THIS ESSAY STARTS with a scene of writing. And a digression. I remember a friend in graduate school telling me that writing poetry, as opposed to fiction or even nonfiction, seemed like an act of masturbation. Metaphorically?, I asked. Kind of, he responded. You know, just spewing your feelings out on the page. Not the real work of building a world or an argument in fiction and nonfiction prose. I think he’s wrong: you only have to look at the spate of new poets — Pamela Sneed, Jericho Brown, Tracy K. Smith, to name just the ones that come immediately to my mind — to see how writing poetry is a deeply critical enterprise, exploring and interrogating the complexities of racism and sexism, and world-building toward more socially conscious and hopefully more equitable ways of living.
Already, though, I’m jerking myself around. On the one hand, we have the thematically and formally critical, the public annunciation in highly crafted language of lived insights turned to systemic critique. I love that stuff. But to be fair to my friend, we have, on the other hand, spurting into the awaiting palm, the supposedly private explosions of a lyric self that can’t quite contain itself, that spills over, that even erupts in anything but emotion recollected in tranquility. Walt Whitman, for instance, the old pervert reaching out to touch you through his poems, a century and half later, when he’s probably also touching himself at the same time, turning what should be a private act into a public lyric, touching feeling, feeling touched. Something unseemly here. Something solitary, best left in the bedroom.
I think that’s what my friend was getting at, a dismissal of the lyric poem when something more muscular was called for, something that pushed beyond the private into the public, that called for action, that demanded collectivity. It was the early ’90s after all, with the AIDS epidemic raging, conservatism holding on, the culture wars heating up, the economy flagging, terrorism on the rise. And yes, yes, I get it, I don’t disagree. I do more, actually, than double negate to affirm. I do agree. Manifestoes please. Action! I, too, had become bored with the blankness of the generation, the Bret Easton Ellises, the Jay McInerneys, the Tama Janowitzes. We GenXers weren’t all ironic detachment, wanking away the hours in futility. We too wanted a better world. We too saw the fall of the Berlin Wall as the possibility of new forms of freedom, even as we weren’t quite naïve enough to not see the dominance of capitalism as the beginnings of something awful, something that we would come to call neoliberalism. (Maybe wanking away the afternoon wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Better yet, we can wank together. Safer that way given how many young people were dying of AIDS.)
But wait, what about masturbation? Maybe there’s more here than my grad school friend realized, maybe more than I realized. I’m remembering this scene from my past now. I had just picked up a copy of Ellis’s Less Than Zero, published in 1985, and read it religiously, like a new found Bible, a book of salvation. I had graduated from high school, was going off to college in Baton Rouge, hoping to — finally — “explore my sexuality,” see if these homoerotic feelings were more than just a “phase.” Less Than Zero might seem a strange book to use as a guide to queerness, given how unrelentingly bleak it is, full of lost youth in L.A. (Los Angeles, not Louisiana) on Christmas break, doing drugs, fucking each other, fucking each other over, whoring themselves out, turning to snuff porn and underage rape to feel something, to feel anything. I reread the novel now and marvel that (1) it’s actually a very good book and (2) that the scene that stuck with me, that lodged in my brain like guiding lights, is one early on in which Clay just randomly hooks up with another boy, goes home with him, they slip off their briefs, and … do something sexual together. Clay isn’t explicit about it, but the pause in overt narration nonetheless tantalized me. I remember sitting on the floor of my family’s Holiday Inn hotel room in Biloxi, Mississippi, the family out on the beach, me staying behind to read this book in secret, touching myself when I got to this surprising scene. I was in my own tighty whities, tracing the outline of my growing cock as I held the book in my other hand. (I know, it’s all too typical for a young repressed gay boy in mid-’80s Reaganland.)
