Paul D. Wilke
D.H. Lawrence Hated Masturbation and Porn (and maybe you should too)
D.H. Lawrence continues to fascinate me, even if his literary stock has declined sharply in the last fifty years. How could it have been otherwise with so much florid prose on the majesty of the mighty phallus? Take this sample from Lady Chatterley's Lover, "And out of his utter, incomprehensible stillness, she felt again the slow momentous, surging rise of the phallos again, the other power. And her heart melted out with a kind of awe." Not feminist enough for you? You are not alone. Lawrence's reputation never really recovered from Kate Millet's takedown in her 1969 Sexual Politics, which shriveled the long-dead writer down to little more than a cock-worshipping misogynist.
Yes, there's so much to mock, so much that today's gender commissars can find 'problematic,' so much that hasn't aged well in our super enlightened era where we're all finally open and completely healthy-minded about sex, or 'sex-positive,' to use the term du jour. Is this true? Well, in theory, maybe, or maybe not when you consider the trends showing people are having a lot less sex, watching a lot more porn, and, not surprisingly, given those two facts, describing themselves as a lot more lonely. Is this the sex-positive Garden of Eden that the Sexual Revolution promised? No, it seems not. Maybe this unhappy state of affairs makes Lawrence worth another look.
After all, he was one of the first to look candidly at relationships and sexual pleasure (or lack thereof) from the woman's perspective. Though he may have sometimes missed the mark, his graphic portrayal of sex was a radical departure from the coy euphemisms and wink-wink innuendos that proper literary decorum demanded when addressing what naked bodies did together in the dark. While passionate and often forbidden sex drove many nineteenth-century narrative arcs, you'd be hard-pressed to see the star of the show - Sex! - make an actual appearance. God forbid we get a real peek inside the bedroom of Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky to see what all the fuss was about. On the other hand, one wonders if Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet even had genitals, never mind the urge to use them, or whether they were as sexless underneath as Barbie and Ken dolls. But perhaps that was the point, to banish sex altogether from our consciousness as something too icky and dirty to think about.
Lawrence wanted to change all that. We are left with little doubt about what happened when Connie Chatterley and Gameskeeper Mellors met in his shack in the woods. They fucked, a lot, and Lawrence wasn't shy about describing it because all of that fucking was pivotal to how their love for each other grew. And no, it wasn't porn, and no, it wasn't a fairy tale either, but rather the messy story of love's rejuvenating power through raw sexual contact. Needless to say, such openness about sex was too iconoclastic for his conservative era (~1910-1930). This turned his writing career into a constant battle between puritanical government censors and a dogged determination to publish what he damn well wanted. How far ahead of his time was Lawrence? A full, unedited version of Lady Chatterley's Lover, replete with all of its glorious 'fucks' and 'cocks' and 'cunts' and so much more, would not appear uncensored in most countries until the 1960s.
Even more intriguing to me, Lawrence's approach to sex doesn't fall into predictably neat categories. His 1929 essay "Pornography and Obscenity," written just a year before his death, is a less-known but fascinating window into his late views on sex. Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928), and its follow-up apologetic, "A Propos of Lady Chatterley's Lover," eloquently set out what a healthy and sane sort of sexual relationship might look like.
I've covered that elsewhere for those interested. In short, it was the union between male and female that was open, honest, emotionally connected, often mystical, full of naked physical intimacy, and most importantly, without shame. Lawrence wanted us to rediscover the lost sacrament of our pre-Christian pagan sexuality.
A fool's errand? Perhaps.
But given that people are still having shitty sex over ninety years after he wrote these words, maybe it's time to give him another look. I promise there's more to his sexual philosophy than cock worship and misogyny, but also a call for tenderness and physical communion between people.
In "Pornography and Obscenity," Lawrence turned his attention to everything wrong with sex. He directed his ire at the so-called puritanical "grey people," or those afflicted with the "grey disease of sex-hatred." These dour sourpusses defined his generation's attitudes about sex, turning it into something dirty, shameful, and hidden.
