So Close, and Yet So Far Away
The contorted history of autofellatio.
Long before I knew very much about anything regarding sex, I did what many young males do, which of course is to place an empty paper-towel roll over my penis and suck hopefully upon the cardboard end. Okay, perhaps not everyone does this; I was a little confused about the suction principle. And now I'm a bit embarrassed by the story, although it's been a full year since the event and I'm much better informed on the subject of fellatio today. Oh, settle down, I'm only joking.
Well, kind of. I did actually attempt this feat, but I was 12 or 13 at the time, which, to give you a clearer sense of my unimpressive carnal knowledge at that age, is also around the time that I submitted to my older sister with great confidence that a "blow job" involves using one's lips to blow a cool breeze upon another's anus.
So to avoid similar confusion, let us define our terms clearly. Autofellatio, the subject at hand—or rather, not at hand at all—is the act of taking one's genitals in one's mouth to derive sexual pleasure. Terminology is important here, because at least one team of psychiatrists writing on this subject distinguishes between autofellatio and "self-irrumatio." In nonsolo sex, fellatio sees most of the action in the sucking party while irrumatio has more of a thrusting element to it, wherein the other person's mouth serves as a passive penile receptacle. (Hence the colorful and rather aggressive-sounding slang for irrumatio—"face-f*cking," "skull-f*cking," and so on.)
In any event, my paper-towel-roll act was simply a "Plan B" at that puerile age, a futile way to circumvent the obvious anatomical limitations to oral self-gratification. And by all accounts, I wasn't alone in hatching Plan B. Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues reported in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, in fact, that, "[a] considerable portion of the population does record attempts at self-fellation, at least in early adolescence." Sadly, given our species' pesky ribcage and hesitant spine, Kinsey estimated that only two or three of every 1,000 males are able to achieve this feat. There's the story of the Italian decadent poet, Gabriele d'Annunzio, who is said to have had a bone removed to facilitate the act, or that old Saturday Night Live skit in which Will Ferrell enrolls in a Yoga class only to become flexible enough to fellate his own organ. But truth is often stranger than fiction. In 1975, the psychiatrist Frances Millican and her colleagues described the real case of a "very disturbed" patient who learned Yoga precisely for this reason.
Now, you may think that being one of the ultrabendable 0.25 percent of the population is all fun and games. (We've all heard those quips about never having to leave the house.) But think again. There's a long and unfortunate history of pathologizing this behavior; psychiatrists have described its practitioners as being sexually maladjusted, stuck in an infantile state of suckling dependency, or even motivated by repressed homosexual desires. Take the case described by psychiatrists Jesse Cavenar, Jean Spalding, and Nancy Butts, who wrote in 1977 of a lonely, 22-year-old serviceman who'd been fellating himself since the age of 12. He was driven mad, "by the fact that he could physically incorporate only the glans, and wanted to be able to incorporate more." Honestly, it must have been so—oh, what's the word I'm looking for … it's right on the tip of my tongue—frustrating, for this poor soldier. This is the ultimate cock tease, its being so close yet so far away.
Since the days of Freud, psychoanalysts have gone to town on the subject of autofellatio. In a 1971 article by psychiatrist Frank Orland, we see the typical jargon-filled language used in dissecting the "symbolic" bases of autofellatio, which is conceptualized as a virtual "ring of narcissism":
… autofellation represents a recreation of the early infantile state in which the intrapsychic representatives of external objects are separated from the self-object, with a coexisting parasitic symbiosis with the external object. Through the autofellatio phenomenon, the ego re-establishes the necessary mastery over the external object representative as a defence against object loss and to restore the parasitic fusion with the nipple-breast.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is unadulterated psychobabble—and I tell you this as a psychologist. Sometimes, people are motivated to lick their own genitals because it just feels good. Of course, there are always going to be those, such as the dubious Yoga master, who take it a bit too far and for whom autofellatio contributes to mental illness. The foregoing soldier, who couldn't take it far enough, got so frustrated by his semifulfilled fantasy that, when he masturbated the old-fashioned way, he could achieve climax only by imagining himself fellating himself.
Jesse Bering is the author of the forthcoming book Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us. He is a frequent contributor to Slate and writes the "Bering in Mind" column for scientificamerican.com. Follow him at www.jessebering.com, on Twitter @JesseBering, or try adding him on Facebook.
Image of Gabriele D'Annunzio available from the United States Library of Congress' Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ggbain.06615.