Washington You know how they used to tell us that masturbation would do horrible things to us? They were right. Mention the word, and we go blind and crazy.
Remember Joycelyn Elders, President Clinton's first surgeon general, a physician from Arkansas? She had the audacity, when asked, to acknowledge that there is such a thing as masturbation, that some people engage in it, and it's OK.
That was the end of her.
Now we have Naomi Wolf, a young woman who has been paid (exorbitantly) to tell Al Gore how to be more assertive and manly. Her advice seems to consist mostly of wardrobe talk (wear tan suits) and silly stuff about alpha and beta males.
But what really sets everyone off is the fact that Wolf has dared talk about masturbation. The Washington Post's breathless revelation of Wolf's counseling of Gore barely gets her name out before adding, "Wolf, who has written extensively on women as sex objects and advocates teaching teen-agers masturbation as an alternative to intercourse ..."
The AP managed to tell us in its lead that in Wolf's latest book, she argued "that schools should teach such things as masturbation because it is more realistic than abstinence and safer than sexual intercourse." (Such things as masturbation?)
But Time, which broke the story, did it best: "In her 1997 book 'Promiscuities,' Wolf outlines an alternative curriculum for sex education, which includes a potentially explosive prescription for oral sex and mutual masturbation," said the magazine coyly -- thereby igniting the explosion.
Maybe this is the most important thing to say about Wolf and her latest book, maybe it isn't. A Newsweek reviewer described the book, when it came out a couple of years ago, as "an attempt to figure out what sex means to women by investigating how girls learn about it. ... Despite the fact that American culture is overwhelmed with the imagery of women as sexual prey, it's still forbidden, (Wolf) contends, for women to speak in their own voices about their own sex lives."
But the notion that someone might advocate teaching our kids to masturbate is so titillating that we'll react to it every time, elevating it in news value over everything else -- even if it's not quite what the person said.
Elders' reflections on this phenomenon are instructive. Consider this July 1995 story in The Capital Times of Madison, Wis., several months after the masturbation brouhaha drove her from office:
"Asked specifically about critics who claimed ... she was advocating detailed 'how-to' courses on masturbation and other sexual practices in the public schools, Dr. Elders reiterated her belief that her critics don't have the first idea what health and sex education are all about. 'I don't think it's necessarily important to be that explicit. I feel that God gave us the know-how and desires and all of that. Nobody needs to be taught how-to courses.'
"'What it's really about is being able to have the facts and being able to make the judgments and make the decisions,' she said. 'That's what sexuality is all about. More goes on above the neck than goes on below the belt.'"
That we seem to abandon our "above-the-neck" functions when this word is uttered is all the more odd if you consider the world we live in. Everything else having to do with sex we obsessively film, advertise, babble about, insinuate, agonize over and generally soak ourselves in -- to the detriment of nuance, romance, charm, grace, seemliness and, indeed, sexuality.
Amid all this immoderation, it's masturbation that makes us blush? Every year, almost 1 million teen-age girls -- including 10 percent of American girls 15 to 19 -- become pregnant, the Alan Guttmacher Institute said in September. Eighty percent didn't plan to. Happily, the numbers are going down. With so high a level of sexual activity (not to mention so high a level of ignorance), why would so benign a thing as masturbation be the matter of which we dare not speak?
There are organizations galore ready to help us talk to our kids about sex. The Web offers us, for example, reasonable-sounding advice from two groups -- the Kaiser Family Foundation and Children Now -- under the intriguing heading: "Kids Ready to Talk About Today's Tough Issues Before Their Parents Are: Sex, AIDS, Violence, Drugs, and Alcohol" (www.talkingwithkids.org).
The one thing these two groups -- and we -- don't seem ready to talk about is masturbation.
"We will look foolish in the light of history," says Elders. We already do.
-- Geneva Overholser is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.