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Op-ed: The Decade Masturbation Burst Out of the Closet Before I Did

Op-ed: The Decade Masturbation Burst Out of the Closet Before I Did

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Before masturbation was heralded as safe sex, it was an embarrassing experiment of trial-and-error.

My family often vacationed in San Francisco, and in 1987 it finally happened: we found ourselves in the middle of the Castro District, sitting at a long, red light. At 23, I hadn't yet visited this most famous of all gay ghettos, but I certainly recognized where we were.

I wasn't out to my family at the time and I pondered the delicacy of the situation at hand: Being so close to the mother ship, would I begin to inexplicably levitate? (I put on my seatbelt.) Would this be the moment that my parents finally put two and two together? I was hardly ready to come out to them that day, stuck in the middle of the Castro with my younger brother sitting next to me passionately sucking on a popsicle.

In any case, my mother was busy admiring all the beautiful drag queens on parade and their fashionable ensembles. My father admired the large, gleaming pyramids of empty beer bottles everywhere, and the happy-go-lucky demeanor of the men and women surrounding them. I privately wondered if anyone would somehow recognize me and wave. I donned my sunglasses and slid down into the seat. My ancient, slow-burning paranoia gladly merged with the brazen conflagration surrounding us.

A young man in a skeleton mask approached our car. He belonged to a group called ACT UP, and he was giving out condoms and scented lube samples as part of a safe sex campaign. My mother graciously lowered her window and obliged, though while choosing a scented lube, she couldn't decide between lavender and fresh-baked sugar cookie. This was all too much for my father, who impatiently revved the engine a few times in a "thank you, buh-bye" gesture. Eventually the light turned green and we were off.

As we made our way up the street, my brother broke the silence: "Our teacher gave us condoms, but he told us it's safest just to masturb--"

"Shush!" My father abruptly cut him off, shaking his head in disbelief.

I too was a little shocked by my brother's forthrightness, but he was part of the new era: an era in which speaking up saved lives and "silence," as the saying used to go, equaled death. I had grown up in the '70's, when nobody really talked about intimate issues, and said "silence" invariably equaled a stiff drink! I wasn't used to being enlightened about lubricants, masturbation, and condom use by people on the streets armed with bullhorns, in front of my parents, before I'd even come out of the closet.

Man, had the times changed ...

Back when I was a teen, the only lube one could get hold of was Vaseline; there was nothing premium, scented, or hypoallergenic available. Masturbation used to be something no one dared talk about, unless it was around the dinner table, and then only in enigmatic terms. My mother usually initiated the conversation: "John, you're leaving a lot of Vaseline all over the tub. Your grandmother's going to slip and hurt herself if you don't wipe everything down better."

My poor mother. Her Vaseline -- that dusty jar in the closet -- must have lasted 20 years before I got hold of it: aqua blue, hand-blown glass, and these days it would probably be valuable on eBay. Suddenly she's buying a jar a month. What must she have thought?

You young people laugh; you've got hip moms. They've read books. Masturbation is natural; it's safe and fun! But back when I was a teen, such "stimulation" was a crime and my trail of evidence didn't just end in the bathroom: Police tape was wrapped around my bedroom as well. My detective mother -- always gathering evidence but never making an arrest -- liked to put purple sheets on my bed. Before mothers had access to over-the-counter Luminol, purple sheets did the job.

I recall a particularly disastrous "romantic evening for one." I was channel-surfing on my little black-and-white bedroom TV when I stumbled across a college wrestling match. Back then, wrestling was the closest thing we had to hot male-on-male action, and for me, their singlets never failed to inspire a doublet. After carefully moving my purple sheets out of harm's way, I settled in and got down to business.

But wait: Did I hear footsteps? Is my doorknob turning? Why am I lying here naked, watching wrestling on TV??

Two quick raps of knuckle and the door cracked open. My father's head came into peripheral view. To hell with laundry-fresh! I grabbed my purple sheet and yanked it back over my nakedness as quickly as I could, but alas, with too much force. I overshot my body and even the bed. It was like witnessing the catastrophic fail of a plump drag queen's fabulous but overtaxed spandex ensemble: We watched in collective, slow-motion horror as the liberated sheet took wing before settling into the far corner of my room, out of reach. My father said nothing and closed the door, and it wasn't long before I heard liquor bottles rattling in the cabinet down the hall.

I had never heard of a sex toy. It would be a decade, at least before they found a respectable home in the Self Pleasure or Die sections of widely disseminated safe-sex guides. Indeed, before devices like Fleshlights could be shipped to the door with a click of a mouse, one had to use whatever was available around the house: vacuum hoses, hollowed-out banana peels, Kenwood speaker bass ports ... you get it.

Being a nascent romantic, I lit candles and attempted to deflower my bed. I cut a hole in the top of my mattress, then doused a sponge in lotion and tucked it inside the opening, but did my makeshift mangina work? Unfortunately, no. My flat, gargantuan mattress hardly afforded the leverage necessary to properly execute a horizontal mambo. In the end, I was reduced to vigorously bouncing myself up and down on the bed, rigid and spread-eagle like a blow-up doll possessed, my feathered, overly hair-sprayed '70s hair flopping forward and back like wings with each blissful impact.

For the first couple of seconds the feeling was exquisite, but after a few more violent plunges into the rough sponge I felt as though my nether regions had burst into flames. The sudden pain and sensitivity was shocking. I don't think a facial expression has changed so quickly -- from bliss to acid-bath contortions --since that Nazi looked into the Ark of the Covenant after Harrison Ford told him not to. I had a rash that lasted for weeks. Vowing to never so much as look in the direction of a sponge again, I flipped the mattress over to hide the hole, eventually forgetting about it altogether, and that was that ... or so I'd thought.

A few years after my family's fateful trip to San Francisco, my makeshift mangina made one last appearance, while my father was helping me move. It was the first time he'd ever seen the infamous hole up close: unbeknownst to me, it was banging him in the face as we wrestled the mattress up a flight of stairs. We flopped the bedding down on the floor and there it was, staring up at us. OMG, how could I have so quickly forgotten my torrid, reckless night with the Sealy Posturepedic?

I remember preparing for awkward silence but perhaps this time, things would be different. It was a new era, even for him. He had read books. Masturbation is natural; it's safe and fun. As we stood there in the unfurnished room, at opposite ends of my wounded mattress, I figured that he was recounting all the helpful chapters he had read, desperately trying to figure out which topic best gave him the wisdom to gracefully handle this particularly delicate situation. What disarming statement would he come up with to diffuse the moment?

As he began to speak, I shook my head and sighed: "Yes, Dad, there's a six-pack in the fridge."

JOHN DANIEL lives in Sacramento. He is neither a writer nor a comedian, just a witness to the stunning, often bewildering changes regarding homosexuality the last 30 years.

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