Planet Waves | From Self to Self by Eric Francis

 From Self to Self

Masturbation as the
Future of Sex

By Eric Francis

FOR THE PAST FOUR YEARS at Loving More conferences, I have helped create the communal masturbation component of the weekend at what is usually a very intellectually-based gathering. I feel in my heart that sharing masturbation is a healing and really fun way for adults to explore and express erotic community and emotional reality.

Loving More is a national network, conference and magazine dedicated to exploring the possibilities of committed, devoted and whole relationships that go beyond the one man, one woman formula that is given to us as the mandatory limit on love. As the years have progressed, I have brought my ideas into the Loving More community, carrying with me the understanding that if we can love ourselves shamelessly and fearlessly, it's a lot easier to love and be loved by others. I have about twenty-thousand concepts to back up my feelings, and I will spare you as many of these as is humanly possible while offering a few that seem to make some sense in this context, sticking, if I may, to the juicier material.

But wait. Masturbation as the future of sex? I know this seems a little out-there, like something I learned from the space brothers on board a UFO. But please humor me. And masturbation workshops? Do we really need to teach dogs how to scratch? And isn't this, like, really personal? Yep, yeah, and uh huh.

I would like to use this space to offer my observations from having presented about a dozen masturbation workshops, of a variety of shapes and sizes. I would like to toss out what I see as a few rich possibilities for the polyamorous community in its truly noble quest for fostering open communication and true honesty, redesigning relationship models, understanding sex, teaching compersion (the emotional reality we can reach when we go beyond jealousy), and letting go of the shame, guilt, jealousy and repression that make it so hard to love ourselves and one another.

And, for heaven's sake, our quest for fun.

And healing? We care about that. I feel that we can make some real headway in these areas, particularly erotic healing and the release of shame and guilt, through conscious, open exploration of masturbation and all its attending thoughts, feelings and values -- including and especially our phantasy lives, and all the rich emotions we experience there.

I share a theory with a few observers of the erotic realm: that we hold lots and lots of our 'stuff' about sex right in the same room, or the same box, or the same musty basement (as the case may be) as masturbation. As a result, much of the core wounding around our total sexuality is inflicted to masturbation. If we ignore this when we are sharing erotic experience with a partner, it's like trying to have sex wearing a backpack.


Beyond Lonely

Robert Heinlein, one of the godfathers of the polyamory movement thanks to his novel Stranger in a Strange Land, made only one comment about masturbation that I have read, through one of his other characters, Lazarus Long, which I must paraphrase. There is nothing wrong with masturbation, he said, except for one thing: it's lonely.

But does it need to be? And does not the isolation of selflove and masturbation box us into our feelings of shame, guilt and uncertainty, our feelings that we're not quite right? As sex educator Joseph Kramer said recently, "Only the passion of someone else accepting who we are pulls us out of that shame."

If we can get together on this one, if we can help one another out, I think we'll find a way of sharing intimacy that invokes less attachment, less projection, less getting lost in the other person, and, as well, clear erotic pleasure (from nice and warm to really hot). We will experience the appreciation of one another, and a sense of shared freedom and happiness that are rare to find in this world. We can struggle and fish around for this for decades in our polyamorous relationships while hardly ever getting a breath of the real thing. Share masturbation, make it a social experience, and the windows to Psyche's bedroom are thrown wide to the winds of Eros. Psyche and Eros were consorts in Greek mythology. We try to keep them apart in American mythology.

We think masturbation is lonely. But what about how lonely partnersex can be?

One of the greatest obstacles to intimacy we face is that so often, we neglect to disclose our true inner being, and we somehow cannot or do not love ourselves in the presence of other people. It is simple, and it's beautiful: you really have to love yourself a lot in order to masturbate in front of other people. And it's funny how easy it is when you just go for it. And then that love is affirmed, amplified and reflected back to you when you experience the phenomenon of another person's, or people's, perception of it. Which leads to my first example.


Ace of Cups

At a workshop for seven people held in 2000, we played a game which I call Ace of Cups. This is the card of love itself, the 'fountain that was not made by the hands of men', in the words of the lyricist Robert Hunter, the wellspring of joy and Eros (the Tarot reminds us that these things really do exist).

The setting is a warm, secure, private space, in the country near Seattle, phones unplugged, mixed gender; four women, three men, everyone is nude, in a cozy room with a mirror altar, and flowers, and fruit.

