“Everyone does it, but no one admits it.”
This statement almost always refers to one of two human activities. One is eating Jack in the Box egg rolls at 3 a.m. The other is masturbation.
Masturbation is simply the touching of one’s genitals for the purpose of sexual pleasure. Historical records and anthropological studies indicate that masturbation has always been a part of human history … only in more recent times was it deemed immoral, sinful, shameful, or just plain dirty.
Well, maybe – but only if you’re doing it right.
In the grand tradition of ruining anything fun, the public tides turned against the art of self-love. An organized movement against the practice of masturbation began in the 11th century, by religious leaders and medical professionals who viewed masturbation as dangerous. It led to weakness, disease and insanity. It was decried as an affront to God.
Take this review of the book The Water Cure for Debilitated Young Men, published in the magazine Liberator (oh, the irony!) in 1846. The article, simply titled “Masturbation,” defends the proposed water cure, especially for the practice of masturbation, identified as “a vice which, like intemperance, prevails in all countries, and is attended by a long train of disgusting and frightful consequences, so as to organize itself as one of the chief defacers and destroyers of the human race.” The article goes on to state that masturbation leads to all kinds of insanity and stigma, and that current residents of “our Lunatic Asylums” are all masturbators who have paid the price for their horrible actions.
Only in the past 50 years have researchers including Alfred Kinsey (a pretty big perv in his own right), William Masters, Virginia Johnson, and Betty Dodson begun confronting these views of masturbation, arguing that masturbation is a healthy, normal, and valuable part of human development. Dodson specifically encouraged women to masturbate as an act of feminist resistance to negative images of womanhood common in many families, religious organizations and society in general. Dodson also proposed using masturbation as a way of enhancing self-esteem. And perhaps most importantly, as the best means of becoming orgasmic.
How else are you going to know what you like and then communicate that to present or future partners?
Despite their work, there is still a prevailing attitude about the inherent wrongness of masturbation that we can’t seem to shake. Have you ever played the Google autofill game? Type in “masturbation” and Google will suggest “…is a sin” as the autocomplete.
So let me add my voice to the mix. Masturbation is not a sin. It is not a shameful practice. It is way healthier than fast food at 3 a.m. And it shouldn’t be so damn secretive.
Masturbation is part of the normal human expression of sexuality. It is a healthy and empowering practice that leads to better sex lives. The work that I do is embarrassing enough for my kids, so I won’t detail the conversations we have in our home – but I have always normalized masturbation as a way of relieving stress and maintaining control of their sexual selves. Masturbation is just something else people do. Like brushing our teeth, baking cookies, or playing board games. It’s a normal human behavior.
I am raising kids who are open and self-confident. If and when they choose partnered sexual activity, it will be an educated and empowered choice made with as much information available to them as possible. Sarah Palin may not approve of my methods, but my track record beats hers when it comes to results.
And masturbation is just as important for us grown people. If you are not currently engaging in sexual activity with a partner, enjoying sexual release through masturbation can be both relaxing and liberating. When working with single individuals who want to prevent relationship mistakes in the future, I encourage them to get in touch with their body and find out what they like and don’t like. This may include exercise, massage, and/or masturbation. You are far less likely to rush into a poor partner choice if you know what you want in a relationship before you start looking.
For those of us who are already partnered? Research shows that individuals masturbate more when they are in a relationship than when they aren’t. I haven’t found any research that unpacks why that is. But my guess is that when people feel more connected to their sexual selves … they feel more connected to their sexual selves.
That probably sounds like circular logic, but I think it’s a pretty simple idea. When we start to figure out things we like, we want to explore more of that through self-love activities. And that’s great! I encourage couples to share these activities with their partners. Show the person you are with how you like to be touched. I have had many individuals tell me that they are desperate to please their partner, if they could only be shown how. If you are fortunate enough to have a partner committed to your pleasure, show them what turns you on!
And no matter what age you are, and no matter what your relationship status is … if you aren’t sure what turns you on, isn’t it time to start finding out?
The title of this article, while hopefully amusing, was also intended to make a point. Encouraging someone to go masturbate has become the ultimate insult. While I don’t expect everyone to start responding with, “Why, yes! And frequently!” when this sort of insult is hurled at them, I do hope we start a new dialogue about masturbation. It is neither sinful nor shameful, and we need our conversations to reflect that.
So if you see me sitting in a coffee shop and come up to inform me that you are a fearless masturbator, I will totally give you a high five.
Well … unless you also tell me that you didn’t wash your hands after.
Follow Faith Harper, PhD, LPC-S, and message her your quandaries and questions, @TheIntimacyDr. Or email: [email protected] Her column appears in each issue of Out In SA.