thus the psychic anxieties of defending himself against homosexuality are attached to masturbation and become another source of resentment projected outward. However, in this instance the projection is aimed not only at homosexual males, who symbolize what the boy fears in himself, but also at women, who represent bodiliness itself. (Nelson 1988: 77)

Within this complex social construction of gender, the penis is separated from the rest of the body as an independent entity whose desires excuse men from the brutality of rape. The dynamics of sex become those of dominance and submission rather than mutual pleasure. Maleness is identified with having power over, and fear that this power is not real leads to acts of violence against women and gay men. Men are alienated from their sexuality, running from their homophobia, unable to escape the deadly equation of sex with violence.

Masturbation, again, can reinforce or challenge these aspects of male identity. Masturbation can be the worship of phallus as weapon: a ritual of witness to its power, the equation of its pleasure with domination, and practice for coming quickly and hard without regard for another's feelings. When connected to pornography, masturbation can reinforce the objectification of others for one's own pleasure.

But masturbation can also move us toward less destructive ways of being. Nelson writes:

To experience the heights of sexual pleasure I must let loose of my need to control. I must let go, giving myself over to the delicious moment. It is a paradox known in other ways in the gospel but applicable here as well: losing the self means finding the self. Sexual pleasure nurtures the reunion of the self with the self. My body so often alien and disconnected becomes me again. I not only experience myself, I experience love for myself and recover a sense of the goodness of being alive. (1988: 59)

Masturbation can expand our sexual vocabulary, reawaken our erotic imaginations, help us recognize our enjoyment of our penises and reevaluate our understandings of our sexual orientation beyond homophobia and towards acceptance of the variety of bodies and body parts we find exciting. It may even help us participate in creative social change.

Our cultural denial of masturbation sustains sexual repression. From childhood through adulthood, we feel guilt and shame over masturbation. Deprived of a sexual relationship with ourselves, we are easier to manipulate and more accepting of the status quo. I believe masturbation holds the key to reversing sexual repression. (Dodson 1987: 4)

Experiencing pleasure in our bodies awakens a desire for pleasure with others, a desire that moves us beyond a lust for dominance and towards more just relations with all.


The spirituality of our Christian culture is commonly believed to deny the power of the body to tell us about God. It denies that our desire for pleasure, for touch, for connection with human skin is as important as connection to an invisible god. It condemns sexual pleasuring, by ourselves or with others, for purposes other than pro-creation as "unnatural."

However, it is also true that the body and its senses are the only means of connection between ourselves and all reality beyond us, whether sacred or profane. Some Christian theologians argue for a spirituality based in bodily experience. Driver writes:

[The theologian] knew enough to know that the gospel was not an idea but a deliverance. It was therefore an act. No act, not even an act of the mind, was conceivable bodiless. The gospel would bring good news to his body or it would liberate nothing. (1977: 4)

Spirituality, our living out of our sense of connectedness to all life, is mediated by the body. In keeping with this latter sense of spirituality, male masturbation focuses on two particularly significant phenomena: phallus and orgasm.

Men of every time and place have known a religious quality to their phallic experience. To adapt Rudolph Otto's words, it is the mysterium tremendum. Such encounters with the numinous produces responses of fascination, awe, energy, and a sense of the "wholly other." Through phallus, men sense a resurrection, the capacity of the male member to return to life again and again after depletion. An erection makes a boy feel like a man and makes a man feel alive. It brings the assurance and substantiation of masculine strength.

Yet, as with other experiences of the holy, males feel ambivalent about the phallus. Erections must be hidden from general view. They are an embarrassment when they occur publicly. Men joke about erections with each other but cannot speak seriously. The secret is exposed only with another person in intimacy or when a male permits himself to experience his potency alone. (Nelson 1988: 92; cf. Monick 1987)

Monick writes: "Phallic worship today, as a man's personal and tangible homage to his inner life force, takes the form of masturbation" (1987: 113). The phallus is a mysterium tremendum, appearing as it wills, not when we will it to (and sometimes not appearing when we will it to come). It grabs our attention, often embarrassing us and sometimes calling us to action. Erections come and go—perhaps being the one male connection to the cycles of life. And, in orgasm, as we let ourselves go, life-giving fluid is released into the world.

In addition to the potentially spiritual dimension of a man's relationship to his erect penis, orgasms can be numinous occasions. Orgasm is an experience of unification of self (mind, body, and spirit) and of unification (some might use the word "transcendence") of self with world/cosmos/god. "Meditative sex [is] using sexual energy to bring my body, mind, and spirit into perfect alignment with orgasm—a cosmic moment of joy" (Dodson 1987: 120). I know that immediately following orgasm, I feel fully alive, fully male, centered and grounded.

