"Masturbation is a primary form of sexual expression. It's not just for kids or for those in-between lovers or for old people who end up alone. Masturbation is the ongoing love affair that each of us has with ourselves throughout our lifetime."
— Betty Dodson, Sex for One: The Art of Self-Loving
May 1: I just had an excellent little half-hour of sweaty sex, tumbly and moaning under my covers. And I was all alone. This is a bone-deep bedrock of my sexuality, a place of radical self care, and I'm claiming it for all to hear.
I did it the old way this morning: under covers pulled up to my chest, with a vibrator and the music loud around me. This was the way I came for years, music blaring loud so as to (somehow, I imagined) mask the noise of the vibrations, and I could escape all the way into fantasy, I could move hard into the imagining of some faceless woman getting fucked by any number of faceless guys, I didn't really have to be part of the equation at all.
You understand, right? This was about survival. This was about being able to give myself the small thread of pleasure/trauma re-enactment of orgasm; for years and years it was always both: pleasure and then the nausea that followed immediately in orgasm's wake.
But now it's changed: me loving my own body to orgasm first thing on a Tuesday morning, letting all my muscles tense and loosen, letting the moans escape from my own lips, imagining my love letting me wake her with my lips between her legs, giving myself a little fantasy to jump and sing around the sensations I was giving myself with vibrator and fingers.
This morning, after I came, I did what's become my new, surprising post-orgasm habit: I laughed, giggly and low, delighted. I felt how turned on I was, how I could easily have continued, maybe carried myself on and through to another orgasm.
These days, I don't even feel around anymore for the nausea, for that old horror, for the place in me that carried my stepfather's smile and scent on the contractions of my cunt.
There's only one time I remember masturbating as a child: eight years old, lying on a mattress on the floor in the dark bedroom I shared with my sister in the apartment mom moved into after leaving my dad. Hands cupped between my legs, over my pajama bottoms, I pushed up toward my belly in minuscule movements; keep still be quiet—my sister slept next to me. All the night in the room seemed to tighten around me, and I got scared by how excited I felt. I took my hands away, my heart pounding, not wanting my sister to hear.
Eventually, my stepfather ensured that I had an orgasm each time he abused me; orgasm was wholly his. Maybe my coming meant, to him, that he hadn't done anything wrong: look, she wanted it.
I'd never had an orgasm before my stepfather's occupation of my pubescent sexuality, though my body showed me what the word meant after I tried the vibrator that showed up in my Christmas stocking when I was 15 or 16. Eventually, my stepfather ensured that I had an orgasm each time he abused me; orgasm was wholly his. Maybe my coming meant, to him, that he hadn't done anything wrong: look, she wanted it. I learned a kind of psychic-disembodiment calisthenics. While trying to come, I strove to disconnect my actual bodily sensation from the orgasm I was reaching for. This is not strictly possible, of course—orgasm is an experience that requires a body—but to the best of my ability, I relegated the sensations in my body into the bodies of whomever I was fantasizing about. I wanted as little of me involved in orgasm as possible. When I came, hard and sharp, the orgasm was entirely localized in my pelvis, grabby contractions that left me nauseous. After coming, I felt relief, but no pleasure, absolutely no joy.
Even the orgasms I had alone left me sick to my stomach. Orgasms were just another part of the violence. I learned, under my psychotherapist stepfather's tutelage, to focus on the how of my sex: whether I was improving and evolving, whether and how I was coming (mature vaginal or immature clitoral), and how I could get better, how I could improve. He fed me his obsession with sex and control, and I, being a smart girl, learned to breathe it in order to survive.
For much of my twenties I didn't bother trying to come during consensual sex—in order to orgasm, I had to separate. Bifurcate. Unbecome the grown woman with a partner, and reinhabit that teenager stuck on a bed beside a forty-something-year-old man, dissociating from her body into wildly violent fantasy. I learned to hate orgasm, learned to hate the very infrastructure that had the capacity to come even while being violated.
I never completely stopped touching myself by myself, though, even if I ate silence around it. Not long after I got away from my stepfather, at age twenty-one, I began using masturbation as a way through the rubble of an incested sexuality: how to have a body along with orgasm, how to rebuild a sex constructed through rape?
