Why on Earth is Masturbation Still a Taboo Topic?

by | July 26, 2014
filed under Politics, Sex-Ed

ShushingLast week I wrote about Trish Kelly, who stepped down from running for Vancouver Parks Board after a video of her talking about masturbation was posted online. As Kelly described in her recent op-ed in the Vancouver Courier:

A couple weeks ago, some blogs started posting a video monologue from my 2000 Fringe Festival play. The monologue is a humourous take on the sex life of a single person and the ways that single people can feel isolated and invisibilized in our culture. It also talks about masturbation. As an artist, the monologue is certainly not the most frank or explicit piece of sex-positive work I have published or performed, but some bloggers had a heyday, claiming my monologue disqualified me for a run at public office.

I thought it was absurd that she was being criticized for talking openly – in an art piece or not – about a very normal and healthy aspect of most people’s sex lives. But I wanted to talk about the bigger picture, about how this kind of intense scrutiny is similar to what other women candidates have faced or could expect to face.

I’m really glad that bigger conversation is continuing and going strong. My article was republished at the Tyee and has led to several other great articles that I’ll link to at the bottom of this post. In her op-ed, Kelly also said she’ll be organizing a forum to talk about the bigger questions, so I’m really looking forward to that.

But over the last week discussing what happened, it also became clear that a lot of people have a ridiculously hard time talking about masturbation, or even talking about people talking about masturbation!

I don’t think the stigma associated with masturbation explains all of the backlash Kelly experienced. Women’s sexuality tends to be policed much more strongly than men’s, women political candidates are already scrutinized more than men for things like their appearance, and their public opinion suffers more as a result.

But here’s an example of the strength of the masturbation taboo: on Thursday I did an interview about Trish Kelly with Calgary’s News Talk 770. The host was great overall but the intro warned listeners, “So this next little bit may strike some of you as controversial…” This is after several segments interviewing guests on the situation in Gaza.

Masturbation: apparently the only topic more controversial than the Middle East.

Ok, maybe I’m reading too much into that. But the taboo around masturbation is almost impossible to comprehend, when you consider that 95% of men and 89% of women report having masturbated at least once in their lives. It’s not about not understanding it; we’re actually ashamed or pretending to be ashamed of, and shaming other people for something we actually do.

The taboo interacts with gender norms and thus affects men and women in slightly different ways.

The documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, shows that depictions of women’s pleasure in feature films are censored more and viewed as more “adult” than men’s pleasure. For example, But, I’m a Cheerleader, which includes a scene of a fully-clothed woman masturbating, was rated NC-17 by the Motion Picture Association of America, while American Pie, with its much more graphic male masturbation scenes, was only rated R.

That’s not to say there’s no shame or stigma in our culture attached to a man masturbating. In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Carol Queen, founder of International Masturbation Month, says:

“The biggest source of stigma surrounding masturbation now – and not just for youth – is the idea that you’re supposed to have sex with another person. It’s not so much that it’s a moral failing today (except in certain conservative circles); it’s more that it’s jokey and calls a young guy out as not a player, as less masculine or mature than the guys who are having (non-solo) sex.”

So for a man it’s shameful because it says he can’t get a woman to have sex with him, which is assumed to be better. By contrast, for a woman, masturbation challenges gender norms by signalling that she’s not dependent on a man for pleasure. Add that tension around challenging gender norms to centuries of religious and social condemnation, and you have a recipe for shame, stigma, and secrecy.

If you type "masturbation" into Google, the only result that auto-completes is "masturbation is a sin"

If you type “masturbation” into Google, the only result that auto-completes is “masturbation is a sin”

Here are some more examples of the impact of the masturbation taboo:

In response to my article on Kelly, Wendy Williams, the fabulous chair of the City of Vancouver Women’s Advisory Committee, commented that when she was Executive Director of Planned Parenthood in Newfoundland, she was interviewed in Macleans and asked what one of her wishes was:

“I said ‘to teach every woman to masturbate.’ When I ran for City Council in St John’s in 1990 the article was quoted as a reason not to vote for me. That was 24 years ago.”

In 1994 the US Surgeon General was fired for saying young people should be taught masturbation as a safe sex practice.

Teaching masturbation as part of sex ed classes continues to be a controversial issue in many North American jurisdictions. In Wisconsin last year, conservative groups fear-mongered about teachers even being provided with stock answers to use just in case students asked about masturbation.

And all this in spite of the fact that masturbation is good for you, won’t get you pregnant, won’t expose you to STIs, and should feel great too!

I was lucky enough to be taught in sex ed that masturbation was normal and safe, but I remember the day we talked about it in grade 7 and how everyone – including me – snickered and exchanged sideways glances, ready to tease the person who’d submitted the anonymous question. Maybe if it had come up more than just that one time it would’ve helped. Certainly, not talking about it at all and letting the stigma go unchallenged, can be devastating.

Just recently, a 14-year-old boy in San Diego committed suicide, having been mercilessly bullied after a schoolmate secretly took and then distributed a video of him masturbating in a school restroom stall.

Let’s resolve to do a better job teaching our kids – and each other – that there’s nothing wrong with masturbation.

**

More articles about Trish Kelly and sexism in politics:

Photo by Lars Kristian Flem, CC-licensed via Flickr


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  • andre paris

    i think though that the real problem is that the reason some people don’t admit or practice masturbation is that it’s a religious issue, that sex of any kind is for baby making only

    • Good point! A big part of the taboo’s origin was certainly in religious teachings – going back at least to Medieval times, and maybe that long history is part of why it persists today, even though today not everyone who thinks it’s a taboo subject is religious or believes sex is only for reproduction.