The orgasmic sexual experience brings its own revelation. The hard and explosive phallic achievement becomes in an instant the soft, vulnerable tears of the penis. Both are fully male. Both are deeply grounded in men's bodily reality. (Nelson 1988: 111)

Masturbation can be relationship-denying, frustrating, self-centered. It can also be centering, creative of creative energy, an expression of our desire to touch the life-force inside and see it manifest. On the connection between masturbation and creative energy, Woods writes: "love for the self can be translated into a means of achieving energy relief, spiritual growth, and a method of plumbing new artistry in thinking, feeling, writing, and growing" (1981: 10).

Masturbation can be a cursory exercise of tension release or an intentional ritual of worship of the goodness of flesh and of our desire to be whole. A ritual of self-love can be an entry into the land of the erotic, the deep power of our sensual life. Audre Lorde writes:

that deep and irreplaceable knowledge of my capacity for joy comes to demand from all of my life that it be lived within the knowledge that such satisfaction is possible, and does not have to be called marriage, nor god, nor an afterlife.

This is one reason why the erotic is so feared, and so often relegated to the bedroom alone, when it is recognized at all. For once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of. Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives. (1994: 57)1

Men will masturbate and the practice will shape the men. Masturbation can serve as devoted and uncritical worship of a god of war or a god of peace. Masturbation can be an exercise in self-glorification or a ritual of self-pleasure that can lead to a renewed awareness of one's sacred embodiment, one's inter-dependence with others and one's commitment to the betterment of all life.


No matter if he has one partner or many, or if the partners are men or women, a man may have trouble sharing intimacy. In his discussion of the relation between gender roles and various conceptions of power, Nelson describes the incompatibility of the "male role" with relationality.

The "masculine" has been under attack because it suggests the urge to dominate others without being at the same time influenced by them. . . . The "feminine" fears self-dependence, while the "masculine" fears inter-dependence. Such fear is born out of insecurity. It is the absence of authentic power. (Nelson 1988: 102)

Masturbation can dissipate or exaggerate these fears. Nelson writes elsewhere: "[Masturbation] can be pleasurable, comforting, vicariously adventuresome, and entertaining—or it can be a neurotic escape from a relationship and a frustrating solution to inner problems" (1978: 170).

On the one hand, masturbation can be an isolated and isolating practice, done to fulfill a man's desires beyond what his current partner can agree to and serving as a wall of secrecy between himself and the other. "Many adults are only vaguely (if at all) aware that they like to feel naughty when they masturbate. The idea that masturbation can be openly enjoyed without guilt may be unwelcome and, at least initially, anti-erotic" (Morin 1980: 96).

On the other hand, masturbation can function as one more expression of a mutual sexual vocabulary: a vehicle for learning new sexual skills, a way of reducing pressures to get one another off or whatever. Dodson relates the sense of freedom and deepening intimacy that occurred in a relationship once she and her partner began to perform masturbation in each other's company. They found they were then able to be more honest with each other about their desires in the area of sexual play and subsequently in other aspects of their relationship.

Becoming responsible for our own orgasms was a basic statement about individuality and equality. It established us as people who had a choice when it came to lovemaking. We were moving away from romantic sex toward the infinite delights of erotic loving. (Dodson 1987: 24)

Masturbation can help a man find his authentic power, which is based on a robust love of self that is not incompatible with inter-dependence on others. Through self-touch one builds self-esteem and increases the capacity to feel both pleasure and pain, reversing the cycles of isolation and repression that separate us from one another. Experiencing pleasure alone makes it possible to share pleasure with someone else and shared pleasure, while certainly not the only way, does allow intimacy to be continually deepened.

Gender Equality

Finally, masturbation influences the larger question of the relationship between men and women. Masturbation meets misogyny at the intersection known as pornography. Men use pornography regularly when they masturbate. Pornographic images come to define what men think is sexually stimulating, which includes images of the degradation of women.

Porn is a complex subject not only because of the numerous levels which need to be addressed by an analysis: the portrayal of women; the lived experience of these women; the production, sale, and consumption of these images; the use by men and its impact on their behavior toward women; the relation of gay and straight porn, etc. Even if we could come to some consensus about a definition of pornography and its meaning for this culture, we would still have to argue about what strategy to adopt in order to respond to this pervasive phenomenon.2

Porn may be the most accessible source of information about sexuality for men. For gay men, the role of porn in helping to come to a sense of comfort with one's identity cannot be underestimated (cf. Tucker 1990). For straight men, and in some gay material, however, porn's educational function might be better thought of as a perpetuation of the ideology of gender domination. Here, porn and the masturbation that is associated with it reinforces the lessons men get about associating sexual pleasure with the subjugation and violent treatment of women. Stoltenberg writes:

Pay your money and jerk off. That kind of sex helps the lie a lot. It helps support an industry committed to making people with penises believe that people without penises are sluts who just want to be ravished and reviled—an industry dedicated to maintaining a sex-class system in which men believe themselves sex machines and men believe women are mindless fuck tubes. (Stoltenberg 1991: 153)

While agreeing that most porn supports patriarchal cultural norms, I do not think porn can be equated simply with that which teaches sexual domination. There is "feminist" porn now and growing numbers of women are buying and using porn themselves. Additionally, the tendency to call what you like "erotica" and what someone else likes "porn" reveals the subjectivity and often the class bias of such distinctions.

