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Masturbation: it’s not a four-letter word, but the president fired me for saying it. In this so-called “communications age,” it remains a sexual taboo of monumental proportions to discuss the safe and universal sexual practice of self-pleasure. No doubt, future generations will be amused at our peculiar taboo, laughing in sociology classes at our backwardness, yet also puzzled by it given our high rates of disease and premature pregnancy. We will look foolish in the light of history.

Over the months since I left Washington and settled into my home in Little Rock, I have pondered the rage, embarrassment and shock with which the word “masturbation” is met in our culture. What other word, merely voiced, can provide justification to fire a surgeon general — or anyone? What horrible betrayal of our proud race does masturbation conjure in our minds? As a physician, and as the nation’s physician, it was important to answer every question posed to me with clear information. Informed decisions require knowledge. To insure the health and well-being of a patient, age-appropriate information must be made available. Some call it candor — I call it common sense and good medicine. On the other hand, coquetries can be more than deceptive: both the refrain from self-gratification and the concealment of it can result in sexual dysfunction.

Yet to study masturbation would be to admit its role in our lives — one that many of us are not comfortable with. Instead, we discourage the practice in our children, dispensing cautionary tales that read like Steven King novellas. These myths were more understandable before Pasteur enlightened the world to the presence of germs in the 1870s; prior to his discovery, no one really knew where diseases came from. Masturbation was blamed for dreaded conditions like syphilis and gonorrhea, as well as for their ramifications: dementia, blindness and infertility, to name a few. It’s remarkable that some of these rumors still circulate despite clear evidence that they are unfounded.

The wall of myth surrounding self-sex is just beginning to crack — thanks, in part, to President Clinton who put it in the news. For the first time the topic is being broached on popular television shows, and comedians are able to joke about it without alienating their audiences. You can even find a variety of “how-to” books in the “sex and health” section of most bookstores. The overwhelming majority of psychologists and medical professionals seem to believe that sex-for-one is a natural part of living; we all touch our hair, necks, knees and many other spots on our bodies in public to calm ourselves or to scratch itches, and it is no less acceptable, they assure us, to touch other body parts in private.

A friend, a senior citizen, stopped me after church one Sunday and said, “Please tell the children that masturbation won’t hurt them. I spent my entire youth in agony waiting to go blind, because my parents told me that’s what would happen if I masturbated. I guess I could have stopped, but going blind seemed the better option.” We all want to tell our children the truth about their bodies and sex, but many of us are afraid of the consequences. Parents need to let go of the idea that ignorance maintains innocence and begin teaching age-appropriate facts to children. Informed children know what sexual abuse and harassment are, what normal physical closeness with others is, what should be reported, and to whom. Rather than tell children that touching themselves is forbidden, parents may gently explain that this is best done in private.

One enlightened friend shared with me the story of how she taught her pre-school-aged daughter about her anatomy: The mother told the girl about her vagina as they examined theirs together with mirrors. There was some discussion and admiration. Later that day, friends came to dinner at their home, and at the dinner table the father asked his daughter what she had done during the day. Of course, she told him the most interesting thing that had happened: she and Mommy looked at their vaginas. But hers was prettier than her mommy’s — “Want to see?” The stunned dinner guests were silent as the mother quickly retreated with her daughter to explain privacy. It is never okay to shame children for natural inquisitiveness or behavior: that shame lasts forever.

Masturbation, practiced consciously or unconsciously, cultivates in us a humble elegance — an awareness that we are part of a larger natural system, the passions and rhythms of which live on in us. Sexuality is part of creation, part of our common inheritance, and it reminds us that we are neither inherently better nor worse than our sisters and brothers. Far from evil, masturbation just may render heavenly contentment in those who dare.

©1997 M. Joycelyn Elders, M.D. and