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Facts About Masturbation

6 of the Most Common (and Embarrassing) Questions About Masturbation Answered

Lanae St. John for YourTango gives us a refreshing and honest take on how to talk to yourself, and your kids, about masturbating.

Bonus: How to explain it all to your kids!

You may have noticed an increase in articles related to masturbation last month. That's because every year during the month of May, Sexual Health Educators celebrate National Masturbation Month.

So, why do we do this? Quite simply, to educate.

Masturbation can and should be talked about more openly and more people should learn that it's a common and natural behavior so that we can stop casting shame and guilt onto others — which included passing our own shame and embarrassment on to our kids. It's time that we recognize that learning about masturbation doesn't have to be scary or shocking or shameful.

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Here are questions people ask about masturbation more often than you might expect:

1. What is masturbation?

Masturbation is touching or rubbing one's genitals, typically with the hands, but sometimes incorporating other objects for stimulation. Most people think masturbation has to lead to orgasm. This does happen often for some people, but not everyone masturbates with the goal of orgasm in mind.

Masturbation is also a simple, straight-forward method of attaining self-knowledge. When you masturbate, you get to figure out what feels pleasant for you. (I'll talk more about this part later.)

Here's a fun fact: even babies touch themselves in utero!

2. How has society responded to masturbation in the past?

Masturbation feels good, and as a result, it's a tough behavior to regulate, although many attempts have been made to control masturbation in the past.

Here are a few examples:

  • In the late 1700s, a physician named Samuel-Auguste Tissot thought semen was made up of blood and therefore concluded that ejaculation must be harmful to one's health. He didn't know much about the subject, but he wrote about it anyway, and his writings influenced social and medical views for generations.
  • In 1878, Kellogg's founder John Harvey Kellogg developed Corn Flakes to help prevent masturbation because he thought bland food dampened sexual desire.
  • To keep kids (and adults) from masturbating in the early 1900s, authorities employed several barbaric practices to control masturbation from male circumcision to clitoridectomies to applying carbolic acid to clitorises to tying hands at bedtime to fitting people with restrictive anti-masturbation devices that look like chastity belts.
  • Doctors used to masturbate their female patients to orgasm in order to treat a now debunked medical condition then known as Hysteria, which was defined by symptoms such as anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, nervousness, erotic fantasies, feelings of heaviness in the lower abdomen, and wetness between the legs. This is, as the story goes, why vibrators were invented. Doctors grew tired of doing this manually.

And as recently as in 1994, Dr. Jocelyn Elders was pressured to resign from her position as Surgeon General under then-President Bill Clinton for merely suggesting that kids should learn about masturbation in sex ed. When asked at a United Nation conference on AIDS whether masturbation should be taught in sex education classes as a way to prevent young people from engaging in riskier forms of sexual activity, her response led to public outrage.

"In regard to masturbation, I think that that is something that is a part of human sexuality and it is a part of something that perhaps should be taught, but we've not even taught our children the very basics."

3. What are some other terms people use when referring to masturbation?

There are a bajillion (note: that is an accurate scientific figure) slang terms people use to refer to masturbation and I cannot name them all, but there are plenty of lists out there.

Some sound violent and some sound silly, like whack-a-mole, polishing-the-knob, self-love, jacking/jerking/jilling off, and petting-the-kitty, just to name a few.

And there are differences between what penises owners and vulva owners call it.

4. How common is masturbation?

This is a question I hear often from my college students. First off, masturbation is very common.

Another typical question people have along the same lines is, "How acceptable is masturbation?"

The answer to this depends on who you ask. Many religions shun the behavior, especially since masturbation does not lead to baby making and for many religions procreation is the only legitimate reason to be sexual, so in their teachings, sex must be practiced only within a heterosexual marriage.

5. Why do people masturbate?

Contrary to what Tissot and others believed centuries ago, there are several health benefits to masturbation.

Some of the advantages are as follows:

  • It relieves stress.
  • It relieves menstrual cramps.
  • It enhances the functions of our immune system.
  • It helps one gain confidence in themselves.
  • It's a way to experience sexual pleasure with absolutely no risk of contracting an STI.
  • It can help you to know what feels good to you so you can teach a future partner how you like to be touched rather than relying on them trying to figure it out and both of you possibly feeling disappointed if they don't know what they're doing.

6. What can parents say to their kids about it?

There's a difference between teaching children "to" masturbate versus teaching kids "about" masturbation. I advocate for teaching about masturbation because this is one sexual behavior that kids will figure out on their own (if they haven't already).

Teaching them to be hygienic, safe, and private is important. You can share the goal of keeping hands clean before and after to prevent the spread of germs (and it's just a good habit).

You can tell them to be careful if they start playing with objects. This can be where you talk about the importance of flared bases for kids who also play with their anus.

Giving them permission to do this in a private place like their bedroom or the bathroom teaches them that it's OK to have time for themselves. It also teaches children to respect other people (like relatives) who have their own reasons for having time alone or who don't agree that this behavior is OK.

I mentioned earlier using masturbation to figure out what feels pleasant for you. Teen Vogue has been KILLING it lately with their on-point articles. One came out just recently called "Why You Should Masturbate Whether You've Had Sex Or Not." I'm not gonna steal its thunder, but if you're a parent, you should check it out as this is the message teens can be getting from you as well.

Look, I get it. Parents often don't want to talk about masturbation with their kids. It's awkward.

Again, remember you do not need to give them the actual "how-tos," but the attitude you have about this topic and the way you address it with your kids is crucial.

Think scientific. Be matter of fact. You don't need to encourage masturbation — just acknowledge that it is a common and normal behavior. One funny (if not a tad extreme) approach is this one from the TV show Weeds.

I say a tad extreme because most parents wouldn't be this graphic, but I do like this example. Uncle Andy uses Jack Annon's PLISSIT model to talk about masturbation — Permission, Limited Information, and Specific Suggestions (there's no need for the IT: Intensive Therapy part in this convo). This is the same model I use when working with clients as well.

The topic is tough, especially if you grew up with shame or embarrassment around the topic. I know I sure did. Try talking to your child about how your parents handled it with you, and if it is a tough topic for you, explain why that is. Lots of kids like to hear stories of their parents growing up.

The key is to face our own guilt or risk passing it on.

I'm sure lots of our issues with masturbation aren't even our own. They came from our parents or loved ones or someone else altogether.

And one important note:

Some people don't feel a need to masturbate at all and that's okay too. There's no need to push people to masturbate. Like I said, merely acknowledging it is a start.

Masturbation is a topic that stirs up a lot of emotions. Telling someone, "You will grow hair on your palms", "You'll go blind", or any other such lies as a way to prevent them from masturbating won't likely lead to that desired result.

Think about how much effort has been put forth in trying to convince us that masturbation is wrong and then consider how much one learns about themselves in figuring out how their own body works.

Masturbation is NOT a bad thing.

So, next May, take a moment to thank a sex educator for making masturbation mentionable with (hopefully) less shame.

xxoo,

Lanae

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