Friday, May 4, 2012

May is for Masturbation

In 1995, Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders dared to utter the word masturbation. Among the many things she said, Dr. Elders said "in regard to masturbation, I think that is something that is part of human sexuality and it is a part of something that should be perhaps be taught." John Boehner, who was apparently still orange at the time, said "her war on tradition values, her crusade to legalize drugs, her efforts to put condoms in the pocket of every five year old is over."

"I told someone, 'I went to Washington feeling like prime steak, and I left feeling like low-grade hamburger,' " Joycelyn Elders, MD

The resulting controversy resulted in her being forced to step down at the leading medical voice of our country. She was clearly a woman before her time--and a woman we very much needed to show us the way. Take a listen:

To help keep our country talking about the importance, the San Francisco store Good Vibrations named May as National Masturbation Month to keep our focus on open, honest, and frank talk about masturbation and sexuality--just as our Surgeon General had hoped.

I'm not sure we really have gotten all that much further toward a responsible, open, and non-sexually repressed society in the 18 years since Dr. Elders was fired. I remained shocked at how many psychologists are unable to talk about sex and sexuality with their patients, and remain amazed that so many come to my office having felt prevented by other therapists about talking about sex and sexuality.

This of course does not surprise me. In my eight years of post-baccalaureate training, sex was not mentioned a single time in a class, lecture, workshop, or small group meeting. Not a single time.

Okay, that is a bit of hyperbole. It was mentioned once, as a post-doc. Our list of "pleasant" activities for teens to engage in to help improve their feels included masturbation. No one ever mentioned it and the list was eventually changed. Already being irreverent, and iconoclastic, I  made it a point to continue talking about masturbation.

I have a few key experiences and people to thank. My parents, of course, who I believe came from the Dr. Ruth school of parenting (is there such a school?). Sex and sexuality was something that was private but could be discussed in appropriate ways (and my mother was filled with all sorts of wonderfully inappropriate jokes). I also was a trained safer-sex educator in New York City in the early 90s. I carted around a bag of dildos and condoms in the subway back and forth to classes that I taught teens so they had the skills to protect themselves from HIV. I also have to thank my first very first patients at the Free Medical Clinic of Cleveland. I had no choice but to figure out how to talk openly about sex in the context of therapy because it was part of what every one of my clients wanted to talk about.

My biggest thanks, however, goes to one clinical supervisor in my doctoral program, Glenda Russell. She was my only supervisor who spoke about this part of the human experience. She taught me that if I'm not talking about sex and sexuality in therapy with my clients I am doing something wrong. She taught me how to talk about it. Additionally, she taught me that it's my responsibility to bring it up if it wasn't being talked about.
If your clients aren't talking about sex, age, religious, race, disability, or any other difficult topic in the first three or four sessions they will never be able to talk about it. If they don't bring it up, it is your responsibility to bring it up so it becomes something okay to talk about. 
I haven't forgotten these words--and have seen hundreds of patients blush at first mention of sex, masturbation, sex toys, or any other "sensitive" topics. I've also watched those same patients look relieved and relaxed as they are able to become more whole people, capable of openly talking and thinking about "unmentionable" issues.

In honor of masturbation month I have a few things to say: shame on you, therapists who are unable to have frank conversations about sex and sexuality. This is important, and by not creating space for your patients to think about these issues you are failing in your responsibilities to your patients. The biggest shaming goes toward clinical training programs who are so uptight that they swoon at a single mention of sex or masturbation. It's not as if we are going to grow blind. In fact, there are myriad health benefits associated with masturbation for both men and women. Try it out. You'll see.

Lastly--all of you--go out and have some safe and consensual fun. Talk about masturbation. Talk with your friends about sex. Go to a sex shop. For those of you who are repressed New England types, try holding hands in public. You have to start somewhere. 


  1. I have to make a few comments on this post. First of all, as graduates of the Dr. Ruth school of parenting, both your Dad & I smiled at your reference to us...& we both laughed at your reference to my "wonderfully inappropriate jokes! I had no idea you carried dildos & condoms around New York City when you lived there as a 20 yr. old. How phallic. (Do you remember what you used to tell me when you were a young teen? You would say, "Mom, everything is phallic to you!") That's why I can't believe you didn't tell me about your bag full of dildos...just think of all the people I could have alternately shocked & amused with that little story! No doubt you ate a lot of pickle bread at that time. Afterall, it's made from dill dough!

    ...Reminds me of another joke...

    Q: What do you call a truckload of dildos?
    A: Toys for twats!

    Secondly, I have to say that both my under grad experience & my graduate school program in clinical psychology addressed human sexuality. You are probably too young to remember me making my wonderfully inappropriate jokes about really looking forward to the lab portion of my undergrad course & announcing that the final was oral! When I was in graduate school there was frank instruction and discussion about how to address sexuality in therapy, including discourse on intercourse & how to deal with issues related to sexual dysfunction. See? I told you not to go to graduate school in New England...graduate school is way more uptight than graduate school in your home town!

    Leave it to you to announce that May is Masturbation Month & devote a blog to the topic! I have no idea how you turned out the way you did!!

    1. At a conference at the Wellesley Center's For Women (there were no other men in the room) I asked the founders of the Relational Cultural model of therapy why none of their writings ever addressed sex. As if they were highly trained synchronized swimmers crossed their legs while one said, "that's a good question. Next?"

      Things are indeed a little uptight here in New England. I constantly remind myself that the Puritans came here first.

      Did you know that when there were snow days I would stay home and read your psychology text books? That's how I turned out the way I did.

  2. This post has been worth reading (second time around) not just for the original content, but for these comments, which have brought a warm smile to my face. Thank you both

    1. My parents are indeed fairly wonderful. Glad this all brought a warm smile to your face.