The Dreaded "M" Word

by M. Joycelyn Elders, M.D., with Rev. Dr. Barbara Kilgore

 

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 Nerve.com

Commentarium (42 Comments)

Jul 06 97 - 12:00pm
WA

A reply to the sadly misinformed individual who thinks pedophilia is caused by masturbation: People who molest children were often molested themselves as children. Masturbation in itself does not lead to sexual desire of children. If this man molested children, he did so because he is sick in the head and the heart, not because he was addicted to whacking off. I think that the author of that E-mail needs to do some research and some rethinking.

Jul 06 97 - 12:00pm
JR

I think that Dr. Elders hasn't looked at all the problems with masturbation. Just to name one specific example, I have a relative that is serving the second of five-year sentences because he sexually abused one of his children. Why did he do this? Because he had gotten into habit of masturbating and could not break that habit even after he was married. This habit eventually led to his abusing his own child to satisfy his sexual needs. No, you won't go blind if you masturbate, but something far worse could happen.

Sep 04 97 - 12:00pm
JJ

Dear Dr. Elders, How sad that we all aborted the opportunity of having a sage such as you to lead us into the next millennium, and within the same decade as Everett-Koop. Now that would have been progress! (The fact that I cannot quite imagine the immediate reaction of my nine-year-old niece to your hypothetical lecture - I don't want to force my imagination - doesn't diminish my faith in your argument.) I trust in the capacity of children to prosper when exposed to truth.

Sep 18 97 - 12:00pm
any

Dear Dr. Elders, It may be of interest for you that the great philosopher Kant masturbated every morning "to clear his head from sexual desires." I have just finished my Master's thesis "The Narrative Structures of Pornographic Films," and will next year visit the Kinsey Institute for research in the archive. Best wishes for your book on masturbation! JP Germ

Oct 11 97 - 12:00pm
LB

I really liked the candor in this article about masturbation. Although I am trying to be open as much as I can, and I am trying to feel comfortable with sex in general and masturbation in particular, I would have the hardest time approaching the topic with my sixteen-year-old son. There is something so private about masturbation that the start of that discussion is very remote to me. As a father, I am not shy talking about things of life with my son, but it is always linked to how much better life could become when approaching such situation this way rather than that way. With masturbation, I don't see it as better than intercourse; I see it more like a valve when the steam gets too pressing, and masturbation is the only choice. Maybe I am embarrassed because I prefer the interaction over selfplay, and I feel not ashamed, but frustrated by a moment I could have shared with a wonderful woman, rather than alone in my nook. So I cannot enlighten genuinely with something I don't feel 100 percent good for me.

Oct 12 97 - 12:00pm
BP

Everything Dr. Elders wrote in "The Dreaded 'M' Word" is correct. The next step on her crusade is to teach young people that mutual masturbation is safer and generally more satisfying than intercourse. They will have sex, but what we have to do is direct their energies into activities that are not damaging to themselves or society. I'm giving a copy of the article to my eighteen-year-old son with my additional comments. Thanks.

Oct 25 97 - 12:00pm
NW

I just read her piece on masturbation and was stunned by the elegance and eloquence of her words. And her common sense. Too bad, in the horrified din from the far "right," that we never got to hear those words in their entirety. She was just talking about what our bodies are made for, about celebrating them rather than being ashamed of them, and about the ultimate safe sex. Joycelyn, we hardly knew ye. Maybe someday this country will be more enlightened when it comes to sex. Thank you, and Nerve, for bringing us your words.

Oct 29 97 - 1:00pm
LA

I was, and still am, impressed with the magazine. It was refreshing to find an article that expressed my thoughts on the "M" word. Although after re-reading the article, I realized, perhaps mistakenly, that the author implied it is best done alone. I disagree. I have found from my own experience that men tend to be voyeuristic and enjoy watching women masturbate. Afterwards, sex can be, well . . . explosive. Anyway, I look forward to reading what else the author has to say.

Nov 09 97 - 1:00pm
MC

The myth of the negative results of masturbation should have been destroyed a long time ago. Dr. Elders makes a positive case for the practice among the teen population, if done in a mature clinical fashion and, as she says, in private.

