This editorial was originally published in Ms. Mayhem magazine.
In 1994, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the first Black U.S. surgeon general and the second woman to serve in the position, was forced to resign by then-President Bill Clinton. Her crime? Suggesting that masturbation should be taught in schools as part of sex education. You know, the class about sex.
At a United Nations conference on the AIDS epidemic in 1994, Elders was asked if she thought teaching children about masturbation might reduce the risks of unsafe sex. Yes, she replied, “I think that is something that is a part of human sexuality, and it’s a part of something that perhaps should be taught. But we’ve not even taught our children the very basics.”
Here we are, almost 30 years later, still outraged as a society that children and teens might learn that masturbation is a healthy, natural act. In fall 2020, parents in New York City were irate to learn their first-graders were taught about masturbation in a sex education class at The Dalton School. The religious rights’ collective heads exploded in 2019 when California overhauled its sex-ed program to include discussions on gender identity with kindergartners, the LGBTQ+ community with high schoolers and masturbation with middle schoolers.
It’s widely accepted that it is not uncommon for kids to start masturbating between the ages of 2 to 6. It’s such an undisputed fact of medicine that even Focus on the Family acknowledges that it’s normal behavior. According to the book “Bang!: Masturbation for People of All Genders and Abilities” by Vic Liu, it’s necessary to remember that the world kids live in is devoid of the social context we as adults live with on a daily basis. For children, masturbation isn’t sexually driven; it’s more of a sensual, sensational act.
“It is a pure exploration of the relationship between [the child’s] physical bodies and their emotional experiences, another way of learning about themselves,” Liu wrote. She goes on to say that a crucial component of this self-exploration is how the adults in the child’s life react. Children who are met with shock or embarrassment from adults will most likely mirror those feelings, “which can negatively impact their relationship with their body in the future.”
So when you see protest signs against comprehensive sex education that read, “Save the Innocence of Children,” what they’re really saying is, “I don’t want to have awkward conversations with my own kid.”
HISTORY OF THE MÉNAGE À MOI
But why is masturbation such an icky topic? For centuries, masturbation was a key part of health and society. The oldest found dildo dates back 28,000 years ago to the last Ice Age. Seven bronze dildos from 200 BCE were found in a Han dynasty tomb in China. The Greek Physician Galen believed masturbation was essential to avoid blockages in the human body. As Liu wrote, “It turns out that the story of the self-stimulation stigma is also a story of the birth of society, with all of its insecurities and anxieties.”
One major facet of the anti-masturbation movement may be one of the most familiar. Religion has long dictated the moral code of society, forcibly or voluntarily influencing behaviors across class and race. The biblical story of Onan “spilling his seed” outside the body of his widowed sister-in-law is often interpreted as anti-masturbation. Many theologians argue his real sin was defying God’s command. This distortion of the story spiraled rapidly, as church members began competing to see who could punish the masturbation the harshest. Augustine of Hippo, an influential bishop of the early Christian Church taught that masturbation was a worse sin than rape, incest and adultery. These sins could lead to pregnancy while increasing the Christian flock, and therefore were “natural” sins and much less serious than the “unnatural,” contraceptive sin of masturbation.
The Christian idea that the sole purpose of sexual gratification is procreation still has its claws in many Americans today. The Christian “purity” movement was propped up throughout the 1990s and early 2000s with purity rings, pledges and skewed metaphors pummeled into malleable teens and tweens who, decades later, still harbor an acute sense of sexual shame. Trademarked programs that topped as many as 2.5 million participants not only indoctrinated a generation of Christians but also provided a way in which the stigma of sexual pleasure could further bleed into society at large.
But it may come as a surprise that the other major component of the anti-masturbation movement is secular. The capitalist crusade against tossing one grew during the rapid urbanization of Europe in the 1700s. As scientific advancements were made, Victorian cities invented the concept of good manners, according to Liu. The newly created class of the bourgeoisie prided themselves on morality, separating themselves from the idle elites and the animalistic masses. Modesty and sex-negativity blossomed.
“[The bourgeoisie was] proud to say it did not enjoy sex, but bore the burden patriotically. And it went to great lengths to protect its children from the dangers of touching oneself,” Liu wrote.
