SELF-PLEASURE OR SIN
According to Szasz (1970, p. 182) the word “masturbation” was not in use in the English language until the middle of the 18th century. The Oxford Dictionary recorded the word in 1766. The etymology of the word is significant. According to Szasz, it is a corruption of the Latin word manustupration or manual stupration, meaning to defile by hand. Haeberle (1983, p. 204) says the genesis of the word is “manus; hand + either stuprare; to defile, or turbare, to disturb.”
The Catholic Church in the 6th through 10th centuries developed a series of Penitential Books. These, among other things, explored the subject of sex in all its details. Every misdeed or sin was described and elaborated at length, and “penalties penances or acts of amends for sins were prescribed for each” (Fox, 1995, p. 23). According to Kinsey et al. (1948, p. 476), early theologians declared masturbation to be a greater sin than fornication. The church, combined with parental fears of infantile masturbation, attempted to maintain its system of repression by nurturing the willingness of parents to condemn this behavior. By this system a child learns before fully understanding, that self pleasure is bad and fear of pleasure becomes inscribed in his or her unconscious mind, to the point when it can become generalized to include fear of pleasure in all its forms. The Church therefore concentrated a great deal of attention on this matter, seeking Biblical justifications for its views.
Although the Bible does not specifically refer to masturbation, Genesis XXXVIII refers to Onan’s seed falling upon the ground. Significantly, Onanism became synonymous for masturbation as described by: Haeberle (1983), Masters (1967), Michael, Gangnon, Laumann & Kolata, (1994). This practice actually refers to coitus interruptus and relates to a story in the Bible where Onan was put to death because he failed to carry out the Judaic law, by which a man had to provide his deceased brother's wife with a child. Kinsey et al. (1948, p. 476) claim “Few other people in history have condemned masturbation as severely as the Jews have.” This view was adopted virtually unaltered by the Christian Church and then by the medical profession after that. The result is “the proscriptions of the Talmud are nearly identical with those of our present day legal code concerning sexual behavior”.
Science displaced religion with regard to fear of masturbation. The credit for inventing masturbation as a grave medical hazard goes to a man identified by Haeberle (1983, p. 199) as “Bekker.” In 1710 Bekker, who had been a clergyman and went on to become a physician, published a treatise entitled “Onania, or The Heinous Sin of Self Pollution, and all its frightful consequences in both sexes, considered, with spiritual and physical advice, etc. (p 199). In this work Bekker is concerned more with the sin than with the harm of masturbation (Szasz, 1970, p. 182). The Swiss physician Tissot spread the theory throughout Europe in 1741, with a publication entitled, Onanism, Or, A Treatise on the Disorders of Masturbation (Michael et al. 1994, p. 159). This misguided philosophy initiated a century and a half of fear and medical warnings about the dire consequences of masturbation.
These works set the stage for many prominent physicians from around the world to follow. Acton and Maudsley in Britain, Pouillet in France, Rush in America (Michael et al., 1994, Szasz, 1970). Masturbation was blamed for a plethora of illnesses including, but not limited to: weakness, impotence, dysury, tabes dorsalis, pulmonary consumption, dyspepsia, dimness of sight, vertigo, epilepsy, hypochondriasis, loss of memory, analgia, fatuity, and death.” Masturbatory madness was an invention of this time and many men and women were interred in mental institutions with this diagnosis (Szasz, 1970, p. 184).
Around 1858 a prominent London surgeon, Dr. Isaac Baker Brown, advocated the operation of clitoridectomy to treat masturbation in girls and women. To cure this “disease” he removed the “organ”, because he believed that masturbation caused “vexing mental disorders of women (Lightfoot-Klein, 1989, p. 179). Lightfoot-Klein further attests to the fact that in America removal of the ovaries was added to the clitoridectomy, and also infibulation, to prevent masturbation. There are no records of exact numbers of these surgeries; however it is estimated by Lightfoot-Klein to have been in the thousands. According to Michael et al. (1994, p. 160), protecting people from themselves became a virtual obsession of American and British doctors and thus the God fearing populations of those countries generally, by the middle of the 19th century. It was thought that certain food products could help quell the urge to masturbate. J.H. Kellogg produced corn flakes for that reason. Sylvester Graham created the Graham cracker with a similar purpose in mind. Both these men became popular sexual advisers. Graham prescribed that males eat grains and wheat rather than meat. Further, he advised sleeping on hard wooden beds and taking strenuous exercise to ward off the dire results of masturbation (Michael et al. 1994, p. 160). Even though sexual reformers of the 20th century, such as Freud and Havelock Ellis, endeavored to stop the extreme cruelty prescribed by those people mentioned above, they too believed masturbation was capable of causing sexual dysfunction (Michael et al. 1994, p. 161).
