Masturbation, the first form of sex kids encounter, is the topic most often missing from parent-child discussions of sex.

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Bill Clinton’s Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders once said, “Condoms will break, but I can assure you that vows of abstinence will break more easily.”

Unfortunately, that’s the kind of quotability that gets a political appointee fired.

At a UN conference on AIDS in 1994, Elders was asked whether it would be appropriate to promote masturbation to prevent young people from engaging in riskier forms of sexual activity. “I think that it is part of human sexuality,” she replied, “and perhaps it should be taught.”

Never mind that the answer was sensible. Never mind that it was true. Once US conservatives pictured their progeny receiving instruction in self-gratification, Elders was gone.

Sense and truth have never had much place in our cultural discourse on sex, and few aspects of the topic have been more twitchingly mismanaged than masturbation. Those who recall the baffling mix of intense pleasure and intense shame that tends to accompany our personal discoveries of masturbation should want nothing more than to spare our own kids the pointless torment.

Yet masturbation, the first form of sex that kids encounter, is the topic most often missing from parent-child discussions of sex.

The roots of our dysfunctional attitudes toward masturbation are intertwined with the age-old distrust of bodily pleasures. Although religion is a place to put our most beloved bad ideas for safekeeping, that particular distrust doesn’t always originate there. Some research has suggested psychological and biological explanations as well. And when I covered sexuality in my secular parenting workshops, parents would consistently describe evidence of shame related to masturbation in kids with no exposure to religious indoctrination, as well as in themselves when they were young—an experience I had as well.

When I discovered this delightful bit of recreation myself around age eight, I was convinced I had invented it. That suggests I had heard no prohibitions, religious or otherwise. Yet every solo sonata was followed by a coda of shame, embarrassment, and guilt.

(I was terrified when, after perhaps a year of sensations-only play, I suddenly produced a substance I could not identify. I was dead certain I had broken myself and canceled the games for a good 48 hours.)

When I discovered this delightful bit of recreation myself around age eight, I was convinced I had invented it.

Although the shame can apparently arise independent of religious input, it’s hard to beat the Abrahamic religions for over-the-top hysteria in perpetuating and reinforcing dysfunctional attitudes toward the safest sex of all.

The Catholic catechism calls masturbation “an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” One popular 19th-century Jewish theologian called it “a graver sin than any other in the Torah.” Mormonism teaches that “masturbation is a sinful habit that robs one of the Spirit,” while Shi’a Islam forbids it completely, quoting sect founder Imam Ali as saying, “One who masturbates commits a sin equal to killing me eighty times.”

James Dobson, an influential religious conservative who is reliably and grotesquely wrong about almost every aspect of parenting, once (astonishingly and briefly) voiced support for a more accepting, naturalistic parenting approach to masturbation. The following passage from a 2006 post refers to a conversation Dobson had as a boy with his minister father:

We were riding in the car, and my dad said, “Jim, when I was a boy, I worried so much about masturbation. It really became a scary thing for me because I thought God was condemning me for what I couldn’t help. So I’m telling you now that I hope you don’t feel the need to engage in this act when you reach the teen years, but if you do, you shouldn’t be too concerned about it. I don’t believe it has much to do with your relationship with God.” What a compassionate thing my father did for me that night in the car.

Aside from “I hope you don’t feel the need” and the God bit, his father’s advice is almost exactly the message I tried to get across to my own kids.

Although Dobson was excoriated by his fellow religious conservatives, and the post was quickly killed with fire, he gradually drifted back to that message over time. His organization’s current page on masturbation is surprisingly not terrible.

The original Dobson post had to tangle the sensible message with nonsense, suggesting for example that boys in the act think not of any girls they know, but only of their “eventual wives” in the abstract. Christian author Herbert J. Miles goes one better, suggesting that boys pray first, thanking God for the gift of sexuality, then think only of Him during orgasm (giving “Oh, God!” a whole new meaning). But I give credit to both of them for getting the basic message right.

In the absence of communication, kids are likely to feel shame and guilt when the natural developments of pre-adolescence lead them to self-stimulation. When your child is ready to engage questions around sexuality—ideally before the onset of puberty—let him or her know:

  • What masturbation is
  • That it’s a normal, pleasurable, and harmless thing nearly everyone does at some point
  • It’s a natural indication that the body is becoming ready for sexual activity and reproduction. (This is an ideal place to talk about the evolutionary reason for the good feelings associated with it)
  • For boys: Let them know to eventually expect ejaculate, and that it is normal
  • Any stories they hear about grave consequences are silly nonsense
  • Though it is not at all shameful, it is private

Removing the guilt and shame from our kids’ first encounters with their sexuality requires no detailed description or instruction—just simple permission. And nonreligious parents, free of repressive doctrines, are in an ideal position to give their kids that permission, as well as the mental, emotional, and sexual health that comes with it.

Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...

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