Food has been prepared and is available all day. There are a few sexual orientations represented. Three of the seven people are sexworkers. The group got together the prior night for dinner followed by a kind of selfpleasuring social, and met for about two hours to talk that morning. Everyone agreed in advance on the basic scenario, and what our boundaries are (invited touch only, watching and talking to people is okay, and so on).

When it's time to begin, we pass the deck around and everyone turns over the top card. There is a kind of playful tension in the air. Who could it be? Will it be me? Will it be her? I'd really like to see her I'd really like to show her...

Eventually, someone comes to the Ace of Cups. If that is you, you are it, and into the middle wit-ya, to describe what kind of experience you want, and to state out loud what you are feeling as you lay or sit there naked. This is somewhat personal: you have come out with your confessions of desire, like, for example, I want everyone touching me lightly, or holding me, while I make love to myself. Please talk to me. Please hold a mirror to my face, or I want to sit up in front of that big mirror. I want to fuck myself with that nice thing. I want to do it on my belly. Or face to face with a man. I'm a lesbian but I want a man close to me. Or whatever.

The value of this asking alone, just the mere words, has been estimated by government scientists to be worth approximately 2,455 therapy sessions.

But then you get to do it, and six people surround you, love you, witness you, and tell you how beautiful you are, and how right it is that you feel this way. This is an experiment in exploring what you might call nourishing communication, the exact opposite of what we have so often experienced when masturbation was an 'issue': secrecy, shame, the fear of disapproval, and the terror of getting caught. These fetters, hung onto masturbation, I believe, lead to much of the sexual crisis that our culture faces. And to get rid of them and find our freedom, we need to go back to the erotic source.

In this context, the idea is to feel anything you want, and show your stuff: we're going to love you. We need to love you. You need to love you. You need to be loved. We all gain in the equation.

Ah, sweet compersion.

After the person eases out of their experience, there is a short break, the cards are shuffled, and passed around, and somebody else draws the Ace, and this goes on for about six hours, at the end of which we all feel like we know something about one another and can be sure that everyone is a person. For we have all spoken and listened to and experienced the Universal Sexual Language, the inter-gender and inter-orientation tongue that we all know and understand.


Witnessed Solo Mirror Play

At a two-day workshop in California last summer, the first evening's activity (after the get-acquainted go-round, and a great dinner in the warm summer evening) was to watch someone named Tori be with, well, play with, and well, really get down with herself in front of a mirror for about two hours, pretty much nonstop. She went at it. The approximately 12 watchers could talk, observe closely, gaze, stare, listen carefully and move freely about the cabin to try different vantage points.

Why are we watching this? Because it's interesting and it's as beautiful as seeing Vesta be bathed in the sacred pool by her virgin nymphs under a full moon.

The effect on all of us was profound. There is, first of all, being overwhelmed by Tori's honesty, as she opens up and watches herself and studies her face up-close and does what really feels good to her; and it's kinda private so I won't get into it all here. But the experience is effortless; no one is required to do anything except for feel. And there is plenty to feel. Honesty is about feeling, and when we witness it, we want it for ourselves.

When she finally gives herself over to orgasm, we all understand. We are in agreement. We are in one space of beauty.

Yet pleasant as this is, there's really a confrontation involved, involving being face-to-face with a kind of absolute, that is, an expression of something absolutely and unabashedly human.

And to meet this, to encounter this, we must become soft and allowing, and this state of allowing the expression and feeling of pleasure in another person is what some call compersion. This is the inner territory we reach when we no longer need to control the emotions and pleasure of another person. It is called the opposite of jealousy, but really, it is beyond jealousy. This particular emotion is often quite elusive, as it can be so easily be obliterated by insecurity and control.

We usually seek its experience in the context, for example, of our lover being sexual with another person, which can be very beautiful, but also equally scary. In the context of witnessed masturbation, the experience is less threatening because it's not about your lover having sex with someone else, by whom they might be swept away; rather, it's about watching someone have sex with herself, and maybe watching your lover enjoy it quite a bit, as a witness. It is about allowing an appreciation.

It is usually possible to allow someone we love to be this free without freaking out.

Compersion is the coveted secret elixir of emotions because it promises to turn the pain of jealousy into an ecstatic calm, or ecstatic release. It is the experience of compassion for another person's pleasure. There is more to it, but what I am getting to is that a fine way to feel compersion without having to confront jealousy is to just simply watch a person masturbate. For couples who are considering opening their relationships to other adults but scared about the jealousy, this is a fine way to get the feel of things, particularly in a group setting, for example, where three or more people are present.


