Love & Sex

Sensible Sounding: Why I Inserted a Metal Rod into My Penis on Purpose

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I have my reasons.

Sex was once, to me, a superstition. It was something I heard about from schoolyard friends who’d never done it or from parents who claimed to be explaining it in a responsibly sober way. It was something I caught in stolen glimpses of nakedness in bad movies, and it was there in the nonsensical syrup of sitcom romances and in the soap-opera fatalism of every pop song I fell for. Taken all together, these fragments left me with the uncanny understanding of how sex should be, before I ever thought I was capable of experiencing it. When I finally began having my own sexual experiences that adolescent mysticism lingered on, and left me feeling like I was missing something even while there was nothing specifically displeasing about any particular encounter.

For a while, I began to wonder if something in my penis and its stupid tripwire emissions system was preventing me from climbing the ecstatic ladder into the stars. Whenever a partner rolled her head in pleasure or grabbed a fistful of bed sheet while arcing her pelvis upward, I wondered why my own arousal never made me do any of that. Sex inspired in me a suspicion that there were even better forms of it that I would have to travel outside of myself to discover. Which is how I came to be sitting in my bedroom one night, sliding a long metal tube into my penis.

Urethral sounding rods are a relatively obscure and intimidating member of the sex toy family, usually a long, slender metal cylinder meant to slide into the urethra to create a pleasing dilation effect. Sizes range from 4 to 17 millimeters in circumference, though there is some variation. The rods come in a variety of shapes — some have a gentle S-shaped curve, while others have large cylindrical dumbbells on their tips. Some come with flat, rectangular ends, some have repeating spherical ridges, and the most intimidating have severe fishhook curves.

It’s hard to trace the exact origins of the rod, but the practice of urethral sounding has a varied history across many cultures. According to Robert Lawrence, a health educator and board member of the Center for Sex & Culture in San Francisco, there is evidence that court physicians in ancient China used a tube inserted in their penis to sip liquid as a way of proving their ability and medical knowledge. In ancient Rome, catheters, tubes, and probes were used to explore the bladder and remove adhesions and calculi from various ducts and orifices. In the last century, however, the practice of sounding for pleasure seems to have become increasingly common, with examples of men having used everything from pens to knitting needles.

The tissue in the urethra is embryologically the same as the labia minora, and it’s filled with sensitive nerve endings all the way down. Just moving a smooth, well-lubricated object along these tissues can be pleasurable, but there are deeper wonders to be touched in sounding. The urethra is divided into four parts that connect the bladder to head of one’s penis, the last of which runs directly through the prostate, a sensitive organ that’s central to the ejaculatory spasms men experience during orgasm. Sudden dilation of the prostatic urethra can trigger ejaculation and the enlivening sensations that accompany it.

Unlike more recognizable sex toys, sounding rods have a high degree of daredevilry attached to them and shouldn’t be used without serious care and preparation. The sensitivity of the urethral walls means that they’re also tremendously delicate, making them vulnerable to tearing or puncture. The urethra’s depth and narrowness make it especially vulnerable to infection from outside bacteria, which is exactly what’s at risk when inserting foreign objects into it.

In the last century, the practice of sounding for pleasure seems to have become increasingly common, with examples of men having used everything from pens to knitting needles.

Sterilizing the sound before each and every use is of utmost importance, which is easiest to do by boiling it in water for 30 minutes. Sounders should also take care to wash their hands and penis and make sure not to touch anything that hasn’t been washed before insertion. Many people suggest drinking a glass of cranberry juice just before you begin, which helps to naturally inhibit bacteria growth in the urinary tract. Similarly, only bacteriastatic surgical lube should be used with sounding rods, adding one last layer of protection against possible bacteria being introduced into the urethra. After use, the sound should be thoroughly washed to prevent rust or other kinds of buildup, and the person using it should urinate to flush out the urethra.

When I began to think about trying a sounding rod, most of my male friends recoiled in horror, either overwhelmed by the thought of ruining their penises or flashing back to the painful chlamydia-testing chore of inserting a Q-tip into the urethra and twisting it to obtain a lab sample. The scattered available information seemed to affirm the practice as recklessly deviant, associating the very impulse with mental imbalance. One survey of more than 2000 men found that the roughly 10 percent who performed urethral sounding also reported higher STI rates. Another study, from the University of South Florida tracked instances of patients visiting the hospital with “foreign bodies”inserted in their urethras — including a ballpoint pen housing and a bundle of speaker wires  — and noted that all the patients had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

These fragments are spooky and prejudicial, using loose correlation between a specific act and broad-sweeping lifestyle habits to create the aura of taboo while ignoring the pre-existing biases that make the stimulation of one’s variously located nerve endings seem irrational. But they did make it easy to be afraid. “Now Why Would You Do That?”the subtitle of one study asked, as if the direct answer —“It felt good?”— couldn’t possibly justify the downsides. These superstitious forebodings are surprisingly omnipresent when you start to wander off the normative path in any one direction. In my neighborhood in Manhattan, there are a number of sex-toy shops and peep show venues, but the thick black curtains hung across the front doors and the intimidating “NO MINORS” signs create a sense of a world of endangerment, where pastimes ensure perils. These shops always seem to be one step away from bankruptcy, their crooked shelves and cramped aisles one police siren away from abandonment.

