By Linda Kirkham
[Linda Kirkham is a freelance writer and Internet consultant in western Canada. Her areas of expertise include music, literature, and how the arts reflect society.]
People are still masturbating – just as they were earlier in this century. The reasons why they do it haven't really changed – lack of a sexual partner, the release of pent-up tension, and most of all, fun – but the attitudes surrounding this universal practice have changed dramatically, especially since the '60s.
Marsha, a 43-year-old homemaker with 2 young children, masturbates at least 3 times a week. "Even though I have a great relationship with my husband, being alone in the house during the day when the kids are at school gives me a lot of time to pamper myself. And I also get lonely," she says one afternoon over coffee. She started masturbating when she was a teenager but feared her parents would find out. "They tended to be very secretive about anything sexual in general. The thought of their daughter playing with herself would have been too much for them to handle. They would have thought of it as dirty, and sinful, even though they are not particularly religious. It's just one of those taboos."
Robert, 41, also came of age during the '60s and remembers how attitudes shifted. "When I was asking my parents' advice for telling my 10-year-old son about sex, they said they grew up with all those awful un-truths that masturbating would make them go blind or grow hair on the palms of their hands. I can't believe parents could actually tell their kids that sort of garbage and think they are doing the right thing."
Masturbation was considered just that."
The general social atmosphere before the '60s probably had a lot to do with this. Alfred, a World War II veteran, said that if his unit commander found out about his wanking habit, he would most likely have been discharged. "The behavior expected of people, in general, was different back then. You did not have sex outside of marriage, you married young, and you did not do anything seedy – and masturbation was considered just that."
Alfred is representative of an older generation of masturbators who are "coming out of the closet." As older people become alone due to the death of spouses, masturbation becomes a safe sexual outlet, even for those who grew up with all of the baggage and misinformation. Says Alfred, who has been a widower for 5 years, "After your spouse dies, your sexual feelings don't suddenly shut off. In fact, it can be just the opposite. You remember how close you were. I don't want to replace my wife just for the sake of having sex. I would rather do it by myself and think of her and all the good times we shared over the years.
"I am sure my mother felt the same way when my father died," he continues. "She did not want to get married again – and even if she did, it's hard to find available 75-year-old men. She really struggled with loneliness, and I think if she felt it was all right to take care of herself in that way, she would have. But I doubt she did. I had enough demons to deal with on my own in terms of that. I can imagine how someone born in the last century would have felt."
Even young people still are haunted by masturbation "demons" – those with a very religious upbringing tend to feel guilty and view their behavior as evil. Bill is a 20-year-old from a strict Catholic family. "I started masturbating as a way of dealing with my sexual feelings. I did not want to have premarital sex, because I knew that was a sin. But masturbation is seen as a sin also. I don't understand that. Here is a safe, pleasurable way to relieve sexual tension, and it's an abomination because it wastes my 'seed.' It is totally unrealistic to expect people to be 100% restrained from sexual activity. What's worse – masturbating or going out and having sex? I know deep down inside I am not doing anything wrong, but I don't like to think of masturbation as the lesser of the two evils, because I really don't think it is evil."
The Pope would not agree. The Catholic Church has never changed its stance on the "spilling of seed." However, in Protestant circles, the feelings are ambivalent at best. According to Rick Stedman, in his book Pure Joy: The Positive Side of Single Sexuality, many young Christians masturbate and have a healthy self-concept – they are not obsessed with sexual fantasies and lust but rather masturbate as an alternative to intercourse and out of loneliness. However, mixed messages cause feelings of guilt, much like in their Catholic counterparts. Stedman, a singles pastor, lists the views on masturbation ranging from the stereotypical "masturbation is sin" to some liberal clergy who go so far as to say masturbation is a "gift from God," especially when used as a means of sexual self-control until marriage.
