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When I was fourteen I became convinced that masturbating would kill me. In the attic bedroom in my father's house, up in the bedroom where I slept during my semi-willing weekend visits to my father and stepmother's house, I lay on my belly, propped halfway up on a pile of pillows, one hand smashed between my crotch and the sheet as I read the 'dirty parts' of Lisa Alther's Kinflicks. I'd "borrowed" the book from the shelves of a family for whom I regularly babysat after reading it one night after the kids were asleep and discovering that I not only enjoyed the book, but that there were a variety of short but interesting sex scenes that definitely fired my pubescent imagination. There I was, diddling, reading and rereading, giving the pertinent bits of prose the benefit of intensive literary (or is that cliterary?) scrutiny, when suddenly my brain exploded.
But not in the way you might think.
Climax hit, and with it came the sharpest, most terrifying pain I had ever felt in my young life. I was paralyzed by a sensation that seemed to stab from the base of my skull to the crown of my head, as if a laser column seared its way through my brain.
I couldn't move. I lay there, hand still between my thighs, as my stomach turned. The odd sensation of stepping aside and watching my body came over me. I watched dumbly as my mouth opened and I vomited without feeling it, puke splattering my pillows, all other sensation completely blocked by the all-encompassing horror of my head. I remember thinking obliquely that it was fortunate that I hadn't splattered the book, or I would've had a bit of explaining to do the next time I babysat for the Hirschfelds.
Suddenly I was gasping for breath, coughing as I choked slightly on sour-tasting spit and bile. I slammed back into my body, back to the pain, my only thought a frantic "make it stop dear God make it stop make it stop." Then a wave of the profoundest, most horrible shame hit me: I had brought this upon myself. Masturbating, intentionally getting myself worked up and off by reading what I thought of as "porn" (though Alther's novel, however explicit it is at moments, hardly constitutes "porn"), doing it just for the sheer fun of the sensation was what had brought on this inexplicable attack. Just a few months earlier, the teenaged sister of one of my brother's friends had died of a freak aneurysm. Had something similar broken loose inside my skull? Had my brother's friend's sister died by doing the same thing I had been doing? Would it just be a matter of a few minutes before I died?
I tore my hand away from my crotch as if it were on fire, wrenching myself onto my back in a motion so painful that it still remains seared into my memory. As the pain of motion receded slightly, I opened my eyes. The centre of my field of vision was black, black, black. All I could see were little glimpses of my peripheral vision. My head hurt worse than anything I could've even imagined, and to top it all off, I was going blind. Was this it, I wondered? Was this what dying was like? I was blind, transfixed by pain, lying on my bed with adolescent pussy juice on my fingers and a "dirty" book lying open on my vomit-spattered bed, panting from the pain, half-terrified and half-praying that my father (or even my detested stepmother) would come to check on me or nag me about turning out my light and be able, somehow, to help me.
No one came, which in one sense was an enormous relief: I couldn't imagine how I would ever explain what had happened. I certainly couldn't call for help, for if I was certain of anything in that moment, or during the long night afterward, it was that whatever was happening to me, I had done it to myself by masturbating. I had gone blind. I was in horrible pain. I might be dying. With the methodical calmness that comes when you're scared out of your wits but feel as if there's nothing else you can do but try to think, I lay there wondering if what I was feeling really was a burst blood vessel deep in my brain, one that had burst because I had been jerking myself off while reading about Ginny Babcock's lesbian lover Eddie having sex with her with a greased organic cucumber.
Lying there, I cursed my stupid desire. If it weren't for the way I had been, I felt, so enslaved to the pleasure of reading about sex, if it weren't for the fact that I had sought out the titillation even to the extent of swiping a dirty book, none of this would've happened. It was all my fault, and I couldn't tell a soul. Even if I got better (and I lay there whispering silent prayers to God to please let me survive), no one could ever know. But much more importantly, I could never, ever again do what had caused this nightmare. Ever.
