Real Bodies: Life Doctor

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For his birthday recently, my brother received a book published in 1904 entitled What A Young Man Ought to Know. It is fixated on the evils of masturbation.

The problem is best summed up in the chapter evocatively entitled "Evils to be shunned and consequences to be dreaded". It says: "A search in any insane asylum will show that a very large proportion masturbate."

Most people in Britain would agree, 95 years later - to the observation, that is, not the inference. People in insane asylums masturbate; but then so do a lot of other people.

Realistic estimates suggest that 95 per cent of men and 65 per cent of women masturbate regularly. Yet we are still uncomfortable about it. A sexual attitudes survey conducted by the Department of Health in 1992 said that "reluctantly, questions on masturbation were excluded from the survey because discussion of this practice had met with both distaste and embarrassment from respondents. It appeared unwise to prejudice response... in order to obtain data on this undoubtedly important area of sexual expression."

The government thinks masturbation is important and healthy. The Catholic Church still officially calls it a "moral disorder" which "encourages selfishness in the act of love", according to the Catholic Media Office. "While there have been benefits of a greater openness about sexuality in this century, what has been lost is a general understanding that a life without sex does not have to be unfulfilled."

Fair enough, but others say that masturbation is not just natural; it's good for us. Certainly I discovered what it was before I knew there was a technical term. Jane and David Brown have been working in the field of sex therapy for over 20 years. Needless to say, they think masturbation is not only harmless, but essential to our sexual and holistic health.

"It's an essential part of the learning process," says David Brown. "We have clients who have been married for 40 years and have never had an orgasm; have always been left dissatisfied. They are deeply unhappy. Successful masturbation is very relieving." His wife Jane says that "by learning how to please herself, a woman is not only more likely to enjoy and be more relaxed in sexual relations with others, but will also become more confident in every area of her life. It is a route of self-exploration."

At the beginning of the 20th-century, society stopped believing that people went mad because they were possessed by demons. Freud, looking for a physical explanation of his own anxiety, decided that the problem must be masturbation: that the unfulfilling nature of it must lead to chemical imbalances. In 1910, Wilhelm Stekl was thrown out of the Psychoanalytic Society for refusing to accept that masturbation was unhealthy. In 1948, the Kinsey Report came clean. Nearly everybody was at it. And it was harmless.

In the 1950s, my mother had no idea what self-love was. "My headmistress said very crossly that a girl had been seen touching herself. We had no idea what she meant and had great fun trying to avoid touching any part of ourselves."

The year 1969 saw the launch of Cosmopolitan. Enough said. In the 1970s Woody Allen famously described masturbation as "sex with someone I love".

Madonna's Sex, published in 1991, said it's cool for girls too.

And what about the next 100 years? Jane Brown is fearful. "So much has changed this century for the better. I worry that there will be a backlash. We don't want a return to Puritan values."

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