I’m sitting in a workshop with Black, like minded men and, midway through a reflective segment, I raise masturbation as a topic of discussion. The event has been put on by a close friend of mine and though I see some familiar faces, the majority are new to me. It’s a beautiful gathering. The impetus was to support my boy but, in hindsight, I was in a vulnerable, weird state. I’m returning to my book for copy edits, which means digging back into memory, trauma, belonging and, well, myself.
We cover a variety of questions. “What steps do you need to take in your transition from caterpillar into butterfly? What’s stopping your transition?” The group is mixed, from young/old to married/single/situationships. With so many people with so much to say, it’s easy for me to blend into the shadows. I struggle when it comes to giving advice or offering critiques, when I’m still trying to understand how best to navigate my own life, so I’m mostly quiet.
Understanding myself, I have learned that when a subject or idea piques my interest in a certain way, I become fixated. As a child, my fixations were collecting Premier League stickers, Judge Dredd comics and pogs back in the day. Yes, (for me) before Squid Game’s flipping card phenomenon took over social media, there were pogs. I collected so many that I stuck them on my grime vinyls, neatly placing one over each hole.
As I have grown, so have my fixations. Right now, it’s trying to make sense of this masculinity thing and even more so the intimacy and vulnerability of Black men, and the layers lying beneath all the tropes. I’ve noticed myself to be the more liberal one within some of my friendship groups or even the one that says something a bit out there in WhatsApp groups, but this is different; I’m in this room with mandem I know, and ppl I’ve never met. With all of that being said, my off-the-script topic was no slip of the tongue.
The co-facilitator asks us the following:
“What does being a man mean to you?”
Each person talks, and we begin to rotate like a timer on an old-school microwave. A clockwise motion edging closer, voices getting louder, and finally stopping at me.
“What does the question even mean?”
I say it frustratingly because I have no fucking clue. Silence. Like I held a jug of water and poured it on the wires, causing a slight shift in the event’s flow.
“I don’t know how to answer because I don’t know how honest we are willing to be. Last weekend, I was in Manchester with my boys. It was after 3am, we were Ubering back to the Airbnb, drunk, talking about sex and ended up talking about masturbation.”
I’m telling myself to stop, but I’ve glitched.
“We joked about it but I was serious, I know nuff white boys that’ll slap each other’s arse, kiss each other in their drunken messy state. I also know how open some are regarding sex and talking about wanking like it’s nothing.”
I’m looking around, seeing the faces, and I’m reminded of the shitty feeling I get when a message that’s not responded to in a WhatsApp group after I’ve said something that’s a bit “out there,” knowing people have read it.
I asked the mandem whether they spoke to their boys about masturbation? Everyone in the Uber said no. We are all grown men in here, discussing masculinity, right? We spoke about the youts and getting them off road, but how comfortable are we in speaking to young men about being men regarding things like love? Especially, when we can’t even speak to each other about masturbation!
I’ve spent the majority of my life in Walworth; I grew up on what was the Aylesbury estate. Burgess Park, like the Red Sea, parted neighbouring areas from each other; Peckham, Camberwell and Old Kent Road being a stone’s throw from the manor.
The Aylesbury was formed of 2,704 homes. It’s often been called the largest housing estate in Europe, with a breathtaking spread of blocks/buildings across the borough of Southwark. My manor housed more than 7,000 residents and came to prominence in 1997 via Tony Blair’s first speech as prime minister and his promise to care for the poorest in society. Urban decay was the verbiage when describing the ends. Tony Blair never returned. I grew up not knowing the context of my environment. To me it was just home. I knew the lampposts that were constantly broken meant that, after a certain time, the normal route home wasn’t the one. No matter our background, all of us kids knew each other. I knew which shops had the scary dogs or which of the aff parents would beat you publicly, even in your badman mode. My mum being one of them. My band of brothers from other mothers grew up in the ends, most of us without fathers. Music, films and local hearsay were our tutorials on being.
There was a guy on the block, known specifically for dubbing porn vids onto VHS then renting them out to the mandem for a two-day period. He did this for years and made a lot of money. Word was that he had a tier system, from soft to hardcore. Everyone knocked for him. The roadest of roadman answering to his mum in the most well-mannered nature. Some even prostrating, “Good evening, Aunty.” Aunty thought she had a popular son. Sex education for the manor was via this guy for us.
The evening I met him, he asked what I wanted. I didn’t know what to say. “Junior, listen. Take this one. It’s Mr Marcus, he’s good. Make sure you rewind it and bring it back to me. It’s my only copy. Enjoy bro.” I watched it alone as I had no girl to watch it with. I was curious, with no idea of what was happening to my body or what to do with the mammoth load of sensations. Mr Marcus also looked like the template of what a man should look like if you wanted to attract women.