Further influence on the generation directly impacted in this study was the 1940 publication of the American textbook of pediatrics, Holt’s Disease of Infancy and Childhood which condemned masturbation as harmful. Between 1897 and 1940, eleven revised editions were published. In the early editions the treatments recommended were mechanical restraints, corporal punishment in the very young, circumcision in boys “even if phimosa does not exist, because of the moral effects of the operation” (Szasz, 1970, p. 199). [phimosis: constriction of the opening of the prepuce, preventing the foreskin from being drawn back. This stricture is the primary reason for circumcision in older children under current medical standards of practice. Historically it was used as a deterrent to masturbation]. In girls the treatment was separation of the preputial hood from the clitoris, blistering the inside of the thighs, the vulva or the prepuce [the fold of skin covering the clitoris, similar to that which covers the head of the penis]. This therapy was recommended up to and including the 1936 edition. As time went by the tone became more uncertain. Szasz further states that as late as 1937, the Sex Hygiene Manual of the U.S. public health services and the Boy Scouts Handbook for 1945 extort youth to avoid “wasting the vital fluids.” Pediatricians armed with this misinformation would have influenced the parents of the women in this study. Further, general mores of the day supported this thinking.
The majority of current scientific and medical evidence points to the fact that at every stage of life masturbation is not harmful and in fact can be said to be a sign of healthy development: DeMartino (1979), Haeberle (1983), Hite (1976), Kelly (1966), Kinsey et al. (1953), Marcus & Francis (1975), Masters & Johnson (1966) and Nevid et al. (1995).
A recent article by Hooper in Men's Journal (Feb. 1998, p. 89) entitled "Masturbation's Midlife Revival, Hand Solo" shows the topic of masturbation to be a current and lively source of discourse among baby boomers. With headings such as “A History of Hairy Palms, Love Me, I'm a Masturbator and A Generational Legacy” this article cleverly leads us from the “eternal damnation…guilty of the Old Testament sin of Onan” to “taking cheer from modern sociology and sexology.” Quotes from such respected names in sexological research as Ted McIlvenna and research findings from the University of Chicago help lend a clinical perspective to this lighthearted treatment of the subject. Significant numbers of respondents in this article report some level of guilt around their masturbation habit.
Sipe (1990, p152) discusses a pamphlet commonly distributed in the 1950s to teenage boys during retreats. This was entitled “ The Greatest Sin” and he further comments,
One might think that such a title would be reserved
for a booklet on genocide,
or perhaps rape, or some other injustice against women.
Racial injustice or any number of sins against humanity might also come
to mind. But no, this was a treatise on masturbation. Generations of
young boys became alternately terrified and disappointed that at 13
years of age they had already committed their greatest sin.
Sipe (1996) says his education as a Catholic boy of 13 years taught him the connection between sex and sin rather “than the bond between sex and love, service and spiritual integration.” Further in this quote Sipe says that the official teachings of the church remain unchanged.
Every sexual thought, word, desire and action
outside of marriage
is mortally sinful. Every sexual act within marriage not open to
conception is mortally sinful. And in the area of sexuality there is no
parvity of matter - meaning there can be no venial sins when it comes to
sex. Sex, not greed or cruelty...was the fast track to hell (p. 33).
This tradition of crowning masturbation as the King of Sins is not recent. It is connected with the attempt to establish power by the use of guilt and began six centuries ago.
Statistics from the questionnaire data point to the late development
in masturbatory practices for the study population.
|AGE||N = 43||PERCENT|
|5 or less||2||5|
|6 – 10||9||21|
I compared these findings against Kinsey et al. (1953) page 154 Table 35, fig. 18. The focus in this table is on female Catholic's masturbatory habits. The key comment is “in some of the most devout groups, as few as 41% had ultimately masturbated; in some of the least religious groups as many as 67% had had such an experience.”
Question 29 in my study shows that 22% or less of the females never masturbated during the time they were nuns. That is, 78% or more of them did masturbate during their time as nuns. This is a significantly higher percentage than the 41% - 67% Kinsey's stats.
It is not possible to make a statistically accurate comparison between the two, because,
(1) The sample is different. In Kinsey
et al. (1953) the sample is
focused on a devout Catholic, Protestant and Jewish population at large,
whereas, this study focuses solely on Catholic nuns, and only on
Catholic nuns who eventually left the convent. Additionally, the sample
size was radically different.
(2) The time difference between publication of the Kinsey
Report (1953) and this current ex-nun study (1998) may be a major
factor, given the dramatic change in sexual attitudes over the past 45
years. Nonetheless, the 78% figure is surprising, given the fact that
the nuns were very devout Catholics.
A later study was The Hite Report (1976) which found 82% of respondents masturbated while only 15% did not; 3% did not answer. This was a study of the general population of women with no breakdown for religious influence and shows the nun group to compare quite closely with that of the general population. This is surprising because masturbation was such a taboo that one would have expected the numbers to be significantly lower and this was not the case.
The most recent sexual survey Sex in America (Michael,
et al. 1994, p. 158), found that about 40% of women in the general population
between the ages of 18 to 59 had masturbated within the past year.
