Please excuse the ugly term ‘emotional masturbation’, but it fits so poetically and succinctly with the phenomenon I wish to derail this week. It’s almost self explanatory, leaving little need for me to wax lyrical. But I want to, so I shall.
Emotional masturbation, much like its better known sexual cousin, is the voluntary stimulation of one’s emotional whatnots for titillation and gratification. Unlike the sexual kind, there’s generally less bodily fluid involvement and far less risk of friction burns. Seeking out situations of extreme emotional stimulus, frottaging against them for maximum effect; rolling in grief, wallowing in outrage, frolicking in someone else’s moment of pride or roller coaster romance. And people don’t even have the good grace to do it in the privacy of their own bathrooms!
Most people start out innocently enough. Upon hearing the news of the death of a beloved national treasure, they will update their social media with a ubiquitously generic RIP tribute (you know the one, the bland and meaningless “RIP Sir David Frost” type of thing), but the buzz soon wears off and they must have greater emotional drama, so they go seeking out the full details of their hero’s tragic demise, lamenting in public and bleeding woe all over internet forums. Old footage on YouTube is visually pawed over and any and all news sites are refreshed repeatedly for just one more nugget of tear jerking revelation. Satisfaction only reached when the grief of a stranger becomes their own.
Upon the demise of Amy Winehouse, people in my office (located nearby the comedically bouffed songstress’ final address), who had previously only given her hits a cursory head bob, set off on earnest pilgrimages to spend a lunch hour “just having a look” outside her home. Every day became a competition to out-do one another with the latest salacious tittle tattle and mournful exclamation of disbelief over “poor Amy” (previously unable to name her latest album, now suddenly on first name terms). I didn’t go with them to gawp, rubbernecking as at the site of a multiple car pile-up, blinking forced tears from my eyes at the candle and whisky festooned pavement outside her house – there seemed little point visiting her address; she wasn’t there and it was just one more house in London that I can’t afford.
The internet has brought many wonderful things, such as the ability to share knowledge with cultures around the globe. With it, it has also brought a plague of cute animal pictures. For the most part these feed the nauseating need of some people to utter noises only audible to bats and new mothers, but it has also brought with it the ability to emotionally masturbate over the plight of a malnourished donkey. Worse, it has enabled people to spread these images with an accompanying hefty guilt trip via the medium of “liking” on Facebook. Fine, these things might occasionally cross into my awareness, and sometimes rightly so when it comes to education, but more often than not, people go seeking these things out to have a good old five-knuckle-shuffle in the heart string department. Repeatedly. And then share the images and their outrage with you, whether you like it or not. Repeatedly.
Much drama is fed so manipulatively, it’s almost too easy. A talent show on TV with the dewy eyed down at heel builder, who came from no-where, supported his wife through cancer of the toenails and who just wants the chance to be heard [cue tear jerking incidental string music, building to a calculated rapturous crescendo as he wins a place in a mass marketing lottery]. We’re spared screen time of the wealthy dead-cert, boasting a healthy family background and perfect teeth – not enough emotional porn to cause even a minor ripple of goose bumps. Then there’s Pride of Britain, an annual event where little teeny tiny tots, lauded for fishing a bit of pizza from their choking parent’s maw, are paraded on stage along with the watery-eyed old toffee-sucker who killed 72 Germans in order to rescue a 3-legged sniffer dog in WWII. The dog hobbles dustily on stage, farts, and a fountain of pride and jubilant tears erupts from the audiences, both in the TV studio and at home.
There is unarguably a constant barrage of graphic violence and political injustice that graces our news channels and our questionable newspapers. Sadly, these pander to the demands of the more salacious of tastes, to people who don’t want to look away, who go searching for it, revelling in being outraged and having their indignation stimulated, like prodding at an angry bruise. Again and again, people poke at the same news story, hitting themselves over the head with it until their misery and outrage seem real. There have been awful news stories, such as the World Trade Centre destruction of 9/11 or the Boxing Day tsunami. People who had no personal investment in anything surrounding the events spent days on end, glued to the 24/7 news coverage, weeping into their evermore tramp-like clothing, too scared to go for a shower in case a morsel of moral outrage should be unleashed in their absence. This wasn’t their disaster, it was a disaster, but they were damned if they were going to miss out on such priceless emotional porn as this.
Everyone loves a happy ending, especially when it involves passion and romance. Some people, however, love it too much and get their gussets in a twist over the real life soap operas of the joyous loves of others. Sadly, these people take almost as much pleasure in occupying a front row seat at the resulting breakdown, revelling in the personal loss and betrayal they feel as the divorce proceedings of two near strangers play out before the press.
I myself am guilty of using a deeply moving film to offload some pent up emotional steam – either a film of victorious triumph or of mascara decimating sorrow, but that’s for a maximum of 2 hours at a time and with the strict understanding that it’s all about as real as Katie Price’s sweater-fillers. True emotional masturbators go seeking it out for days, weeks at a time, wallowing in the quagmire of drama-by-proxy. How many of us actually knew Princess Diana? Compare this with how many drank up every scrap of news story, squirrelled every commemorative pull-out and wept, wept for a woman they didn’t personally know, and worse, they grieved competitively.
It’s all very well, stimulating one’s emotional pink bits for a brief moment of escape and titillation, but allowing it to take over, in the way some people allow pornography to replace relationships with real human beings, is a little unhinged and not at all healthy. As with healthy adult relations, so with emotional highs and lows – revel in what is real, look close to home and cherish the emotional dramas that life throws your way, by all means, have a cheeky one-off-the-wrist in the form of escaping into a good book or a cheesy film, but for pity’s sake, don’t let emotional masturbation turn you blind.