Review: Marilyn Coffey (1991, 2012) Mas-tur-ba-tion. Out West Press. 32pp.

Title: Mas-tur-ba-tion
Author: Marilyn Coffey
Publisher: Out West Press. 32pp.
Year: 2012
ISBN-10: 0962631795
32 pp.
$7.55, paperback

Review by Sally Deskins

This year, award-winning writer Marilyn Coffey republished two of her groundbreaking works of literature: Marcella (1973, 2013) and Mas-tur-ba-tion (1991, 2012).

Marcella, the first English work of fiction to use female autoeroticism as a main theme, is about a young girl discovering her sexuality but also wrestling with the “sinfulness” and shame and self-punishment for it. The novel, which Gloria Steinem called “an important part of truth telling by and for women” and was reviewed stunningly by Alix Kates Shulman in the New York Times and excerpted by Ms. Magazine, did quite well. Ironically or not, it also received scathing remarks of disgrace from conservatives.

As Marcella was based on Coffey’s life, after “coming clean” and acquainted with sexuality via the novel, the author, like many women, still struggled with the ingrained “sinfulness” of masturbation. So, she took it upon herself to research the truth of the notion, the result of which is the delightful, tongue-in-cheek, rich and informative, short book, Mas-tur-ba-tion. An interesting mixture of multiple genres, the book contains three essays, one poem, and some other non-fictional types of writing.

A quite natural progression from Marcella, Mas-tur-ba-tion’s four tight, personable and page-turning sections begin with “Is Masturbation a Sin?”, describing her initial research.

Quotes such as Sigmund Freud’s “The subject of masturbation is quite inexhaustible” embellish the text. And Coffey is fittingly consumed with her query and its evident religious implications. As she digs into the Bible and other religious books, statistics, definitions and explanations, she finds early 20th century doctors who advised “How to Treat Masturbation” and what masturbation might lead to (impotence, epilepsy, consumption, blindness, imbecility, insanity and death). All of this leads to the shame towards “a different kind of pleasure”, “amusing oneself” and “jollification.”

Relief comes as she discovers slowly changing societal outlooks and more tolerant cultures:

“Fortunately, this negative attitude is disappearing. In the scientific community, masturbation is generally considered not simply ‘normal & natural, but even necessary & healthy’ (p. 11).”

Next, Coffey lists “Arguments for Masturbation” adapted by those given by Dr. Albert Ellis. The record of simple, forthright, humorous, and raw sensible notions almost reads as a poem with its rhythm and ideas of personal freedom and peace:

“It doesn’t interfere with the sex rights of others… It is free from venereal infection… It can be interspersed with non-sexual occupations (such as sewing)… (p.13-14).”

Building on the research, she then looks at other species in “Who, besides Man, Masturbates?” She candidly begins:

“In our patriarchal society, masturbation is treated—by most writers—as an activity indulged in only by human men. Yet many other animals stimulate their sexual organs: primates, elephants, dogs, cats, horses, bulls, goats, ferrets, sheep, camels, bears, hyenas, parrots and women, to name a few (p. 15).”

She unflinchingly catalogs various animals and their sexual fortes:

“…dogs and cats masturbate by licking themselves…male horses flop their penises to ejaculate…goats, the envy of many a human male, are into autofellatio (or sucking themselves off)…stags rub trees…hyenas specialize in mutual masturbation… (p. 16).”

And the run-down of female human masturbators is none the tamer, as she describes the three commonly favored forms. Various dildo items are heavily detailed: “vibrators, candles, pencils, crochet hooks, corks, tumblers, toothbrushes—and of course, different fruits and vegetables… (p. 17).”

Take note, this chapter is not shy and readers will know their fill of erotic balls, clitoral and urethral masturbation (with a bold personal favorite noted by the author!) and a no-holds-bar list of situations where “an imaginative woman can find orgasm nearly everywhere (p. 19)”, closing with a charming anecdote of women catching orgasm with sewing pedal machines.

To boot, to the reader’s amusement, the book is festooned with congenial retro imagery as it relates to the subject—the 1853 scare-drawing showing the disastrous results predicted for males who masturbated (also the book cover) of a bow-tied drooling man; a 1920s dressed woman with a beret on a bicycle (one of the listed points of pleasure for women).

And so ends with “WARNING: Not to be Read by Churches”, Coffey’s personal account with the wayward term, as the writer pens a postcard “Masturbation Poem”, and wonders if it’s legal to send it out in the world—I won’t spoil the sweet ending for readers, as that is for you to appropriately enjoy on your own!

Mas-tur-ba-tion is a must for any young ones guilty or curious about self-pleasure and the American history behind the act and those wanting interesting bits of masturbation trivia to share at the next party. The book is fun, fearless, educational and should be passed around and discussed to recognize the still somewhat taboo subject of, what is that menacing word? Mas-tur-ba-tion…

About the authors

Marilyn June Coffey
A best-selling, national prize-winning, internationally published author of poetry and prose, Great Plains writer Marilyn June Coffey has composed six hundred poems, dozens of prose pieces, and five books. Her groundbreaking novel, MARCELLA, made literary history in 1973. Her newest book, PRICKSONGS: TART POEMS OF THE SIXTIES, features funny, passionate, and provocative poems.

Sally Deskins
Sally Deskins is an artist and arts writer specializing in women and feminist writers and artists. She lives in Morgantown, WV with her husband and two children. Find her online at and


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