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.
The very first published psychiatric case of autofellatio, appearing in the American Journal of Psychiatry way back in 1938, was also one of the most outrageous and pathological. The patient was a 33-year-old store clerk who, prior to being referred to Yale psychiatrists Eugen Kahn and Ernest Lion, had just completed a 60-day jail sentence for sexual assault. "Among his perverse practices," explain the authors, "were pedophilia, cunnilinguism, homosexual acts (fellatio, sodomy and mutual masturbation), exhibitionism, transvestism, fetishism, algolagnia, voyeurism and peeping." But never mind all those vanilla paraphilias. The man's psychiatrists were especially intrigued by his more unusual habit. He seems a devious wee character, this patient of theirs. The authors describe him as being somewhat effeminate in posture, gait and mannerisms; he stood only 5 feet 2 inches tall—"somewhat thin and with wide hips," they wrote, with "a female pattern of distribution of his pubic hair" and "his gag reflex is very sluggish."
The patient was the third-oldest of eight children and grew up in a strict, religious family, which the physicians felt he rebelled against by egregiously breaching their high moral standards. In recounting to the psychiatrists the origins of his interest in autofellatio, the troubled clerk recalled being invited at the age of 14 by a "cripple boy" to engage in oral sex with him. The patient, being shy, had refused this offer, but the thought of it simmered and, lacking the courage to approach anyone else, he took matters upon himself: "He kept trying night after night, managing to bend his back more and more until he finally succeeded in August, 1923." (The 89th anniversary of this event is coming up, in case you want to mark it on your calendar.) It turns out he liked it—so much, in fact, that even amidst the long litany of perversions he enjoyed, self-irrumatio instantly became his favorite autoerotic act.
In an odd Pavlov's dog sort of way, the authors even describe how the man's sexual arousal had since then been accompanied by a "constricting feeling in the throat." That must be a terribly annoying feeling, I'd imagine, and apparently also one not easily resolved. "He has attempted to secure substitute gratification," say the authors, "by smoking, or by stimulating his pharynx with a banana, vaginal douche or a broom handle. These have yielded various degrees of satisfaction." And he did apparently get over his adolescent shyness and lack of confidence, too—he particularly enjoyed fellating himself in front of a shocked audience.
Since this initial case report by Kahn and Lion, a handful of others have trickled in over the years, with subsequent investigators attempting to find a set of common personality denominators in those who prefer autofellatio over other forms of sex. In a 1954 article in Psychoanalytic Review, for instance, William Guy and Michael Finn saw a theme beginning to emerge. "In all of the clinical descriptions," observe these authors, "one finds repeatedly such phrases as sensitive, shy, timid, effeminate, and passive." This is code for "queer," I believe, and in fact other writers have more expressly noted the often-suppressed homosexual desires in these autofellators.
In fact, judging by the scant literature, one of the big psychoanalytic questions yet to be resolved satisfactorily seems to be the extent to which engaging in autofellatio—or perhaps simply the desire to do so—signals a latent erotic attraction to the same sex. I suspect, however, that the overrepresentation of gay men in the antiquated case reports is simply a reflection of the cultural ethos of those times. The most recent psychiatric investigations on autofellatio date to the late 1970s (around the time that Freud's particular grip on psychiatry lost its tenuous hold), and the earlier ones to the 1930s, so as a rule the men described therein faced baseless moralistic proscriptions against homosexuality. This meant other men's penises were very hard to come by. So it's not terribly surprising that those too frightened to perform fellatio on another man would develop severe neuroses after indulging in their own penises.
A 1946 article from the American Journal of Psychiatry exemplifies this phenomenon. The case involves a 36-year-old, highly intelligent, personable, but virginal staff sergeant (not to be confused with the military man we met earlier) with closeted homosexual desires. According to the official record, he'd first performed autofellatio at age 13, but he became so frightened by this "impulse" that he resisted ever doing so again—that is, until a month prior to arriving at the psychiatric ward of the hospital. After giving himself head in private, the sergeant became intensely paranoid that the other soldiers somehow knew of his autofellatio, and that every little snigger, whisper, or averted glance concerned this transgression. He suffered a nervous breakdown on hearing the word "cocksucker" floating about so casually and playfully in the military barracks, convinced it was meant just for him.
It's a rather sad ending for him, too, because despite his responding well to the doctors' reassurance that he was being overly paranoid, the sergeant was discharged for being "no longer adaptable within the military service." The therapists assigned to the case, Major Morris Kessler and Captain George Poucher, reached a rather strange conclusion, one that I have a hunch you might disagree with: "Sexual self-sufficiency," they write, "either by masturbation or autofellatio, is tantamount to having an affinity for one's own sex." In other words, if you were a fan of manual masturbation in 1946, my heterosexual male friends, you'd have been branded a secret homosexual pervert who likes penises so much that he gives himself hand jobs. This would have made autofellatio a devil of a case under the Clinton-era "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ban on gays in the military had it arisen then. And, seriously, good riddance to those ignorant days of yore. To each his own—quite literally in the case of autofellatio.
I know, I know, I didn't even get a chance to talk about autocunningulism in females. Given the even more serious anatomical hurdles in lacking a protruding reproductive device, such behavior in women may not even be possible. I confess I don't know; and there's no mention of it in the scientific literature. The closest female comparison to autofellatio I stumbled upon is the case of women who suckle from their own breasts, for sexual or other purposes. One therapist writes of an especially self-sufficient female patient who had a habit of doing this. When he asked her why, she merely replied, "I'm hungry." But that's another article for another day.
Jesse Bering is the author of The Belief Instinct and Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? (July 2012). He is a frequent contributor to Slate and writes the "Bering in Mind" column for scientificamerican.com. His next book will be on the curiously scandalous science of human sexuality. 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.