The next morning, I woke up and was ecstatically relieved to discover that I could see again. My head still hurt, but it wasn't nearly as severe. Mostly I was embarrassed and convinced I didn't dare tell anyone what had happened. I managed to strip the bed and get my linens into the washing machine before anyone else was up, and aside from telling my father I thought I might be getting the flu, since I needed an excuse for being obviously fairly out of whack, I said nothing to anyone. I returned Kinflicks to its rightful owners the next weekend while they were escaping their colicky twins for the evening, and embarked upon a zealous campaign of keeping my hands above the sheets forevermore.
For about the next year and a half, I basically did not, would not (with only two or three exceptions) masturbate. It wasn't because I thought it was sinful, or because I genuinely thought it was abnormal or wrong. I'm not sure quite what I thought the connection was between my masturbation and the horrible pain I'd gone through. My father, a physical anthropologist, taught Introduction to Human Sexuality courses, and I had educated myself reasonably well by reading the textbooks. I knew that masturbation was supposedly common, that even chimpanzees jerked off. I felt no particular guilt about touching myself.
Somehow, though, it was clear to me that doing it just for the pleasure, just for the thrill, was not merely self-indulgent, but was an invitation to a kind of pain I never, ever wanted to repeat. Especially if dirty stories were involved. Somehow, in my mind, the fact that I had been jilling off while reading something that turned me on, something as taboo as a stolen book, as a scene about one woman penetrating another with a thick, hard thing, was inextricably part of why I had been struck so damned hard by that Thor's hammer that hit my brain.
About a year later, I had another episode. There was the same intense pain, the same blindness in the centre of my field of vision, although it was not quite so sudden in its onset. It didn't happen when I was masturbating, that time, but it did happen shortly after I'd shared one of my earliest seriously torrid necking-and-groping sessions with a partner. The boy in question, one of my best male friends, had walked home from school with me, and we'd gone from sitting on my bed and talking to having an all-out kissathon, hands roving over one another's' bodies, breath quickening, nipples stiff to the point of aching, bumping and grinding as our teeth clashed and tongues wrestled with all the energy of the revelatory newness of reciprocated desire.
By the time the sound of my mom's car rolling into the driveway sent us flying apart, hurrying to smooth our hair and get into the living room so it'd look like we'd been doing homework together by the time she got in the door, I'd been fondling his stiffness through the front of his jeans and he'd sneaked a finger all the way down into my panties, sliding in between my labia on a gush of sweet girl-slipperiness. It was the first time another person had run a finger over my clitoris, and if I close my eyes and think about it, I can still remember how shockingly strong, and how shockingly good, it felt. That night, I jilled off in spite of my usual prohibition, coming hard, burying my face in my pillows as I recalled the taste of my friend's lips, the feel of his hands, the strength of his body against mine, the rough velvet of a finger - someone else's finger - on my clit.
The next day I came home from school alone, my paramour's mom having taken him to a dentist's appointment. Dutifully plowing through my homework on an overcast afternoon, I turned on an extra lamp when it seemed as if the room grew a little dim. I wasn't prepared for the pain, or for the blindness, as the thousand-layered curtain of fog and pain lowered gradually into place. By the time I realized it was more than just a headache it was already to the point of rendering me paralyzed and pukey, and I just staggered into my bedroom and laid down, telling my mom when she came home that I thought I might be coming down with something and I wanted to try to sleep it off.
I might've tried to tell my mother what was going on, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. I was afraid that the pain I was in would tattle on me, was terrified that there was some secret connection between the pleasure and the pain that the grownups didn't want any kid to know about so that they could use it as a way to tell when we did Things We Weren't Supposed To Do. It took another several months before I found out - by sheer coincidence, because a girlfriend of mine was diagnosed with them - that what I had were migraines.
When I finally made the connection between what had happened to me and the symptoms my girlfriend described having every month right before her period, and conjectured that perhaps I too was a migraine sufferer, I began a series of experiments.