Nov 11 97 - 1:00pm
CC

Sexuality is part of our common inheritance, writes Joycelyn Elders, in praise of masturbation. Yet in her practice as a pediatric endocrinologist, Elders continues to be a prominent supporter of IGM, or Intersex Genital Mutilation. Some of Elders' patients are children born with clitorises which are larger, or penises which are smaller, than usual. These children's atypical genitals disturb their parents, and current medical practice is to remove clitoral tissue in order to allay the parents' anxiety. Why? Because "parents want a girl or a boy, not an 'it,'" Elders told The Advocate (Nov. 11, 1997, p. 52). Elders writes movingly of the harm that children suffer when shamed for their sexual behavior. But IGM conveys to the child in the most drastic terms that their genitals are shamefully monstrous, and that they are not entitled to parental love without mutilating plastic surgery of the genitals. Victims of IGM are now organizing to put an end to IGM, which became widespread in the unenlightened late '50s. Many of us who have been robbed of our genitals will never be able to masturbate, but we are determined to put an end to the practice which robs 2,000 children per year in the US alone of their birthright. More information on the fight to end IGM is available at the web site of the Intersex Society of North America, http://www.isna.org.

Jan 15 98 - 1:00pm
RG

Joycelyn, I thought you'd be interested to know that I almost got an F in my psychology class in college (1976, Philippines) for verbalizing the "M" word during my presentation on human anxieties or something of that nature.

Apr 17 98 - 12:00pm
MD

AMEN!!!

Jun 24 98 - 12:00pm
AM

Thank you for publishing Dr. Elders' article; it was beautifully written and quite compelling. I plan to send it to my sister who has recently informed me that she does not masturbate because she is only willing to deal on a "spiritual" plane. I think Dr. Elders puts it in nice perspective. Thanks again.

Sep 30 98 - 12:00pm
CB

We are compelled to continue encouraging Dr. Elders to write, to speak, to inform, and to educate our society.

Oct 21 98 - 12:00pm
ale

I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Elders. I wish somebody had given me correct information about stroking my penis. I suffered for years, expecting the dire things written in medical books of the time. To this day, I do not trust any doctor's advice because of being so badly misinformed by MDs in the past. Society needs to understand that masturbation IS sex, just like any other form of sex. After all, an orgasm is an orgasm is an orgasm, regardless of how it is achieved! An 80ish m

Nov 24 98 - 1:00pm
BM

The ability to look at the future with optimism! I am old enough now to assure myself that my grandchildren will look back at the last half of the twentieth century as a time of rapid change accompanied by furtive and desperate reactionary panic against the product of change. Masturbation is what we do to reassure ourselves that we are worthy sexual beings in the midst of incredible impediments to meaningful relationships. Even casual sexual relationships are feared and dreaded, and AIDS has made this phenomenon real! Thank you, Dr. Elders, for being a pioneer. I for one cherish you for your frankness and love for all of us.

Apr 17 99 - 12:00pm
SL

We are writing to you from New York. We are a couple of college students who were looking for research on the topic of masturbation. Your website was the only place we were able to find solid and supported evidence regarding the subject. Thank you very much!

Jun 03 99 - 12:00pm
MT

This is wonderful! I am a freshmen at UC Santa Cruz and I am currently writing one of my final papers about female masturbation, its bad name in our society and its benefits, such as disease and pregnancy prevention. If only it were more accepted! I was raised strictly Catholic and when I told my mom about my paper, she questioned me, "So, how are you going to deal with being in the real world again, Megan? Because, you know the real world isn't like college." She was really disturbed and embarrassed. I hope to integrate the "real" world into a right world. Thank you for your courage. I hope to emulate it to the best of my ability.

Aug 20 99 - 12:00pm
W.D.

Dr. Elders ,you're a brave lady. My wife and I , (we're Australian , by the way) have a 30 year old daughter. When she was very young, we realised she was mastubating, and getting quite hot and sweaty doing it. As she suffered from severe asthma, sleeping in damp nightclothes wasn't a good idea. We counselled her along the lines that it was alright for her to touch herself "down there", but she shouldn't be so frantic about it. We were totally open about sex, drugs and all the other pitfalls of youth, and as she developed she avoided them all without despotic supervision. Our daughter (now 30) is a marvellous young woman, married with a child of her own, who has worked with developmentally disabled adults since high school, gained 3 university degrees to help her to stay in this field, and is able to assist these clients to cope with their own sexuality as she says, "because you and Mum never made it dirty for me." Keep up the good work, the (Western) world needs more like you.

Aug 27 99 - 12:00pm
mtba

hola, alguna victima?

Sep 20 99 - 12:00pm
A.J

I am glad someone is addressing the subject.It is a part of life and people need to get over the idea that they will be punished by God.It is better to please yourself than to risk getting a disease from someone that could wind up killing you.I do it and I don't really care if anyone knows or what they think.

Oct 11 99 - 12:00pm
S.M.

