A few years ago, I was reading John Stoltenberg's book Refusing To Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice in a coffee shop. I was in the middle of an anti-pornography essay "Sexual Objectification and Male Supremacy," when a friend of mine, who was in his first year of seminary approached my table. As this eager-to-be-cool seminarian sat down, he asked me what I was reading. I told him I was reading about masturbation, and he started asking me questions. I think my response disappointed him. He knew me to be unflappable and progressive, so when I told him that I was reading a radical male feminist, who was making a compelling argument against pornography and masturbation, I startled Jeremy. He had geared up for a good, old-fashioned debate, but instead found himself nodding in agreement as I summarized Stoltenberg's argument. His organized religion of choice does not ordain women or endorse women as spiritual leaders. It was surprising for him to share an opinion with a radical feminist because he belongs to a religious institution that does not ordain women pastors, so he was accustomed to heated disagreements with feminists. Following a similar logic, I was somewhat startled to find this commonality. I expected to see anti-pornography arguments from both camps, but to find the two groups agreeing about masturbation caught me off guard.
Jeremy was more than willing to comment on masturbation from a seminarian's point-of-view. The exclusive brotherhood of seminarians received many "free" books each year from various professors, publishers, and churches; this particular year, the first-year seminarians received My Beautiful Feeling , Walter and Ingrid Trobisch's conservative Christian conduct book about a young German girl's struggle with and victory over the sin of masturbation. The premise of the Trobisch's argument against masturbation seemed to stem from a place of genuine concern for human beings, so too was Stoltenberg's objections. Both views fight against the objectification of women, both views call for men to hold themselves accountable for their actions. I had a panic attack. As a self-proclaimed advocate for masturbation, I found myself asking questions. Had I been advocating a practice that was doing nothing more than reifying male supremacy and female subordination? Had I been guilty of keeping men and women in abusive gender roles? Had I actually been endorsing an oppressive form of sexuality? I found myself wondering if I had been wrong in encouraging others to experience their own bodies as a means of more fully engaging with the bodies of others.
On the verge of becoming an anti-masturbation convert, I thankfully realized that there was an absence in our conversation--the female body. As Jeremy and I discussed our books, the similarities between the spiritual and secular rejections of masturbation seemed unified in an erasure of the feminine. The Christian critique of masturbation leads to a hatred of the body, and more importantly to a not-so-subtle misogyny. The authors of My Beautiful Feeling seem to be progressive, they actually recognize that females masturbate, but because the voice emerges in their treatise against masturbation, the Trobisches align the female more explicitly with the sins of fleshly temptation, which is not so progressive after all. There is something deeply disturbing about the fact that the depiction of Ilona's masturbation struggle, the masturbation struggle of a seventeen-year-old girl, is given to a group of all-male seminary students to advise and encourage them to manage their own sexuality in a morally righteous manner. The homo-social and homo-phobic seminarians are told that onanism and masturbation is wrong because it doesn't respect or cherish women, while at the same time they are told that women are inferior and inherently subordinate to the male.
This essential subordination of the female is the place of discord between the spiritual and secular critiques of masturbation. However, the idea of respecting the female body is central to both. Stoltenberg's critique focuses on the male, asserts that the female body should not be objectified, while at the same time denying the body and a female voice. John Stoltenberg's essay seems to make the claim that masturbation and pornography are inextricably linked. (This is also a central concern of Christian critiques). John Stoltenberg's intentions are transparent and laudable--he wants a world with gender equality. However, he does not give much agency to women in his writings, nor does he look at the nuances of desires and masturbatory fantasies, but uses sweeping generalizations. The objection to pornography for Stoltenberg is the objectification of the female body. However, as much as Stoltenberg wants to de-objectify the porn-star and the female body, he fails to make the female real by ignoring sources of desire for both males and females. I do understand the issues that Stoltenberg is trying to address. Historically, the paradigm of male supremacy endorses male masturbation, but not female masturbation. Male supremacy permits and encourages males to be sexual predators, and females are left defenseless. Even so, in an effort to bring justice to a misguided world, many spiritual and secular authorities rigidly condemn masturbation as sinful or exploitative, instead of engaging in a nuanced discussion about the ambiguities. They offer no alternatives--alternatives I believe are accessible, where males, females, those of a wide-range of sexual orientations, and those of a wide variety of ages could have access to their bodies in libratory and pleasure-filled ways.
