Masturbation—stimulation of your own genitals for sexual pleasure—has a very rocky history in the U.S., especially when it comes to teens. Only a short century ago, self-pleasure was considered both morally evil and harmful to physical and mental health, and so clergy, public officials, and medical doctors all embarked on a quest to rid humanity of this horrifying “self-abuse.” Some of the more fortunate outcomes of this effort gave us things like Kelogg’s corn flakes and Graham crackers (their inventors believed these bland foods would curb sexual desire). Other “solutions” were much scarier involving some pretty drastic measures such as surgical removal of the clitoris, burning the clitoris with carbolic acid, threading silver wire through the foreskin of the penis or sawing it shut to prevent erections, or locking the penis in various barbaric chastity devices.
Things are certainly better, and more humane, for sexually charged teens and adults today, but remnants of the anti-masturbation hysteria still plague our country. When former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders —the “Nation’s Doctor” in 1994—suggested masturbation should be taught as a means of preventing teens from engaging in riskier forms of sexual activity, she was asked to resign. Only a couple of years ago, Brigham Young University–Idaho launched an anti-masturbation campaign comparing masturbation to a war battlefield and those who pleasure themselves to wounded soldiers. Of all sex-related topics, masturbation is the one that parents are more uncomfortable discussing with their teenage kids (and so they either avoid it or present it in a very negative light), and even doctors avoid this topic when talking to teens about sex.
All this negativity rubs off on teens of both sexes, but especially girls. Research shows that among US teens ages 14-17, about 25% of boys and about 50% of girls have never masturbated, and even more have not done it in the past month: 50% of boys and 75% of girls. And many teens, both those who do and do not masturbate, frequently feel guilt and shame around this practice.
All this is quite sad, because the reality is, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with masturbating. In fact, it can have a number of positive benefits for teens of all genders. Head on over to the piece I wrote for Teen Vogue this month for 8 reasons on why more teens should masturbate.