May 21: Today's was a fantasy that shifted like a dream, from me on my knees before her to her on her knees in front of me, from us in the classroom to us in the wings of a theater, from her about to come to my orgasming there under the water—I fell into the spaciousness and multiplicity of fantasy, let the images unfold, told myself the story the way I might write it, the way I might tell her if we were on the phone. I made myself wait for the good part, made myself listen for zippers and instructions, smelled chalk dust and hunger and sweat.
In one of my otherwise favorite books about writing, The Joy of Writing Sex, Elizabeth Benedict writes:
As sexual activities go, in literature as in life, masturbation has its limitations. And although we may agree, at least sotto voce, that it is the primary sexual activity of mankind, there is no getting around the fact that you usually do it when you don't have any better offers. When you are alone (read: lonely; read: abandoned) or when you feel you might as well be.
This idea infuriates me: that masturbation indicates a failure, on the part of the masturbator, to get "better offers," to have any sort of social life to speak of. When we surrender to this belief, we do a violence to ourselves—we relinquish the pleasure and knowledge we receive by laying hands on our own bodies and delivering delight. For folks who've survived trauma (and there are so few of us in the Western hemisphere or any other part of the world who make it to adulthood with our erotic psyches unscathed), masturbation is a way to learn the complicated contours of the place someone else turned into a battleground; it's a way to bring life to a deathscape, a way to reclaim the scene of the crime. It's a way even, as in my case, to take back the exact touches, imaginings and convulsings that were forced upon me by my stepfather and let them, after almost twenty years now, blossom into new meaning and new possibility.
Why can't I just come and keep having sex like other people do? Why does my orgasm have to be so much work?
May 10: She watches me, for an hour, with the vibrator between my legs. She says, Do you want to come? and I say Yes, then blush. I want it, but am not in a place where coming feels possible, and get frustrated. Why can't I just come and keep having sex like other people do? Why does my orgasm have to be so much work?
She bends over, touches me, watches how I do it. But I can't get there. I don't want to leave, don't want the going-away-into-fantasy orgasm usually requires of me. I want to be here: her mouth on my body, her touch still so new—isn't this the sort of thing that gets some women off? Why do I have to shove off into a long boat and row all the way out into the middle of the sea, alone on fantasy island, safe and secure and by myself when I come?
I apologize when I finally stop, which I know she doesn't need, this unctuous I'm sorry, but how can I tell her how hungry I am for her, how good she makes me feel, if I can't come for her? I want to be free. I am tired of the hang-ups, the stops, the plateau. I've been on the plateau for twenty years.
This is my sour grapes self-pity party, the swollen-cheeked survivor girl asking, If I can come when my stepfather has his mouth on me then why can't I come when someone I actually like and want to have sex with has her mouth on me?
I don't want to be obsessed with my orgasm. I don't want to have to stalk it. I'd like, just once, for an orgasm to surprise me.
It tends to be, when in a relationship, that I feel some shame around the pleasure I take in touching myself, some sense that I am stealing from my partner when I give my own body an orgasm in the tub or in bed or in a bathroom stall or wherever. I sneak around, masturbating furtively, a grown woman acting like a teenage boy with something to hide.
When I stop touching myself regularly, though, I soon enough find that my larger sexual self begins to shut down, because I've turned away from a fundamental part of both my healing and my desire. But I, too, am susceptible to the narrative that Benedict articulates above: someone else is supposed to be the one who gives me orgasms, and if that's not happening, there's something wrong with me. I think, maybe if I quit doing it to myself, the orgasms will magically build up inside me and my lover will just pluck them out, easy, one by one.
But my body doesn't work like that. And I start resenting the fact that they get orgasms and I don't. So I start in with the clandestine coming, spreading out under the covers before they come to bed or tearing under my stockings in the bathroom at work, trying to come fast, quiet, orgasming into a familiar place of guilt and shame.
May 3: It took awhile to come this morning, and I gave myself exactly as long as I needed. Sometimes radical self care is not rushing or forcing an orgasm, is breathing when you thought you had to go fast, is listening to the parts that need a little more time.
I began to wonder if I'd be able to come at all today. Then there's that thin shiver of electricity that rises from my pelvis up through the middle of me, between spine and heart. This small, lit filament says, It's happening.
