One night, when I was ten years old, my father abruptly announced that we would begin a weekly Bible study, just the two of us. "Every Tuesday night," he said -- the study lasted for three weeks. The first two Tuesdays were simply a setup, warming up for Tuesday number three -- the talk. Only this wasn't your standard "where babies come from" spiel. No, this was the whole ugly shebang.
We sat down on our sweating and plastic covered couch, my mother in the kitchen slowly doing dishes, and we talked about God's view of sex. We read the Bible together, and we read from a suggestively pink hardcover Christian publication written specifically for young Christians. A kind of hot pink handbook for kids called Your Youth -- Getting the Best Out of It! I can still see my father, sitting awkwardly in his tight brown slacks hugging his middle-aged scrotum way too closely, threads wearing thin (and why does he sit with his legs spread so wide, even now? my wife has actually asked me this), a clown-sized paisley tie hanging heavy from his white and blushing, freshly shaved neck.
My father opened up the book to a chapter entitled "Masturbation and Homosexuality," and we began an extraordinarily stilted conversation about the dangers and sinful nature of "self-abuse" and of touching other boys.
There are many, many things wrong with this picture. Even as a ten-year old I was baffled -- does God have sex? If not, then what on earth does He know about it? And as far as "self-abuse" is concerned, let's just say the name does not quite fit the game. Not to mention, why on earth is this man talking to me about touching other boys? Has he not seen how nervous, how restless I get when The Facts of Life comes on? Does he know something I don't? And of course there is the conspicuous coupling of the two topics: masturbation and homosexuality, as if one is somehow dependent on the other, that both are equally "sinful" simply because they're not boy/girl. Very silly.
I would actually be willing to bet that for most Christians males masturbation is considered a more sinful act (though they would not likely admit this) than female masturbation because it's somehow "gayer" (I could go on for pages writing on the colossal misreadings, misapplications and misappropriations of Biblical text regarding homosexuality... but let's save that for another day).
Anyway, perhaps nothing, amid the entire scene, may have been so bizarre as my father's choice to illustrate our inaugural discussion of the-birds-and-the-bees with cartoon fish.
Let me explain.
In the back inside cover of the pink book, my father, with a pencil, drew two fish in profile. One behind the other, as if two cars in traffic on a one lane road. Each had an exaggerated smile and tiny circles for eyes. One fish, according to my father, would have a hole. This was apparently the girl-fish, and my father proceeded to draw a small dark hole just beneath the girl-fish's back triangular fin. The boy-fish, however, was quite different, and was entirely unlike any fish that I've seen since. Let us say he was blessed, because from beneath his back fin hung a penis that any horse would envy (at least when considering scale). Yes, from the back of the boy-fish hung a long tubular and erect penis, with what would be softball-sized testicles to match. And I imagine that if this were indeed the state of these two fish, Mrs. Fish would be swimming away for her life.
To really appreciate the gross irony, please understand that I think of my father's drawing whenever I find myself behind a car bumper bearing the Christian symbol of Ichthys -- the Jesus Fish.
All of which is to say -- masturbation is bad, bad, bad. And God says so.
I recently read Norman Mailer's The Spooky Art, which, perhaps due to his recent passing, still reverberates and sneaks its way into my consciousness with unexpected resonance. And as is usually the case when reading Mailer, I was at times filled with envy, admiration and awe. At other times, I scratched my head like what the hell is wrong with this man. Regardless, it's an absolutely engrossing collection of essays on the life of a writer. I bring this up because under the sub heading of "Part Two: Psychology," Mailer entitles a chapter "Gender, Narcissism and Masturbation." If you're already familiar with Mailer and his singular and strangely homophobic take on human sexuality, forgive the repetition, but Mr. Mailer does not like masturbation. "It's a miserable act," Mailer says, using language that closely approaches a form of religiosity.
For Mailer, God is an existential God and an artisan, though a far from perfect one. He is, like the human, not entirely good. Nevertheless, we are His ever-protean and greatest work. In fact, God is a lot like Mailer, which sounds like just another cheap shot at his once seemingly bulletproof ego, but it certainly is not intended that way. In Mailer's theology there is no heaven, but there certainly is a God and there certainly is a Devil. And we humans make for a problematic, but intrinsic third in Mailers' trinity. We three are interdependent in that fight between The Good and The Bad. And, contrary to popular belief, and despite Mailer's affinity for reincarnation, this is not necessarily an eternal fight. More, there's no guarantee that, in the end, The Good will win.
And why should there be if the fight is a fair one?
But what interests me here is what all of this, his particular sense of theology, of the life, the universe, and everything has to do with touching one's own privates. My guess is that if we humans somewhat constitute God by our very existence then God, in turn, is dependent on our very existence, and therefore dependent on procreation. So when God says "Be fruitful and multiply," in Genesis, He isn't kidding. His job depends on it. Masturbation, however, is an isolated act, one that fails to reproduce.
It is a potentially creative act that fails to create.
So for Mailer (as far as I can tell) masturbation is bad, bad, bad, because masturbation fails to create God.
So here we have two men, my father and Norman Mailer, and both claim that the M-word is abhorrent. Of course, it would make good sense if the reader now begins to question my pointed interest in the topic at hand (ha!) -- especially after considering the writer's likely location, sitting in a small room, alone in front of a computer.... --My wife is only steps away, in the living room watching a reality TV marathon, I swear. What I am getting at: my father's position on masturbation is relatively understandable. It's symptomatic of his position on what's Right and what's Wrong. There is a clear, definable and Biblical line, regardless of that line's legitimacy (As an atheistic agnostic and a lover of the Bible as literature, I find that line fascinating but wholly illegitimate). Mailer on the other hand (ha, again!), somewhat troubles me.
As much as I can enjoy Mailer's fantastical rendition of the cosmos, there is the Good and Bad question. Who decides which is which? And as one might easily tell from his work, Mailer is perhaps equally interested in Black and White as he is in the many shades of gray. Yet masturbation seems a clearly gray, if not trivial, moral question.
So this began for me a brief but rather unsettling meditation on morality, with wanking as a lens. The next post will primarily focus on the Biblical origins of masturbation, or onanism is it has been called. And where better to begin than in the beginning, Genesis, and the brief, but no less influential story of Onan -- claimed by some to be history's most notorious wanker. Until then...