Further information from this survey shows that about one in ten women
reported that they masturbate at least one time a week. My study
showed the following frequency, comparing the shift in rates during their
|BEFORE %||DURING %||AFTER %|
The Michael et al. survey is the first to address why, if masturbation is so common, does it still trouble people so much to talk about it. The authors of the survey conclude that the practice is still burdened by the severe consequences of it from recent history; both religious and medical consequences are described.
Of those participants in the interview group, none of the 29 women recounted totally carefree self-pleasuring. Only one denied that she ever felt guilt. However, even in this case a high school student friend told her how to do it. Before this time she had no knowledge of masturbation, which is in itself suspect. All participants experienced some sense that it was wrong. Of those who admitted to early onset masturbation, their stories recount feelings of guilt, yet continuing the practice. Four women from the group expressed few difficulties in their experiences. However the remaining 25 had varying degrees of fear, guilt, shame and refusal to even try it. This one issue of personal sexuality remained of current concern for a substantial number. It was the one question most reported having difficulty dealing with on the questionnaire.
These are complex stories. I have chosen to devote one short chapter to this subject in order to illustrate these feelings in the women's own words. The difficulty women have with self-pleasuring remained as a stark reminder that even as we come to the close of the 20th century many remain conflicted when it comes to being in control of their own sexuality.
In Wendy's case she remembers a time when she did not think masturbation was wrong and recalls where the restrictions originated.
I don't ever remember a time when I didn't
masturbate. But I also
know that I was unusual in the family. I remember my older sister
discovering me. That was the first time I realized that if you're
discovered then you must be doing something private, so private that you
wouldn't want anyone to know. In my early days there was nothing I
associated with being wrong. It felt good, it didn't hurt anybody, but
I do remember learning from my mother and my sister that you don't touch
yourself. It didn't stop me doing it, what it did was probably what my
mother had intended which was to keep it private, it's not something you
do out in public. She said more than that, I think the message she
wanted to convey was that it wasn't right. I think a modern mother
would probably realize that what she really didn't want was the acting
out, that there was an appropriate place for that. I knew I was
supposed to feel guilty but it didn't stick. I also knew somewhere else
that that was baloney. I don't think anybody tried to sell me that God
thought it was wrong. I probably felt ashamed when I realized you
weren't supposed to do it in public but I never felt guilty. I
confessed it once when I was in the convent. By then I had learned
enough and talked enough and I knew it was a perfectly natural part of
who you were, and if God made me that way then it was fine. I remember
going to confession, even though it was something I didn't do very
often. I remember being very frank and the priest said God would
forgive me if I promised never to do it again. Well I thought, oh come
on, the promise never to do it again, you're supposed to be so sorry for
it that you'll never do it again, like lying or something that's a bad
thing. He said it with the same conviction. I thought, I don't share
this view, so it was something I didn't confess again. It never
occurred to me to confess it when I was little, maybe it was something
so private that it wasn't something you brought to the confessional.
Wendy illustrates clearly the conflict between childhood play and the enforcement of religious and social dogma and restraints. She came to the conclusion that it made no sense and therefore she ignored that particular aspect of Catholic teaching. She continued the practice of self-pleasuring during her stay in the convent without it jeopardizing her vow of chastity. This was true for many of the women but by no means all.
When the question of masturbation was put to Elizabeth she quite confidently said how comfortable she always was with it. However, it became apparent that this wasn't always the case. She was in high school before learning about it from a friend, suggesting some prior repression. Additionally saying “I didn't do it a lot” was indicative of some feelings of knowing she shouldn't have been doing it. Had she been thoroughly comfortable, the amount she engaged in would not have been of import. She also implied there was purpose for doing it other than pleasure. Elizabeth said:
Yes, I always masturbated. I never saw anything
wrong with it. I
didn't do it a lot, it was more of a relief, or just when I wanted to, I
did it. There was a psychiatrist who came to the novitiate before we
took vows. He was supposed to educate us about sexuality and what our
vows of chastity would involve. He told us it was wrong to masturbate
but I didn't agree with him, if it didn't make sense I just didn't do
it. I learned about it from my best friend in high school, apart from
her nobody spoke about it. She said it felt good so give it a try.
Kinsey et al. (1953) points out that women talk less about sexuality than males, and that boys often demonstrate to each other how to masturbate. Women in this study often talk about their experiences of sharing their information. However, only two women mentioned having learned how to masturbate through demonstration. Sara was shown how to masturbate by her sister. Rachel learned about it when a fellow nun came back from university having had a human sexuality class. Sara told me
My older sister was just a very conscious sexual
person and we used
to share a room and she never hesitated to pleasure herself. She
basically said you ought to try it sometime and showed me how and that was
it. I think it offered me great satisfaction when I was lonely or just to
know the peak of emotion or the level of feeling you could get. But you
always ran it through that good girl, bad girl sense that you got, and so
I was never 100% comfortable with it. I did it anyway just to satisfy the
urges or needs. I think the more I found the lack of response from men
the more I realized, I thought, you've got to find some alternatives.