These tensions create the lens with which I approach my analysis of the work hailed by Sartre as "the epic of masturbation," Jean Genet's first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers (Sartre 2). Stoltenberg and the Trobisches endorse a line of thinking that would reject this book--the former for the emphasis on male dominance and the latter because of the "immoral" homosexual lifestyle. Both camps endorse repression of masturbatory urges, and many have wished to repress Genet's works as well. Jean Genet exhibits a form of double-consciousness as he addresses the reader in an aside "we all know repression is dangerous" (Genet 111). The son of a French prostitute, Jean Genet's mother's one-armed pimp raised him after his mother's death. A life of prostitution and petty thievery lands Genet in prison multiple times. It is in a prison in war-torn France where Jean Genet pens his first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers . Jean Paul Sartre, one of Genet's most persuasive and committed advocates, stresses in the introduction to Our Lady of the Flowers that this book is fantastical--not only for the hallucinatory masturbation sequences, but the very history of this text is nearly incredible:
Our Lady of the Flowers , which is often considered to be Genet's masterpiece, was written entirely in the solitude of a prison cell. The exceptional value of its work lies in its ambiguity. ... French prison authorities, convinced that "work is freedom," give the inmates paper from which they are required to make bags. It was on this brown paper that Genet wrote, in pencil, Our Lady of the Flowers . One day, while the prisoners were marching in the yard, a turnkey entered the cell, noticed the manuscript, took it away and burned it. Genet began again. Why? For whom? There was small chance of his keeping the work until his release, and even less of getting it printed. If, against all likelihood, he succeeded, the book was bound to be banned; it would be confiscated and scrapped. Yet he wrote on, he persisted in writing. Nothing in the world mattered to him except those sheets of brown paper which a match could reduce to ashes. (Sartre 1-2)
The book survived Genet's cell, and remains a visceral text of smells, sights, sighs, phalluses, farts, and fluids. It is a text that unapologetically endorses a hierarchy of male-supremacy. Accurately, John Stoltenberg's critiques of gay male porn apply to Genet's text. Genet pits heterosexual women against the effeminate queens, and in his fantasy world, the drag queen always wins.
Genet elevates the homosexual male to divinity, the protagonist of his fantasies is named Divine, alludes that all men are really homosexuals, and shuns women as inferior and unworthy competition. This is problematic because the lifestyles of the queens and time spent in drag could, but do not, ally gay men and women. The queens' regime works to erase women--the transvestites do not acknowledge any real women, but instead elevate themselves as hyper-feminine mutations. In the same way that the Genet's queens use the adjective "Quite" to aggrandize any quality--for example, the "I'm the Quite Giddy," the queens assume, perform, and aggrandize the feminine--they are "Quite" female. I do not want to excuse or necessarily endorse these misogynistic moments, however, I am hesitant to dismiss Genet as solely reifying a patriarchal system. I would like to think that something salvageable and useful emerges from Genet's masturbatory fantasies. Masturbation is a way to act out fantasies that may be destructive. Masturbation and sexual fantasies lead to a greater understanding of self. Genet does not simplify the self, as Stoltenberg and the Trobisches tend to do, he shows the self as exploitative, exploited, feminine, masculine, passive, active, domineering, and submissive.
He does this by projecting aspects of himself into each of the characters in his fantasies. His characters are figments of his imagination (which in some ways, I suppose all impressions of people really are--it is impossible to really know anyone, or have an accurate understanding, people are what we make of them). Additionally, and importantly, Genet's objects are all mutant characterizations of himself. Masturbation enables a person facing an oppressive system outside of their immediate control to feel a sense of agency, to feel power. When Divine finds herself alone and rejected and feeling old, she turns to masturbation: "She would stay in the garret in order to jerk off. For days and nights on end she would remain lying in bed, with the curtains drawn over the window of the dead, the Bay Window of the Departed" (156). Turning away from recent rejection and shutting out the cemetery may seem at first to be evading the inevitabilities of life. However, masturbation seems to not function merely as a tool of alienation here, but also as a healing agent.
