A Farewell To Palms

Giles Coren on giving up masturbation for good

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I remember my first wank as if it were yesterday. I was in the bathroom of my childhood home — pastel-coloured, nautical wallpaper, seahorses on the roller blind — soaking in Super Matey, idly stroking my short, pencil-hard penis, when there came upon me a greater sense of urgency than I had ever known. I squeezed harder and yanked more firmly. I had played with my tool before but this was a new and magical feeling, a fiery pleasure in my stomach, arsehole and all up my back. I felt optimistic, alive, unbothered by homework, Common Entrance, the price of Monster Munch or whether I'd keep my place in the prep school first XI as a small, scuttling, non-scoring centre forward.

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As my little hand started to stick and drag on my cock skin due to lost slipperiness, I found myself guided by some innate sixth sense to grab and upend the bubble bath bottle all over my hand and as the rich, blue detergent gave me back that longed-for slip and slide, I felt something unfamiliar happening in my balls and belly. There was a surge of electricity through my entire body and then… POW!

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And then… Pow! Pow! Pow!

And then… "JESUS CHRIST. WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS STUFF???"

Or words to that effect. I wasn't so sweary back then. But I do remember my shock as the terrible shiny gunge fired out all over my chest and face. And then slid off in lumps and sat, hanging like tiny jellyfish in the water all around me. I remember lying there in silence and shock, wanting to scream, "Mummy! Something terrible has happened!" but somehow intuiting that this shit wasn't for mummies.

I remember wondering if it meant I had cancer. I had wondered the same thing about the stuff that oozed from the pores of my nose when I slid my thumb nail along it. But I had asked my mum about that one (although that was embarrassing, too) and she had said that it wasn't cancer. It was just growing up. And she was a doctor, so she knew.

I remember easing myself up out of the bath, trying to leave as much of the egg-whitey bogey stuff behind in the water as possible — though it clung to my downy legs — and then hosing myself down with the shower to remove every last fleck of alien spooj before climbing out and towelling myself off, hosing down the bathtub with a diligence that was entirely new, and replacing the cap on the Super Matey, whose marketing slogan — "Clean fun, clean kids, clean bath" — I read with fresh eyes as I replaced the bottle on the shelf.

The next night, I locked the bathroom door for the first time. And so the second part of my life began.

Glorious years. Buckets and buckets of spunk. And for a long time I had no idea why. At the beginning, I am not sure it had anything much to do with sex. I didn't have wet dreams about girls or anyone else, possibly because I was so permanently wrung-out of sperm there was nothing to wet the bed with, but also because, thanks to single-sex education and a big lonely house in the suburbs, I had literally never met a girl, so had nothing to base my dreams upon.

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To make up for that, I do remember cutting a hole in my bath sponge — which was big and pink and shaped like a human foot — and fucking that for a while instead of my hand. After all, how different from a synthetic foot could a cunt really be?

When piercing the foot sponge began to pall, mostly because I didn't like seeing my dick emerge from the other side of it and longed for something to bury my Jones in properly, I carved a hole in one of the big, foam-filled, hessian-upholstered back cushions of the sofa in the family TV room and fucked that. The hessian provided what I thought must be a fair simulacrum of the coarseness of a woman's pubic hair, and by lining the tubular hole I had bored with Vaseline, I reckoned I had got as close to the condition of a true vagina as I was ever (honestly, ever) going to get.

I fucked that thing like crazy for the whole of one long summer afternoon, until it was so full of splosh it could have given birth to a whole shopful of half-human seating solutions. And then all I had to do was turn it round so that the hole didn't face out into the room and nobody would ever know. Except — oh, fuck! — the back of the cushion was lined with canvas. It was a one-way cushion. I had no option but to lay it back the way I had found it and hope for the best.

That evening, when the family gathered in the telly room after supper to watch Dallas, I was naturally relieved when nobody sat back directly onto my special friend and got a tell-tale spaff-tattoo on the back of their shirt. But, of course, that meant that my handiwork stood exposed to the room. And so I sat there all night, terrified that my father or mother (or even my nine-year-old sister) was suddenly going to yell, "Hang on, is that a freshly cut cunt in the sofa? Who the fuck put that there?"

But they never did. They never do, do they? And so gradually the male life builds itself around the great glory (and only very occasional shame and recrimination) of full-time masturbation.

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In those days, my father used to write occasionally for Penthouse and Mayfair and so, in among the stacks of old Punch magazines and Tatlers in his study, there were always naked tits and bums and vadges to be mined, extracted and bespaffed. I remember those women — curly-permed, over-tanned, well into their thirties, terrifyingly hairy — with huge affection. Not very sexy affection. A roster of indulgent mums between whom I flicked and flicked with groaning haste, searching for the right one to witness my climax, before a foot on the creaking stair told me I had at best 15 seconds to clean up, stuff the mag back in the pile and be pretending to look for a dictionary when my dad came in.

