The feminist sex wars were raging as I was coming into my sexuality. All around me, I heard the argument that pornography was a feminist phantasmagoria: a shadowy show of the most heinous and horrible sexual exploitation and objectification of people in the name of profit and male sexual gratification. I internalized this belief and conflated it with masturbation, creating a mutant born of sticky second-wave residue. I was absolutely certain that masturbation, coupled with free internet porn, was pretty much the grossest blight on feminism.
Would the fact that I am a trans woman who masturbates be just another example of the “male-energy” belief?
In Dante’s Inferno, the first level of hell—not including limbo, where the unbaptized and virtuous pagans spent eternity—was saved for the most earthly of the seven deadly sins, what he called “carnal malefactors,” or simply, lust. But my struggle with lust had its origin in an entirely different church. My lustful leanings chafed against the morality of my feminist beliefs: a paradigmatic confusion between my most corporeal of proclivities and the foundation of my political bedrock. That is to say, I have always found it difficult to align my feminism with my utter love of masturbation.
Hence, my enjoyment of porn as a stimulant for masturbation could only mean one thing: I was a patriarchal lackey. Guilt-ridden after each orgasm, I would shame myself into feeling like a despicable villain. How dare I have these urges? How dare I have these feelings, these fantasies, these lascivious leanings? I felt like I was single-handedly (no pun intended) unraveling the legacy of fierce feminist struggle with each and every minute of self-indulgent pleasure.
Taped to my computer screen was a handwritten note, reminding myself of this internal struggle: “Are you part of the problem, or are you part of the solution?” which, in retrospect, posited this personal problem in such black and white terms that it could have been syndicated on Nick-at-Nite. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting this note to do, or solve. Was the note there to stop me from masturbating, because, of course, no scrawled, cursive notice to myself could circumvent the inevitable. In the throes of self-love, little can detour or deter. After I had my fill, as it were, I would slink away from my computer, the distant sounds of someone else’s moans—probably faked—droning in my ears. With my shame and self-loathing, I felt like a feminist fraud, the evidence on my hands. How could I champion for feminism yet indulge in onanism?
This was textbook false consciousness, I told myself. The fact that I lived in a society so saturated with sinful delight in sexuality seemed to suggest that, perhaps, I was just delusional, confused. I didn’t actually want to masturbate; I just thought that I wanted to because the subliminal messages in commercials were telling me to. Catharine MacKinnon would have been so proud of my post-masturbation mental flagellation. It was like I had a Catholic mother living in my head, who would always walk in on me, see my hand in my panties, and fly into an hour-long lecture about my sinful deviation from the straight-and-narrow. However, instead of a blighting God, it was Dworkin who would smite me dead.
But this quandary of mine was more than the internal friction between practice and praxis. Buried deep in my mind were the worries of others finding out. What would happen if the girls in my Planned Parenthood student support group found out I enjoyed a quick flick in the sheets from time to time? Would I be stripped of my Feminist card? Would they force me to hand over my Ani collection? Would the fact that I am a trans woman who masturbates be just another example of the “male-energy” belief? These questions bubbled incessantly, leaving me with no clear answer.
It’s funny, now, to think about how firmly I believed that feminists didn’t masturbate, or watch porn, and that they definitely didn’t watch porn while masturbating. I was an 18-year-old trans grrrl living in rural Michigan, where the library’s Women’s Studies section is stocked with books covered in dolphins, labryses, and appropriated Aboriginal artwork, it’s easy to see how I developed these views. Still, there are times when I catch myself in the act of self-shaming, when I dip into my pants for a quickie before heading out for the day. I wish that I could say that I’ve seen the error of my ways, finally and fully aligning my masturbation habit with my feminism. I wish I could say that, after a viewing of the Crash Pad series, the majesty of Jiz Lee has quashed all my doubts about feminism and the possibility of positive-pornography and, subsequently, positive self-indulgent pleasure. Still, sometimes guilt pulls at my conscience, trying to convince me otherwise.