Little Death: The Masturbatory i


by luther hughes

Since moving back in with my mom, my masturbation schedule has been shredded to pieces. Let me explain. Masturbation relaxes me. It helps me get through my day. It reminds me to take care of my needs first. I used to yank every morning, but now I hardly ever because of my mom’s new apartment: thin walls. Which means I can only masturbate when she’s not home. Some people drink coffee. Others meditate. For my mom, ritual comes in the form of morning devotion and scripture. For me, masturbation. Because of masturbation, or the increase of its frequency over the years, I had been easier on myself. My projects had been catered to with care. There had been joy when I felt like dying. I had more confidence. I looked myself in the mirror and instead of shying away, my reflection turned tail. Masturbation, in a sense, had cured any mental or spiritual afflictions that came my way.

            Notice I’ve been saying “had” and not “have.” Since I’ve stopped masturbating frequently, all these things have been disrupted. How else can I put this? Since moving back home with my mom, my confidence has decreased. My attention to projects has begun to slip. I’m no longer fond of mirrors. It could be post-graduation blues, or it could be because I’m living back at home trying to “figure things out.” Fine. I can get with that, too. Still, masturbation used to be one of the things I would do to calm down. Before I moved back, I was stressed. I was in graduate school studying poetry. I had many projects. Bills. A lackluster love life. So, stress was there. But so was masturbation.

            Speaking of self-care, I turn to “Michelle Obama and I Self-Medicate” by Xandria Phillips. Here are the first few lines: 

            Anxiety has clawed a red highway up my esophagus, and for this Michelle
            suggests chamomile. She knows where these red routes can lead. My
            palms feel hotter than the inside of my mouth. There are no handles or
            surfaces to relieve us. I want to drop this comfort, but Michelle is telling
            me about how He doesn’t close his eyes anymore when they make love,
            how no one closes their eyes around her anymore, so I ask her if she’d
            like me to close my eyes. My hands are rocking the cup between blistering

            To calm the anxious speaker, Michelle Obama suggests tea. The two of them talk about a “He,” assumed to be Barack, whose open eyes evince his detachment—falling out of love. But something else is happening or is about to happen: “red,” “She knows where these red routes can lead,” “palms feel hotter than the inside of my mouth,” and “relieve us.” These phrases point to a sort of sexual tension that the speaker has imagined and, in their anxiety, has built up. And since they have imagined Michelle with built up (sexual) tension, the exchange between them becomes even steamier. Later, phrases like,

            “I feel or I imagine The First Lady’s fingers everywhere”;

            “The decade it takes for the oil spill in my sink to neutralize”; and

            “Michelle tells me she can’t remember the last time she touched
someone who didn’t need to make sure she was there,”

let’s us know that this interaction is not just about drinking tea with the First Lady, but sex, desire, and the release of tension, which results in a calm mind. It is an imagined world that the writer has created to soothe her anxieties. And isn’t imagined sex just another form of masturbation?


            Being raised Christian, I was taught to lust was to sin, and being that masturbation can be seen as form of lust, I was always sinning. But there aren’t any scriptures that deal directly with masturbation, only ones that deal with temptation and lust for why we masturbate:

              Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. – 1 Corinthians 6:18 ESV

              But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. – James 1:14-15 ESV

              If a man has an emission of semen, he shall bathe his whole body in water and be unclean until the evening. And every garment and every skin on which the semen comes shall be washed with water and be unclean until the evening. – Leviticus 15: 16-17 ESV

              And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. – Matthew 5:30 ESV

            These scriptures are kind of harsh: “flee,” “sexually immoral,” “death,” “unclean,” “cut it off,” “hell.” Desire, as it laid out in these four scriptures, can lead to sin and if one sins then one will go to hell. Or as it is so adequately put in Matthew 5:30: “For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” I should be glad to have moved back home with my mom because I can no longer sin as much as I used to, right? In fact, it is better to be stressed and depressed if it means I can live happily ever after in heaven, right? But for me, it wasn’t a sin. And I’m sure Jesus didn’t die on the Calvary so I would stop masturbating.

            Hear me out. My love language is touch. I rely on touch to understand affection, tenderness, and care. The lack of touch equates to thinking something is wrong, or, because I’m speaking about self-love, the more something becomes wrong. Let’s not be mistaken, I don’t just allow anyone to touch me. Nor is this all about sex. But, for me, touch correlates to intimacy, intimacy to affection, affection to security. When I masturbate, when I touch myself, I am being affectionate with myself. I am learning myself, my boundaries, my joy. At some point in my life, masturbation has manifested into self-love, confidence, and inner security.

            There is something freeing about masturbation in “Ode to Masturbation” by Ocean Vuong. He writes:

     some call this being
human some call this
     walking but
you already know
     it’s the briefest form
of flight yes even
     the saints
remember this

            From being humane to “flight” to sainthood, Vuong illustrates just how capacious masturbation is and can be: it’s natural, it’s freeing, and it’s spiritual.

            Notice that there is no punctuation. When reading, the mind is free to create its own stops and pauses, its own cadence. Likewise, the mind can parse through meaning as it wishes depending on where the cadence takes them. The back and forth between indentation and justified lines also attunes to this. There are no rules to how the lines are broken or indented. They just are. As syntax breaks, each line works as a fragment, inviting brokenness. Or, welcoming brokenness as another act of freedom. Saying, too, it is okay to be broken. It is okay to desire, to “lust.” We come to believe that masturbation is an act of freedom. There are no constraints. There is nothing holding us back.  


I read somewhere, or maybe in multiple instances, that poetry is of the body. It is physical and involves all of us, all our breath. I believe that the relationship between our bodies and our poems is a relationship in the same way that we have a relationship between ourselves and our physical body. Both relationships offer a sort of labor in its creation and in its maintenance. Can poetry then be likened to masturbation? It’s possible and I don’t believe it’s a stretch to make this inference. After all, poetry is a road to understanding and peace. I turn to poetry because I’m struggling with something. Poetry offers me a way into that something, and after wrestling with it, I’ll eventually find a way out and into peace. And while masturbation helps me with my stress, it skips the wrestling and offers me a smooth way out. It grants me a clearer mind.

Luther Hughes