After My Divorce, I Stopped Masturbating


When I was an adolescent, my mother used to try to catch me masturbating. She would scold me, What should I do with you? Should I beat you? Should I take you to the police?” I still remember the shock of this. Going out into the driveway on sunny summer evenings to meet my father as he pulled in from work. Him looking at me with dismay as I told him what I’d done. Done yet again. All this is comic, except the feelings were awful. Standing by his car and confessing. Feeling detached from myself, that my face was made of rubber.

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My marriage ended badly, as marriages often do. Afterward, I wanted nothing to do with sex. Not long after I separated from my wife, I was walking down a sidewalk behind two pretty young women and had the sudden feeling that I shouldn’t look at them. I crossed the road.

Along with sex, I gave up masturbating. The one time I attempted it, I was overcome with anguish. I was living then in an apartment where the bedroom had a broken blind, and lights from passing traffic would sweep the walls. I was in bed with my laptop, starting to watch an HBO show, and as images of seminude women appeared, I noticed the first intimations of desire. And then I noticed all the old channels along which desire courses in me: a desire for power in bed; a desire to be important to the other person outside of bed but not being able to achieve that and so keeping myself apart; a desire to have an intense connection with another person but that, too, seeming unattainable and so beginning to value loss, the delicious despair of believing that true happiness lay elsewhere. I absorbed all this as passing cars sent their beams searching across my room. My face and back became clammy. I was in my forties and half my life was over, and I glimpsed the possibility that the remainder of my life might be a repeat of the first half.

I’d walk to my office in midtown Manhattan and see lovely women and feel that every one I passed could complete me.

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One of the earliest things I noticed about not masturbating was how much time it opened for me. Even though I’d only masturbated three or four times a week, it took time to figure out when there was room in my schedule to do it, time to find porn, and then when it was over, I’d strain to concentrate as sexual images flickered inside my eyelids. Aside from the extra actual time I gained, my head seemed to clear when the option was removed. I had the sense that the days were slightly more spacious, like every room in my apartment was slightly bigger.

The second thing I realized was how sex served to allay my longing for emotional connection. Now that I didn’t masturbate, I’d walk to my office in midtown Manhattan and see lovely women and feel that every other one I passed could complete me. This was an utterly new experience for me. How much of this longing had always been there, I wondered, and how much of it was due to the tumult of my marriage ending? There was some of the latter, surely, but I’d often felt alone in my marriage and never felt this craving for connection before.

A final discovery was that I’m not an especially sexual person. Before, I’d thought of myself as ordinarily male. I would be talking to someone, and a bus with a Victoria’s Secret ad would pass, and my mind would run after that bus. After a month or so of not masturbating, a bus with a half-naked woman on the side would come by, and I’d notice the image, but it didn’t grab me. I no longer felt jerked around by desire. It was like the world had become quiet.

It has been about a year since I last masturbated. The idea of doing so again frightens me. It puts me in mind of walking onto a busy construction site where lots of heavy things are moving around and one can easily be whacked.

I am not sure what it will feel like to form my next relationship without masturbation to withdraw into, but I am curious to find out.

This article originally appears in the December 2017 issue of ELLE.

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