After, I laugh out loud and tears brim just to the other side of some bedrock in me, haven't yet broken through. I lay there a moment and soothed the echoing throbs that swelled and exploded. The tears rested in my cheekbones, in the tendons of my neck, in my jawbone. They'll come, eventually. Like we do.
Shame is the thing I want to give up for Lent, the hollow hoarding of misery worn like a fur coat on my tongue, so I cannot say what I want. Mother, hold out your two choir hands and let me fill them with this bath of disgrace, this bilge of broken bones, this underskin I've worn like my own name for so many years that I am not sure who to be without it. I feel uncloaked even if what I really mean is washed clean. Clean has not been my name; I'm the girl who climbed into dirty and made a home, swept out one corner and brought in my books and a blanket. Shame has been the armor, wholly eroticized, consecrated, entangled through every vein.
Shame has been the armor, wholly eroticized, consecrated, entangled through every vein
May 16: Two orgasms in five hours (just hush if that sounds slow or would come easy for you). One I got to go to sleep after, one arrived complete with sobs. This morning, I feel too visible, raw, my legs like those of a newborn foal. You know that kind of wet and shaking, newly born thing just learning to bear its own weight? That's where I live these days.
"[S]tudies show that it takes 15 to 40 minutes for the average woman to reach orgasm." — Men's Health Magazine website
May 2: Today I came relatively quick, which means in about twenty minutes; often I will take half an hour (even sometimes closer to an hour, when the watcher that lives just outside my brain takes over and holds my tense limbs hostage at the edge of almost, almost, almost there). Quick often feels better to me, more normal. I want to untether these words, unhook fast from good, uncouple slow from wrong.
And also: I want to be able to come faster. Well, I want to be able to come different. I want more kinds of orgasms ready in my repertoire. I want to come hard and slow sometimes, and fast and light other times (or even fast and hard—could I sometimes come fast and hard?). Twice I've had orgasms unmediated by my own ministrations (although one of those was when my stepfather was in the middle of an assault, and so I wonder if it's one I should even count, except for this: I understood, in that moment, that my body had this capacity, that I could come that way, even if I didn't want to be doing so with him.) Like Rilke, I want a lot – Perhaps I want everything.
Today there were tears behind the small laugh that pushed out of me after I came; they didn't pour out of me, though, and I was disappointed not to get that release, too. Greedy. You are not dead yet, Rilke continued, it's not too late.
Twenty-three years ago I looked into a future that had no shape, unwanted sex and psychological violence smeared everywhere I looked. Masturbation was both an attempt to give myself a little pleasure, and was simultaneously a pure rehearsal of the trauma I'd internalized. I had no certainty about escape; I could not see a future for myself at all.
Today I reach a ghost hand back to that girl, to hold her hand the way she, in a month and a half, will hold the hand of another woman during sex with a group of friends, the way that she, later, will hold the hand of her sister. Today I cup her sallow cheeks in my two hands: It isn't just about getting free, Jenny—it's much much more than either of us could imagine. It's about finally getting to fill out the long breadth of our skin. It's about getting to tell the truth about what we want and pursue it. It's about getting to welcome the sound of someone else's desires and not being held captive or manipulated by those. It's about home. You will get home. It will be harder than anything you can imagine now. But you will get home. And home will be this body that you are so desperate to escape from.
Today I offer that girl a bold promise: it gets better—but before it does, it's going to get much, much worse. But, after that: it will be better than anything you can imagine.
After all these years of struggle and therapy, sex alone and sex with others, tears during sex, tears after coming, nausea and shame after coming, reaching for a kind of sex I couldn't even imagine—at 40 years old, I finally stopped thinking of my body as aftermath, as crime scene, as a place that ought to have police tape around it. My body and psyche are not simply duct-taped wounds. There are scars here—but also delight. There's this lifetime of reaching out, wanting my skin on the grass, against trees, putting everything in my mouth just to see what the world feels like there. There're hugs and longing, sleep and walking in rain and pushing muscles against stone and planting seeds and slicing garlic; there's candlelight and bubblegum and the smells of jasmine and rosemary and ocean spray, Polaroid cameras and tears and movies and rage in my muscles like ice water and so much laughter that my face will forever be marked with it.
