Sunday, May 6, 2012

The County Masturbation Trainer

Carnegie Hall, Baldwin-Wallace College
Who knew my career would lead me to having discussions about whether someone had the attention span to masturbate? These were not topics of conversation in the old sandstone building, pictured on the left, were I did my undergraduate study of psychology.

Nevertheless, I did indeed find myself having just this conversation a few short years after graduating. Since May has been named the National Month of Masturbation, I thought I might revisit this discussion. First a little background.

One of the nondescript homes nestled along a tree lined street in suburban Cleveland held a group home that I worked in over eighteen years ago. I was the QMRP of a home for people with developmental disabilities. Our residents were some of the most challenging individuals who were living outside of institutions. A few years prior to getting the job, one of the last developmental centers in Ohio was closed down. Of the 3,000 individuals that the institution once cared for, a handful remained. Twelve of that handful of hard-to-place residents were placed in my group home.

The residents had cognitive abilities that were below the threshold of what tests could measure. They had little to no verbal language skills. Our one resident who could speak had echolalia, which means his language capacity consisted solely of being able to echo back exactly what was spoken to him (at least simple words). The remainder of the residents of my group home had no formal language skills.

The residents had spent their entire lives living in an institution. Care was something provided on a production line. Compassion was something that came infrequently at best. The people who had been put in my care did not know how to dress, bathe, cook, or eat. Behavior plans were created to help residents (those who had the motor skills) learn to dry themselves after showers, dress themselves as independently as possible, and use forks and spoons to eat food. Every day that I went to work I felt like I was entering into a secret world of broken people that the world had forgotten.

While not many words were spoken, sounds would fill the air. For those who took the time to listen closely, human desires and wishes could be heard. The residents would desperately try to communicate with their caregivers. Sometimes we got it right, sometimes we didn't.

Sexuality, and desires for the sensual, were some of the most obvious of all communications. A few examples come to mind (all modified, disguised, and a hybrid of many different experiences).
  • The woman who would spend significant amounts of time attempting to masturbate. She never could quite orgasm (perhaps due to side effects of psychotropic medications or lack of skill). She would try so long and hard she would injure her genitalia. 
  • There was a male resident who suffered a similar problem. Every time I turned around he was trying a new way to stimulate his penis. He would try rubbing and banging his penis on any surface he could find. Like the female resident, he never seemed to manage to have an orgasm, and frequently damaged himself. 
  • A third resident could frequently be found wearing a female resident's clothes and masturbating with them. The female resident would discover him wearing her clothes and chase him around the house pinching him.
  • Another resident, who was able to have an orgasm, would frequently chase staff and residents around and throw his ejaculate on them. On one very unfortunate day, I was on the receiving end of this.
Why do I share these experiences? We don't often think of our most vulnerable and disabled community members as sexual beings. We should, because they are. We also take advantage of these people's vulnerabilities and push our own moral agendas on their sexuality. Too often our modes of treatment control rather than liberate the human experience.

How are their vulnerabilities taken advantage of? These residents, with no verbal skills, were heavily medicated to manage symptoms that they were not able to verbally express. I'm not even sure if we always knew what their symptoms actually were. Sometimes medication was used to manage dangerous behaviors such as self injury that could be life threatening. Other times medication was used to control symptoms that were considered a nuisance, like medication to dampen the sex drive of the man who threw his ejaculate at people. Resident staff, who were untrained, would roll their eyes at masturbating residents and yell at them to stop. One parent told me she knew her son didn't really want to masturbate because he was Catholic and knew he would go to hell. She insisted that his treatment plan included making him stop masturbating. 

Being young, idealistic, and a product of the Dr. Ruth school of parenting, I had a much different idea of what should be happening. Prior to working at this particular group home I used to drive a resident to an adult store so he could buy gay erotica. Now I was being told to develop behavior plans so a person could be trained to stop masturbating with women's clothes. I wasn't very happy about this but had not yet developed (or been granted) the authority to make an impact. This was one of the first experiences that pushed me toward getting a graduate degree.

Back to the group home. I discovered there was a county masturbation trainer (not their real job title, I think it was something like sexuality trainer, or something like that). They came out to the group home and evaluated the residents. The evaluation revealed that many of them did not possess neither the physical ability (i.e., dexterity) to masturbate or  have the attention span to learn.

Those that did, assuming that their guardian gave consent, could have access to a variety of training materials (videos, instruction with anatomically correct dolls, etc.). As you might guess, the only resident that was deemed capable of learning to masturbate was the resident who had the guardian who believed that masturbation was a sin. 

Can you imagine that--not having the attention span to masturbate or the physical ability to manipulate your body parts with your hands (or other tools) to get the job done? Just think about that for a minute. I'll wait.

Here is an interesting factlet: from the time period of 1942-1989, it was reported that 652 men in a single institution were castrated to control (aka prevent) masturbation. Some current treatment protocols involve squirting lemon juice into the mouths of people who are masturbating in inappropriate places. Click here for a very interesting article about interventions for socially inappropriate masturbation.

Imagine that. Castration to control masturbation. Squirting lemon juice in the mouths of those who are being offensive and wacking off in public. Is one expected to believe that someone with no verbal skills can distinguish between the pleasure of masturbating in private and the punishment that comes from masturbating in public? I think not.

There are of course better ways to help out those who are most vulnerable. Are you the caregiver for a person with a developmental disability, or know someone who is? An educator? Do you have a disability yourself? I've put together a few resources.


  1. Wow. Castrated for masturbating. That's just horrible.

    My psych instructor told the class about her experience as an aide to those who are intellectually challenged and she said it was one of the most rewarding jobs.

  2. I've had some great experiences working with people who have developmental disabilities. I have also had some horrible experiences.

    Our country has had a long history of forced sterilizations of people who were deemed mentally incompetent or developmentally disabled. What's worse is that history isn't all that far in the past.