Is intense sexual stimulation tied to unnatural modern conditions?
Lots of animals masturbate, but none with the intensity and ejaculation frequency of human males—except when in captivity (according to Leonard Shlain, MD).
The current theory is that we humans masturbate more because we can fantasize. A related assumption is that our rather manic masturbation has gone on for as long as we've been human—except when temporarily suppressed by unnatural forces, such as religious or social constraints. From these two assumptions follows a third: that fantasy is a natural, healthy adjunct to, or even sine qua non of, a fulfilling sex life.
Certainly fantasy facilitates frequent orgasm, just as sex toys and pornography do. Yet does our capacity to fantasize (which may, or may not be unique to humans) fully account for our masturbation and fantasy marathons?
I recently eavesdropped on a cyber exchange between two thoughtful men with lots of experience masturbating and fantasizing. The points they raised led me to do a bit of historical sleuthing, which I'll share below their remarks.
Fact is, we have no way of knowing how much people masturbated in the past, although it is certain that they sometimes did. Today's experts mistake modern conditions for "natural conditions." They see a lot of people (especially men) masturbating a lot, and look for explanations outside the social structure we're raised in. To analyze this structure objectively, they'd have to set aside some of their beliefs about the desirability of living in a 24/7 porn universe. Like the fish in the fishbowl that never question the fact that they swim in water, they don't question their assumptions that porn is "progressive," and so forth. They analyze based on ideological beliefs in the benefits of unlimited masturbation (the opposite of those old prudes who held the view that it was always bad).
Some researchers have been surprised to find so little masturbation among other primates. Said one such animal researcher, Gilbert Van Tassel Hamilton,
Of all my male monkeys only Jocko has been observed to masturbate. After a few days confinement he would masturbate and eat part of his semen. I have reason to believe that he lived under unnatural conditions for many years before I acquired him.
Notice how confinement is a condition of Jocko's behavior. I submit that today we are living under some seriously "unnatural conditions!" Could they be contributing to all this "natural fantasy" as well as to the admission by ninety percent of the population that they masturbate? When everyone nods in assent that "boys will be boys" and masturbation is totally "natural," kind of like apple pie, it makes the influence of our captivity on our behavior invisible.
I number among my friends some captive primates housed in miserable conditions, such as extremely high unemployment, lack of basic medical care, attacks on their basic standard of living, a barrage of high stress propaganda detailing environmental degradation and war, leaving people feeling helpless, a racist system of economic segregation, the general degradation of women and the sexual exploitation of children...Need I go on? No wonder everyone is addicted to something!
We are all in some ways like those "captive primates," and that's even excluding the 2.5 million people who actually are captives in America's gigantic prison system. These "natural conditions" remain completely unquestioned. Yet these and other factors should be considered especially relevant to the discussion of people who admit that heavy porn use is a problem for them.
The greatest damage to my marriage occurred precisely when my 'masturbatory fantasy training' was at its most extreme. I actually impaired my ability to engage with the consensus reality (including my own nude wife in front of me). During intercourse, I could picture her doing exactly the things I desired. The only element of the fantasy that prevented it from being completely disjoint with reality was her body. In total opposition to the view that sexual fantasy enhances sex, only when I eliminated fantasy from sex could I desire my wife as she is. In the bad old days of my fantastic folly, as I used her essentially for a masturbatory aid, she would often ask me, "What are you thinking about?" And I would lie, "Oh, nothing really."
Over the past two years, as I relentlessly uprooted my sexual fantasies, there has been an immense shift. I get highly aroused by touching. My wife still asks me what I think about during sex, but now when I respond that I am not thinking, I say only the truth. As I improve my ability to keep fantasy out of my consciousness, my marriage is progressively more successful. If the activity in the mind is given ultimate legitimacy, then it is improbable that physical circumstances will conform to the mental image. The result is fundamental dissatisfaction with one's situation.
As far as our sexual habits go, the position that modern human behavior is the only possible human behavior pattern is horribly flawed. Nearly every one of us lives in captivity, often voluntarily, but in captivity nonetheless. We lock ourselves inside at night. We may not be locked inside during the day, but the doors don't even need locks because we are thoroughly conditioned to remain confined at work until released from thrall.
After work, we can do more or less as we like (rec-room time), but the array of acceptable activities is highly constrained for most people: television, eating, grooming, family interactions, non-electronic escapism (art, bars, rat-wheel exercise, attempting to hook-up), electronic escapism, and sex. Moreover, we have only ~8 hours in which to explore 'freedom.' We feed ourselves, talk to each other, pleasure ourselves, and then it's time to repeat the sleep-work-play cycle.
