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Google search suggestion for the word “masturbation” shows part of the problem with trying to discuss the issue seriously
Google search suggestion for the word “masturbation” shows part of the problem with trying to discuss the issue seriously

SEXUALITY

We need to talk about masturbation, the last great sexual taboo Add to ...

I feel compelled to begin this piece by joining in the newsroom snickering it has prompted, and telling you that I’ve been thinking about masturbating a lot this week. There, I did it; we can now dispense with the jokes and the discomfort they deflect.

It has been on my mind ever since I learned that a 14-year-old boy in San Diego, Calif., killed himself last fall after a fellow student snuck into their high-school bathroom and recorded a video of him masturbating in a stall. The student of course posted the video on social media, it of course went viral, and two weeks later, on American Thanksgiving weekend, Matthew Burdette, bullied, friendless and beyond comforting, took his own life. Of course.

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Matthew’s parents are talking about him now only because they have launched a lawsuit against the San Diego Unified School District for failing to help their son. His story is being flashed around the world. It is international news that, in an age when sexual and social taboos are dropping like flies – gay marriage, LGBT rights, pornography, smoking pot – the shame of getting caught masturbating would drive a boy to suicide. But I completely understand the horror he felt.

I’ve been asking grown men whether they would have killed themselves in the same situation, and many said it would have crossed their minds. They certainly would have wanted to be dead. We remember, viscerally, the fear of getting caught at that age. Other men I’ve spoken with, their horror over Matthew’s fate contorting the lines of their mouths, say they wouldn’t have contemplated suicide but they would have asked their family to move them to another continent.

Only today, thanks to the glories of the Internet, there is no place to run.

Some might say this story begins and ends with cyber-bullying, and the similarities with the tragedies of Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons are undeniable.

But where those two Canadian girls were pushed to the brink by predators and bullies who systematically destroyed their lives with compromising images, this story revolves around a video of something that research consistently shows 95 per cent of men do, and between 60 and 80 per cent of women. We can all relate. There is no doubt the boy who posted the video masturbates, and so do the other boys who mocked Matthew and made his life hell at school.

It’s not just boys who are conflicted. The science about the ubiquity and harmlessness of male masturbation is as settled as that of evolution, but no matter how much he tells himself that, and even though a sex shop in San Francisco has declared May to be International Masturbation Month, the average man would never want his habits to be public knowledge.

It’s simply too fraught, too weird. A psychiatrist of my acquaintance who has counselled couples told me that some women who catch their husbands or boyfriends masturbating see it as cheating.

It remains today a dangerous act best kept between a man and his conscience, even if it is known to reduce stress, improve sleep, help balance a couple’s contradictory libidos and, according to some studies (and contradicted by others), might actually lower the risk of getting prostate cancer.

So how is it that masturbation remains such a complicated act in the 21st century? And could anything have been done to help that boy in California?

Like so much human activity, masturbation was an uncontroversial fact of life until religion got involved. Some pre-Christian societies included ejaculation in their most important rituals and creation myths. But then the Roman Catholic Church came along and declared masturbation to be a “grave disorder.”

Islam is equally disapproving, although some sects generously allow a little leeway if it helps a man avoid sex outside of marriage (the leeway is for men only, of course). Judaism technically forbids it, but what are you going to do?

The proscriptions stem from a view consistent across the three religions that sperm should not be wasted by being spilled outside procreation – “seed in vain” is how one Talmudic scholar put it – as well as by the worry that focusing on lust takes the mind off God. (Bans on female masturbation seem to have come as an afterthought; men saying, if we can’t do it then neither can our girlfriends and wives.)

But as tempting as it is to point the finger at religion for the stigmatization of “self-abuse,” the few modern writers who have investigated the history of masturbation lay an equal share of the blame on crusading Enlightenment doctors and philosophers.

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