The second woman to be shown how to masturbate was Rachel. A fellow nun gave an impromptu sexuality lesson. Rachel said she knew nothing about sexuality prior to entering religious life and had never masturbated. Her development, she told me, was about that of an elementary school child today. She entered at 18 and said
When I really found out more about sex was
just before I took final
vows, at around 20 years old. Another woman who went to a Catholic
university came back and was telling us about this Human Sexuality class
she had been in. Apparently it was taught by this stupid priest. He drew
a picture of a woman's body and was talking about erogenous zones. Well
we didn't want to be taught about that, we wanted to be told about men.
She went on to talk about sensitive areas of the body and masturbation.
We all went out and tried it and came back and talked about it in class
next day. I said well if this could happen in a Catholic university, it
must be okay. So we all practiced again that night. That was my first
experience. We were sort of given permission to do it but really I'd
never thought about it before. In terms of sex and family and religious
life, I had decided on religious life. The thing with religious life is
you don't have a spouse, you don't have a family and that's it. That was
out of the picture, a black and white issue. So we tried the masturbation
thing and talked about it several times. It was interesting and
pleasurable, but no big deal.
(34 years later Rachel does masturbate but not very often and with no pattern).
Josephine knew masturbation was “wrong” but defiantly continued to do it. So even though she is among those who found pleasure in the act she also experienced a lot of conflict. She told me
Oh yes, I did a lot of masturbation.
I think I was pretty young
compared to a lot of my friends, between fourth and fifth grades I just
discovered it. Probably I did it several nights a week most of my
life. I knew it was wrong, I don't believe that now but at the time I
felt really guilty about it and there were periods of time when I tried
not to do it. I remember early years in the community worrying about it
and thinking I shouldn't do it. My memories are of my early 20s talking
about it to a very wonderful priest, sort of friend confessor. He was
very compassionate. I remember eventually talking to other friends in
the community about it and that broke a lot of the guilt around it
because I found others who didn't carry such an attitude about it so
that softened my feelings. That was my main sexual outlet in the
convent. I have always suffered from insomnia and it's how I put myself
to sleep. I remember when I was younger when I was trying to stop; what
was hard about it was that I couldn't fall asleep, not that I
desperately missed having orgasms.
Ann was the victim of incest by her father from a very young age and although appears on the surface to be in control of her sexuality did not express any pleasure from her adult sexual experiences. When she discussed her masturbation history, she once again initially presents a picture of “normal control” over her sexuality. Yet again, after a moment or two of her story a twist came to the tale. Just as it did in Chapter 4 at the beginning of her story, she told me she was just your average little Catholic girl in parochial school, quickly going on to admit she had been the victim of incest by her father, been beaten by her alcoholic mother, and had became a teenage prostitute. Later, after leaving the convent she returned to the lifestyle to support herself. Ann said
Oh yes, I remember masturbating all the time.
I think I was pretty
average. I remember when I was about ten and starting to masturbate,
feeling a little weird about it at first. The other thing that had
happened when I was a kid was my mother would make me wear a rolled up
diaper and put it in my underpants and say it was because I might wet or
something, this was until I was about six or seven. She always bragged
about how we were all trained so early so this didn't make sense. The
implication was that I was hurting myself down there. So that at 10
when I started to masturbate, it felt strange at first because somehow
I'd been given the message that I was hurting myself real bad down there.
As in previous Chapters, I noted that Ann spoke about having done “the act” and thought she was quite “average;” yet there remained the absence of pleasure and a sense of struggle with the perceived damage done to her by the messages from her mother. Those were the stories from women who self reported being relatively comfortable with their self-pleasuring. The majority had a very different message and here I quote from a cross section of those stories.
Of all the women who admitted masturbating, the one who had the most profound disturbance with it was Ursula. Having any sexual identity at all was problematic for this woman. Yet at the age of 75 she struggled to come to terms with her Catholic childhood and traumas suffered. Most troubling to her at the time of our interview was the inability to completely control her urge to self-pleasure. She said
Masturbation created a great fear with me.
I felt I was damned. I
had no understanding of sexuality. I thought sexuality was abominable,
it was taboo, it was dirty. I have tried to live asexually, my life as
a complete celibate. I was 19 when I started having orgasms in my sleep
and I knew how it could happen, it happened about six times a year
before I went in the convent. During my time in the convent it happened
once and I thought I was going to die of shame. Now it happens about
eight times a year. It happens when there is a build up of pressure in
my life and I feel very stressed, then it happens. At one time I went
six months without it happening and I thought, that's it, I'm free. Now
I believe I have to deal with my sexuality and if I have a desire, if
something happens I should not feel damn guilty because it's happened
because it's my body, I don't want to hurt myself or anyone. The
pattern of masturbation when it happens to me is when I get so busy
running around for friends doing this and doing that, for maybe a whole
week. It doesn't happen all the time but it's one pattern, it's one
instance where the desire will come, then it's like an arousal.
