Coming of age

A 40-year-old man masturbates for the first time.


Steve Burgess
August 17, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

You've got a Web browser -- I don't have to tell you that human sexuality encompasses a veritable Milky Way of exotic variety. If you can spell it, there's a small, misunderstood group doing it in some suburban basement.

And yet, for all the diversity out there, I believe that, in one small but significant way, I am sexually unique. Before I continue, let me just say that I don't want to hear any whining later on about how you didn't need to hear this stuff -- too much information, etc. Leave now or don't bitch.

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I masturbated for the first time at the age of 40. If anybody else is eligible for that particular club, send me $49.99 and I'll start up a newsletter. Aside from offering the possibility of a circus career, my unique status also provides a fresh perspective -- not only on the popular pastime of self-abuse, but on the paraphernalia that often goes with it.

One small factor contributing to my belated moral collapse was, believe it or not, peer pressure. Like onanism itself, it doesn't stop after high school. Whenever the topic of masturbation came up -- rarely over dinner, of course, but in intimate moments such things are sometimes discussed -- my revelation was almost always greeted with horrified fascination. Worse, it planted that little kernel of fear and mistrust that usually results from an encounter with The Other. Lovers sometimes looked at me differently. "I thought I knew this guy," they seemed to be thinking.

There is no doubt that public attitudes towards masturbation have done a 180-degree swivel in the space of a generation or so. Once the hairy-palms-and-blindness warnings faded away they were quickly replaced by the accepted wisdom that everybody does it and those who say they don't are lying. Which marked me, I knew, as either freak or liar.

The curious asked why I never started, as if a young boy would have to stop himself -- would have to make the decision not to do something so natural. The simple truth is that when I was a kid it never occurred to me. Adolescence brought the same fevered fantasies and wet dreams everyone experiences, but by that time I suppose my attitude was set -- if I thought about masturbation at all, it was only as something other, icky little boys did.

For sexual information I usually depended on my next-oldest brother, three years my senior. He never brought up the subject, and I never caught him at it. Aside from sex, my main fascinations were activities that I thought would bring me closer to the magical world of adulthood -- doing drugs, drinking beer, hitchhiking across the country. Somewhere along the line, perhaps I developed the idea that jerking off was for punks. But really there's nothing for me to recall about those days. Chicken-choking just never happened, and I didn't think much about it.

Too bad. As an adult, I should have been the poster boy for self-abuse. I've had some wonderful, intense, memorable romantic relationships, but by and large they have been cartoonish little desert islands in a vast Pacific of singledom. My best friend John expressed frequent amazement at how I coped with the frustration of prolonged involuntary celibacy. Not well, in fact. I've climbed more walls than Spider-Man. And peer pressure aside, the main reason for my belated curiosity about monkey-spanking was John's repeated assurances that things would seem oh so much better once my eyeballs stopped floating. It could even help solve my romantic problems, he claimed, by removing that desperate edge, smoothing out my natural intensity, giving me that devil-may-care, "Hey baby, take me or leave me, I can always go home and jerk off" insouciance. An attractive prospect, for sure.

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But what eventually led me to flout biblical teachings was the prospect of genuine romantic success. Following a lovely dinner date last February I went home filled with, among other things, optimism. Things had gone well -- the immediate future looked bright. It was exciting. A little creative visualization started the process; a little Vaseline helped it along. I almost shot myself in the eye. A reign no "Seinfeld" character could ever match was at an end. Needless to say, there was no going back.

The theory about increased sexual success was an early casualty -- that exciting situation never panned out after all, nor have any since. The question of whether I appear more relaxed is best left to objective observers. I don't feel so. What I do appreciate is having a way to be a sexual creature once more. The most difficult parts of my former abstinence were the seemingly endless stretches in which I became a sexual nonentity, separated from the erotic world in a frustrating solitary confinement. But masturbation had always appeared to me like a loser's last resort. Jerking off was the final confirmation that you were sexually unsalable. Now it seems like a small but treasured connection to that vibrant quadrant of life I so often miss.

And that has led me to the most interesting personal about-face of all. For the first time in my life, I have become an avid consumer of pornography. In my teens and 20s I tended to keep quiet about my manual chastity, but predictably I was vocal about my aversion to dirty pictures, claiming the moral high ground loudly and often. My favorite debating shtick was to cite the scene from Kurt Vonnegut's novel "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," in which a fisherman is asked by an acquaintance to admire a girl in a magazine. "If this was a girl," the fisherman replies, "all I'd have to do for a living would be to stay home and cut out pictures of big fish." Touchi, smut hounds. (What with my unpolished porpoise and my puritanical tastes in publishing, I was evidently quite a little tight-ass. I'm deeply sorry.)

Suddenly I became a wanker, and everything changed. In the beginning, still convinced that masturbation was an occasional splash of coolant for an overheated engine, I relied solely on imagination. But soon the inclination to indulge overwhelmed any specific reason, and I began looking for ways to make it happen. Porn became a tool, like a lighter for a cigarette.

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It wasn't that pornography didn't affect me in the past -- I was as prone to visual stimulation as most other males. It's just that the pictures represented nothing but frustration. Staring at gorgeous women I would never meet, much less violate -- what was the point of that?

Now I get it. Or I try, at least. My journey of discovery has revealed to me, among other things, that looking for pictures on the Web is often as sexy as lining up at the motor vehicle office. Complicating matters is my one remaining claim to a bizarrely protracted virginity -- I've still never owned a credit card. That can make things difficult, particularly since most porn sites seem dedicated to redefining the word "free." (My favorite message so far: "For your hot FREE tour, enter your credit card number now!")

Along the sleazo cyber-trail, it has also become clear that the Web is heaven for anyone with a fetish for puerile playground lingo (and if bad spelling makes you hot, you're one lucky perv). I have not completely shaken my aversion to porn. Residual shame still clings to it -- perhaps through conditioning, perhaps because of the impersonal nature of pornography, or perhaps because remote fantasy encounters encourage exploration of the very darkest urges. Already I am hankering for those innocent times (oh, long-lost golden days of several months ago) when I dreamt up my own erotic scenarios. Sometimes, unfortunately, it doesn't work. A too-rational brain realizes that no reasonable prospects are even glimmering on the horizon -- the imagination can stretch only so far. A few lewd photos will probably always be necessary.

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All in all, I'm glad I started. But in spite of my ancient, newfound recipe for self-gratification, I am no less lonely. (Save your tears -- it's the well-deserved fate of a picky bastard.) This is reassuring, in a way. I would hate to think that jerking off could replace intimacy. Of course, it can't. For me, real relief from loneliness comes in only one situation -- that brief, precious window of time when I'm pursuing a woman who has not yet told me to piss off.

Masturbation is not really a solution at all. It's a hobby. Like cocaine, the death penalty or cellular phones, what might seem at first to be a specific solution to a specific problem turns out in the end to be merely a habit. I continue to masturbate not for any positive effects it may have, but for the same reason the proverbial dog licks his balls -- because I can. And though momentarily I may want a bit of fantasy to sate an inner urge, what I really need is a girlfriend.


Steve Burgess

Steve Burgess is a Salon contributing writer.

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