May is National Masturbation Month. Shake hands with the president. Again.
Without warning or indication, a bastard blue van pulls out from a side street, right in front of me, forcing me to brake. Hard. So I respond in the customary English way, by leaning out of the window and calling him, at the top of my voice, an onanist.
This gives me a warm sense of satisfaction. After all, calling someone a "wanker" (or a "jerk-off" if you're American) is, like wanking itself, one of life's great pleasures, especially if you graphically drive this insult home by making that cute jacking gesture with your half-closed fist, though, admittedly, when I do this to other men, I sometimes get a bit confused about whether I'm offering an insult or an invitation.
The curious thing about a man calling another man a player of pocket pool, though, is that, as the jigging fist hints, the man accusing another man of being a hand galloper is no stranger to Mrs. Palm and her five daughters himself. Unlike, say, using the term "motherfucker" (unless you happen to actually live in Thebes), using "wanker" as a term of abuse is a tad self-incriminating. It's a bit like calling someone a nose picker. Everyone does it. You might as well be yelling, "Human!"
You see, wanking is a normal form of human sexual behavior, and intercourse is the deviation. Most men, even those in long-term relationships -- sorry, especially those in long-term relationships -- have orgasmed alone more times than they have done with others. After all, we peak sexually long before anyone will go out with us.
And if God hadn't wanted us to wank, would he have put our hands at crotch level? (Of course, maybe he just wanted to make things really difficult for us.) As any anthropologist will tell you, when Homo erectus stood up, the first thing he reached for was his tool.
Traditionally, though, masturbation has been regarded as a sin and a sickness, a shameful enervation of the nation's manhood (women, of course, weren't supposed to even be able to wank) and a degenerate waste of its precious jism. In an attempt to stamp it out, boys were solemnly told that "self-abuse" would make them go blind or deaf or grow hair on their palms. That's all true, of course; they just forgot to mention that it would take about 50 years to happen.
Victorian boarding schools were obsessed with preventing their boys from jerking their gherkin. They developed a whole way of life, called "Britishness," which was designed to discourage self-pleasuring. Cold showers, thin blankets, bad food, soccer and rugby football were all deployed to ward it off. This approach may not have been terribly successful, but the Brits did at least get an empire out of it. Oh, and lots and lots of ingeniously painful anti-masturbation devices straight out of a steampunk nightmare.
However, crackdowns on monkey spankings were not exclusive to Blighty. Circumcision is so prevalent in the U.S. today largely because 19th-century American doctors claimed that masturbation would be made more difficult by removing that naughty, oh-so-slidey flap of skin (though, granted, this notion was probably spread chiefly by petroleum jelly manufacturers). That great American John Harvey Kellogg even recommended that circumcision be performed without an anaesthetic, as a salutary reminder to boys that touching their pee-pees was wrong. Even more sadistically, he also invented corn flakes to stop Yanks from yanking. (According to his logic, bland, Puritan food wouldn't "fire the blood" with lustful thoughts.)
But neither cold showers nor genital mutilation nor soggy cereal can stop boys from playing with themselves. Male adolescence is just too irresistible a force. When you're 14, everything gives you a hard-on: sitting on a bus, fizzy drinks, strong breezes, the smell of pencil shavings (oh, was that just me?). And almost anything can bring you off. I shagged pillows, mounted my mattress and even managed to turn the cold showers so beloved of the boarding school I attended into a masturbatory device by allowing water from the shower head to drip onto my bell-end, in a pervy variation on Chinese water torture. Each large drop of water brought me tantalizingly closer to the edge. The only problem was that by the time I came, I'd usually caught a cold.
Sadly, this form of self-abuse really wouldn't work for me today. Now that I'm in my 40s and the hormonal frenzy has long since receded, it would take a water cannon to bring me off. If boyhood was a time when you masturbated furiously five times a day, despite your best efforts to curb your habit, adulthood is when you masturbate half-heartedly about once a fortnight, despite your best efforts to do it more often.
Of course, another reason that self-love used to be so heavily discouraged was that it was rather too close for comfort to homosexuality. After all, at its minimum, homosexuality is no more than a shared wank. All men, however straight they may be, know what it is to feel a hard cock in their hands -- and how to please it -- even if it's only their own.
Today, of course, attitudes toward choking the chicken have relaxed radically, and masturbation has finally come out of the cubicle, tissue paper stuck to its shoe. It is no longer the subject of mass moral panics and crackdowns. We even have a National Masturbation Month and charity masturbate-a-thons that publicly celebrate the joys of auto-eroticism. And on their 12th birthday all boys' mothers give them a DVD called How to Pull Your Pud Properly, featuring Madonna handling phallic vegetables with surgical gloves and KY.
OK, I made that last one up, but it's a fact that not bashing the bishop is now considered pathological. Several scientific studies recommend masturbation as a way to avoid prostate cancer. Self-abuse is now self-care, guilt something associated with not doing it enough. Have you knocked one out lately?
Thanks to the Internet, you probably have. The Web is all about wanking, of course. After all, the wired world was created so that men would never again need to masturbate to the same porn clip twice. Although it has been described as a fulfilment of the Protestant vision of each man at home alone with his God, the Net is more a case of each man at home alone with his cock -- though, granted, this amounts to much the same thing.
But old habits die hard. Masturbation may have gone mainstream and broadband, but the traditional, pejorative, old-school, shaming stigma of self-love remains, even in the most unlikely context. I can report that people in online sex chat rooms do still use "wanker" and "jerk-off" as insults -- even when they have to type them with one hand.
a nd i should knw.
A version of this essay is collected in Sex Terror: Erotic Misadventures in Pop Culture, now available on Kindle.