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Then off to boarding school to get it done silently and without fuss under the covers in the unforgiving midnight dormitory (learning thereby what continental women tend to think of, not unfairly, as the classic English sexual technique) and during the day in the loos, at lunchtime, or in breaks between double lessons. Frot, frot, frot, ahhh, and back to class. Aimless, lonely, but always at the end that pyrotechnic release from the quotidian humdrum.

When girls finally arrived in my life for real, my main concern was that they should not get in the way of my wanking. For the first three years of romantic relationships I refused to let girls touch my schlong at all. We would snog a lot and I would go down on them from time to time, but my cock stayed firmly in my pants. I think I feared that real sex simply wouldn't measure up. And when I fell in love, which I often did, the objects of my amour never featured in my mental wankorama, because I didn't want them sullied. And so a fault line developed in my imagination between real and pretend sex which, when I did begin to have sex, led to a tedious time for the poor girls involved (whom I still didn't want to sully), but continued cock-bashing that was just as exciting as ever.

And then when the internet arrived, oh boy. Now it was all dogs and horses and incest, filth of unfathomable horror. And then with broadband, which meant the dogs and horses and "stepmoms" actually moved, well, that was the end of me. I developed welts. How could a man be expected to work (alone at his desk in his silent office) when the very machine he was writing on now offered a window onto every possible way of fucking there was, happening in real time, for free? Sure, Flaubert and Dickens and Trollope were very impressive in their self-discipline but they didn't have the whole world fucking just the other side of their notepad, did they? If William Shakespeare's quill had had YouPorn, I swear, we'd be living in a world where Hamlet just meant "cheap cigar" and Othello was nothing but a shit Eighties board game.

It got so bad for me that where I just wrote "Trollope" in the last paragraph, I would once have thought, "Ooh, Trollope, that's a word for a slapper, I think I'll have a wank". And I would have done.

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For as I aged, the allure of onanism did not fade. Indeed, if anything, it increased. Throughout my thirties, I would regularly leave parties early with a gram of gak as soon as the drug dealer arrived (and everyone else was just getting ready to rumble), and creep home to where my girlfriend lay asleep upstairs, flip open the laptop, rack up half a dozen fat ones and spotch myself silly till dawn, always holding off and holding off, my dick now redder and angrier than a peeled weasel, and then finally let it go all over the leather of my reproduction Regency writing desk and already cheese-grouted computer keyboard, as the pale pink sky and twittering birds announced another beautiful north London morning. Then, of course, find myself in the perverse position of having to pretend to my girlfriend that I had been out partying all night, when I hadn't.

Then the roughness of pant fabric on the poor, benighted bell-end (do men with foreskins have it easier?) which makes even your softest, sea island cotton Calvins feel like coconut cricket matting, so that you have to moisturise your knob and pouch it into a silk handkerchief just to get into your pants. And then at work feeling so ashamed and miserable about your night that you just have to, have no option but to, have a wank.

Because you do it most when you hate yourself the most. It's such an easy way to cheer yourself up. So you peel it out of its bandaging and you try to find the parts that aren't too raw, and you get to work again, finger-and-thumbing the safe areas again and again all day until you're ejaculating nothing but dust.

And that's when you sometimes do give up for a few days. Or try to. When you're so goddamn sad and lonely that the usual Post-Wank Tristesse (PWT) comes to overshadow, and even arrive in advance of, such meagre pleasure as the activity has left in it. Because the older you get, the more wanking has to do with sadness. A sadness that comes from self-loathing. A self-loathing that comes from low self-esteem. A low self-esteem that comes from sex. Or a lack of it. Or a perceived lack of it.

Sure, I can sometimes get a surge of low self-esteem from other channels. From not having enough money, from having TV shows cancelled, from colleagues winning prizes and old friends writing good books, but sex is always there at some level, and my brain goes right to it. I get an email from Channel 4 saying, "We're going with another presenter" and I think, "Fuck! I'm a shit TV presenter. I'm shit at everything. My wife preferred sex with that guy in Argentina when she was a kid to doing it with me, which is why we haven't done it for weeks. I'm shit in bed because I didn't know any girls because I went to boarding school because my parents hated me."

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And the only cure for that is a wank. I don't know why. It just is.

But if you give up for a few days, if you can steel yourself, fend off the monkey, stem that egregious manifestation of sheer animal pointlessness and misery, then sometimes you can work backwards and get a bit of control over other areas, too.

So you try for a day or two. At first, there is the sheer smugness of stepping out wankless into the morning. "Ha ha!" You think on the train, when you catch a fellow commuter's eye, "What you don't know is that I did NOT have a wank in the shower this morning!"

It just feels so smart and grown up, to not have. You can drop your meat and two veg comfortably into whatever pants you like and know that there will be no delayed dribbles later to superglue your Jap's eye onto the fabric and bring a tear to your other eye when a sharp movement cracks the seal (this may be an exclusively circumcised thing). And for a few days you go fine. Life improves. You're not such a terrible wanker, after all (there's a reason why that word has its double meaning).

