Masturbation, Fantasy and Captivity

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zoo monkey masturbating

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 humanexcept 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.

First guy

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.

Second guy

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.

masturbation odometerDid 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 reliefuntil 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 manyalthough a particularly compelling one.

choking the chickenBoth 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) balanceeven 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, touchpair 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?


I'm a fan of this article.

Modern conditions are not the same as the conditions under which humanity evolved.

First Guy makes some great points but Marnia, thank you for writing this article. This is a great opening of the discussion and I don't really see it happening anywhere else.

Thanks for your

contribution. I'll put it up on "Psychology Today" one of these days and keep you informed if it sparks an interesting debate.

Any suggested improvements meanwhile?

I don't have any specific changes to add.

I think there are few people asking about why this phenomena has happened. What are the conditions, legal, economic and social that have created this "porn generation." Maybe I'll write my own book on the topic after awhile. I am pleased and thankful that you value my contributions and take my ideas seriously. Even if they are a the beaten track.

Most everything I learn on this subject

comes through you guys who are actually wrestling with it. I'm very glad you're collecting your thoughts to write about them. The world needs the insights of those who have faced this challenge, and porn recovery is still not my main focus.

My theory is that today's issue is really just "extreme stimuli." Now, each brain will register different things as "extreme." However, today's Internet porn delivers a cornucopia of extreme things...for ANY human brain. So it has the potential to throw all of us into dopamine dysregulation. This was less likely when we had to rely on our hands and imaginations...or even a porn magazine.

It's the extremeness of the stimulation, relative to what our ancestors' (and our) brains evolved with, which is causing the problem here....because more intense excitement means a bigger blast of (dysregulating) neurochemicals...and a number pleasure response for a time afterward...making the "need" for escalation so much more demanding.

I think once we see the problem in these terms, everyone can make his own experiments with whether cutting back returns his brain to greater sensitivity to "normal" stimuli.

Ya know...

I look forward to a time in the not too distant future when I am on here not to get over porn but to contribute thoughts to your "main focus" of this site. If the porn stuff wasn't here, I wouldn't be here. In addition, the concept of Karezza is still pretty radical and new and really the opposite of what everyone is chasing. I'm attracted to your work because of this. It's like an answer that is there all along and is kind of obvious but people just aren't thinking about having less of anything these days (even though they are being forced to through economic privation.)

Normal stimuli

The true danger and challenge we face is that the world is moving at such a pace that society's view of what "normal" stimuli is will soon be lost under the sands of time. Is it just me or are attention spans shorter, do people read less, self-medicate more - is society more likely to drown its problems than face them than ever before? We need to continue to encourage thought and debate, raise awareness and most importantly provide alternatives.

thanks for reading,


The only way we’ll ever touch the problem of addiction

There are undoubtedly many people now compulsively addicted to masturbating using pornography who, because pornography is so widespread, started off thinking of themselves as perfectly normal for using it. Then, as their requirements for ever harder pornography became apparent to them they may notice changes in themselves that make them feel uncomfortable but feel that the problem is becoming too much for them to deal with alone. Then, it becomes difficult. I mean who do you talk to about this? Not everyone can either face or afford counselling and so the problem becomes their's alone, and they may choose just to ignore it, which would become increasingly difficult, avoid it altogether (very difficult), or, as many people on this website have found, try to understand has happed to them in terms of psychology.

Pornographers are largely to blame for the "everybody's doing it" attitude that pervades society regarding pornography/masturbation (obviously there is also a good deal of smutty humour relating to the subject). Pornography is a multi billion dollar industry worldwide. Perhaps the new message should be "emancipate your left (or right) hand: don't be a slave to masturbation"; "actually lots of people aren't doing it"; " lots of people are trying to stop doing it"; "some people have stopped for so long they've forgotten how to do it and are doing things that are much better instead"; "doing it isn't the answer, doing it right is"; "if masturbation is a symptom then what is the cause?"; "find the cause find your cure"; "if it doesn't make you happy why do it?"; "how do you want to feel?"; "if you can't get no satisfaction then do something else".

It's vital to think of the women in pornography in terms of their potential rather than as objects. The world knows the price of everything but the value of nothing it seems. The pornographers pay women in financial difficulties or women in developing countries to pose for pornographic photos and act out sex in videos. A question I'd like answered is how can men who are developing an awareness of the situation help to change this? Obviously... stop paying for it, but is there anything else? What can be done to stop this misery (for men and women) perpetuating? Everybody can find some answers to this question in their own heart; and if they act on it who knows where it can lead. Perhaps to a true "sexual revolution", an educated sexual revolution rather than the blind rebellion of the '60s and 70's that has led to this current mess.

Imagination of course is a marvellous asset, but like all tools that can be used for good or for bad. Fantasy based on pornography is both bad for mental, spiritual and physical health because of the stress it puts us under in the long run. Craving the unattainable is just hollow, stressful and unsatisfying. Strive after things that are attainable, fulfilling and worthwhile and you'll find happiness along the way. It is also a privilege and extremely rewarding to fulfil a human duty to help others to do the same.

Thanks for reading,


there may be truth in this

In 2008 I spent some time working as a farm labourer in the South of France. I remember one job in particular - it was a cold farm house on an isolated mountain where I chopped wood, built fences, cleared bush and fed pigs, and guess what... after 2 weeks I remember thinking "wow, I haven't ejaculated in 2 weeks, I haven't even thought about girls!"

Thanks for your wisdom, guys

Once I post this item on my "Psychology Today" blog, I might ask you to go over there and add your comments. It's time we all gave more thought to the fact that we have action-oriented, bonding/touch-oriented hunter-gatherer brains stuck for hours in front of computers. Not a good combo, and it goes far beyond questions of entertainment vs. morality, into very real issues of well-being. How can men be inspired pilots for society, or even enjoy their relationships properly, while laboring under such a burden?

Amazing article

Sorry I have been busy, finishing a long term project. I just want to add an observation. When I look back at the last 8 years of my life, I know that I have forced myself to live in a kind of prison ( Working under a dishonest and dictatorial boss), which I could not quit for other things on my job was crucial for my career.

This has greatly contributed to my dependence on porn and masturbation. Once I finish and get out of this place, I know it would be far more easier not to masturbate and watch porn.

If I am living in a natural environment which I like the chances of a healthy life are automatic.

But the point is many of us do not even know that we are living in hazardous environments and that is what is creating the need for masturbation and porn.
We do not realize, that it is not natural.

For some of us there may not be a choice. But one never knows until one tries !

Realization for a wave in the ocean is when it comes to know it is water.

this is right! I often find

this is right!
I often find that during the xmas break for 3 weeks from work do I abstain from masturbation and ejaculation easily.

I tend to use masturbation and ejeculation to relieve myself from stress and frustration, or loneliness.