Last November, Matthew Burdette, a 14-year-old boy in San Diego, Calif., killed himself because of a video circulating on social media in which he was alleged to be masturbating. A fellow student at his high school surreptitiously filmed the video while Matthew was in the school washroom. He was bullied for two weeks before he died.
Matthew's death became international news. The idea that a boy would kill himself after being shown doing something that the vast majority of people do struck a chord, especially in an era when so many other sexual and social taboos are falling. Research has repeatedly shown than 95 per cent of men masturbate, as do between 60 and 80 per cent of women. While stigmatized for centuries, it is today considered by experts to be a healthy, normal act.
Carol Queen is the staff sexologist at Good Vibrations, a sex shop in San Francisco, where she helped found International Masturbation Month. She is the also the director of the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco and the author or editor of a dozen books about sexuality. We asked her for thoughts by e-mail.
What is your reaction to reading Matthew Burdette's story?
Real sadness and outrage. I feel this way for two reasons: First, that young people can be so unbelievably cruel to each other. Bullying certainly existed in my youth too, but the way technology enables privacy breaches now means not only that more people can get in on bullying a person, it also means kids (those who are bullied, and everybody else) turn to the Internet for such a significant part of their social interactions that they can barely get away from it. It's so very hard for them to ignore both social cues about how they're "supposed to be," and also any cruelty they may be encountering.
And second, of course, because the harassment centres around masturbation, the one form of sexual experience people of all ages have access to on their own terms, regardless of relationship status, and that is the bedrock of their own sexuality. It's already rare to hear pro-masturbation messages if you're a kid, but it's truly damaging to hear anti-masturbation messages. Being shamed for something pleasurable, basic to one's sexuality, that is a stress-reliever for so many people – it can cause disconnection from one's body and sexual feelings, and this state can last well into (or all the way through) adulthood. Now we don't just have to worry about our kids and young friends being slut-shamed, body-shamed, queer-baited to death: We have to worry about them being shamed about masturbation, which is so common, so natural.
Are you surprised that masturbation still carries such a stigma for young boys? Why do you think it's still so painful for a boy to be caught doing what is now considered a normal and healthy sexual act?
I'm not entirely surprised, because the biggest source of stigma surrounding masturbation now – and not just for youth – is the idea that you're supposed to have sex with another person. It's not so much that it's a moral failing today (except in certain conservative circles); it's more that it's jokey and calls a young guy out as not a player, as less masculine or mature than the guys who are having (non-solo) sex. Many young people today are living really gendered lives – by that I mean living under social pressure to conform to fairly rigid and binary gender norms. (It's one reason, I think, why we have such a significant subculture of gender-nonconforming teens and young adults; those kids just aren't buying the pressure to be masculine and feminine in traditional ways.) Of course, people masturbate when they don't have a partner and when they do; but no one is explaining that to kids, talking to youth with pro-masturbation messages (particularly in the context of U.S. sex education, which is still mostly not good on issues of pleasure and identity).
And let's face it, even many adults are not given consistent sex-positive messages. We started National Masturbation Month in 1995 for exactly this reason – to try to get more mentions of masturbation into mainstream culture, to help raise awareness about how common, healthful and positive an activity it can be.
What would you have said to Matthew Burdette if you could have?
Just about everybody masturbates. Most of the guys who gave you grief about it are doing it themselves, or shortly will be. I went to China to teach a seminar many years ago and I was struck by the way our translator translated the word masturbation – "self-comfort." Other people have no business judging you about that, or any other element of what makes you the individual person you are.
But of course it's too late to tell Matthew this or anything else, and my work generally doesn't involve talking to youth under 18 at all. So I have to be content to say something to parents and teachers. I really feel adults need to step up and talk frankly to young people not just about sexuality, but also about Internet etiquette, self-esteem, basic decency. Adults, I think, believe that their kid wouldn't do that (bully, harass, sexually abuse, commit suicide), and they really don't understand at what a young age all this can start.
All this ought to be part of school curricula and discussions at home. And schools must take responsibility for extending support and protection for kids who are being bullied and setting hard limits for those students who are harassing other people. This is part of the 21st-century teenage zeitgeist – how many more kids do we have to lose to pack mentality before we understand that this has to be something for which we take responsibility for helping kids cope?
This interview has been condensed and edited.