Reading this essay today, Lawrence alternates between irreverence and prudishness; at times, he sounds avant-garde about sex, while elsewhere, he comes across as almost reactionary, as when ranting about the evils of masturbation.
But Lawrence's dislike of masturbation only sounds prudish until you see the more significant point he's making. That is, about sex and our tendency to turn it into what he called a 'dirty little secret.' The grey people made it this way, defining anything overtly sexual as obscene.
This channeled a person's sex drive toward surreptitious outlets like porn, which accentuated a caricatured version of sex and nudity that debases and degrades both. Masturbation, in this context, is the culprit that kills good healthy sex.
Without socially acceptable outlets and with sexual urges demanding natural release, Lawrence fretted that many settled for orgasm by masturbating with the aid of porn, rather than with a partner. This became the easiest way of relieving the tension. So it was in Lawrence's time, and so it remains today.
Yet, he believed masturbation was awful for our overall well-being. Think about it: A person sits alone to get off on a pornographic version of sex absolutely devoid of the kind of binding intimacy that Lawrence called for. He didn't mince his words when he wrote, "...masturbation is certainly the most dangerous sexual vice that society can be afflicted with, in the long run." (BSoB 430)
Of course, this is an opinion that goes against today's consensus. Most health experts consider masturbation a natural and healthy sexual practice for people of all ages. No big deal, just have fun but keep it to yourself, for God's sake! And the upsides are real: no disease, no unwanted pregnancies, but also no need to make oneself vulnerable and get 'caught showing emotions of an almost human nature (this will not do!).' What's not to like? It's safe, and safety is everything in our cultishly super-safe society.
Lawrence strongly disagreed with this masturbation-positive philosophy. Strangely (or not) for something deemed so perfectly natural and healthy, the practice remains absolutely taboo to talk about outside of clinical settings. Try it sometime if you're in the mood for some social cyanide. People who do so are not lauded as sex-positive at all, but creepy pervs who must be ostracized accordingly. Masturbation is something that most people do that carries adjectives like 'healthy,' 'normal,' 'natural,' and 'beneficial,' along with 'shameful,' 'embarrassing,' 'pathetic,' 'perverted,' and 'dirty.' Whatever the adjective used, it's done alone and in secret, allowing us to infer that those latter adjectives still carry far more weight.
Lawrence found this incongruity in his own era fascinating. I find it fascinating in our own. Don't get me wrong, much has changed for the better in our approach to sex since the early twentieth century. I'd rather live now as a sexual being than then, I guess. Even so, masturbation remains something we can't talk openly about, even if 95% of the guys (and 89% of the gals) are doing it. It's still everyone's dirty, little secret, just like it was a century ago. But before discussing Lawrence's views on masturbation further, we need to take a brief detour to discuss his thoughts on obscenity and pornography since those are the fertilizer and soil where masturbation sprouts its soul-entangling weeds.
Lawrence: Porn and Obscenity Defined
Obscenity has always been notoriously hard to define. One person's filth is another's art, and the gray zone between the two often ends up defined by larger forces in society beyond our control. Lawrence argued that our mental horizons are determined mainly by two broad categories of meaning: mob-meaning and individual meaning. Mob-meaning is merely the lowest common denominator. It's society's general consensus on a topic; it's the public as a big, dumb herd animal incapable of independent thought, but has to be told what to think and believe.
Individual meaning is the ability to think for oneself and create meaning distinct from this big, dumb herd. That said, we all default to mob-thinking to a certain extent. Unfortunately, all too many have absolutely nothing going on in their heads but culturally conditioned mob-opinions. Moreover, mob-definitions of obscenity become the norms, which end up as nothing more than the re-framing of normal sexual functions as shameful and filthy animal acts.
But how do we know what's shameful and filthy? Well, because the powers-that-be, the puritanical 'grey people,' tell us so, and their definitions of obscenity shape that of the mob. Few escape their clutches. These are the elites, the arbiters of taste and sexual etiquette. In the 1920s, these arbiters of mob-meaning were the aging cohorts from the Victorian and Edwardian periods. They deployed all of their still-significant social and legislative powers to maintain stifling attitudes about sex. For better or worse, the public's attitudes toward sexuality were conditioned by them. They determined what was right and wrong, what was healthy sexuality, what was deviant, what was clean, and what was obscene, what was art, and what was pornography. And so on.
