“she only does it in the car”

how normalizing infant masturbation can prevent needless medical procedures

Emily Nagoski

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There’s this fascinating little body of research on the misdiagnosis of female infant masturbation, most often as epilepsy.

Parents will bring their baby daughter to the doctor with video of the child having what they think is a seizure or paralysis or abdominal pain.

“It only happens in the car seat,” they tell the doctor. They’re puzzled and worried.

What’s actually happening is that the little girl is rubbing her vulva against the straps of the car seat, and having orgasms.

In the best case scenario, the medical provider looks at the video, does basic health checks, and assures the parents that the baby is perfectly normal and healthy. The provider says, “It’s okay, your child is rubbing her genitals on the car seat and experiencing pleasure. She’s fine.”

And the parents say, “That’s awesome, we were afraid she was having seizures and it turns out she’s having orgasms. That’s both funny and a relief!”

But the best case scenario doesn’t always happen. The behavioral “symptoms” may be diagnosed as everything from allergies to seizures.

And even the diagnostic process itself isn’t always risk-free — in one case it included “intravenous pyelography [x-ray of the bladder with contrast dye] and cystoscopy-vaginoscopy-proctoscopy [inserting tubes in the urinary tract, vagina, and rectum to look for problems] under general anaesthesia.”

That’s where the infant masturbation research becomes very, very serious. Given the potentially traumatic consequences of any medical procedure, especially in childhood — even under the best, most caring of circumstances — exposure to invasive and unnecessary medical procedures puts a child at risk for serious and long-lasting problems… whereas the masturbation itself is completely, 100%, utterly normal and healthy and risk-free.

So.

How can you tell it’s masturbation and not, for example, epilepsy?

One of the most important symptoms is that the child may be stopped during gratification if distracted and also shows anger and annoyance when interrupted.

That’s familiar enough, right? Like if you interrupted her in the middle of playing with her feet, she could be stopped if distracted and might show annoyance at the interruption.

And what is the best next step in “treating” masturbation — or “gratification dysfunction,” as it’s formally known? According to researchers:

[R]eassurance seems to be the most effective management. (emphasis mine)

Reassurance for the parents, that is.

Reassurance that their child is healthy. Reassurance that she’s normal, that her body should be a place where she feels safe and free to explore, that her body belongs to her to do with as she pleases.

Sex education begins with parents, and it begins with emotional attitudes, not facts. It begins with parents’ feelings about their own bodies, their own sexualities, even before they have kids.

In general, here’s what parents need to believe about their own sexualities, so that they can teach their kids:

  1. Pleasure is healthy and normal. Confidence and joy are healthy and normal. You are safe inside your body.
  2. My body belongs to me and your body belongs to you, and we each get to decide who is allowed to touch our bodies, and when and how. Period.

If everyone in the world began with those as their starting point, just imagine what the world would be like.

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Emily Nagoski

sex educator, author, researcher, and activist. also: nerd. http://go.ted.com/emilynagoski and @emilynagoski