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But then as your wang starts to heal up and look young and bold again you begin to feel punchy and fertile. And when you catch sight of a hot chick — or frankly any woman, or even a man with long hair who looks a bit like a woman — walking down the road while you're staring idly out the window, and that familiar warm uncoiling starts in your trousers, you reckon: "What's the harm in just a quick one?"

And you're off the wagon and down the spiral of doom again as surely as any recidivist drinker or druggie.

I thought having kids might kill it off for me. I thought the risk of being busted mid-shuffle by someone who might actually be fucked up by the sight of it for life might be enough to shut me down.

Nah.

The thing is, you see, that when I turn on the hot tap in the shower it steams up the door in a trice so if I'm hard at it when a kid comes in shouting, "Daddy! Mummy says it's breakfast!" I have plenty of scope to spin round, get it all out of sight, get the cold on and be out in 10 seconds as if nothing had happened.

It's pathetic. I'm pathetic. To get my eldest to school on time I have to get us out of the house by 8:30am on weekdays. But even when breakfast is running late and I'm still in my pyjamas and unshowered at 8:20am and shouting to my wife to get the kid dressed while I belt upstairs to have a shower, I find myself thinking, as soon as I am alone on the top floor of the house: "I've got 10 minutes. Plenty of time for a wank".

And not just a wank. Because then I think, "I could probably even do three minutes on Brazzers if the iPad is charged".

And if the iPad isn't charged, I think, "I could probably plug it in and have it running in three or four minutes, then a two‑minute wank, then a really fast shower and still be in time for school if the traffic is on my side."

Even my wife catching me one time didn't stop me. She came in, saw me there, kneeling on the floor, cock in hand, iPad propped up on the bed, and said, "Oh" and left. I console myself that as it was 8:25am on a school morning and the kids were dressed and ready to go, she must have reasoned that their father simply could not have been banging one out over myfriendshotmom.com so her eyes must have deceived her.

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But after that busting, and after a number of near-miss shower busts, I must confess that I had a closer look at myself. My rationale for continuing to wank like a chimp with a hangover well into my late-forties was that with small children, live-in au pair, no privacy and a wife who gives up all her kissing, arse-grabbing and tit-nuzzling to other members of the household before I even get home, it is hardly surprising if I don't have sex anymore. I can't be forever pestering her and grumbling about it. So, it's only fair that I should be tonking myself silly, as a substitute.

Except wanking never was a substitute. It was a thing I did while I was waiting for sex to begin in my life, and then did alongside sex because it seemed to complement it. Once you are not having sex at all, have finished having sex forever as far as you can see, then wanking has no context. Beating madly away with the door locked while you look at a girl who looks a bit like your wife being tied to a ceiling and flayed with a horse crop until she urinates, is all very well if you're going to be shagging your wife later. It's hot. It's dirty. It's your own little private riff on the mutual pleasure. But not when what you're going to be doing together is eating beans on toast and watching Antiques Roadshow. Then it has no meaning. Then it suddenly looks like the vain and tragic act it really always was.

Worse still, on the occasions when real sexual activity was on the cards, I found — what with being nearly 50 — that not all parts of my body were as up for it as I would have wished. I was all wanked out. And so every time that happened, I would lay off the joddling for a while to get my mojo back. And then, of course, she wouldn't be up for it. And I would be furious because here I was, all unwanked and ready to go, waking up at all hours of the night with a cobalt hard-on like something growing out of an ogre (because it does come back if you lay off long enough), and she wanted no part of it. What a waste of not wanking!

Until I realised that not wanking should not be about her. It should be about me. Just like wanking was about me. Except not wanking is a better story. And a better feeling. So, some time last autumn, I do not recall exactly when, I just didn't start again. And as the weeks went by, I realised with hindsight that the pleasure had palled so much anyway that there had ceased to be any point in it decades ago.

For just as drinkers and drug-users endlessly chase that feeling of the first hit — and even cigarette-smokers suck ever harder in search of something akin to what they got from those first few childhood fags — so I realised that we wankers are also searching vainly for that first terrifying eruption of pleasure and shame, when the whole world seemed obliterated by a ball-shrivelling volcano of spooj, all ready to be made again in our own image.

But once you have replicated that image in the more publicly celebrated and evolutionarily useful way, which is by having children, and have more or less laid off the activity which made that possible, which is sexual intercourse, then wanking comes gradually to seem as ridiculous as it is unproductive.

It's been six months now and I still feel smug about it every day. Not masturbating, ever, has bought me hours of extra time, especially in the morning. My general penile and bollockile health is rude in the extreme. And with every passing day that I do not do that thing I always did when I was bored and miserable, the less bored and miserable I mysteriously feel.

There is more to life than masturbating, I guess, is the thing that I have finally grasped after more than 30 years. Which is why I haven't locked the bathroom door since October.