Grad school jerk-offs

What is the connection between solitary study and private pervdom?

Published April 30, 1999 3:01PM (EDT)

It is 1993. I am working on my thesis for a master's in anthropology from the City University of New York. We are staying in a friend's co-op, sitting for his gigantic tabby, Ludwig, a creature of four left paws. As Ludwig paces the high, thin ledge that rings the living room, jostled precious objects fall to the floor, and he watches them drop. I pace the office rug in tiny circles before the computer. I am caught on a sticky theoretical point. My brain is burning. I am pacing. Ludwig is pacing. Objects are falling. The burn travels the length of my body and lodges between my thighs. Ludwig paces. Objects tumble. I sit down and, spreading my legs on the folding chair before the text, finger my clit to orgasm. Then, as my lover sleeps in the loft above the ledge that rings the living room, I unstop the course of argument. I write, "The danger lies within the social proscriptions to which pleasure-seeking is subject." Later my advisor will respond in the margins, "If this is the case, it is a fairly narrow range of 'danger' relatively speaking."

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The year is 1812. For the past hundred years, since the publication of the seminal pamphlet "Onania, or the heinous sin of self-pollution, and its frightful consequences in both sexes considered, with spiritual and physical advice to those who have already injured themselves by this abominable practice," doctors and social theorists have wrung their hands over masturbation. In this year, Dr. Benjamin Rush will pen "Diseases of the Mind." He will caution young men that the ills of masturbation should be avoided through "close application of the mind to business, or study of any kind." But Jean Jacques Rousseau has already recognized the danger of solitary study. In "Emile," he has warned the tutor to never leave his student alone, lest he discover "that dangerous supplement." Others advocate the opposite of study. "The lad who plays vigorously, even violently ... possesses a great bulwark of defense against sexual vice," writes one author, "especially in its secret form."

Enlightenment thinkers concurred that jerking off led to stunted growth, bodily weakness, blindness, venereal disease, insanity and death. Clinicians imposed treatments ranging from cold baths and bland foods to shackling, clitoral burning and tubes lined with metal spikes fitted over the penis. Masturbation phobia spurred the growth of the psychiatric and gynecological industries. The proverbial ink was spilled. But as to the underlying relationship between study and self-abuse, the experts didn't agree.

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Dana is a Ph.D. candidate in criminal justice whose jerking off took off when she entered the program three years ago: "I found from the second I was in grad school it increased so, so much. I had to read so much, and then my hand would move to my legs, and then I'd read more. It would be like, 'You have to get to page 45, and you can jerk off again.' And then you set another goal."

Chris was recently awarded a Ph.D. in English for a dissertation on the complications of closure in Shakespeare's middle comedies. He tells me that, in the midst of the "isolating" doctoral, "My masturbation practices became more prominent. I became more of an exhibitionist, looking at my own body so much more regularly in a narcissistic mirror and getting off on it."

Anne is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at a German university. "When I was so intensely writing my thesis in my study every day," she recalls, "it really struck me. I was so -- how you say -- horny? It kept me from concentrating to want to have sex so much. I felt it got in the way. I really wanted to put some ice cubes between my legs. Masturbation was the only way to get back to concentrating."

The masturbation habits of these young scholars seemed to increase with their intellectual work, as a distraction and a study aid, a side effect and an escape. But what was really happening? Was it simply a study break like any other -- a break from the brain and a reminder of our bodily existence? Could a run in the park or sugary snack have done the same thing? Or is the connection between thinking and self-touching more integral, as Puritan scholars once preached?

In their introduction to "Solitary Pleasures: The Historical, Literary, and Artistic Discourses of Autoeroticism," Paula Bennett and Vernon A. Rosario point out the "rich network of connections between solitary, non-procreative eroticism and autonomous, imaginative production," i.e. the euphemistic "mental masturbation." Study itself was not so much suspect as a certain type of study that entailed "the self-pleasuring imagination." For Bennett and Rosario, the solo study that mirrored masturbation was politically dangerous -- a rebellion against the powers that be.

