Every month, Eric Kaplan, a philosopher and writer for The Big Bang Theory, will answer your questions about life, the universe, and everything else. To send Eric a question, you can him email him here.
I have a little bit of an embarrassing problem. I masturbate a lot. Usually to internet pornography, but sometimes to images I remember from my life or make up about women I run into during the day. I’m a single guy in my mid 20s. I live in Las Vegas and do data analytics for a big online firm. I am lonely and I feel like my life is not going where I wish it would.
I had a girlfriend for a while in college, but it’s hard to meet people. I spoke to a rabbi and he was really anti-masturbation – he thinks it’s a sin and that the Kabbalists believe the babies I could have made with my sperm, but didn’t, will come back and haunt me.
I also spoke to a feminist friend of mine who said that all this masturbating is messing me up for future relationships, because the perfect bodies on the internet are desensitizing me and when I have a chance to see another real woman naked I won’t be aroused. Messing up my future relationships and being haunted by ghost babies both really worry me, although not at the same time. What should I do? Is masturbation bad? Should I invest in some sort of internet filter or chastity belt?
First I want to applaud you and validate you for asking an embarrassing question. Sex is a tricky topic because all we know about sex is from that small sector of the population who like to talk about their sex lives. My sense is they are pretty unrepresentative. If you search online, you will find people who say they masturbate and it’s great and people who say they don’t masturbate and it’s great, but you won’t find people who don’t talk about their masturbation, or lack of masturbation. Because the people who aren’t talking about it—by definition—are not talking about it.
So the first thing is how much you want to masturbate – a lot, a little, or not at all – it’s your own business. It’s private. You don’t need to worry what religious people think and you don’t need to worry what non-religious people think. What I think is that, although some of the Kabbalists your rabbi is reading may have been crazy and worried about ghost babies, the smarter ones were using masturbation as a metaphor to talk about wasted potential. And the feminist woman who got you worried that you will not be able to be aroused by a real woman means well, but is doing something unproductive. If you find yourself face to face with a real naked woman and aren’t aroused, the problem is much more likely going to be your worry — your fear and shame about sexuality — not “desensitization.”
So what do we think now that we acknowledge that there is a private fact about you, about what gives you pleasure, and what things you like to imagine? And you don’t need to worry about ghost babies and you don’t need to worry about desensitization. What do you do with this private fact?
What do you do with any private fact?
A private fact about a walnut you stole from the store when you were seven years old, about how you are ashamed of how your ears look but proud of how your hands look, a fact about how you got excited looking at the women next door changing when you were ten years old, the times you were so frustrated you wanted to kill yourself and take down the world with you, the beautiful, secret smell of old coats in your favorite closet when you were a toddler? All these private facts that are embarrassing – what do you do with them? You find someone to share them with. Not the internet, and not a doctor or a rabbi. Someone you actually care enough about to communicate your deepest squishy core.
That act of profound vulnerable communication is better than sex. Or maybe, it is sex. Maybe sex is really about communicating who we are and making ourselves vulnerable. Sometimes we do it with words. Sometimes we do it non-verbally.
If sex is about vulnerable communication, that explains why it has the potential to be both better than masturbation (which is not to say masturbation is not really great). Sex is better than masturbation because it has the potential to be worse. When you actually run the risk of communicating things that make you vulnerable (including, but not limited to, masturbation) you have the potential to be surprised by how much love and acceptance you receive. And you have the chance to give love and acceptance to the other person about whatever he or she was once too embarrassed to share. Things about what causes her pleasure, what makes her afraid or embarrassed, what she likes to imagine and doesn’t. Sharing these things can make you feel less afraid and less alone.
Kierkegaard, who knew a lot about getting lost in your own self, said the riskiest thing any of us can do is to live a life without risk. Where you run the risk of rejection, you also have the chance of real connection and real joy. Real connection and joy are what your feminist friend finds lacking in contemporary relationships between men and women, and what your rabbi is looking for in his Kabbalists.
But don’t do it for them. Do it because it makes you happy too.
Send Eric your question about about life, the universe, and everything else, by emailing him here.
Eric Kaplan is an executive producer of (and writer for) the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory and the author of Does Santa Exist: A Philosophical Investigation.
He studied Buddhist thought and practice at Wat Chulamani in Thailand, Jewish thought in New York and Jerusalem, and philosophy of science, philosophy of mind
and existentialism at Columbia University and UC Berkeley. His blog is ericlinuskaplan.wordpress.com.