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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.

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.

Mels van Driel, a Dutch urologist and the author of the 2012 book With the Hand: A History of Masturbation, writes that an English surgeon named John Marten published a book in 1712 entitled Onania, or the Heinous Sin of Self Pollution that solidified society’s already dim view of the church-proscribed act. Marten claimed masturbation stunted children’s growth, caused epilepsy, fainting spells and infertility, and was generally harmful to the sacred institution of matrimony. That he happened to sell some laughably dubious cures (penis ointments!) for masturbation at the end of the book was apparently lost on his followers. Onania was a bestseller that was published in countless editions and in the United States.

Later the same century, a Swiss doctor named Samuel-Auguste Tissot, who had no previous expertise in the subject, declared sperm to be a form of concentrated blood and said that spilling it was dangerous and could lead to madness (and blindness, which is where that started). He, too, produced a best-selling book.

Adding to the anti-masturbation frenzy were philosophers, including Voltaire and Immanuel Kant, who considered the act worse than killing oneself because it reduced man, who in the Age of Enlightenment was supposed to be rational, to an animal state (horses, apparently, are chronic masturbators).

“For centuries, the commandment ‘thou shalt not masturbate,’ which became a paradoxical fusion between the progressive spirit of the Enlightenment and conservative ecclesiastical views, held the community morally in its thrall,” Prof. van Driel wrote in a piece for Huffington Post.

The Western anti-masturbation movements that peaked in the 19th century are remarkable for the impact they had on our everyday lives. The innocent little graham cracker of S’mores fame was the invention of a rabid American anti-fappiste named Sylvester Graham who thought his countrymen’s love of meats and fats were the cause of their lust and, in 1829, invented a bland bread to help them combat their urges. Another “Grahamite,” John Harvey Kellogg, developed an equally unappetizing breakfast cereal made from corn that he fed to patients in a sanitarium in order to quell their desires.

In the 20th century, masturbation was considered the first step in a doomed boy’s descent into alcoholism, adultery and ultimate moral ruin, and called into question the character of anyone caught in the act. By the time I was a teen in the early 1970s, Alfred Kinsey and other groundbreaking researchers had already reported that 95 per cent of males masturbate, but it was still socially proscribed, seen as a weak and selfish habit, and intrinsically linked with another great evil of the day, pornography.

Boys understandably went to great lengths to cover their tracks, knowing that getting caught would result in merciless teasing by their conflicted peers and a possible visit to the pastor.

Since the sexual revolution, attitudes toward masturbation have changed in fits and starts. In 1992, the infamous “master of my domain” episode of Seinfeld broke the taboo against talking about masturbation on television.

But two years later, the U.S. Surgeon General was fired for saying young people should be taught about masturbation as a safe-sex practice. A study in 1994 revealed that 50 per cent of men and women who masturbate feel guilty about it, according to a 2002 report by Planned Parenthood entitled Masturbation: From Stigma to Sexual Health.

Today, the stigma is remarkably persistent. Type the word “masturbation” into Google and the first and only recommended result it returns is “masturbation is a sin.”

Matthew Burdette’s death is a reminder that North America doesn’t get even the small things right when it comes to human sexuality. Ontario’s new sex education curriculum includes an option for teachers to address masturbation with Grade 6 students when discussing puberty, but controversy over that and other aspects of the curriculum prompted the government to delay implementing it. And any U.S. Surgeon General today who advocated teaching students about masturbation would face an even bigger backlash than in 1994, thanks to the culture wars raging in that country.

In Europe, though, educators and health officials are doing things that could have made Matthew’s life easier. In 2009, the U.K.’s National Health Services actually encouraged children to masturbate as a way of exploring their burgeoning sexuality and practising safe sex. The slogan on a pamphlet distributed to students was “an orgasm a day keeps the doctor away.”

In the absence of even nominal public education about masturbation, what Matthew Burdette needed was some person of stature in his social circle – a teacher, or a jock, or maybe a celebrity – to step forward and admit, I do that too. In the absence of that, and if it could help other boys struggling with the fear, guilt and shame of being caught, maybe all of us men should find the courage to stand up and say, don’t worry, guys, you’re not alone.

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