"I could not read the Federalist Papers without jerking off," an up-and-coming social scientist at a Midwestern university confesses to me about her student years. "I recognized that they were in some ways truly brilliant and also totally boring to me. And I think there probably was also a way in which I wanted to say, 'Fuck you, Founding Fathers.' Imagine the horror that they would have experienced if they found that young women were treating the Federalist Papers with such irreverence."

According to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in her chapter in "Solitary Pleasures," it is exactly this kind of irreverence that remains the feared product of the creatively inclined masturbatrix. All of Western patriarchy might go to hell if she puts her hand in her basket. As if to confirm this theory, the National Review argued in a 1997 article, "It is easy to see why people are drawn to the culture of masturbation, and why traditional societies have striven to forbid it. For it is the enemy of social reproduction."

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In researching this article, I put out a call for informants on an academic list-server. I write that I am "exploring a casual theory about the relationship between grad studies and self-pleasuring." I receive an outraged reply. Noting stress of study, oppressive work conditions, low pay, poor job market, death of tenure and lack of dignity, my critic takes issue with my use of the word "pleasure" in association with graduate school. He wants me to report on the "more meaningful" struggles of politicized grad students to transform the academy. He does not want me to write about masturbation. I telephone Betty Dodson, the widely acclaimed "Mother of Masturbation." Dodson, whose 1974 book "Sex for One: The Joy of Self Loving" has been reprinted numerous times, says she would encourage my critic to jerk off. "It's what will get him through what he's suffering with including exercise, breathing and nutrition," she explains. "He needs to stop and masturbate and get into a habit of it, ritually."

Of course, I would not argue that the revolution should be usurped by the hand job. Neither would Dodson. "Masturbation is not a substitute for anything, it's the real thing," she says, but maintains that it channels and regenerates the creative energy it takes to grapple with the academy. As Rachel, a recent graduate of the Naropa Institute's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics puts it, "Whenever I was stuck on a point -- I would be thinking, thinking -- I'd masturbate, and it would be like, Eureka! Jerking off is a brainstorm."

In an era when graduate students live with an increasing sense of financial doom and professional pressure, the evolving obsession with masturbation and independent thinking has a historical logic as well. A fourth-year medical student who has finished her class work told me that when she was grappling with departmental pressures, jerking off helped: "You deal with being in this atmosphere where you feel isolated from these people, and you have no community. I created fantasies about people -- professors, other students -- that I was in no way attracted to. It was a way of processing how to work out a sort of ambivalence or feelings of isolation from the environment and the community." In other words, it is free therapy for the overly self-conscious but nonetheless oppressed scholar.

These graduate students who bashfully and enthusiastically confess their private maneuverings describe masturbation as a kind of defense against the academy's assaults upon the self. Says Caroline, a graduate of George Mason University's MFA program and frequenter of academic conferences, "There's so much competition and aggression in the room, people either have to start slapping each other or having sex. There's so much aggressive sexuality, I can see where you'd want to be alone. It's safer." Chris wonders if his dissertation was so "over-abstracted" that he had to become increasingly more "perverted in [his] masturbatory practices to compensate."

"I did it today," confesses Kim, a classmate of Dana's. "I just read and jerked off. Then I went to sleep. Honestly, a lot of things I read really bore me, so I think about sex a lot." Jerking off, in other words, plugs the gap between an expectation of pleasure in the message and the reality of the tedium of the means. So much for the Rushian anti-onanistic rote fantasy. "I remember," says Sarah, the med student, "distinctly being amazed that I could masturbate to texts that are so dry. I'd try to keep reading them because I was supposed to be studying, but I had to drop off and turn to something else in my mind."