Masturbation is a form of meditation, a form of therapy that leads Divine/Genet through a series of memories, many of which leave them feeling unfulfilled, until the feelings of rejection, aging, and disconnection are overcome by empowering memories and a sense of satisfaction. In a more explicit diatribe on the subversive nature of masturbation, Genet emphatically asserts:
It was a good thing that I raised egoistic masturbation to the dignity of a cult! ... Pleasure of the solitary, gesture of solitude that makes you sufficient unto yourself, possessing intimately others who serve your pleasure without their suspecting it, a pleasure that gives to your most casual gestures, even when you are up and about, that air of supreme indifference toward everyone. (129)
Sartre notes that Genet's masturbation is "an act of defiance, a willful perversion of the sexual act; it is also, quite simply, an idiosyncrasy" (2). Yes, Genet blatantly and knowing objectifies and uses those around him in a sexual fashion, but it is also notably a form of survival.
With clearly ambiguous implications, the way that Genet talks about prison suggests a universal understanding of captivity, and a universal practice of objectification. We are all held hostage to pressures and responsibilities of the world; the way that Genet engages in masturbation seems to offer a method of liberation. Toward the end of the novel, Genet reflects on his incarceration, and attributes liberation from one, strict, teleological understanding of self to his masturbatory practices:
I mean that the solitude of prison gave me the freedom to be with the hundred Jean Genets glimpsed in a hundred passers-by, for I am quite like Darling, who also stole the Darlings whom a thoughtless gesture let escape from all the strangers he had brushed against; but the new Jean brings into me--as a folding fan draws in the designs on the gauze--brings in I know not what. (257)
Solitude of prison, solitary sex enables a person to act out sexual desires, to try out the multiple traits and longings one experiences. Masturbation allows for a deeper analysis of self, because each onanic act tells more about the objectified self than it ever could about any "outside" object.
Drawing from Sartre's words, masturbation allows Genet to be simultaneously "the glamorous pimp and the humiliated faggot" (8). Genet's perception of self can be found in both the opulent oppressor and the nearly-obsolete oppressed. To know both at once enables Genet to engage with the world in a more realistic way, to experience them with a sense of pleasure allows Genet to engage with the world with a sense of playfulness. While Stoltenberg asserts that the masturbator, the person doing the sexual objectification, sees himself as a "real subject," Genet offers an alternative, a subject-less paradigm. Sartre likens sexual objectification with the creative thought process, he says that Genet's Divine "when confronted with the words that were uttered, she thinks that she thought it. She reflects upon herself, and she who reflects is no longer she who experienced: a pure Divine gazes at herself in the mirror of language" (18). Genet seems to be gazing into his own "mirror of language" when he asserts that "dehumanizing myself is my own most fundamental tendency" (82). He blurs the line between memoir and fiction, between incarceration and freedom, between male and female. Genet's world is a world that unabashedly plays with the societal structures.
Jean Genet's vision and Sartre's explication of this vision lead to the conclusion that we cannot avoid objectifying others--in fact, there is no way to vision the self without objectification--thought, analysis, observation all instantaneously defer the subject and create an object. John Stoltenberg asserts "male sexuality without objectification is unimagined" (45). Of course it is unimagined, it is impossible to imagine without objectification. The question should not be how do we avoid objectification, but how do we avoid a paralyzing exploitation of others, and how can we be more aware of ourselves as objects. As I think through the sexual self, the analytical self, and the artist, I find myself calling for an evolved Lacanian mirror stage. Instead of the child realizing that the physical reflection she sees is her self, I want the adult to recognize that the images in sexual fantasies are images of an objectified self. I don't know if I believe in an essential self or if an individual has immutable, unique qualities. I am more comfortable with deferring the authenticity of self, because we cannot know the self as subject. In order to attempt analysis, we ineluctably objectify the self, not to mention all that we analyze. Analysis and masturbation are parallel activities. Each is a solipsistic act. Each takes images and events and twists and bends them to achieve a desired result. So, unfortunately, the seminarians aren't going to be more sacred simply for rejecting the flesh, nor will the anti-pornography left be able to establish liberated, equity between sexes for reducing porn and masturbation to nothing more than results of a patriarchal society. The study of self and masturbation meditations remain ambiguous, remain problematic, but they also hold the potential to be useful and progressive if we can move toward a utilitarian acceptance of objectification.
Genet, Jean. Our Lady of the Flowers . New York: Grove Press, 1963.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. "Introduction." Our Lady of the Flowers . New York: Grove Press, 1963.
Stoltenberg, John. "Sexual Objectification and Male Supremacy." Refusing To Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice . New York: Meridian, 1990.
Trobisch, Walter and Ingrid. My Beautiful Feeling . Bolivar, Missouri: Quiet Waters Publications, 2003.