The latter statement definitely indicates an attitude shift in religious circles. Stedman quotes numbers compiled by Harold Ivan Smith, presented to the National Association of Single Adult Leaders in 1992 in San Francisco. Of his survey, only 6% of church-going Christians believed masturbation to be inherently wrong. This is a significant change from the times of the Puritans, when a lot of the common masturbation misconceptions developed.
Stedman says that "masturbation has become more acceptable in the past 20 years. As one single woman told me, 'I was told it was okay by my parents and can't believe that so many single Christians are so hung up about it.'"
Christians are likely less hung up about it because they are now realizing there is nothing in the Bible proscribing masturbation. In fact, masturbation is not even mentioned. The main Scripture quoted by Christians to denounce masturbation is Genesis 38. In biblical times, under Jewish law a brother was required to procreate with his brother's widow. Onan of Judah refused and spilled his seed on the ground instead. This is the origin of the term Onanism, which is incorrectly used in place of masturbation – in fact, what really happened was premature withdrawal.
In general, it is hard to tell if more people are in fact masturbating now than in years previous, because if a person grew up believing that what he or she was doing was unacceptable, they would be less likely to admit to it in a survey. According to recent studies, around 97% of men and 83% of women have masturbated at some point in their lives. That's an increase from the 1950s Kinsey Report, which said 92% of men and 58% of women have masturbated.
The most noticeable jump is in terms of women. Perhaps this is because since the feminism movement, women are more empowered and outspoken about sexual expression. Or, maybe they were doing it all along but because of double standards, they did not want to admit it. Linda, 35, says that her parents knew her brother masturbated. "They thought it was cute, I think, that he was doing that. Boys will be boys," she laughs. "But when it came to me, if they even suspected...they never were upfront about it, but I think they were afraid I would hurt myself. I mean, it's really obvious how a guy does it – it's all outside of the body. But for a woman, unless you're rubbing yourself outside of your pants, you're going inside to some extent. And to some people, I think, that makes it 'dirty,' or that you're not a virgin anymore, which is garbage."
And of course, in terms of anything sexuality-related – be it homosexuality, sex before marriage, birth-control distribution, and the like – more permissive attitudes are prevailing. Sex education in schools presents non-judgmental information about different kinds of sexual activity – including masturbation – and popular media deals with sex like never before. Talk about masturbation, and even scenes depicting masturbation, have slowly crept into popular prime-time TV shows like Murphy Brown and Dawson's Creek. Compare this with television shows from the '50s and '60s, during which sex was rarely mentioned and usually only implied even between married couples.
Still, masturbation is not a popular topic of conversation in polite company. While men will sometimes brag about sexual conquests, less often will they compare stroking techniques in the lockerroom or gloat about their masturbation stamina. "I don't want my friends to think I can't get it on with a woman," says Glenn, 22 and a graduate student at a major university. "I know we all do it – that is, masturbate – but the preferred method of sexual activity, at least to talk about, is intercourse or oral sex or something that shows you are 'getting some.'"
Women, since we have a tendency to talk intimately about intimate subjects, are more likely to discuss the ins and outs of self-stimulation. Years ago, a close female friend of mine told me she never understood why a woman would want to masturbate, or how it would even be physically accomplished – until she became involved with her then-boyfriend in a long-distance relationship. We led ourselves into a deep conversation in which she talked about how she suddenly became awakened to the need to masturbate, which she never did before becoming sexually active. To give her my perspective in comparison to what she was telling me, I talked openly and honestly about how I believed my lifelong masturbation habit kept me sexually "active" even though at the time I was still a virgin. We both came away from this exchange enlightened and feeling affirmed in our desire to satisfy our needs.
While I doubt masturbation will be the topic of choice at any cocktail party soon (at least none that I ever attend), the openness and candor with which people admit to and discuss masturbation has definitely changed. People are finally accepting masturbation for what it really is – harmless, self-fulfilling, and a way of empowering one's sexuality without having to rely on a partner.