However, I would prefer to encourage masturbation without porn. I would like people to challenge themselves to imagine their own exciting erotic encounters and to develop an expanding sexual vocabulary, instead of uncritically consuming the images presented to them by the multi-national conglomerates which today have the power to mold even our most intimate thoughts.

Masturbation is a door into the world of fantasies and desires that each of us has within and that leads us to life and life abundant if we will simply turn off the old tapes and free our bodies to speak. Even the most insensitive person, I believe, yearns for some sort of better way—some escape from the deadness of violent existence, a space where touch is truly felt and feelings truly known. We can begin to learn of this place by following the wisdom of our body, which we begin to know as we touch it. Here, we return again to the possibility for self-knowledge, self-integration, and healthy self-esteem which can benefit from practicing masturbation.

A critical praxis of masturbation brings good news to men's bodies. The good news, the central message of the Christian religion, in my interpretation, is not an uncritical celebration of the way we live our lives. Rather, it is a call into mutuality and community where one has a sense of self and honors the integrity of the other.

If masturbation is practiced as a conscious ritual of celebration of the goodness of one's flesh as a gift from God, one can regain the sense of bodily connectedness which leads to a renewed sensitivity to one's own feelings and the feelings of others.

If masturbation is practiced with an open awareness of one's sexual desires and fantasies so that they do not encourage further repression but serve as a door into greater self-knowledge, it can serve as a liberating tool from the confines of patriarchal images of maleness and the falsity of dualistic gender role models—and thereby into more just relations with others who cannot make themselves conform to such destructive identities.

If masturbation is practiced as a conscious ritual that celebrates the unpredictable and miraculous force of life within our bodies, it can free us (through, and not outside of, direct bodily experience) into oneness with ourselves, our human lovers, and our goddesses/gods.

If masturbation is practiced as one of many erotic pathways in a relationship, it can serve to bolster one's own responsibility for pleasure, which can free everyone to relate in equal and mutually pleasuring ways.

If masturbation is practiced with awareness of the power of pornography to legitimate relations of social domination of men over women, it can serve as a way to free us from erotic addictions and help us to fall into the freedom of pleasuring for aliveness instead of as an escape from deadness. It can be empowering in raising our consciousness about the connections between male pleasure and violence against women. It can be the basis for pleasure through life-giving touch—one's own and that of others—which can free us from the need to objectify and violate in order to feel alive.

Masturbation is ambiguous. It can result in the deadening of senses and the destructive narcissism of the worship of the self. Or it can put us back in touch with our bodily reality, through which all truth is known and which is the basic location of the extent of our justice, the concreteness of our love and the mutuality of our relationships. Touch brings life. And so I say, returning to Twain's words, "if you must gamble away your lives sexually," play the "Lone Hand," play it knowingly. Unless your play brings good news to your own body, it will not bring good news to those with whom you are in relationship. In, or rather, on the other hand, good news to you means liberation and that can only be contagious.


1. I quote Lorde tentatively. In this work, she considers this capacity for deep feeling, the erotic, a special possession of women. But I know the deep yearning for, and fleeting experiences of, better ways of relating to others and the world; and I can find no better language than what she has provided with which to name it.

2. The pornography debate within feminist circles and between feminists and others is raging. I follow Mariana Valverde who does not concentrate on defining pornography narrowly enough to create legal standards for censorship, as do Dworkin and others. Instead, she seeks to identify cultural norms which are degrading to women and then to empower women to mobilize for more sweeping and less government-dependent reforms. She defines porn as a "complex cultural process." She writes: "Pornography is not an aberration in an otherwise civilized and egalitarian culture. It is part and parcel of the cultural industry that gives us sexist advertising, racist war movies, and classist soap operas. My contention here is that its specific role in this cultural industry is to eroticize social domination, and most notably gender domination. . . . If the main problem with porn is that it eroticizes male sexual domination and other forms of social domination, then the only real solution is to empower women and other oppressed groups so that we can begin to redefine what is erotic and what is not" (1985: 125, 131, 144).


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