According to Lawrence, "Pornography is the attempt to insult sex, to do dirt on it. This is unpardonable." (BSoB 424) If sex is a kind of sacrament of the flesh, porn is its desecration. The naked body, the erotic urge, the sexual act, all of these are degraded and debased, and transformed into stimuli whose only purpose is the arousal of the sex drive. This is true porn, rather than simple nudity in paintings, descriptions of sex in novels, or open discussions of sexuality. He describes porn as, "The insult to the human body, the insult to a vital human relationship! Ugly and cheap they make the human nudity, ugly and degraded they make the sexual act, trivial, cheap and nasty." (BSoB 425)
In his day, this was exemplified by crude porno mags and postcards, turning the human body and sex act into a voyeuristic cheap thrill relieved through masturbation. Today, Lawrence's description above could apply to just about anything on a website like Pornhub. Here, the body's image, especially the female, is turned into a remotely-viewed piece of arousing meat meant solely for a few minutes of solitary pleasure capped by an anti-climatic climax. That, and nothing more, and free for all to consume to their heart's content, in private, of course.
This reductive view of human sexuality takes us from the tender 'We Two Together' to the nihilistic trinity of 'Me, Myself, and I.' This turns sex into something solitary and dirty, something viewed vicariously and shamefully from behind a screen. This state of affairs allows people to still say something's obscene in public while privately getting off on it. And so that mystical sacrament of human sexuality gets reduced by social conditioning to a shabby solo act of voyeuristic self-pleasure, i.e., masturbation.
And this Lawrence hated with a passion.
Lawrence's Argument Against Masturbation
Lawrence believed that masturbation was neither healthy nor natural but emblematic of our lonely isolation in a society already alienated enough. Masturbation takes all the potential communal power of our natural sexual urges (that's why they exist, after all, to bring us together) and plunges them into the ravenous black hole of the ego where they then go to die. Though Lawrence doesn't use the word, masturbation is ultimately an act of ego-stroking nihilism.
He goes even further: a civilization that chooses masturbation more than making love to each other is one that is terminally ill. Imagine how meaningless Lady Chatterley's Lover would have been if either Connie or Mellors had just snuck off separately to their bedrooms and quietly wanked away their desire for each other. Now extend that tragi-comic scenario to society at large, and so much meaningful human contact that could have been, ends up never happening at all. So many stories never written! So much love never made! And so normal sexual feelings lacking the emotional outlet of a loving partner only get relieved by consuming porn and masturbating. How sad and impoverished when looked at that way! "Sex must go somewhere, especially in young people. So in our glorious civilization, it goes in masturbation." (BSoB 429)
For Lawrence, sex is one of the few ways for two people to forge a bond that is as close to transcendental as we can ever hope to achieve. Jerking off short circuits all of that, or even the possibility of it. A recurring metaphor that he uses to describe masturbation is that of the enclosed circle of our egos. Or, in his own words, "The vicious circle, the vicious circle! The vicious circle of masturbation!" (BSoB 433)
What did he hate about it so much?
First was masturbation's exhaustive character. It wasted sexual energy on a few minutes of self-pleasure, and all for nothing. The psychologically rejuvenating power of intercourse, along with its ability to bind two souls together, flesh to flesh, is entirely lacking in masturbation. Lawrence hated living in a society full of emotionally stunted masturbators, of people unable or unwilling to tap into the carnal ecstasy that sexual intimacy can bring with it. Masturbation was the null act of the severed ego unable to redirect that raw sexual energy onto another person.
During sex, two subjects gain objects in each other. This is a reciprocal exchange where the two become one in a literal physical sense, giving and taking each other's energy. Only sex makes this kind of bonding possible through the naked union of two beings, if only for a few moments. The potential for an intense spiritual connection with another is rare enough and something we should seek out. It's a life-affirming antidote to the otherwise unbearable loneliness of our existence. Why would we choose to wank all that away?
