When I was 7 or 8, I hoisted myself into a tree and accidentally gave myself an orgasm. It was snowy out, and I was bundled in a puffy winter jacket and cumbersome ski pants, which made the branch I’d been hanging from unusually difficult to straddle. As I struggled to pull myself higher, flexing my abdomen with every move, I noticed an unfamiliar kind of pelvic euphoria, which subsided by the time I finagled my way up.
That’s really all I remember — a flash of pleasure. I can’t say I knew then what the feeling was, or what it meant — I am not, I should note, a dendrophiliac — but it must have made an impression on me, somewhere deep in my psyche, because when I first started masturbating, around the age of 12 or 13, I went at it handless.
There was a green leather chair in the guest room of my childhood home, and it had sturdy armrests I’d use to lift myself up — then I’d tighten my stomach and do the deed. I don’t recall the first time I attempted this balancing act or the exact moment I realized it was masturbation. I only know that it made complete sense. I went at it with un-self-conscious zeal for a year or so, until I realized that it was kind of unusual and normalized my behavior by switching over to a more boring method. You know, the quick, furtive stroke.
It’s often hard to take masturbation as anything more than a joke. Whenever I tell friends and colleagues about my original method, it elicits eyebrow raises and embarrassed chuckles. But I’ve always wondered if other kids have gotten off using the same technique I began with — besides my brother, who told me that, in his adolescent years, he’d hang from jungle gyms and shower-curtain rods in order to climax. (He called it his “funny feeling,” the perfect words for it, in my opinion.)
“We still can’t be relaxed about the idea of giving ourselves an orgasm,” said Betty Dodson, who literally wrote the book on masturbation, Sex for One, “which simply displays how unfucked this country is.” She told me that my adolescent jerk-off method is most common among women, who will cross their legs, lie on their stomachs, and squeeze and release. Pleasure comes from pumping the pelvic floor muscle, which is at the base of the abdomen. “I have to give you credit,” Dodson told me. “You managed to have an orgasm without, quote, touching yourself, unquote, down there.”
Historically, we’ve tended to view masturbation as a pathology. And for that we can thank the English charlatan John Marten, who in the early 1700s published a tract, with an insufferably long title, that sought to identify autoeroticism as a disease (which is odd, because it’s the safest form of sex), as Thomas Laqueur points out in his cultural history of masturbation, Solitary Sex. (Before Marten, the act was generally seen as a kind of religious sin, a wasting of seed — which was Onan’s crime.)
But what if, rather than a pathology, the world of child masturbation is actually vast, heterogeneous, and shame-free? While there are studies that point to the possibility of fetal fondling, how kids go about their business is, understandably, an uncomfortable subject to approach. We do have some information, though. A late-’90s Kinsey Institute study, for instance, surveyed a group of students — 154 women and 149 men — at a midwestern university about their masturbation habits. Thirty-eight percent of the men and 40 percent of the women reported masturbating before puberty.
When it comes to early habits, there may be no such thing as conventional behavior, no rules or standards. Through the Kinsey Institute, and with the help of sex therapists and psychologists around the country, I spoke to a number of people about their rather creative adolescent experiences with masturbation. Adam Wexler, for instance, a 43-year-old financial adviser living in Florida, discovered masturbation through his older brother, who liked to hump a ten-inch doll named Dapper Dan. So Wexler decided to hump his mattress. “I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing,” he recalled. He switched exclusively to his hands around 13 — as, it seems, most boys do — but experimented with a slew of strategies as a child.
“There was a cat once,” Wexler remembered. He would also blow-dry his penis, though at one point his brother walked in and he lost control of the device. You can guess what happened. “It actually has a burn mark,” he told me.
A 37-year-old air-traffic controller, who asked that I not use his name because, well, this stuff is kind of embarrassing, told me he started feeling erotic pangs when he was 6 or 7. But it wasn’t until he turned 11 that he realized what they were. “My mother got a water bed, and every time she would leave I would go in her room and watch TV,” he said. “The water bed was pretty warm, and it had motion, and one day I had that urge. I just started to move on it. At some point I climaxed, and I was like, ‘Holy shit, what was that?’”
“I sort of humped my pillow,” said a psychologist in her 30s who requested anonymity. She was younger than 10 when she started rubbing up against stuff, like the side of her living-room couch when no one was home and the television was on. “It’s not like I was fantasizing about Doogie Howser,” she told me. “It was just, ‘This feels good.’ Most people don’t know why or what it is.”
Markie Twist, a professor of human development and family studies at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, started masturbating when she was 5. In an experience shared by many women, she was taking a bath and discovered a detachable shower head, which she picked up and moved over to her genitals. “I thought it felt really good,” she told me. “So I started taking baths for, like, hours.” She still stands by this technique; her preferred brand is Moen.
Twist, who is 40, was raised by parents who encouraged her, in a responsible fashion, to explore her sexuality, which may explain why she studies the subject on a professional level today.
Sometimes, it works the other way around. Melissa Fogel is a 36-year-old sex therapist in West Palm Beach. When she was 8 years old, her dad caught her masturbating in her room and, embarrassed by the incident, told her to stop. She was rubbing a teddy bear named Mutsy over her underwear, she recalled. But the fact that it was discouraged, she told me, only made it seem more desirable. “I was always a sexual person,” she said, “and I knew from age 8 that I wanted to be Dr. Ruth.” Incidentally, she still keeps the molested stuffed animal on her bed at her parents’ house. “A reminder,” Fogel said, “of my first sexual experience.”
I like to imagine a more colorful world in which everyone masturbates as they did as children, a world in which big dolls are bestrode, couches are humped, and jungle gyms are employed as lust machines — which is why I recently revisited my first masturbation method, just to see if it were still possible.
It was hard to find a suitable chair with good armrests in my bedroom, but I made do. And after a few failed attempts that I won’t go into, it worked. I was surprised that I could hold myself up for the few minutes it took without collapsing in exhaustion, an achievement that sort of distracted me from the fact that I was hoping my roommates wouldn’t walk in on me in such a compromised position. I can’t say I felt any sort of vestigial awakening, though, that brought me back to a time before I viewed masturbation as a kind of prurient compulsion. I mostly just had that post-orgasmic feeling where you wonder why you cared so much about masturbating in the first place. Which is to say that it felt the same, but I didn’t feel the same about it.
Matthew Kassel is a writer in New York.