There was a rite of passage in declaring to the mandem that I met him, and the fear in asking if they too had similar feelings in their bodies, if they were tempted to touch themselves.
I break, saying “What does being a man mean to you?” With “Can we talk openly about masturbation?” All of a sudden, it’s like parents randomly cornered us with “So you are having sex now, abi? You are now in the big league!” I hear giggles, applause, as well as sensing an uncomfortable, unsure, yet embarrassing, feeling to my question.
There’s no need for me to know the wanking history of the group of men I’m sitting with. Nor am I asking this question in thinking it will solve gang culture or reduce the number of Black boys dying.
I’m having a real fuck-it moment. I explain my reasoning and talk about a poem in my book that explores my manorisms over time in relation to sex and the mandem. How a porn star has been more present in my life than my father, how I can’t recall discussing condom sizes with my boys, or how to even put a condom on, without the fear of being looked at as gay. Not forgetting the having-a-small-dick connotation, because men with big dicks don’t need to ask dem questions dere. I carry on, explaining that if I, at that age, couldn’t speak to anyone, let alone my boys, about the most basic questions, what does it mean for the average Black boy now with questions regarding himself and his body? How are we best placed to answer that if we can’t be open and honest to each other? An older, married man responds.
“Listen, Yomi, I get you, but I don’t understand why you would need to masturbate, when you have someone at home or find someone you can just have sex with. Is that not more pleasurable than touching yourself?”
The room responds as though we are politicians in the House of Commons. There’s ruckus, animation, laughter and everything feels alive. Like we are fully present and ready to talk. Points are made, some respectfully disagreeing with the elder, explaining different reasons:
Uncle, it helps us to understand our body more.
Sometimes it’s tumbleweed on this land!
Uncle, when my wife was pregnant.
Bro! Bro! Dem ones!
Fam! There were days where I could just sense her
saying “I dare you to ask me” knowing how tired she was
There was more peace with this DIY option.
This is now an intergenerational discussion. The group ask the elder whether masturbation was something not considered when he was younger. I was leaning towards religion, but they likened it to therapy and how our fathers spoke to no one when something was happening. A question about masturbation and our bodies has now shifted a gear.
The day my friend told me he was curious about experiencing sex with men, I said, “You greedy bastard!” We laughed as I poured more whisky into his glass. He then said he’d had sex with a man, and I said “ALREADY!? I thought you said you was curious!” He laughed as I poured more whisky in my not-yet-finished glass. Then we were quiet for maybe five seconds after. I asked how he felt, a lot of it was I dunno. An actual puzzled look on his face in not knowing how to describe it at the time. “Are you ok with me telling you?” I remember this being the most open conversation I’d had with one of my closest friends, and it wasn’t how I’d imagined. It was as if it broke the ice of masculinity for me. He was anxious, the fear of me walking in as a friend and leaving wanting nothing to do with him was real. I felt the weight in processing his curiosity with no one to speak to, or him telling someone and the risk it carried. “I’m still here bro, can’t get rid of me that easy.”
I raise masturbation as a topic for discussion and a world unlocked in our freeness. Mandem are discussing cum retention. They are providing tips on how to get the best out of our bodies.
All of this feels different.
Maybe I’m at a point in life where speaking on these matters does not feel as taboo. One could argue the privilege or creative licence I have as a writer enables me to dip in pockets I’ve been nervous to explore. Maybe it’s me screaming to the men close to me to open the fuck up, by asking the most random thing to talk about. I feel reckless and yet responsible. Maybe I’m bored of the current norms of Black masculinity, the rehashing of trauma, and would love to welcome new/experimental conversations in order to tap into different areas of our minds. The shit I’ve grown up with? I know they’ve evolved and still exist. I also know I broke up with a girl in my teens because I was a virgin who was too nervous to tell her I couldn’t take that step, due to nerves and thinking she would spread my shame to her girls. I wasn’t the chiselled Mr Marcus. My honesty could have gotten us to that stage, together, but it was easier for her to hate me with the lie she saw through. There was zero chance of speaking to my Nigerian mother about losing my virginity, nor was I about to rub a lamp and hope a genie would appear to wish for a father to talk to.
I had to leave the event early due to another engagement. I wasn’t laughed out of the room. My fixation made some sense that day. I left, thinking about younger Black boys needing to unlock their worlds, and the liberating feeling when societal norms are set aside.