Neither plague, nor war, nor smallpox, nor a crowd of similar evils, have resulted more disastrously for humanity than the habit of masturbation: it is the destroying element of civilized society.
Religion was never alone on the ramparts of sexual repression. Science, in the form of the New Orleans Medical & Surgical Journal, contributed the above-cited opinion in 1850. In the same era, American hospitals began circumcising infants as a pre-emptive strike against future self-abuse. The procedure was no more prompted by hygiene than graham crackers or corn flakes were invented to relieve constipated geezers. Such bland high-fiber foods, Sylvester Graham and John Harvey Kellogg theorized, would dampen a boy's lustful enthusiasms. Dr. Kellogg, a respected sex educator who had a sexless marriage and a fetish for enemas, advocated the circumcision of incorrigible adolescent masturbators, without anesthetic, for its "salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment." Alternatively, a boy's penis could be stitched into his foreskin with silver sutures; for girls, Kellogg suggested a touch of carbolic acid to the clitoris. Cheerio.
It took more than a century of suffering or shaming or both, but masturbation is finally out of the closet, if not exactly into the streets. Science, this time in the form of the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, conducted by researchers at Indiana University, asked 5,865 Americans between the ages of 14 and 94 detailed questions about their sexual practices and found what any realist has always known: people enjoy getting off. They get themselves off from adolescence to old age, alone or with a partner; and the army of avowed self-abusers appears to have swelled with time.
Among people 70 or older, according to preliminary data from the study, published October 1 in The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 80 percent of men and 58 percent of women have masturbated solo over a lifetime. Not bad, but the figures increase with each younger age cohort until we find a veritable generation of wankers, people age 25 to 29, whose lifetime rates peak at 94 percent among men and 84 percent among women. Masturbating with a partner is skewing in the same generational direction, only more dramatically.
It's not unexpected that men across the ages masturbate (or admit to it) at higher rates than women, but the study holds a few surprises. There hasn't been a broad national survey of sexual behavior in America since 1992, and this is the first to include old people and teenagers and the first to ask about mutual masturbation, among other things. Who could have guessed that more than 57 percent of old ladies in noncohabiting relationships were rousing themselves to ecstasy in their homes between March and May of 2009, when the data were collected? America may not rightfully be called a civilized society, but at least the human spirit endures in handmade fun.
There will be more to say about the Indiana survey as the full results come out, but its release now, on the heels of the most preposterous political preoccupation since 1994—when Bill Clinton fired Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders for saying that masturbation is a normal human behavior and should be acknowledged as such in sex education—has the tonic effect of exposing the gulf between what people actually do and what those who claim to speak for them seem able to say.
Back then, Clinton was given a firm atta-boy by virtually the entire media for sacking Elders, "a sort of off-to-the-left, out-of-the-mainstream, embarrassing person," in the scringeing estimation of ABC's dreadful Cokie Roberts. Two years later, in 1996, a Christian fireball named Christine O'Donnell was finding ecstasy in the Lord, crying and praising and shaking her groove thing in a congregation of believers, and taking a public position on masturbation that differed from that of Clinton and the press only in its honesty.
The youthful O'Donnell found Elders-style sexual views more dangerous than embarrassing, arguing that masturbation was a form of lustfulness and thus a temptation to be avoided in pursuit of chastity. An extreme position, to be sure, but less damaging from a powerless twentysomething than that of the president and his liberal corner, and well within the anti-sex stream in which the latter were swimming, at least publicly.
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Skip ahead to September 2010 and, with O'Donnell the surprise GOP candidate for US Senate in Delaware, history became inconvenient, so jokes and fulmination would have to do. Gasbags of the right waved off as irrelevant the fact that the most notable aspect of their girl's résumé is a career obsession with sex, while liberals only tittered and sneered.
In an essay accompanying some of the Indiana study data in The Journal of Sexual Medicine Joycelyn Elders wrote, "We have finally included masturbation in our national conversation and as a result stopped checking our hands for growing hair"; you wouldn't know it from the days and nights of talk-media devoted to winks and nudges over the adventures of young Christine. If there was a liberal commentator who took sex as seriously as O'Donnell had in her passionate abnegation, only from the other side, I missed it. No one said, Come on, masturbation is one of the great, free joys of life; powerful, relaxing, instructive too; as common as rain and as good for you. No one punctured the absurdity of public squeamishness on the issue and argued plainly, like the Spanish socialists in Extremadura with their campaign for youth, that "pleasure is in your own hands!"
Instead, it was 1994 all over again. The liberals laughed not because they're so at ease with the subject but because they're so embarrassed by it. Everything in the tone of discussion made masturbating somehow weird and vaguely dirty, a compulsion of the young and consolation of the lonely, perhaps; but in that a little disgusting too, a little sad, not quite sex, never as good as "sex," almost unspeakable, really. MSNBC's Rachel Maddow called it "you-know-whating." Yes, I know, that was a joke.
The real joke, though, is that after warning about masturbation as an affront to purity, what the fervent Christine was saying in the video clip Maddow broadcast was a variant on something I've heard from liberal women for years. "If he already knows what pleases him and he can please himself, then why am I in the picture?" O'Donnell said, making a moue with her mouth, cocking her pretty head, the very image of sass and sanctity. In other words, wankers are loners, and "I've never masturbated; I always had a boyfriend," or "I don't do it; I'm married," or "I want him to know how to bring me off, but I could never masturbate in front of him!"
If the Indiana survey simply blows a hole in the notion that masturbating is always and everywhere a lonesome practice, and thus forwards the fact that self-abuse is often also a lesson in self-knowledge, corporal mysteries, erotic response and how-to-have-fun-with-a-friend, maybe we can finally be done with shame, and with the coy and irksome way the press talks about this very homely pleasure.
In the meantime, Christine O'Donnell the candidate may be onto something. Having never actually betrayed embarrassment about sex but rather, in the manner of Catholic mystics, made chastity the crucible of her passion and desire, she is, in renunciation, as potently sexual as a siren. Her latest TV ad is smooth as a seduction: "I'm you."