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Many of us remember our first time. Maybe you were in the bathroom, and you got curious when you were supposed to be brushing your teeth. Or maybe you were at your grandparents' house and stumbled upon an old Sears catalog in the attic.
I'll divulge my own tawdry circumstances as long as I don't have to justify them: It was the middle of the night in my parents' basement, during an encore broadcast of MTV Unplugged featuring Alanis Morissette.
When you think about it, it's strange that we would remember. Masturbation is a banal activity, but the first time still seems like a monumental revelation. What's crazy is no one teaches us how to do it—and we figure it out anyway. We need people to teach us almost everything else: reading and writing, walking and talking, even pooping and peeing in toilets takes years of practice. But masturbation? As I remember overhearing a wise woman from the 1990s once say, "You live, you learn."
Nearly all of us do it, by the way. The Merck Manual Overview of Sexuality estimates 97 percent of men and 80 percent of women masturbate, which means somewhere between zero and 12.5 percent of humans are less ashamed of lying than they are of masturbating. Masturbation, quite simply, is as ubiquitous as sunshine, and to rebuff its existence is to blot out the sun with your free hand.
Culturally, we treat masturbation like an unsightly mole: We know it's there, but the only polite thing to do is to not talk about it. A lot of that denialism stems from religious attitudes toward sexuality. As a young boy raised in Bible-belt evangelism, my youth pastor taught me once (and only once) that masturbation was OK—but only if you didn't have sexual thoughts while you did it. Oddly, I don't recall a single young soul in Sunday School raising a hand to ask how it was possible to masturbate unsexually. But I do remember thinking to myself, "Challenge accepted, Pastor Chad."
Public school didn't offer much useful guidance, either. My high school health class was taught by a wrestling coach called "Flex." Flex was about as comfortable teaching sex ed as I would feel teaching a hot yoga class—that is to say, not very. His lesson plan involved an oversaturation of verbatim readings from the textbook, meaning Flex literally taught human sexuality "by the book." Unfortunately, our textbook didn't dedicate much, if any, space to masturbation. In fact, I would be surprised if the word even earned a spot in the book's glossary of terms.
While I'm grateful to Pastor Chad and Flex the wrestling coach for their strained insights on personal eroticism, I can't help but wonder what a more forthright openness could have done to prevent years of shame. What's more, I worry that little has improved for kids these days. The stigma of self-pleasure still exists in contemporary American society, despite pretty broad acknowledgement of the horny elephant in the room.
Speaking of burdensome societal stigmas, being alone on Valentine's Day is enough to make anyone feel like a pariah. But just as with masturbation, being single is neither unusual nor unacceptable. There's nothing inherently wrong with either. So as a means of reclaiming a seemingly spiteful and exclusionary holiday, this year I'd like to propose an alternative custom: If you don't feel much like going out, stay in. Cook yourself a nice dinner, light some candles, loosen up with a generous glass of merlot and put on some romantic music—perhaps some Alanis unplugged if it suits the mood. And if things are going well enough, I suggest taking you and yours down into the basement and forgetting everything Flex never taught you.