Of all the many attitudes of condemnation and censure regarding sexuality, the most astonishing is the one regarding masturbation, precisely because of the virulence shown towards it.
In fact, the allegiance between science and moral norms (and perhaps more so
for this expression of sexuality than any other) has become so strong that masturbation
has been considered to be a disease, sin, and even an undesirable activity. However,
even though self-eroticism was described on the one hand as ‘the most common cause
of madness’ (by Esquirol, 1916) or, as Thomas Szasz said in the New Orleans Medical and Science Journal, ‘neither plague, nor war,
nor smallpox, nor a crowd of similar evils, have resulted more disastrously for
humanity than the habit of masturbation’, to quote a few short examples in the
field of science, and as ‘unnatural’ and there sinful in other fields, the Kinsey Report found that, in the 1950s, 94% or men and 58% of women had experimented
with masturbation and reached orgasms with it, and this data was also confirmed
by other research (that of Hertoft, 1968, Schmidt and Sigush, 1972, and Hite, 1977) in which the percentages varied very little. What is more, these findings
showed that, not only is self-erotic behaviour common, but it is common between
both men and women, thus this ‘situation’ is more complex than it appears.
Even though the repression of masturbation was more extreme towards men in the 1700s and in more recent times too, as mentioned, masturbation was and is still less common amongst women and this may be because of point of view’s like that of the psychoanalyst Helene Deutsch who said ‘in all likelihood, vaginal sensations cannot be compared to the pressure of a male orgasm’, or, as Marie Bonaparte said, ‘when exploring her genitals, a female comes across an obstacle that is unknown to men: pain’. Indeed, it is true that the reason may be the different anatomical configuration of the female genitals, which are more hidden and intimate compared to that of the male, however, the main reason for masturbation being less common amongst women is definitely because female sexuality has always been much more repressed than male sexuality.
Despite all of this though, censuring has not had the desired effect because masturbation is still (probably) the most practised sexual activity even though it has been and is ‘condemned’. The fact that, in spite of everything, masturbation is probably the most widely practised sexual activity, shows that it is a physical need given how much this behaviour has resisted prohibitions.
As far as experiencing masturbation is concerned though, things are different and this is why it is repressed: it creates feelings of guilt, fear and shame.
The person who underlined the fact that masturbation is not pathological, and that, in fact, it is the result of a harmonious relationship, was Spitz, and after a study he carried out over 14 years (from 1948-1962), he highlighted that the better a mother-child relationship is, the more the child touches him/herself, even starting from his/her first year of life. What is more, children who lived with their parents were found to be more ‘playful’ in terms of genitals and masturbation compared to those who lived in orphanages. This observation seems to put the relationship one has with his/her genitals into a family/native context, but it is certainly not the being/removal from the family unit that promotes this, rather it is the quality of it. Then, eventually and thanks to the child’s psychosexual development, masturbation acquires different meanings and a different importance until it becomes notably relevant in the structuring of sexuality.
The meaning of self-eroticism varies, particularly from the latency period (it may be used as a way to release aggressive or sexual tension or to maintain awareness of one’s external genitals) to adolescence (during which it is an activity that allows the adolescent to try out new sexual resources, fantasies between two adults and, at the same time, satisfy subconscious, pregenital desires). Adolescence is also when we start to feel guilty about masturbating which causes internal conflicts, especially since it is concomitant with Oedipal development. However, as Lebovici said, masturbation plays a key role in the elaboration of fantasies related to it and conflicts caused by fantasies, as do defence mechanisms that arise from these conflicts.
Recent data about attitudes towards masturbation appear to support its significance and its prerogative in the structuring of functional sexual pleasure. In two subsequent studies conducted on two different groups of volunteers who were asked to read erotic literature and assist in sexually explicit films, the Californian psychologists Abramson and Mosher showed that those who had a negative attitude towards masturbation felt more guilty when assisting with the screening of the film, had fewer sexual experiences, had more problems with sex and were even less informed about contraception. These authors were also able to determine, through thermal analysis, that people with negative attitudes towards masturbation experience less pelvic vasocongestion when exposed to erotic stimuli compared to those with a positive attitude.
These results show that a good relationship with masturbation is an important
predictive factor regarding healthy sexuality and that it is far from a harmful or abnormal sexual practice, nor does it go against
sexual intercourse: in fact, it can improve sexual pleasure and satisfaction. Fantasies and rich scenarios in which the male and female can share their thoughts,
expectations and sexual desires also play an important role and, in this case,
self-eroticism cannot be considered as something one does alone and that is isolated
from a relationship, rather it is a preparatory experience done before the act
Even though female imagination has never been poor, it has been thought for some time that men are physiologically more reactive than women to fantasy stimulants and that they are better at producing them. However, this assertion was proven to be incorrect. What is more, in two successive studies, Schmidt highlighted how this inequality was only attributable to socio-cultural attitudes towards sexuality and to the way in which children were brought up. These sorts of attitudes tend to inhibit women’s sexual expressions, reactions to these types of stimulants and the ability to maintain them once they have been produced due to the development of the ideal ‘Me’ and a super ‘Me’, which limit women's reactions and frequently make them conflicting.
Once again, these observations show how ideas can be so strong that they stop a lot of people from masturbating or experiencing self-eroticism, which could actually enrich them. We can see, therefore, that when masturbation is considered in an impoverished, guilty and demonised light, it is no wonder that it comes across legions of critics who place it in a neurotic and autistic sphere, a sphere where, in all honesty it can be the result of paraphilic or compulsive behaviour, but only in pathological cases.