Doctor Elders, I'm 19 years old and I attend The University of Akron. Recently you did a lecture on binge drinking and AIDS at the University. I was supposed to attend your lecture for one of my classes, but was unable to because I had to work. So instead, my professor assigned me to read some of your work and write a paper on it. I found your article on masturbation on the "Nerve Magazine"site. I found it most interesting and well written. You made so many good points on the matter. I don't quite understand why society is so "hush hush" on the matter of sex and especially on masturbation, and probably never will understand. My parents never talked to me about sex, most of what I learned, I got from school. I had a wonderful health teacher who wasn't afraid to tell us what we wanted to know. I hope that someday educators will realize that you're very right about this and maybe they'll educate the children, rather than ridicule them.

Jan 06 00 - 1:00pm
PG

To masturbate or not to masturbate is the question To ejaculation and ruminate, is the passion of the nation. I love my hands (fortunately i have two) It is lovely to turbinate with thoughts of me and you. "Manus turbare" even the Romans knew Why therefore my love, may i not think of you?

Jun 18 00 - 10:36pm
jps

great article. it's always exciting to see someone risking for truth. it's ironic that clinton fired elders, when she should have fired him for perversity of unhealthy cigar use. perhaps masturbating was too disturbing to him. ms. elders as martyr for hitting nerve and showing the president has literally no clothes on. bless you, Dr. J.E. History will surely judge you well. By the way, I do assume that you masturbate. So do I!

Sep 30 00 - 4:41am
PN

Hi!
It would be a more ideal world if we've been taught how to handle our greatest organ, our body. Masturbation is only part of the problem but enlightened souls might change the distorted view towards our sexual life. Victorian souls beware, here comes the info age :))
Keep up the good work, would like to see more of Your thoughts
PN
Budapest, Hungary
naamah@freemail.hu

Jan 02 01 - 1:43pm
EEP

This Surgeon General is christian is she not??? well it does teach in the bible that masturbation is in fact morally wrong. There she is trying to say it is ok, when in fact she is disobeying her religion. I dont know what to think about that

Jan 14 01 - 3:50pm
pb,

I have only one word for masturbation - it's HEALTHY! The sad thing is that it's one of those dark ages taboos. We shouldn't be looking for reasons why it is so, it doesn't matter why. What's important is that we talk about it since it's one of the things we live with every day - a kind of masturbation is gently skratching the back of your own neck or the inside of your elbow, isn't it.
The bottom line is - we like it, our bodies like it, our brains like it. It good for dealing with stress or anxiety, or simply for relaxing or calming youself. So, if sport is recomended why shouldn't masturbation?
To Mrs Elders: KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!

Feb 03 02 - 11:51pm
KI

The best take I've ever read on masturbation. I remember my first orgasm at twelve or so, but also struggling with the guilt it brought - growing up Catholic, I wouldn't masturbate on Sundays, thinking that somehow made it less 'sinful.' I now firmly believe my comfort with my own body and sexuality would not be the same if I did not know how to bring myself to orgasm, or how someone else can. Thank-you to nerve and Dr. Elders for the article - let's hope a lesson or two might be learned and a few more people will lose the guilt and gain some comfort and self-acceptance.

Feb 14 02 - 7:55am
D T

I think masturbation is a good thing. society and the religious groups are so up tight that they fear educating our children of the dangers of unprotected sex,
there wouldnt be so many abortions if our young peole were more educated about sex,
It was a very sad day indeed when you were replaced because the religious people couldnt stand teaching our children the truth.

i am married to a military man and he is ofton away from home for several months at a time.
So I often masturbate other wives go get sex from some other man
but i get my release from a dildo then when my husband gets home I will be ready for him with no unwanted pregnancies or diseases,
yes masturbation is a very good thing
sincerely
Debbie

Aug 27 02 - 11:09am
AGS

I'd like to know -- regarding the mesage by JP in Germany --
the source of the information about Immanuel Kant and
masturbation. I'm writing on Kant and this would be very
helpful. Thanks!! asoble@uno.edu; http://www.uno.edu/~asoble

Jun 28 07 - 4:31pm
cat

I'm curious as to where in the bible the poster a bit before me is referring to. Onan, who pulled out instead of impreganting the woman he agreed to impregnate, was punished for lying and failing to live up to obligations, not for masturbation.

Nov 25 07 - 10:24pm
DW

I agree 1000%. For this semester I'am writing my paper on Why "sexualility/self-intimacy" courses should be in every college & university. I'm a 39yr old woman student and a mother of 3 girls(15,18,18).I spoke with my 2 -18yrs today about my paper. It amazed me to see one of the girls was truly listening, while the other gave me the look of I know what your saying but I didn't know all that. I spend an hour and a finshed reseach paper speaking to the both of them.It makes me feel good about writing this paper.Maybe oneday I'll be teaching this course.

Jan 30 08 - 3:54pm
a.b.

this has nothing to do with m.jocelyn elders.

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