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Masturbation Finally out of The Closet, If Not Exactly into The Streets

Maybe we can finally be done with shame, and with the coy and irksome way the press talks about this very homely pleasure.

Neither plague, nor war, nor smallpox, nor a crowd of similar evils, have resulted more disastrously for humanity than the habit of masturbation: it is the destroying element of civilized society.

Religion was never alone on the ramparts of sexual repression. Science, in the form of the New Orleans Medical & Surgical Journal, contributed the above-cited opinion in 1850. In the same era, American hospitals began circumcising infants as a pre-emptive strike against future self-abuse. The procedure was no more prompted by hygiene than graham crackers or corn flakes were invented to relieve constipated geezers. Such bland high-fiber foods, Sylvester Graham and John Harvey Kellogg theorized, would dampen a boy's lustful enthusiasms. Dr. Kellogg, a respected sex educator who had a sexless marriage and a fetish for enemas, advocated the circumcision of incorrigible adolescent masturbators, without anesthetic, for its "salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment." Alternatively, a boy's penis could be stitched into his foreskin with silver sutures; for girls, Kellogg suggested a touch of carbolic acid to the clitoris. Cheerio.

It took more than a century of suffering or shaming or both, but masturbation is finally out of the closet, if not exactly into the streets. Science, this time in the form of the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, conducted by researchers at Indiana University, asked 5,865 Americans between the ages of 14 and 94 detailed questions about their sexual practices and found what any realist has always known: people enjoy getting off. They get themselves off from adolescence to old age, alone or with a partner; and the army of avowed self-abusers appears to have swelled with time.

Among people 70 or older, according to preliminary data from the study, published October 1 in The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 80 percent of men and 58 percent of women have masturbated solo over a lifetime. Not bad, but the figures increase with each younger age cohort until we find a veritable generation of wankers, people age 25 to 29, whose lifetime rates peak at 94 percent among men and 84 percent among women. Masturbating with a partner is skewing in the same generational direction, only more dramatically.

It's not unexpected that men across the ages masturbate (or admit to it) at higher rates than women, but the study holds a few surprises. There hasn't been a broad national survey of sexual behavior in America since 1992, and this is the first to include old people and teenagers and the first to ask about mutual masturbation, among other things. Who could have guessed that more than 57 percent of old ladies in noncohabiting relationships were rousing themselves to ecstasy in their homes between March and May of 2009, when the data were collected? America may not rightfully be called a civilized society, but at least the human spirit endures in handmade fun.

There will be more to say about the Indiana survey as the full results come out, but its release now, on the heels of the most preposterous political preoccupation since 1994—when Bill Clinton fired Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders for saying that masturbation is a normal human behavior and should be acknowledged as such in sex education—has the tonic effect of exposing the gulf between what people actually do and what those who claim to speak for them seem able to say.

Back then, Clinton was given a firm atta-boy by virtually the entire media for sacking Elders, "a sort of off-to-the-left, out-of-the-mainstream, embarrassing person," in the scringeing estimation of ABC's dreadful Cokie Roberts. Two years later, in 1996, a Christian fireball named Christine O'Donnell was finding ecstasy in the Lord, crying and praising and shaking her groove thing in a congregation of believers, and taking a public position on masturbation that differed from that of Clinton and the press only in its honesty.

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