Our natural sexual urges push us to seek connection. Even if most people never experience sex in this idealized way (bad sex or paint-by-numbers sex are probably the norms, after all, even in Lawrence's novels) he believed we should direct our libidos toward seeking out this kind of rare physical communion. When two people make that connection, as Oliver Mellors and Connie Chatterley did, something magical and transcendental happens. "Sex is the great unifier. In its big, slower vibration it is the warmth of the heart which makes people happy together, in togetherness." (A Propos 332)
Indeed, yet masturbation annihilates all that. "But in masturbation there is nothing but loss. There is no reciprocity. There is merely the spending away of a certain force, and no return. The body remains, in a sense, a corpse, after the act of self-abuse. There is no change, only deadening. There is what we call dead loss. And this is not the case in any act of sexual intercourse between two people. Two people may destroy one another in sex. But they cannot just produce the null effect of masturbation." (BSoB 431) This "null effect" goes beyond the physical act of self-pleasure and gets us back to Lawrence's circle metaphor. Masturbation is a vicious circle of the enclosed self orbiting the sterile nullity of the ego.
Lawrence argues that all this leads to a certain masturbation mindset that is ego-centric, creatively sterile, narcissistic, and ultimately, nihilistic. The habitual masturbator actually comes to prefer this mindset, mistaking it for a safe harbor in a hostile world full of dangerous and vulnerable emotions. Masturbation ends up a kind of metaphor for dissipated individualism run amok. Sadly, there's little to recommend this spiritually bankrupt worldview. What gets these people off is a dirty and obscene Pornhub-version of sex they've learned to keep hidden and secret, even if it produces quick and convenient orgasms. But it's just porn sex, degraded and degrading, and mechanical. Or, as Lawrence says repeatedly, it's the 'dirty little secret' version of sex offering no potential for any deeper bonding with another person. No, it is the mere scratching of a carnal appetite's itch.
As usual, Lawrence leaves us with much to consider. To the extent that it cuts us off from the rich complexity of human sexual relationships, masturbation is detrimental to our emotional well-being. Today, porn is cheap and free. It offers young men (especially) an easy out from navigating a dating landscape fraught with frustration, disappointment, and ever-shifting gender norms. Many choose to not even try. This is unfortunate.
At the same time, let's be honest, there always has been and always will be more demand for sex than available supply, again, especially for young men. The kind of mystical sexual love that Lawrence called for is hard enough to find, even for those desperately seeking it. Some will never be lucky enough to experience it even once in their lives. All the worse for them, Lawrence might say, to forego even the remote possibility of this happening by settling for a life of sitting alone in the dark and jerking off to a vulgarized version of that sacred act which they choose not to pursue in its higher form. Isn't it better to channel that coiled energy into life itself and the never-ending quest for meaningful human touch? Shouldn't one at least try before giving in to a life of such hedonistic lassitude?
Those who want to avoid this fate can't imagine how that might happen, trapped as they are by mob-meanings of sex defined and confined by the four prison walls of the screens they increasingly live their lives on. That vicious circle of the ego is today also trapped within the rectangle of those four prison walls. But I'm convinced people still want something different, something sublime, something with more profound meaning than they get by getting off on porn. It starts with putting away the lotion, disconnecting from the digital world, and reconnecting with the human world, the real human world, and the sexual world that lies hidden beneath it all for those brave enough to seek it out.
This, yes this, is the way!
This is a truer life, lived by truer people, with each other, bound together spiritually and physically, rather than sitting alone immersed in the deadening glow of a digital carnival shitshow and all the free tits and ass it has to offer.
Lawrence, D. H. Lady Chatterley's Lover; A Propos of "Lady Chatterley's Lover". Penguin Classics, 2009.
“Pornography and Obscenity.” The Bad Side of Books: Selected Essays of D.H. Lawrence, by D. H. Lawrence and Geoff Dyer, New York Review Books, 2019, pp. 418–441.