Suddenly after two or three weeks of horrendous pressure of being busy,
I find myself home and I rest. I know now this time is for me, I get a
movie, I have a drink and I rest and suddenly there is like a physical
explosion. I've asked friends about arousal and so have discovered
lately how it affects me. Another thing that happens is I go to bed,
I've absolutely no desire or anything, I never, ever, go to bed with the
thought of masturbating, because basically masturbating for me is still
wrong, but I don't want to indulge in it, I don't want to make it a
habit. I go to bed I have no desire, but I cannot sleep, I toss to the
right and left, I have an agitation which is absolutely unbearable, but
no sexual desire, nothing. But then finally after tossing around for
about an hour and jumping around I think the only way to get rid of it
is by masturbating, masturbation brings quietness and I go to sleep.
Then those wicked priests who told me in confession, “Go, Go and wet
yourself, [shower] don't think of it, go and take a walk, it's
asinine.” I don't think when I have a sexual desire it makes me a pig.
I was called pig for so long in my life, but I don't think that
anymore. It's just physical, it's like a mechanism, but I still go to
confession, because in my prayer life I want to be pure before God, but
pure what is pure? But I know I want to please God, I know if I went to
God and tell him God it happened to me again but I don't want it but
it's here it's like a need. Only one time at confession when I said I
come to confession but I don't think I can feel guilty, the priest said,
“Then why do you confess it.” A Jesuit Father I met on a retreat told
me, “but everybody masturbates.” Another priest said “How low can you
fall?” “This damn Catholic Church, I've met wonderful priests speaking
of God's love, but the last priest wasn't one of them.
Quite a number of the women discussed how priests dealt with the issue of masturbation. There was a wide variance in the priests’ responses. Officially the Catholic Church, as Sipe indicates (1990, 1996), maintains its abhorrence for masturbation. Empirical research was studied for a report to the Catholic Theological Society of America (1977, p.77) the findings in the report on masturbation [although mainly positive findings were quoted] led to an indecisive conclusion that “no ethical position is compelled by the empirical data.” I will continue to include data collected on the impact of priests’ advice and counseling with regard to masturbation as it appears in the transcriptions.
Very few women spoke about fantasy. Kate said she had a lot of sexual thoughts and feelings, mostly for the parents of the children she taught, or for the priests. She said,
I would fantasize sometimes but not a lot.
I just figured it
wasn't part of my life, it wasn't going to be part of my life. It made
me happy to feel sexual feelings. I didn't think it was wrong or
anything. I just thought it wasn't going to be part of my life. I got
a tremendous amount of pleasure out of masturbation, and a tremendous
amount of guilt. I thought I'd discovered something nobody else ever
knew. I never talked about it. I kept thinking, how can you stand to
sin? For this I'm going to go to hell - I don't think so! This isn't
separating me from God! I confessed it when I was in my 20s, when I was
in the convent, never when I was a kid. I don't know what made me
confess it. I felt like it had been a secret and I was really no longer
ashamed of it when I confessed it. I still felt it was not right to do,
but I wasn't afraid any more and so that made it okay to talk
about it. I only confessed it once, to a wonderful priest who
I thought would not judge me, or condemn me at all. He didn't.
He said that he was a double sinner, which was really sweet. When
I entered I stopped masturbating the whole time I was in formation.
But then when I started teaching I began again, that's when I felt really
guilty. I used to say well I'm not with a partner or anything but I could
satisfy myself, which was real nice. Women in my order were real
comfortable talking about feelings and sexuality. I don't know if this
was part of my leaving but I was real comfortable talking about
masturbation and sexual relationships, having intercourse. It wasn't a
taboo subject any more. I just felt way more comfortable with sex
because I was a nun, isn't that weird? In the context of religious life,
it was something I grew to appreciate even more and respect more.
The very word “masturbation” elicited discomfort for many of the women. Lisa was one of them. Her memories from childhood experiences were so clear, one can easily understand her reluctance to accept the connotations of sin her adult world would later put on this experience to sully the pleasure of her memories.
When I think of masturbation, it equals sin.
Oh yes, I do hate
that word. I remember when I was seven or eight years old, I must have
been experiencing orgasm, I did not know what to call it. I would hold
my crotch and jump up and down and I would get these wonderfully
pleasurable feelings that I now know must have been orgasms. At the
time I had no idea what I was doing. It wasn't like direct manipulation
to my clitoris or anything, it was kind of a general feeling that just
filled my entire body. It was an orgasmic feeling almost in its purity
that's the only way I can describe it. I was experiencing it as a child
and I felt it from the tip of my toes to the top of my head. The
orgasms I have now are pleasurable and they're wonderful but, my memory
of what that feeling was like as a young child, I have not experienced
as an adult. All that I can think of is that it was pure pleasure
without any guilt. Something changed; I don't know when it changed,
when I began to feel guilt. Throughout my teenage years I definitely
masturbated, I remember feeling guilty about it. I can't imagine
speaking to my mother about it, but I remember her saying to me “If you
can't decide if something is a sin or not, just confess it, say to the
priest, I think I committed a sin against the 6th Commandment” [thou
shalt not kill]. I think about the repertoire of my conversation with
the priest in confession, Father, I disobeyed my mother, I talked back,
and I think I committed a sin against the 6th commandment. The priest
would always say “If you're not sure then it's not a sin.” I always
felt that covered it. When I was in the convent I came to the point
where I knew it was not wrong. I remember talking to a priest about
masturbation and he just set my mind at ease about it. It was like
“It's a very natural thing, go for it, take care of yourself, no big
deal.” I remember feeling very nervous talking to him about it, but it
was like “This is natural-what’s the big deal?”
