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In 1994, America's second female—and first African-American Surgeon General, Dr. Jocelyn Elders, was forced by the Clinton administration to resign her position after suggesting that children should be educated about masturbation as a safe and natural sexual alternative. The recommendation was made at the height of the nation's AIDS epidemic, when thousands were dying from a terrifying disease with no known cure. But in an America where children are regularly immersed in fantastic representations of violence, candid talk about sex was still taboo.

As it turns out, the president would have been well advised to heed some of Elders' advice himself. For while the good doctor was getting real with the American public, the president was copping a feel from Monica Lewinsky—and we all know how that story ends.

Though Dr. Elders quickly faded from the American spotlight—and in 2005 remains a historical footnote to an overly sexualized Clinton administration—she is credited by many for raising the curtain on one of the world's oldest pastimes.

For something that takes up so much of our time, it has taken years for masturbation to live down its bad rap. And though we're certainly not over the hump yet, the practice no longer conjures the vivid horrific fantasies of debauchery it once did. Long gone are the days of hairy palms and blindness. Instead, fear and shame have given way to plausible deniability—a sort of "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

So where does a self-respecting narcissist go to revel in the joys of autoeroticism? Well, like most everything else these days, the Internet has breathed new life into the practice, providing a new forum for aficionados. A quick search draws nearly 30 websites dedicated to self love that offer everything from how-to instructionals and discussion boards to an examination of masturbation in film.

The Net currently hosts such domains as JackinWorld, which deems itself the "Ultimate Male Masturbation Resource", and Wankers Over 50, a site catering solely to men reaching retirement age who are apparently concerned about what to do with all that extra time on their hands. There's even Masturbation Horrors, macabre selection of masturbation gone wrong. Not for the faint of heart.

But things weren't always so.

Just ask Strokeman (aka Brian), the reigning godfather of masturbation on the Internet, and the host of two websites dedicated to the subject. What started in 1997 as Clubstroke quickly blossomed into a veritable wankers' paradise, drawing more than 50,000 unique users per day. "When I started the page, there were only two or three other sites dedicated to masturbation," says Strokeman. "As a result I had a TON of traffic right away."

Strokeman's other site, simply called Masturbation Page, provides a host of useful information on technique (perhaps you're looking to change from "old reliable" to something a bit more creative, say "the belly scratch"); dangers (on autofellatio, "WARNING: This is not possible for everyone, and you can injure yourself trying to do it"); and even references to masturbation in popular song.

M.J. Ecker, the editor of JackinWorld, says he dreams of a world where discussions about masturbation won't be limited to dirty jokes and porn movies. JackinWorld champions itself as a forum "devoted to giving people of all ages honest, straightforward, non-pornographic information about one of humankind's favorite activities."

The 39-year-old writer, who maintains the site as a side project, explains his motivation to start JackinWorld: "I remembered Dr. Elders' foiled campaign to educate about masturbation, and I put together a single page explaining how to masturbate." Like Strokeman, Ecker was surprised by the flood of interest his site generated. "Almost overnight, the e-mails started coming in and people started telling me how needed this was."

He estimates that JackinWorld now attracts 36,000 unique visitors and 100,000 page views every day. With a staff of three and sections devoted to such topics as JackinSafety and Troubleshooting, Ecker's site offers an impressive compendium of masturbation-related material. There's even a JackinLibrary and a JackinForum.

Though the Internet has certainly generated a less constricted discourse on the subject of masturbation—no doubt in part a result of its uncanny ability to bring together like-minded thinkers—it would be a mistake to assume that all this freedom is without its critics.

The Mormon Church, for one, has set about helping individuals who are concerned by their bouts of self love. Overcoming Masturbation, a self-described "Guide to Self Control" maintained by the Latter Day Saints, insists: "Masturbation is a sinful habit that robs one of the Spirit and creates guilt and emotional stress".

The author encourages young men to resist their un-Godly urges with recommendations like this one: "When the temptation to masturbate is strong, yell STOP to those thoughts as loudly as you can in your mind and then recite a pre-chosen scripture or sing an inspirational hymn".

Unfortunately, the backlash is not without precedent. Consider the mission to curb onanism in the mid- to late-1800s. Led by vehement naturalists like John Harvey Kellogg and Reverend Sylvester Graham, the movement linked all sorts of maladies—from ulcers and acne to fistula and even cancer—to the act of pleasuring one's self.

Kellogg wasn't all bad. He expounded the virtues of a high-fiber diet and is credited with being the first physician to make a link between smoking and lung cancer—a full century before it would become common knowledge. But when it came to sex, he was such a prude that it's reported he never made love to his wife.

Both Graham and Kellogg believed masturbation was a result of excess "fire" in the loins and could be curbed by implementing a highly restrictive vegetarian diet abundant in fiber-rich foods. Both men invented products that were marketed for their abilities to cool the erotic fire, and today we have corn flakes and graham crackers as a testament to their efforts.

While the days of chastity belts and granola and largely over, the subject of masturbation still hits a nerve with some Americans. JackinWorld's Ecker admits he's even received death threats, though he says things have calmed down lately.

But regardless of where we do it, how we do it, when we do it, why we do it, or if we ultimately admit to it, masturbation—like breathing, eating and pissing—is one of those unspoken human traits we all seem to share.

JackinWorld's Ecker sums up his mission: "I'd like eventually for JackinWorld to become obsolete—where basic information and misconceptions about masturbation were discussed openly, in sex-ed classes and elsewhere, and where people did not have to "admit" that they masturbate, but rather are simply assumed to do so, and have no problem discussing it. I'd like to see an end to the embarrassment and shame. We're getting there, but there's still a long way to go."


Christopher Moraff lives outside Philadelphia where he is a writer, editor and graduate student. His work has appeared in Slant-Six Magazine, One Philadelphia, Entrepreneur Magazine and various trade journals. His fiction can be found at Ausgang and his photos at Routines and Sketches.