Modern Times? Masturbation Discourse in 2011

Archives of Sexual Behavior is surely the most interesting professional journal. It catalogs sexual behavior is just about every species. A recent article on attitudes toward masturbation among young adults (college students) articulates issues and attitudes that reflect deeply on our social fabric and mores: Kaestle, CE, & Allen, KE (2010), The Role of Masturbation in Healthy Sexual Development: Perceptions of Young Adults, provides an interesting picture of masturbation discourse. Some of the lit review is fascinating and shows us where we are at in the 21st century. Masturbation is described as “a stigmatized non-reproductive sexual behavior.” Re: prevalance, turns out that masturbation is “an extremely widespread human experience.”  It is very hard to study since people do not feel comfortable reporting it (“one of the least accurately reported sexual behaviors”). The authors note that the stigma prevents rational discussion of the topic (remember Jocelyn Elders? She was the Surgeon General in 1994 who was forced to resign when she suggested that masturbation should be taught in sex education classes.). Sources of information about what it is or how to do it are mixed. Turns out that one’s family and school is the least likely place to obtain this information (sex eucation has a “sex-negative” bias). The media and peers are the more common sources. Turns out that most people internalize the social stigma and taboo and must come to terms with conflict. Not surprisingly, gender plays a role in masturbation discourse. There appears to be a gender based double standard. Men appear to be more capable of reconciling the contradictions.  I quote at length:

“Men have greater allowances to pursue pleasure and tend to have more permissive attitudes toward sex in general (Petersen & Hyde, 2010). Traditional gendered sexuality scripts usually leave initiation and pleasure seeking to men, while women tend to have more passive or gate-keeping roles (Gagnon & Simon, 1973). Such sexual scripts and gender ideologies emerge from a culture in which vaginal intercourse is emphasized, women are taught to be caretakers, women’s pleasure is considered incidental, women’s genitalia are often considered dirty or unclean compared to men’s, and women tend to lack substantial knowledge about their own body (Breen, 1993; Douglas,1966; Schwartz, 2007; Wade, Kremer, & Brown, 2005). Such views and tendencies can have consequences for women’s body image, feeling comfortable with one’s own body, and experiencing sexual pleasure (Wade et al., 2005). These scripts may contribute to women holding more ambivalent attitudes toward masturbation. One study of interviews with 20 girls found that many held negative views not only of masturbation itself but also of women who masturbated (Hogarth & Ingham, 2009).

The article ends with a discussion of ideological conflict in social discourse between traditional stigmatizing and gendered discourse and emergent or challenging discourses and the role of masturbation discourse, including the creation of conflict and confusion, in the development of healthy sexual attitudes.



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