On the other hand, critical enjoyment in the text can be enhanced by self-pleasuring. One American Lit and Literary Theory candidate remarks, "I've found that I occasionally masturbate, when I'm called upon to concentrate on particularly difficult texts -- say, Derrida's 'On Grammatology' or a few of the articles in 'Margins of Philosophy' ... I do find the intellectual gymnastics and proliferating wordplay of such texts sexually erotic, or am simply set off by a particular word or phrase in the text."

But, if study makes one horny, why not score with the sexy post-structuralist who sits next to you in the theory seminar? An informant e-mails me a joke: A grad student finds a talking frog. The frog says that if it's kissed, it will turn into the perfect lover. The student puts the frog in his or her pocket, and the frog says, "Hey, what's the deal?" The student responds, "I'm in grad school so I don't have time for a lover. But a talking frog is pretty cool." Metaphorical implications of a croaking wet reptile in one's pants notwithstanding, the necessary solitude of academic study gives rise to the occasion to pleasure oneself. It also becomes a fertile breeding ground for sexual fantasies. "I have always had sexual fantasies involving libraries," Laura confesses. "Maybe it's my background in English," echoes Bill, who specializes in 20th century poetry and critical theory, "but I like words. More specifically, I love to hear what turns other people on. E-mail definitely facilitates that -- I'm surprised at how many women I've known who have been willing to tell me very explicit stories about their sex lives (real or imaginary) in e-mail messages." "Three words," says Graham, a Ph.D. candidate in English. "Free Internet access. I bought one of those spray cans that cleans between the keyboard keys."

It is true that the academic job market sucks, that graduate school involves pain and that the philosophers of New Puritanism want our hands out of our pants. But despite that, the academic and the autoerotic will continue to be commingled. Bill explains, "I think most people have similarly ambivalent feelings about academics and masturbating. Both are regarded as self-indulgent and useless, set in opposition to the 'real' world of sex or business. On the other hand, both are certainly becoming more popular, in part because of economic and technological changes. Most people believe it's difficult to get a decent job without a bachelor's or even graduate degree. Likewise, fears of HIV, a general turn against casual sex and the availability of e-mail, online porn, video rentals and mainstream erotica mean that masturbation occupies a more prominent role in our culture than it ever has."

As we trace the shared trajectory of the academic and the autoerotic, we sift through layers of oppression and repression to finger the hot button of pleasure that defines the self at the heart of the two pursuits. Rachel recalls, "One paper I masturbated a lot through was the Hassidic archetypes because I was tying a lot of things together -- singing, stories, mythology. A lot of my impulses were coming together. It was emotional, creative and particularly Jewish." In other words, it was particularly Rachel, and her jerking off was, as that wanker Walt Whitman would say, the song of herself.

Boredom and interest; pleasure and pain; isolation and engagment; procrastination and work. Dialectics, notes Georges Bataille, are always deeply erotic. I've come home from a day of reading about she-bop and pulling one's pud at the Research Branch of the New York Public Library. I have thrown in a brief side trip to the CUNY Graduate Center across the street, where I spent four years in a Ph.D. program in anthropology before dropping out to pursue an MFA. I am feeling nostalgic and horny and reluctant to write. I open my underwear drawer and pull out the Conair "Family Masseuse" with the long white handle and large black knobby round head that I had the man in the turban pull down off a shelf behind the register at Wholesale Liquidators. It has been plugged in and is well-charged. I turn it onto high, spread eagle on the couch and jerk off twice in rapid succession to its 2.4-volt buzz. Before I sit down to my computer to write, I revisit my old master's thesis. The sentence my advisor chose to ignore that followed the one she critiqued is, "Pleasure is proliferated throughout the process of self-creation in the face of oppression and in response to the social contradictions engendering people's lives." In other words, pleasure has everything to do with who we are. It is an argument that I masturbated to come to. I might well have been writing specifically about myself and my fellow grad students. And the fact that my advisor missed my point is, well, precisely the point.

By Betsy Andrews

Betsy Andrews is a writer living in New York.

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