Despite the assumption that every guy has masturbated, is masturbating, or will masturbate, self-pleasure has been getting a bad rap for 3,000 years.
Male masturbators can’t seem to catch a break. From Orthodox Judaism to traditional Buddhism, the religious strictures against men masturbating are ancient and enduring. (Because the spiritual authorities were so often ignorant about female masturbation, women caught a rare break. You can’t condemn something if you don’t believe it exists.)
We now know what our ancestors didn’t. Masturbation doesn’t lead to a loss of vitality. You can’t run out of sperm, except temporarily. (Trying to conceive a child in the evening when you’ve already ejaculated three times over the course of the afternoon is probably not the best procreative strategy.) Most experts agree: the most serious problem with masturbation is the guilt that so men continue to feel throughout their lives. Some of that guilt is about a belief that self-pleasure is dirty or immoral. Some of it is a sense that adult men shouldn’t need to masturbate at all.
In a recent post on his blog, law professor Eugene Volokh stepped outside his normal bailiwick to write about vibrators. He noted what most of us who write about sex have observed: just in the last few years, we’ve become much more open about discussing female masturbation. Sex and the City famously celebrated the “rabbit” vibrator, offering a kind of pop-culture “permissioning” for young women to start pursuing their own pleasure. Popular porn sites like I Feel Myself (definitely not safe for work) feature amateur videos of a relatively diverse group of women bringing themselves to orgasm in a variety of ways. Women-centered websites and stores have sprung up; a woman looking for a masturbation aid online is genuinely spoiled for choice.
But Volokh points out that we’re not nearly as comfortable with men using sex toys, claiming that most of his friends would accept a woman’s use of a vibrator shaped like a penis, but would find the idea of a man using a vagina-shaped device to be icky. He’s right about that reaction, even from folks in relatively liberal circles. (The Frisky wrote about this “sex toy double standard” recently.) But why?
Volokh suggests that the number one reason has to do with the myth that “real men have sex with real vaginas.” In other words, as he puts it, male masturbation—and especially a “penis sleeve” (what is sometimes pejoratively referred to as a “pocket p**sy”) signals a “lack of sexual success.” Male masturbation, in other words, is about relieving frustration—and for too many people, frustration is a consequence of failure. A sexually successful man should have enough sex (with women, of course, as our myths tend to exclude gay and bi men) that he only rarely gets “frustrated.”
A man with a sex toy, in other words, is a man who expects to strike out a lot. Or so the myth goes. Volokh is all too right.
But there’s more to it. For some additional insight, I turned to Charlie Glickman, the veteran Education Program Manager for Good Vibrations, one of the oldest sex toy outlets in the country. Why, I asked, are we so much more comfortable with the idea of women giving themselves orgasms, and using aids to do so?
Female sexuality is seen as complicated and mysterious, he told me, while male sexuality is seen as simple. Men learn to masturbate early, and usually quickly, worried that they’ll get caught. As a result, Charlie said, many of the men he works with still masturbate the same way at 40 that they did at 14. The focus is on “getting off” fast, not on drawing out ecstasy. Though many women do masturbate for quick relief (men are very often surprised by how rapidly many women can make themselves come), a focus on prolonged pleasure rather than simple release is still viewed as female.
Charlie pointed out that he’s never heard a gay man complain about a male lover who masturbates. But some women are threatened by their boyfriends or husbands masturbating, frequently because they’ve been raised to believe that it’s their job to be the pleasure provider in the relationship. As long as we believe that men masturbate out of a simple lack of opportunity for “real sex,” then women will believe that masturbation is a kind of rejection. “Why would he want to jerk off if he has me?” On the other hand, plenty of folks believe that women’s sexuality is so intense and mysterious that men can rarely hope to satisfy it. So a woman masturbating with a wonderful toy she bought online is doing for herself something no man can—but a guy rubbing one out by himself is “depriving” his female partner of what is rightfully “hers.”
Both Charlie and I have heard that double standard—rooted in a myth of male sexual simplicity—many times.
Talking to Charlie, I was reminded of the truism that women in mainstream porn tend to scream in what is (usually) feigned ecstasy. Men, even as they ejaculate, tend to grunt in relief. In real life, some men do cry out. But imagine a beefy porn star shouting, in a high-pitched voice, “Oh, my God!” as he orgasms. It’s laughable—not because men in real life don’t want to scream in pleasure, but because it doesn’t fit our stereotype of how men have sex. It’s women who are supposed to be driven mad with delight during sex.
In a lot of traditional heterosexual porn, men seem much less interested in pleasure than in performance. The man’s orgasm concludes the scene, but a question is often left hanging in the air: what did he really feel? Female porn stars show pleasure (or, in some genres, pain) and the camera focuses intensely on their reactions. But the man just huffs and puffs away, working away at the task at, um, hand. The “cum” he shoots onto his co-star’s face or belly is evidence that the sex was real. But it’s not much of a clue to what he actually felt.
This disconnect around pleasure and performance shows up around masturbation. Men need a lot of help, Charlie notes, understanding their own “pleasure potential.” Sometimes, they need more help than women. Charlie told me that many men come into Good Vibrations and ask, “Where are the sex toys for guys?” What he tells them is almost all of what they sell is for both men and women. Most men don’t realize that penetrating something isn’t the only way to orgasm, or to feel intense pleasure. As Charlie points out, a great many women use vibrators that are shaped like a penis—but use them primarily externally, on the clitoris and the vulva. The long cylindrical shape serves more as a great handle than as a device for penetration. So just as women don’t need a toy shaped like a dick in order to masturbate, so too men don’t need something that looks like a vagina in order to bring themselves to orgasm.
Good Vibrations, like many stores, does sell a variety of sex toys specifically for the male anatomy, including one device, the Fleshlight, that does indeed have simulated labia. But the Fleshlight is not the best seller on the website: that honor belongs to the Tenga Egg Masturbation Sleeve, which when packaged, looks just like a Cadbury Cream Egg.
But before a guy buys himself a toy, he needs to give himself permission to use one. That means more than just getting over adolescent guilt about jerking off. It means accepting that his sexuality is just as complex—and just as capable of ecstasy—as that of any woman. And until men take the risk to explore their own capacity for sexual delight, focusing on sensation more than on simple relief, they’ll continue to miss out.