What I'm telling you is, my body-love is larger than my trauma.
Incest was the lens through which I beheld my entire life. What does a lens do? Focuses and elides. Centers or blurs. Shades or clarifies.
I saw the world through Incest: it was my assumption and breath, my body and blood, my blink. The chalk taste that lined the inside of my mouth, the scrape that bit at my shoulders: Incest was my base; it's where I was made to believe I began.
These days, to my astonishment, I look around the edges of Incest, to view (and so engage) the world with a different valence, find my unbroken, unincested body, a girl child with skin and nerves and bones, a girl child with hope and silence, with the fairy tale romantic desire to be swept up and away, a girl child who played bondage games with a neighborhood friend—who had a sexuality before Incest.
A sex that preceded Incest.
The thing about the body is that it holds so much sorrow and joy, it carries weight greater than the scale can register. This body is laden with the history scratched beneath its surface, phrases and fragments that live between thighs, under kneecaps, in the knots of shoulderblades. I look in the mirror and think how glad I am of these strong thighs, hard-calloused feet, calves that push me up hills, bulb of belly I cup in my two hands. In these moments, I don't focus on the horror this body carries, the stretch marks across thighs or breasts, the invisible scars.
What does it mean when the site of the crime can be adored? I remember, yes, his mouth rested here—here and there, actually—but not today. Today his story's an undershadow, an old echo. In one hand, I hold his penetrations, and, in the other, I hold the glory my fingers bring forth from that very same curve and flush of skin. This is a hard working ache of a body, a privileged body, a harmed body, a beloved body.
What does it mean when the site of the crime can be adored? I remember, yes, his mouth rested here—here and there, actually—but not today. Today his story's an undershadow, an old echo.
Do we really get to love our bodies? Do we get to have pleasure in the places that were shat upon and transgressed, were called beautiful and desirable by the people who were meant to protect us but feasted upon us instead, the parts of us that were tenderly and persistently defiled?
It's easy for me, still, to obsess about how I'm doing sexually (and by doing, I mean recovering/healing): Are we better yet? Are we fixed? Can we stop worrying now?
Obsession isn't the same as curiosity. What happens when I meet my (incipient) orgasm with open-handed interest, rather than with knives and hammers and microscopes, ready to dissect it into pieces until it disappears?
When I am obsessed, particularly around my healing or my sex, I get numb. It's hard to breathe. I take on the old, scared self—that girl who had to actively, violently interrogate her own body just to get through the night. I can choose otherwise: to meet this body, its multifaceted desire, with more curiosity, shine a compassionate light on the selfish places and the generous places, where I'm still terrified and overwhelmed, where I'm still armored, where I ride shame, how much I need laughter with my sex, how I hold tight and how I let go.
The ongoing love affair we have with ourselves throughout our lifetime, she wrote.
May 30: This, then, is the practice: come back come back come back. You get to have everything that you want, body, and we get to be perfect in exactly our responses in this (any) moment. This is not a contradiction, even and especially when what I want is to come fast and what my body is doing is lingering for long minutes in the pleasure of the plateau, the longing, the slow burn and build. Today I wept for that practice, for the release, for the wanting more and how I get to keep learning that my body knows its infinite possibility—that when I quit trying to force myself to come/feel/respond in a particular way, so much more joy and release can open up in me. I contract, yes, then release. Then release. Release.
— Benedict, Elizabeth. The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers. New York, NY: Holt and Co, 2002.
— Dodson, Betty. Sex for One: The Art of Self Loving. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1996.
— Herbenick, Debby. "10 Lessons About the Female Orgasm." Men's Health, http://www.menshealth.com/mhlists/understand_the_female_orgasm/index.php
— Rilke, Ranier Maria. "[You see, I want a lot], Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (trans. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy)
Jen Cross is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University. Most of her writing tangles with queerness, sex, and/in the aftermath of sexual violence. She has facilitated writing workshops in the SF Bay Area for trauma survivors since 2002, and is the author of Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma (Mango, 2017). Other writing appears in such anthologies and periodicals as Nobody Passes, Sinister Wisdom, The Healing Art of Writing 2010, make/shift, Visible: A Femmethology (Vol. 1), and Best Sex Writing 2008. Visit her at writingourselveswhole.org.