On perhaps six occasions during the last few years, I've had the luxury of living outside this cycle for ~2 weeks at a time. As far as I can tell, this kind of activity would be consistent with prehistoric patterns: self-determined schedules, close quarters living with family and acquaintances, little privacy. There was considerable hard physical labor involved as well, which I suspect would approximate subsistence activities. My frequent sexual behavior nearly disappears. Instead of 4 orgasms per week, I had 0 to 2 orgasms in two weeks, and did not use porn.
Obviously 'more studies need to be done' and my 'sample size is too small to draw any real conclusions,' but all the same, I'm now looking for a strategy to increase my freedom rather than my orgasms.
Did the march of civilization change sex habits?
Curious about mankind's historical habits, I delved into Thomas W. Laqueur's Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation. There I learned that observers of the eighteenth century referred to compulsions, including excessive masturbation, as "diseases of civilization." Apparently they were uncommon until Europeans moved away from extended families into cities with unnatural levels of confinement and isolation.
For the first time in history, stimulants (and stimuli), old and new, also became widely available: tobacco, chocolate, rum, gambling, shopping, financial speculation, pornography and novels about passionate romance. The word "addiction" now appeared in the English language. And compulsive masturbation gained traction.
Obviously, masturbation wasn't a new idea, but, prior to the eighteenth century, no one saw a bit of self-pleasuring as likely to bloom into an intrusive habit, except for the occasional sexually segregated cleric. Now, however, people were becoming hooked on all sorts of behaviors that were not serving them, single-minded pursuit of orgasm included. Such compulsions were unfamiliar and scary because they were not easy to overcome.
Eighteenth-century observers pointed to the distinction between sex with a person, and sex with one's imagination. The participation of a partner naturally set a brake on sexual behavior in the form of partner availability, family demands, financial constraints, or the burden of arranging trysts. Do-it-yourself sex, on the other hand, had no inherent limit, and could more easily become a demanding habit. Intercourse based on "natural needs" (and mutual agreement) was thought to be more beneficial than orgasm produced with fantasy or other self-stimulation. (Incidentally, the work of psychologist Stuart Brody seems to confirm that intercourse is more soothing and beneficial than solo sex.)
Excessive masturbation was by no means the only habit-forming enticement causing new levels of distress, but it was the easiest for children to stumble into. Not surprisingly, fears about excessive masturbation were first publicized in regard to kids in boarding schools. These children were no doubt already anxious due to unnatural confinement and deprivation of contact with families and peers of the opposite sex.
Yet how to explain the risk of an escalating habit to kids? There was no conception of the brain science of addiction. Instead, kids were admonished to avoid "self-pollution." Tragically, generations of children were raised to view the search for relief from sexual urges via masturbation as a moral failing, rather than as a normal inclination (especially given their stressful circumstances), which merited foresighted management.
The entanglement of masturbation with morality was wrong; shame is destructive. However, both this historical approach and today's backlash frustrate a relaxed, inquiring attitude about masturbation—one which would permit us to find a healthy balance without fear that we risk unhealthy sexual repression.
Do we need a different strategy?
Given the cultural history of masturbation, it seems likely that humans didn't generally rely on frequent climax and sexual fantasy for mood-altering relief—until they found themselves in aberrant circumstances. Might today's nonstop pursuit of orgasm be an attempt to self-medicate in the face of stressful conditions that our brains have not evolved to handle well? One Canadian addiction expert doesn't think we’ll ever touch the problem of addiction until we develop (return to?) a viable culture.
Neurohistorian Daniel Lord Smail points out that one can view the entire history of civilization as an accelerating trend toward greater use of mood-altering (psychotropic) substances and activities, including shopping sprees and gorging on empty calories. Pursuit of frequent, sex-aid-enhanced orgasm is but one of many—although a particularly compelling one.
Both our tendency to self-medicate and the stressfulness of today's circumstances appear to be accelerating rather than leading us to contentment. If so, are we wise to assume peace of mind lies in more frequent climaxing to ever more potent stimuli? Recent research suggests this course may, in fact, be futile. Extreme stimuli can make satisfaction increasingly elusive because of their power to numb the brain's pleasure response.
Might greater contentment lie in learning to steer for neurochemical (and therefore emotional) balance—even under difficult modern conditions? The impulse to self-medicate appears to be less urgent when we find ways to meet the fundamental requirements of our brains, which evolved to keep us in balance when we weren't in captivity. For example, research shows that exercise, friendly interaction, touch, pair bonds, and daily meditation are surprisingly effective as mood regulators and anti-stress measures. And what about ancient techniques for careful management of sexual desire itself?