The Fire Down Below
"Ma, the legs on this guy . . . ""Really? How were the proportions? I hate when guys have huge thighs and teeny-weeny calves.""I could have a deep, meaningful relationship with his calves alone.""So you slept with him?""You betcha."My mother and I have an unbelievably open relationship. But despite innumerable chats about oral sex, orgasms, lubricants, you name it, there was nary a word about masturbation. That's where mom, and most people, draw the conversational line.Masturbation is based on the pleasure principle, and that makes it a much touchier topic than sex for two. When you're talking about intercourse, there are mechanics to be discussed, diseases to talk about, offspring concerns. Sex can be discussed as something that has A Purpose. Masturbation, on the other hand, is about feeling good and nothing else. For parents, admitting that their kids have these urges can be too much to handle. For teachers, discussing masturbation means breaking the silence that surrounds the topic.But with the new focus on promoting abstinence, masturbation would seem an obvious component of any comprehensive sex ed course. Not only is it a safe and healthy outlet for silencing raging teenage hormones, there are also plenty of kids who could use a little information. Girls: no wooden objects. Guys: no cutting off your oxygen supply.For every parent or teacher who wants to steer clear of the subject, there's a teen who wants more direction. Last spring's Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that more than half of the 1500 teens questioned said that information on sex came too late and often didn't relate to situations they deal with. In 1995, the most frequent queries at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's confidential teen hotline concerned masturbation. Nevertheless, when former surgeon general Jocelyn Elders suggested that masturbation be presented to students as a natural and healthy part of sexuality, the country recoiled in shock and embarrassment. Elders's comments served as comedic fodder everywhere from the late-night TV circuit to political rallies, like the one during which Louisiana representative James Carville quipped: "Oh boy, that's my luck! Thirty years after I graduated, there's something I could've made an A in."Judging from the hoopla that followed Elders's comments-not to mention the fact that these, along with statements about the decriminalization of drugs, cost her her job-you'd have thought the woman had pulled out a set of clitoral relief maps and a dildo and suggested that teachers drop their drawers at the front of class for a little how-to session.All Elders had to do was mention masturbation, and the woman changed the course of her career. But that was about all that changed. Before and since Elders's statements, there's been almost no discussion about masturbation as a mandatory component of comprehensive sex ed. In public settings, masturbation remains, at best, the topic of jokes, as if it were a pathetic hobby for recluses with no other sexual outlet.The fact is, most of us do it, we just don't talk about it. As Elders once said, "Ninety per cent of men masturbate and 80 per cent of women, and it's said the rest lie." Last fall's widely reported "Sex in America" survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center found that one in four men and one in 10 women said they masturbated at least once a week, and that married people were significantly more likely to masturbate than people living alone. Although the study garnered widespread coverage, the masturbation "stats" were less likely to be mentioned than those on oral or group sex (arguably much harder to orchestrate on a regular basis).If the topic is being kept alive by anyone, it's the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), a national organization that advocates comprehensive sex ed. SIECUS recommends that masturbation be presented in kindergarten through 12th grades, in varying amounts depending on the students' ages. For example, SIECUS suggests that preadolescents (ages nine to 12) be informed that "masturbation is often the first way a person experiences sexual pleasure," but that "some families and religions oppose masturbation."According to SIECUS, New York schools are mandated to teach age-appropriate STD and AIDS prevention. But whether masturbation is a part of sex ed, or if comprehensive sex ed is taught at all, is left up to the individual school boards. School Board 24 in Queens, for instance, forbids outright talk of masturbation, in addition to that of abortion, homosexuality, and contraception.Most recently, sex ed became a concern of the city's Catholic school system when available Catholic school space was being considered as a solution to overcrowded public schools. The archdiocese reportedly worried that if the Church helped ease public school crowding, sex ed utterance would echo through their hallowed halls. And sex ed isn't something Catholic schools do very well.My friend Joe went to an all-boys Catholic high school in northern New Jersey. By senior year "Morality" class, Joe said that teachers "assumed we already knew the ins and outs," given that junior biology had mentioned the egg and sperm and what happens when they unite. "Of course they neatly glossed over how the sperm got in there in the first place." Masturbation, however, was not part of biology curriculum. "We were never given clear accepted scientific information about our bodies. Was the discharge of semen going to happen no matter what? So now we're seniors, we still haven't talked about [masturbation], but then they tell you what's wrong with it."The sin was the intent," Joe explains, which conveniently let boys off the hook for wet dreams. "I'd have rather had it happen unconsciously than to contribute to the denigration of my soul and suffer the torments of hell."Joe was sold. "I bought it: hook, line, and sinker. As it was presented to me, it made perfect sense. There was something inherently sleazy about it. You didn't want to be one of 'those' boys. I think it played into the elitism or snobbery that you find in a school like that."But the Catholic Church should hardly take all the flack for widespread reluctance to discuss masturbation. Even my most open-minded friends say they'll leave masturbation off their otherwise progressive facts-of-life agenda when talking to their children. It's private and they don't want to pry, or make their kids feel self-conscious. So, if not from parents, and not in school, where are kids getting their info? Probably where they get most of their news-watching TV.From the underappreciated episode of Picket Fences in which the eldest son discusses the "explosion" of his first wet dream with his father, to Seinfeld's too-frequently-referred-to masturbation episode, TV does try. The big screen has had memorable moments as well, like when Dianne Wiest's vibrator is mistaken for a flashlight during a blackout in Parenthood, or Kim Basinger's memorable journey of self- discovery in 9 1/2 Weeks. Television and film probably discuss masturbation more than other forms of media, but is that really where we want our kids to learn about their bodies?Home and school, in that order, remain the ideal settings in which to inform kids about sexuality. So why not include masturbation in the just-say-no curriculum so many parents and teachers adore? After all, it's not about "how to" and "try this," it's about options: reminding kids of a safe way to cope with increasing sexual desires without jumping into bed with someone. Perhaps the message simply needs to be modified to "just say yes to sex with yourself, and no to anyone else who happens to come along." Masturbation is, after all, the safest sex around.