In the 19th century, physicians equated masturbation to laziness and blamed lack of employment on libido. According to Liu, French physician Joseph Henri Reveille-Parise called it “the destroyer of civilization,” as masturbators were charged with “enfeebling the young men and future fathers, and the manpower of the king and country.” Capitalism, as with religion, encouraged married couples to reproduce as much as possible to produce more workers and bodies for militaries. Throughout the century, the idea of “self-abuse” evolved into a social hygiene movement intent on eradicating the practice of masturbation. American physicians like J.H. Kellogg (yes, that Kellogg) blamed idleness, gluttony and sedentary employment and-—get this—”exciting and irritating food.” Physicians like Kellogg set out to create the most boring foods possible—like crackers and cereals—to remedy the situation.
When the scientifically baseless strategy of forcing kids to eat bland foods couldn’t stop them from touching themselves, doctors took it a step further. At the turn of the century, physicians began putting children in straight jackets, wrapping them in cold, wet blankets at night, applying leeches to the genitals, burning genital tissue with hot irons, or performing castration and clitoridectomies. In fact, according to the paper “Masturbation — From Stigma to Sexual Health published by Planned Parenthood, the modern American tradition of circumcision was founded on the idea that removing the foreskin would prevent sexual arousal.
Hey, that’s capitalism, baby. We’ll do anything to keep the cogs in the machine from wasting five minutes.
LETTING GO AND GETTING OFF
So, now that we know that generations upon generations survived this campaign against rubbing one out, it’s a little easier to understand where the pushback comes from. We’ve been taught we don’t deserve pleasure that comes at no financial cost and correlated economic gain. We’ve been lied to and told that we’ll grow hair on our palms, that we’ll go blind, that we’ll become infertile. We’ve been roped unwillingly into a society that tells us to be ashamed of our bodies—what they look like and what they do.
Nina Chausow wrote in “Bang!” about an all-too-familiar situation: that petrifying fear she felt the first time she masturbated. The learned shame and guilt surrounding self-pleasure are enough to keep some people from ever taking that plunge.
“Somewhere along the road of insecurity, I had convinced myself that my body was too much of some things—too large, too inexperienced—and too little of other things—not attractive enough, not experienced enough—to deserve pleasure. I felt ashamed of my body—how could I deserve something that made this body feel so good?”
We all have these hang-ups. We’re too skinny, too fat, too unattractive, too male-presenting, too female-presenting. Why should we reward our “bad body” with pleasure? I feel this all the time as a person with disabilities. My body constantly betrays me with new daily pains. It’s put me in a position of weighing the things I love to do against the pain it will cause me. And I know I’m not the only one out there who struggles with the how and why of letting go to get down to business.
Some people with disabilities who are confined to wheelchairs may not even know that masturbation is an option for them. Touching oneself can be a dysphoric experience for many transgender people as well. When masturbation becomes sexual, children often learn how to self-stimulate from porn when the educational void isn’t filled. Kids with disabilities and those who are transitioning are likely to learn from sexual material that fetishizes them. And if that’s their only exposure, what will that teach them about their value as people?
Books like “Bang! Masturbation for People of All Genders and Abilities” are great for educational purposes, covering everything from the history of masturbation to post-coital tristesse. But this is the first book about flicking the bean that I’ve seen even mention people with disabilities like me. As a society, we often ignore that people with disabilities can be and are sexual beings.
LOVING ALL YOUR PARTS
Masturbation can teach us things about the world and ourselves—including sexual empowerment and self-confidence. There is a long list of health benefits associated with solo sex, from reducing stress and menstrual cramps to producing an influx of endorphins. A healthy masturbation education can help prevent porn and sex addictions later down the road of adulthood. It allows us to explore our sexuality on our own, to discover our wants and needs so we may communicate them to our partners. All we need is the language to be able to do so, which is where formal sex education comes in.
Comprehensive and inclusive sex education starting with age-appropriate lessons on masturbation has the potential to foster better general communication skills and greater empathy for people who are different from us.
At the end of the day though, it comes down to children learning to accept and love themselves, that they have value, that they’re not ruined for having natural urges.
“Sure, masturbation is about all the fun physical and emotional feels your body can give you, but it’s also about being alone with parts of yourself, mental and physical, that no one else can make you love,” Liu wrote
This editorial was written with the help of Annie Burky.