Lisa's story illustrates beautifully the innocent experimentation of the child and the misinterpretation without true knowledge of the parent. Of interest here is how her mother counseled her to confess a sin against such an inappropriate commandment. Yet reflecting back to historical evidence that masturbation ultimately equaled death, the mother may simply have been passing on misinformation in her own interpretation. As important as the mother's comments were, perhaps of more alarm was the reaction of the priest when she attempted to confess the “sin.” No information was offered to clarify the child's true concerns. However, later in life she still felt compelled to “test the waters” to see what the official thinking would be. Significantly she says “He set my mind at ease about it”, even though she had just said she had come to the point of knowing it was not wrong, the implication here being that she still felt on some level that it was a bad thing to do.
Margaret, already traumatized by incest, found the experience impacted her self-pleasuring also. I asked did the incest reduce her natural tendencies to touch herself? She replied “Oh sure, sure” I continued to ask if she had recovered and how this impacted her masturbation presently? She grimaced. I said, “you don't like that word?”
You know what, I used to do that as a kid because
there used to be
some stress relief, if nothing else, in that. I always felt so guilty
afterwards. I used to think this is a terrible thing to do. I never even
understood why I wanted to do it. I would do it and wonder why. As a
little kid I'd been so used to being stimulated, I can see that now. In
high school I used to do that very infrequently, maybe twice a year. In
the convent for seven years I didn't do it but five times because it was
still, to me, something that was very wrong. Also nobody said it was
okay. I think maybe if someone had said this was normal and okay, I still
would probably not have believed them, but it would not have been such a
bad thing. I don't know at what point in my life it became okay. I never
felt right about it. I remember when I was in therapy they asked me “What
do you do when you masturbate?” I said, “I never do that.” I think it
was never anything I felt good about, even as an adult. I would wonder if
it was worth all the guilt afterwards. I think it was also a reminder of
being a kid, it was just one more thing, so I hated that part of it too.
Margaret remained extremely conflicted where her self-pleasuring was concerned. She was, however, open to talk about it and felt she could explore the issue with friends. This should help overcome the last vestiges of fear and guilt whose genesis lies in the incest she suffered as a four-year-old. That experience was compounded by a sex negative punitive religion.
Lua Xochitl had lived a life of self-imposed chastity for 30 years, 12 of those years as a professed nun. She denied ever having had sexual contact with male or female nor had she ever attempted self-pleasure. This lady enthralled me for four hours with her life history and future plans. A major milestone in her life was the first time she ever masturbated. However, she paints a picture with words to describe the significance,
I went to Catholic School. My entertainment
in school came from
sports and the Glee Club, but in terms of pleasuring myself, absolutely
not. Very Catholic, very Christian, very fucked up! It takes a long
time to un-learn those lies and that behavior. What is Christianity?
It's a lot of guilt, a lot of fear, and a tad of love. I was 18 years old
and a very naive innocent girl. I was raised with the energy of faith
and I believed in the church and the Christ and definitely in Mary.
When I entered religious life I entered with that innocence and that
faith. I had such a load of fear that I probably cut off my body from
my neck down, slowly, myself, and when I went into the convent it was
probably blessed and sanctified. When I think of my sexuality as a
young maiden, it was pretty much dormant. From 1955 to 1968 I was
pretty much dead from the neck down, my body was dormant. My intellect
was juiced in the classroom; I was a natural teacher. When people ask
me why I stayed so long in the convent I have to say because of the
teaching. In 68 I went on a weekend workshop. That was the weekend
when all the institutions in my life were shattered. That's church,
Christianity, the government. That's family, the presidency, that's
everything. What's remarkable for me is that I felt totally good about
it. This weekend was the beginning of the unlearning of the lie. What
happened that weekend was that people who were much more knowledgeable
and aware of what was happening on the planet and in society were
holding up the contradictions to us. Part of the weekend dealt with
sexuality and connecting how sexual repression then makes for an
oppressive society in which we live. By the winter of ‘68, I was
sleeping with nothing on, no night coif or gown. I remember the first
time I felt my own body with my own hands. I remember as I've gone back
to that moment laying on my bed and saying a prayer to the mother and I
said, Help me to know my body, help me to have joy in my body, and I
began to masturbate. Just to feel my body, just to feel my hands on my
body, I had never done that in my whole life, I was 31 years old. It
was wonderful, it was a coming home, and I remember not addressing the
mother as Virgin Mary any more but Earth Mother. I later found out in
saying Earth Mother that I was connecting to my indigenous roots because
that's how indigenous people in this country speak to the Mother. I
orgasmed and my whole body vibrated, I had no recollection of ever
feeling that before, other than when I would see the colors of flowers.
