One day in the seventh grade at my Catholic school, the youngest priest of the clergy came to talk with all the boys about puberty and sex. This was the late ’80s, in the suburbs of Philadelphia, an atmosphere thick with repression. Standing in front of a chalkboard with his arms crossed, the priest told us masturbation was “wasting the seed,” though he didn’t give us any details of what this seed was, really. Nor did he explain that our bodies, like little seed factories, were just starting to gear into production and would soon be in overdrive. Instead, he told us this seed was holy stuff, a gift from God intended for one day impregnating our wives. And he made it very clear: Masturbation was a mortal sin, the kind that sends you straight to hell.
At home, the taboo around masturbation and puberty in general was reenforced. Dad loved to joke about sex, but nothing made him stare uncomfortably at the floor in silence like the subject of masturbating. Whatever changes my body was going through—wet dreams, new sprouts of hair in unfamiliar places—I needed to keep them hidden. The same way my dad stashed porn mags under his bed, or kept XXX VHS tapes concealed in a kitchen cabinet above the stove. Or the way my mom hoarded magazines like Cosmopolitan in the drawer of her bedside table, with dogeared articles about finding things like the clitoris or G-spot. These were things I knew of, but which we never talked about. So, at the age of 13, when I got a stiffy, I did everything I could not to touch it.
Over the years, I’ve worked against these attitudes in therapy, but this is my base coat. I’ll never be totally free of them. And so, when I was in my early 30s and my partner found out she was pregnant with a baby boy, I worried I’d pass on these inhibitions and tinges of shame. Maybe he’d pick them up, like malignant radiation I was giving off, whether I wanted to or not.
More than a decade later, I’ve had the opportunity to live in a family where we think more freely about ourselves and our bodies when it comes to gender expression and to bodily pleasure. Our family vibe is cuddly, down-to-earth, and while we joke about the sometimes (OK, often) unpleasant sounds and smells our bodies emit, we also talk with frankness about sex, sexuality, pleasure, safety, and consent.
My son reached seventh grade last September. When he was full of questions about masturbation—When do people start doing it? How do you do it? What’s an orgasm like?—we phoned a longtime friend he calls his uncle. “If anyone knows about tween masturbation, it’s your uncle,” I told him. “He was obsessed.”
On speaker phone, his uncle said that was indeed true. Then he answered my son’s questions and explained that it’s OK to feel all sorts of things while masturbating. Orgasm isn’t always tops, or it doesn’t have to be anyway. The experience was like calling a sex helpline.
While in some states, schools are being forced by anti-LGBTQ bills and prudish cultural attitudes to curb this kind of discussion, my son is fortunate to receive instruction at middle school that supports our talks at home. In advisory, for instance, he was taught not just about vaginal intercourse but about oral and anal sex. And in a science unit on sex and reproduction, he learned that mutual masturbation is a low-risk sexual activity for STDs. While the repressive Catholic school environment I experienced meant my peers mocked one another about jerking off, my son’s friends laugh and talk about all the usual tweenage topics—balls, boners, boobs—without a patina of shame. (I’m happy to report that “Dee’s nuts” remains as funny today as it did 30 years ago, when I first heard it.)
Recently, when I went away on a writing retreat for a week, my son put all this talk into action. He brought himself to ejaculation on the toilet. I know this, because the first thing he did afterward was talk to his mom about it. He wanted her to know what had happened and also ask a question: It felt weird, but not great. Was that OK?
She reassured him: It’s your first time; you’ll figure out what you like and how you want to do it. Later, he called me to tell me about it, and I said the same. Go slow, I advised. And whatever feelings you’re having are OK. It’s called playing with yourself for a reason! Have fun.
A couple days later, he called again, this time to tell me that he’d masturbated a second time, too roughly. There was blood. This brought up all sorts of bodily anxiety for me, as I worried that he’d injured himself. But I tapped into my inner parent, breathing deep, being present for him. “Did you ever consider using lubrication?” I asked.
He hadn’t. Nor had he considered how imagination plays into desire. He’d been going at it like a physical challenge, rubbing and rubbing until he ejaculated. “I see it more like a dance between my body and my mind,” I said. “Arousal plays a part, not just the touching. Do you fantasize while you do it?”
At 12, he’s yet to announce what kind of person excites him and said as much directly: “I’m not sure what turns me on.”
I reminded him of how two of his favorite TV characters, Maya from Pen15 and Andrew in Big Mouth, experience desire not just for other people, but in an abstract way too, with toys or even by fantasizing about a tomato, or a pillow, or themselves. We had previously binged Big Mouth, a raunchy comedy about a group of seventh graders going through puberty. It’s filled with gross-out sex humor and ridiculous double-entendres, but there are also episodes that discuss desire, gender, body image, the rainbow of sexual expression, and more. Pen15, in which Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play themselves as eighth graders in the early aughts, helped, too. Both shows depict young people talking about pleasure, with recurring storylines about masturbation. We’d watch, laugh, and then talk about what we’d seen in ways I never did when I was a young person, with my parents or with anyone else.
I told my son that human desire is a wonderful and mysterious thing, and it’s OK to feel arousal without shame. Daydream, and see what happens.
When I arrived home from my trip, I went to the pharmacy and picked him up a tube of K-Y Jelly and scentless lotion. After school, I sat with him and explained that lube would help make masturbation more pleasant, and gentle. Try both types and see what feels best, I told him. Don’t be afraid to experiment. We looked at the graphic novel Let’s Talk About It, by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan, for illustrative tips on how to touch his penis. (That’s when the idea for this essay first came to me—an essay which both my son and partner have read—as we need more, not less, straight-up talk about how to discuss masturbation with our kids.)
A few nights later, before bed, my son called me into his room. “Dad, if I seemed emotional earlier today, it’s because I was touching myself and I had an orgasm.”
He covered his face with his hands, cheeks red, though he had this big goofy grin on his face. “Why are you covering up?” I asked, remembering my own discomfort around this subject at his age. “Do you feel ashamed, or embarrassed?”
“Embarrassed,” he admitted. But then he said he felt proud of himself too.
“You should,” I told him. “Did it feel good?”
He gave me a pure smile.
I told him then, I hope you always feel such joy with yourself. It’s a beautiful thing sometimes, being human, having not just a mind and a heart but a body to enjoy.
Because of all the bullshit baggage I’d been saddled with, inhabiting pleasure, both by myself and with a partner, has been a challenge my whole life. I wish I could say it’s been healing to witness my son blossom open-heartedly into a sexual being, but the tide hasn’t shifted just like that for me. I’m hopeful, though, that one day I’ll experience such full-body joy without inhibition.
In the meantime, I’ll be there for my son as much as he wants me to, supporting him, loving him, being honest with him about whatever he wants to discuss. Trying, as much as I can, to be the adult voice of love and reason I wished I had in my life.