As I started shopping, I noticed that every sounding rod on display was alarmingly large. Even the smallest, slightly larger than a pencil, looked like something that would be impossible to get into my urethra without some serious stretching. I asked the clerk if they had any smaller ones that might be more approachable for a beginner. It’s a better deal to buy whole sets, he told me, and it’s actually safer to start with a rod a few steps up from the smallest size; in unexperienced hands, the most slender rods can apparently slide and slip around, making them riskier for potential tears or punctures. The thicker ones not only stay in place, but discourage the user from moving too quickly. Intellectually, that all made sense, but the calming advice evaporated when I looked back down on the rods. Never before had five centimeters seemed like such an impossible sum. Even so, I plucked the smallest from among those gleaming torpedoes and took it home with some surgical lube in one of those thin, black plastic bags that only ever seem to come from the liquor store or the sex shop.

Using the sounding rod for the first time reminded me of the first time I masturbated. I wasn’t sure what I was doing then either, but some collusion of instinct and mimicry of a joking motion I’d used with my school friends combined into an unstoppable need, and a minute later, a dizzying warmth broke through my body. I remember having the thought that I had manipulated my body into doing something it shouldn’t have been made to do. The translucent glob of grey seeping into my bedroom carpet was a symptom of something haven been broken inside me, in the same way a pool of liquid beneath a car in the garage is a sign of something starting to fall apart.

As I waited for the pot of boiling war to sterilize the rod, it felt like I was preparing for another breaking of something. There was some foggy outline of dogma as I thought my way through all the steps I’d go through to avoid cross-contamination. My right hand would hold the rod and touch nothing else, while my left hand would do all the other work: squeeze out lube, lift the lid off the boiling pot of water, open and close my bedroom door, bring up sex videos on my laptop. It took close to an hour to set everything in place. Everything I did while waiting took on a vesper-like quality of contemplation.

When I finally closed my bedroom door and held the rod in my hand, an over-abundance of clear lube clotting around its narrowest half, I thought for a moment about the fact that I was now going to be fucked by a purely machined object. Most of the sex toys I’d known were fetishized reflections of another human body in some abstract way. Dildos and Fleshlights were direct analogs of genitalia, while cock rings and vibrators evoked in some distant way the intensified gestures another person might do to you. But I was on my own with the rod — there was no fantasy of an idyllic shadow lover when I felt the metal spread open my penis. There was no pantomime of acting out love for any other body. There was no projecting; I was alone with a piece of metal.

I remember having the thought that I had manipulated my body into doing something it shouldn’t have been made to do.

Though not necessary, I decided it would be easiest to start if I had an erection. The rod went in softly and smoothly, the widening of those frightful five centimeters were easily within the elastic capacity of my precious little opening (which had looked like a gaping, eyeless alien mouth as I stared down on it). There was no pain, but neither was there any significant pleasure. The only feeling I was conscious of was the unbendable hardness of the metal rod, and a thick, slow-moving wetness somewhere inside me. I slid it down a half-inch, and then a full inch. Everything went incredibly slowly. It was almost like the opposite of sex, with its colliding surfaces and rhythmic incantations. Lowering the sounding rod was strangely meditative, requiring intense focus on a matter of centimeters, mostly motionless, waiting for the unseen iris to open a little further down before sliding it further in. I had never been touched so deeply, and I began to feel something like a burning sensation, a common side effect for first experiences. It was a weak and distant feeling, and I soon realized it was not burning, really, but my brain straining to process touch sensations from a part of my body that had no memory of being touched with mnemonic approximation.

I went in as deep as I dared — about three inches — as a video of people having sex in a disco ran on my laptop beside me. When I’ve gone as far as I can with the rod, I pull it out and then put it back in, pressing a little deeper. I rock it in and out, gently, but still worried I’ll break something inside. I pull it out again, place it on the towel, and masturbate to the people in the porn movie. Eventually, I came.

I spent the following days in a persistent obsession with the sounding rod. In many ways, the feeling had been so clinical and alien it veered toward anti-ecstasy. But something had been inside me and all I could feel now was the new incompleteness it had left. I wanted to be touched again on the inside, but every time that thought came up, it was accompanied by the dissuasive memory of how much time and care had to be spent on preparations, for an experience that was mostly just dangerous waiting.

I began to think of how it is that whenever I come with someone else, the first thing that goes through my mind is, “I’m sorry.” I’m familiar enough with this neurosis to barely even acknowledge it anymore, but it’s always there. I’ll have come too soon, or too quietly, or without enough advance notice, or before having time to switch positions as I had meant to. I’m thousands of experimental variations removed from that first moment of touching myself in my adolescent bedroom, but the instinctive thought of breaking, buried beneath a mound of adult over-complication, is still there. The wonder of endorphins and the sweetly salted salubrity of another body beside me feel like distractions from the fact that my ejaculations are always disruptions of a properly functioning encounter, breaks in a momentarily completed circuit, and the rush of pleasure that accompanied them is dim compensation for having been thrown from the horse, suddenly stranded on a broken-down subway in between stations.

If ecstasy is something that breaks, the sounding rod is its prolongation, an instrument that made it seem possible to feel pleasure as an act of receiving, a welcoming in and not a falling out. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was the furthest thing from an orgasm — or, rather, it was the inverted image of it, the unmoving awareness that every inch of outer body has an inner life. Once I felt that for myself, I couldn’t think about anything else. And strangely enough, that kept me in a needful heat, which only became more encompassing the longer I went without it. And it was just that feeling I had always expected to find in sex. And once I found it, the only thing left was to go back and find it again. Maybe next time there’ll actually be another person in the room.

Michael Thomsen has written for The New Yorker, Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Men's Health, and Forbes. He is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men.

Image via Dianna McDougall.