When I was very little I would see the oranges and reds of flowers and
my panties would get wet, and I'd get punished for it. There was a real
fear of bodily pleasure. That message was very well inculcated. When I
masturbated for the first time, what came back to me was a flash of that
little girl who would see flowers, purples and oranges and reds and get
wet. I must have masturbated all night long. It was wonderful. Also
what I think I felt was the power, all mine for myself and on my
behalf. I didn't need anyone else to do it for me. That was quite
something because I had a very negative self-image. I do remember that
at one point, leading myself up to orgasm, I hesitated before I came and
stopped and I saw the light. I realize now as I go back to that moment
that I was unknowingly taking myself into a shamanic space, where you go
between the worlds. It was quite something. I would take myself up to
peak, not peak and just hang there. I would see images of water and yoni
and then I'd see the light. I would do that sometimes 20 times a
night before finally allowing myself to orgasm. I think what probably
happened was that I had become politically conscious, plus the
experience of being sexually my own self-pleasurer. There was no way
anyone was going to get anywhere with that one. I said fuck them all,
this is my body and I'm claiming it. I knew that when I masturbated I
went into a place of great joy, ecstasy, and I had been taught that when
you know the Christ and when you meditate that some of the saints had
ecstasy, like Teresa of Avila. I thought, she must have masturbated and
we've never been told, maybe she did. I wonder what Mary was doing at
the Annunciation? Hey I really do believe women at that time were wiser
with their bodies, that's my feeling. I think Mary knew her body really
well, that's certainly not what I was told and it's certainly not what's
held up to the Latina young woman. She is the Virgin, she is docile,
she is submissive, fuck that shit she knew her body!
Lua Xochitl was the second woman to mention Teresa of Avila in a sexual, spiritual capacity. Elizabeth showed me a picture of Teresa's face, and said this to her was a representation of spiritual, sexual ecstasy. She said she believed that it was truly possible to achieve the same level of physical pleasure on a mystical plane.
The majority of women waited to be asked about their masturbatory history, and often displayed discomfort with the topic. In some cases I waited until close to the end of the interview before asking about this to see if the topic would be addressed spontaneously; it was not. This was the one area most women avoided. Caroline's story is representative of those who received repressive messages in a religious setting. Her story has its own twist, which adds a new element to an already interesting life.
I never masturbated before going to the convent,
no. I know I was
so closed down and all the messages we were ever given were always
negative. I remember going to Senior Retreat and we had a question
box. One of the questions must have been on sexual arousal because the
priest said in a very rough voice, “All right now listen up, I'm going
to answer this question. I will answer it once so pay attention because
I am not going to speak to this subject again.” Then again I thought,
“Oh my God, are we even supposed to hear this?” He went through this
very clinical account of what sexual arousal was and I thought “well who
wants that anyway?” It was always something that someone else did. If
you wanted to be good you could never do this, this sex thing is in
another realm. So it was like I was scared to death. I didn't know
what the “IT” was, but I knew I wasn't going to do it. The older I got
the more I felt like I was strange and different. It's like you're
supposed to know this, other people do this, yet it was like fogginess.
The first time I masturbated was in the convent. I read a book and
there was something in it about masturbation and I thought I'd try it.
I was stoned, and it was very powerful and it took me someplace else.
But the next day I was scared, I thought I'd done something wrong. I
did get over that but it took me a long time. It's interesting in the
context of being with a partner it's easier, but it's always out of
synchrony and if there's an inkling of getting turned on I need to smoke
dope. So there's all this conflict going on because I don't want to
smoke dope but I want to be sexual. I still think there's a shame that
I still can't get to that place. I feel, as hard as I've worked I'm
still blocked. I wonder what would our sexual expression be in our
society if there were no should's or should nots?
As previously mentioned, these are very complex stories. Caroline experienced conflicts on various levels throughout her life. Her love map was forever imprinted at this stage of her life when she needed dope in order to be sexual with herself for the first time and reach orgasm (See Money, 1986). As noted in Chapter Six this pattern remained a source of conflict for her. Mary simply dismissed the subject of masturbation with one sentence when she said, “I'm not a person who's done a lot sexually with masturbation or anything. It just didn't appeal to me, or given me any charge. I know it does for some people.” She did not deny ever masturbating, but by the tone of her voice and the set of her body language I knew not to proceed with the questioning. This topic made her extremely uncomfortable.