And then another scene, later in the book. Clay goes home with a girl this time, and she hands him a bottle of Bain de Soleil (a suntan lotion, I figured, not knowing at the time), and the two masturbate together. Again, safer than full-on fucking, yes, and the scene is a bit more explicit now, Clay pausing to say more about what the two are doing. I recall some details all these decades later, surprising myself that I remembered when I read the passage again that Clay says he cums and it “stings.” That’s the word: stings. Again, I imagine myself tracing the outline of my cock as I delight to this summer “beach read.”
I was desperate. Anything would do. Any sign that I could touch another boy, that he could touch me. Even this scene with a girl, Clay touching himself separately. Who knows what he’s thinking? Ellis doesn’t give much away. But Clay seems equal opportunity, except for his friend Julian, one of the only people in the book he seems to pursue. I imagine myself imaging Clay with that girl, masturbating, imagining Julian in his soccer shorts, them fooling around on the field as kids. Something innocent. Something fun. Now just a memory, a connection lost; the masturbation scene described in the book, however mutual with the young woman, is still a movie played in a mind alone.
I’m making this up. Ellis isn’t clear on what Clay’s thinking. But it’s the story we tell about masturbation, the near impossibility of not telling a story about masturbation, the need to have a story just to get off. And then there’s the larger story here about masturbation, the one that says that, even if done together, you’re alone, this is a private affair, an act of self-love. That’s the story my friend in grad school was alluding to: the privacy of the lyric, the isolation, the emotion recollected less in tranquility than in a spasm of regret, the spurt of a lost cause.
And yet, I needed this, I needed to know that people, other young people, could touch themselves, could touch each other, and could perhaps be thinking about other young men when they did so.
You see, I had a hard time touching myself. I talked earlier about tracing the outlines of my cock through my briefs. Yeah, sure, but that was it. If I wanted to cum, I would lay down on the floor, briefs still on, and rub myself off, humping the carpet, fucking the bed sheets. Maybe I’d place my hands underneath my balls, jockey shorts still in place, and move my hips up and down, back and forth, awaiting the propulsive thrust that would stain my underpants and, if I was lucky, coincide with a little throbbing in my feet, an electrical shock shaking my little toes.
No, I couldn’t touch myself. Others might have vigorously jerked themselves off, wanking away the afternoon. But I rarely touched my own member. I couldn’t. I was already unclean enough having thoughts about other boys. To touch myself directly, hand on my penis, would seem too much like an admission that I was the agent of these desires, as opposed to their victim. So, perversely, while the dislocated and isolated characters in Less Than Zero seemed to me a few steps further down the path of destruction, they could at least touch themselves, and each other. Perhaps what I delighted to in Less Than Zero was the affirmation that touch was destruction, a twisted moralism that nonetheless held out images of what I longed for, even if it would ultimately lead to my doom.
I’m thinking about this book, and about my early masturbatory practices, because I’ve recently been publishing memoirs that deal with this time in my life, this time of struggle toward being able to touch myself. In the most recent memoir I’ve written, Dear Queer Self, out in March, I am perhaps the most frank, the most explicit, about masturbation, my private fantasies, my secret desires practiced on and with myself. I’d totally forgotten about how important Less Than Zero was for me until I saw a copy in a bookstore going out of business and bought it to reread. Hence this essay. Hence, too, my thinking of my grad school friend, telling me about poetry being masturbatory in the same living room of my apartment in which I had on many occasions stripped down to my briefs, danced around the room, humped myself on the shaggy carpet, and filled my underpants with the hot jizz of my own isolation, my own inability to affirm that, if he had been open to it, I would’ve touched this boy, this young man. I had never seen a bottle of Bain De Soleil, but the words spoke to me of pleasures we could have had together but that I couldn’t quite bring myself to propose. (I couldn’t even bring myself to peel away those shorts and jerk myself off.)
Yes, this is an odd book indeed through which to come to a self-analysis of masturbatory practices. You can think of many other more likely texts and media. Just recently, for instance, I found a much more potentially positive depiction of self-love that I’ve been passing around to people like candy, delighting in its frank depiction of the value of masturbation. Even so, it is one that gestures to the constraints facing the solo enthusiast.