I masturbated every day, methodically, sometimes three or five sessions of jilling off over the course of the day, trying to determine, more or less scientifically, whether it really did make me get those headaches, and if so, what kind of masturbation it took to do it. I masturbated while I read Shakespeare for English class. I masturbated in the tub. I jilled while babysitting, having found a cache of skeezy porno mags hidden at the bottom of a big basket of magazines in one family's master bathroom. Another family I babysat for had a huge Panasonic massager in the living room, plugged in and ready for action next to the easy chair. After the kids were in bed, I lay on the couch with it wedged under my pubic bone and massaged myself into the next dimension.
In short, I became an ace masturbator. I did it a lot. Unapologetically. Deliberately. Repeatedly. And miracle of miracles, nothing happened. My headaches had nothing to do with it after all. They were wildcat things, occurring apparently at random, one or two in a six-month period. I still had to suffer now and then, but at least I had the silent but profound relief of knowing it wasn't me… and it wasn't sex, or masturbation, or pleasure, or porn. It had nothing to do with where I stuck my fingers, or what I read while I did it, or even where I did it or how "wrong" it might've been in someone else's eyes that I was there, underaged, writhing in ecstasy, my fingers doing the walking.
Sometimes people ask me, friends and interviewers alike, what events and people influenced my choices to do the kind of work that I am doing these days, writing and talking and teaching about sex and sexuality. No matter what I say, I never feel like I'm really giving them a complete answer, perhaps because this story is so much a part of what the answer really is. I often think the experience of literally going blind and insane with pain - and believing it was caused by masturbating - is one of the weirdest, most embarrassing, and yet most formative things that has led me to make sex work part of my life. The moment that I thought I might die because I masturbated, and the moments that followed in which I figured out how to put cause and effect into their proper categories and grab my own pleasure by the handful once again, are somewhere at the core of who I am as a sexual being.
I wasn't poorly educated. I hadn't been beaten over the head with visions of eternal damnation if I was sexually impure. At fourteen I knew more than any of my friends did about sex. I had access to sexuality textbooks, to Gray's Anatomy, to my father's stash of Playboy, and I knew what masturbation was and that women did it as well as men. And yet, when the migraine hit, I couldn't shake the conviction that it was masturbation that had caused it… and for quite a while, I let that conviction erase my primary form of sexual pleasure from my life.
As I sit here in the wee hours of the new century (as I type, it's 3:20 am on January 1, 2000), looking back at the memory of extreme pain and the joy of being released from it, I hope that this essay, and the rest of the work that I do with sex, whether it's nonfiction or fiction, workshops or books, educating or titillating or simply in my own intimate sphere as a partner to my lovers, helps to break the chains of useless self-limitation and restriction of pleasure.
I get a lot of mail from readers, and a lot of feedback in workshops and seminars, from people who can't allow themselves the pleasure they want - and the pleasure they deserve - for a thousand meaningless reasons. They're too old, or too married, or too worried about what their partner will think if they confess to a risqué fantasy. They're too fat, or too bald, or too hung-up on their own image of themselves, too busy, too much a pillar of the community, too visible, too out-of-shape, too freckled or wrinkled or weird. What they are, most of the time, is too scared.
They're scared of pleasure, they're scared of what it represents, they're scared of not being able to get back to a safe little box once they've learned how to open the lid. They're scared of a lot of things, but perhaps what they're scared of most of all is the subversive, wooly, wild and weird power of joy.
Yes, it's scary. So what? The most powerful forces in life are scary at times. Pleasure is no exception. But the power to create pleasure, whether through sex or any other of the venues by which we approach our selves and our souls, is both too powerful and too precious to waste through fear. When we help to create joy, when we generate pleasure, we recreate ourselves in freedom and light and the grace of God.
Welcome to a new year, friends and lovers. May it give you the space in which to grow and love, yearn and dance, spin with dizzy delight and weep with the bone-deep joy of enlightenments of all kinds. Sweep away some cobwebs, jump a fence or two, muss your nice clothes when you do something foolish and flagrant and fun. Love hard, live with grace and appetite, forget that you're a grownup once in a while. Kiss a lot. Masturbate while you read Shakespeare. Go blindly into your bliss until the startling clarity of your vision births you, red and hot and naked, into the world you want.
I look forward to seeing you there.