So far as sexuality is concerned I don't remember
anything but old
childish things. I don't remember anything about masturbation, anything
about anything except my mother kept saying I was a late bloomer as far as
developing. I wasn't nearly aware of anything when I went in the
convent. I turned 18 the day after I went in.
Sophia told me that she had no sexual awareness until after she got married. She was married to the same man for 25 years and had never masturbated. To her knowledge, her husband did not masturbate either. It was after her husband's death two years ago that she began to explore the area of self-pleasuring at the encouragement of a male friend. I asked initially about her early experience and she told me, “No never. It never occurred to me. I must have been naive or something, no, no, but I've been learning and I've been reading.” I asked for clarification, because she was a very sensuous women in her dress and her physical appearance, “Let me understand, you had never in your life, up until two years ago ever self-pleasured?” She answered
No, ah, ah, never. I just didn't need
it. Why should I? After my
husband died, a friend took me to an adult shop. Well, looking at those
vibrators in the store, I was just shocked. I'd honestly never seen
anything like that. When I was married we never discussed anything like
that, I don't think I even knew how or even thought of it as something
people did, never.
Stephanie, a quietly spoken mother of two teenagers, had been a nun for 10 years. She left her community and married within three years. She had no sexual experience prior to entering. She denied knowledge of masturbation until after she entered. In response to the question, “Did you ever self-pleasure?” She said
Once when I was a postulant I did, but not
a lot. I worried that it
was sinful and I shouldn't be doing it and shouldn't be thinking of this
area so I just stuffed it, stuffed it all away. I didn't look at it and
every time I felt like it I stuffed it deeper. I was 18 or 19 and in the
next 10 years I thought of it but I didn't do it because I thought it
would lead me out [of the convent]. I didn't want to disappoint anyone
and so I didn't want to even toy with anything that might lead me out the
door. So I just shoved it away.
June entered the convent at age 16, she left after less than
a year and was married by 18. She never had any experience of masturbation
until after she married. There was a period in her early marriage
when she masturbated often but felt very guilty because she thought it
detracted from the normal relations with her husband and therefore stopped
all self-pleasuring. She thinks in retrospect that her feeling was
that it was wrong to have personal sexual gratification apart from her
Pamela responded to my question about self-pleasure with an emphatic
No, I never have, I don't know how to do it,
but sometimes if I take
an afternoon nap I'll have an orgasm, a physical feeling. I don't do
anything, don't touch myself or anything, it just happens. I don't do
anything. I just fall asleep and then Oh God, it's so exciting, and it's
wonderful. Sometimes in the morning I'll dream and then it will happen, I
guess that's what an orgasm is, this great sensation.
An interesting footnote to this segment is Pamela's suggestion for herself, that she should perhaps visit a clinic, the reason being, “Charles has tried to do everything with me and nothing works. He's tried but nothing works for me.” I asked if she thought she continued to be anxious about sexuality? Her answer to my question was, “I don't know. Now I want more of a sexual life. [She told me previously they have “sex” two or three times a week but that she does not always orgasm]. “I never thought of that before. I want to learn more about sex. I read a lot about things and Charles will ask what I'm reading and I wonder, yes I need to learn about having orgasms and stuff.“
The implication I read into this statement was twofold; (1) Pamela defers her sexual needs to her husband and (2) Pamela isn't really sure if she is indeed climaxing. I feel self-pleasuring will be a very important component to her understanding her own needs and reaching the levels of sexual maturity and personal pleasure she seeks. A final comment from Pamela will I'm sure speak for many when she said
Having grown up in the Catholic Church, all
the bad things they say
about sex that I don't believe, must be inside of me. Yes it's still
there, but it makes me pissed off. After all these years it makes me
pissed off and I want to learn more about sex and I want to look into
sexuality classes so that I can be more of a sexual person.
Alison spoke in Chapter 6 about her expectations of those who take vows of chastity and a promise of celibacy to live up to those promises by denial of all sexual acts. I asked her how she understood her own self-pleasuring in the context of what she had just said. She answered,
I don't know, I don't know. I didn't
see any conflict at the time,
nor do I now but I expect my priests to keep their vow of celibacy and my
sister to keep their vow of chastity. So maybe I'm confused as to what
entails keeping it. Did I break my vow by self-pleasuring? Would I have
been breaking it if I had gone off and had intercourse with a man? Did I
break it when I masturbated? Where's the line, is there a line? Is it
black, is it white, is it gray, and every shade in-between? If religious
life has any value, what is the value of religious life? If religious
life is still bound up in taking vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience,
and if that's the core of religious life, then I'm still black and white
on those issues.
The confusion Alison expresses had no conclusion. Although she admits to masturbating on a regular basis she now sees a conflict when it comes to avowed celibates acting out their sexuality. She does not define masturbation as a sex act however.
In answer to the question “Do you think your Catholic education
affected your view of sexuality positively, negatively, fearfully or not
at all?” The responses were,
|BEFORE %||DURING %||AFTER %|
|Not at all||21||32||35|
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