Toward Polyamory and Bisexuality

This is a step, a very significant step, toward being able to truly handle multi-partner erotic experience with an open heart. But it's not a bad stop along the way; it's a really pleasant one, more like an oasis in a dry land. I have experienced a variety of group sex experiences and a variety of shared masturbation experiences. The masturbation experiences were not only hotter, and easier, and freer, they were more clear, and they were worry-free because all the usual concerns about pregnancy and disease were not in the picture. It's like "love lite," with all the intimacy and a fraction of the karma.

Sharing masturbation is also a delicate initiation into same-sex experience. Not everyone is ready for the swan dive into homosexuality, what they may view as some kind of a fetish on the side of their more dominant heterosexual feelings. Sharing masturbation with a person of your same sex can be very easy, gentle and liberating. The scene of the selflover, the images and sounds, the familiarity, the lust, the adoration of the person (or people), can all be experienced without any touching taking place. We can expose ourselves fully to a loving person of the same sex, but it is mostly a psychic exposure -- the kind we really want and need.

So there is another mode of reality that unfolds here, and that is witnessing. Witnessing is an active, at times interactive, observation process, and more than that, a standing in acknowledgement of what is so. Witnessing is a way of nourishing and affirming the existence of another human spirit, and of feeding one's spirit at the same time. To witness a person masturbating is a profound metaphor for beholding them as they are. There is more to a person, of course, than their expression of pleasure, but our pleasure is one of the qualities we most often hide from the most people. It's like this secret we want to let out, but are scared to except in far-out moments.

To be witnessed is extremely reassuring. That someone cares, that someone is acknowledging us from the outside, allows our own quest for inner affirmation to be validated, or perhaps take form for the first time. That we might disclose to others who we are, what we feel or what we desire, and be accepted for this, is powerfully life-affirming.


A Healing-Erotic Journey

What I have described are just two possible formats. I have tried lots of others, including a group of 10 people and one mirror and people individually taking a turn before the mirror. A few just watched. These people ranged from about 50 to 80 years old (yep). Then there have been a variety of "traditional" Jack and Jill-offs, more social types of group masturbation experiences. For group play, there are basically infinite possibilities.

There are more intimate options, too, such as two lovers inviting a friend to masturbate with them. Three-way sex might seem out of the question, water a little too deep, but masturbating together might be just delightfully right. Two couples can get together and do the same thing. And it's very nice one-on-one, with a friend or a lover. This is a truly versatile, deeply erotic form of expressing sensuality and sexuality. And it's clear that Lazarus Long never got to experience it in all his five thousand or so years of life, because it's anything but lonely.

In experimenting with any of these experiences, I strongly suggest that the discussion aspect be a true priority. Verbal self-disclosure, and connecting feelings to words, can be very erotic and very healing, particularly the open sharing of phantasies. And the knowledge that, after saying what you have to say, you are going to masturbate before these people, can be both a truth serum and a buildup to a profound and brilliant erotic exploration and release.

I have never experienced this kind of play with a group of people sustained over a long period of time, say, a few years. But if my experiences with individuals are any indication, my sense is that it would be an exploration with no end in sight.


From Self to Self

Part of the freedom of these experiences is that we are taking responsibility for our own pleasure. There is no overlay of feelings in the sense that we are usually accustomed to it. One can adore, worship and get off on the beauty of another person, but the experience is ultimately self-given, and it's very difficult to form attachments, or rather, gratefully easy not to. There is a claiming back of our pleasure that happens, and an enhanced state of awareness that you are you and I am me. All of our talk about boundaries is necessary precisely because, by whatever phenomenon, we forget who is who. When masturbation is shared, there is no question who is who.

Many of us are looking for ways to more freely express our erotic natures without hurting ourselves or other people. We tend to have two modes of sex, alone, or hot and heavy with someone else. This is a middle ground.

One of my friends, Lindsey, put it this way: "As I read this, it occurred to me that perhaps regular partner sex is dependence, solo masturbation is independence, and masturbating in front of each other is moving towards interdependence... a time when you really affirm that the other person is sexually whole unto themselves, and you can be seen by another person as being sexually whole. I think this takes some of the 'neediness' out of the equation... it affirms that I am whole, you are whole, we don't need each other; instead we're freely choosing to come together to share a moment."

As for the future of sex: In our search for a future, there are few places we have not already been. This is one of them, and it's a spacious, luxurious land where we really can be free because we really can be free to feel because we can really be individuals. Together.++


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Space graphic above from the Rosette Nebula in Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Sulfur.
Credit: T. A. Rector, B. Wolpa, M. Hanna. Planet Waves logo by Eric, and Via Keller.