Renata Gasiorowska’s animated 2016 short, Pussy, focuses on a young woman attempting to enjoy some time alone masturbating. She runs a bath and smokes a joint, but interruptions — traffic noises, phones ringing — seem ceaseless. Frustrated, her vagina detaches itself from her body and decides to take matters into its own hands (so to speak). Its first business is to scare away the peeping Tom from across the courtyard who has been spying on the young woman; how it knows he’s there when the young woman doesn’t is anyone’s guess — perhaps pussy premonition. Regardless, she confronts him outside the apartment door, transforming from a cute, cuddly, catlike set of genitals into a ferocious, growling monster. He gets the message and runs away. Back in the apartment, the young woman and her vagina get down to business, but again, the vagina seems to think that things aren’t progressing fast enough, the young woman seeming timid in her approach. So, the vagina starts vigorously rubbing itself over a variety of objects throughout the apartment: brushes, curtain tassels, plants, feathers, water jets in the fish tank. The cactus, it discovers, is perhaps a bit too much. Then the vagina finds ice cubes, and the young woman rolls around in ecstasy on the floor. The animation, at first consisting of simple lines, turns abstract in an orgy of color and shape accompanied by pulsing, beat-driven, increasingly ecstatic music. All is now right with the world.
Pussy is totally delightful, an homage to self-pleasure, an eight-minute advertisement for the pursuit of self-love. But it is a pursuit. Interruptions are a problem, as well as peeping Toms. And the fact that the vagina has to detach itself from the young woman’s body is weirdly suggestive of the kinds of “detachment” that have to occur in order for self-love to be pursued. One has to detach not only from the specter of prying eyes but also from one’s own self- consciousness about masturbating. At first, the young woman doesn’t seem to know what to do with her genitals, gently sniffing her vaginal fluids with curiosity but also seeming puzzlement. Pussy seems to suggest that she’ll be better if she just lets herself go, abandoning herself to the vagina’s instincts to experiment, to try out new sensations, to explore latent possibilities of pleasure, the delights of rubbing one off with all of the bric-à-brac of a contemporary apartment. The ideological work being done here by the vagina is both feminist — a woman finding a masturbatory room of her own — and sex-positive: a body relaxing enough from the pressures of an invasive world to be able to explore itself, indeed to recover its possibilities for pleasure.
And now I’m back at the scene of my own writing, this film reminding me why I write about jerking off, about my history of masturbation. To capture that time in my life and the affects of homophobia, I need to write about the isolation of those college years, remaining in the closet but still getting hard (even now, when writing about that time, those private moments), imagining the characters in Less Than Zero imagining their friends and what they’d lost, coming to realize what I had already lost without ever having found it in the first place, the mystery of self-love, the possibilities of my own capacities for pleasure.
My grad school friend contrasted poetry with the manifesto, the masturbatory with the call to action. But masturbation has an ideology. It is a call to action. As supposedly private as it is, it is also the moment when we are closest to the contradictions, the double binds, the phantasms that animate and simultaneously deaden. I masturbated without touching myself to people whose isolation was complete. Could anything reek of more internalized homophobia? And yet, nothing at the time was more erotic to me than Clay, going home with a boy, bored, or Clay, going home with a girl, jerking off together but so alone, so achingly alone. No, masturbation doesn’t just have an ideology; it may be the enactment of ideology in the deepest part of ourselves, where we touch ourselves and the force of the world touches us — in my case, where the hatred of the homo touched me, keeping me from touching myself, propelling me still to rub myself off, rubbing myself off on the world that didn’t want me.
I touch myself now, sometimes. And I have touched others. Sometimes I touch my husband, and he touches me back. Maybe this is all I ever wanted, all that Less Than Zero showed me: even touching yourself alone together is better than never touching yourself at all.