by Beth Murry
I stood at the end of the diving board looking down into the blue water of the deep end. The distance between my feet and the surface of the water was much farther than I imagined it would be. Usually a confident and daring kid, I retreated into myself, and with a shake of my head I returned to the dripping row of children lined up on the pool deck. My arms were crossed against the chill of morning air that pricked at my wet skin, but even with chattering teeth, my cheeks burned from embarrassment. My mom, sitting on a deck chair nearby, caught my eye and called out to me. “If you jump, I’ll buy you a Pillow Person.” I nodded my resolve at the promise of the coveted toy and stepped back up on that over-sized stick of chewing gum dangling over the water. With eyes shut tight behind my goggles, I clamped my finger and thumb over my nose and jumped. The water swirling around me seemed to clash against my anxious body, and I felt like I would sink forever. Soon I was gasping for breath with my teacher at my elbow ensuring I made it safely to the ladder. The only pleasure I took from the experience was the Pillow Person I carried proudly in the crook of my arm as we left the toy store.
Embracing my sexuality was a much farther and scarier jump for me. Instead of offering a Pillow Person, my mom offered me her own fears and uncertainty, her own rejection of her body and self. A few years after that jump into the deep end, my sexual shame was nailed in place as I sat in our sun-lit living room with my arms crossed protectively over my chest.
“Masturbation is a sin,” my mom said in her solemn church voice. “They might tell you at school that it’s okay, that it’s normal. But it’s not okay.” My eleven year-old eyes shifted from the floor to my older brothers’ ruddy cheeks. I wondered what she was talking about, what this masturbation word meant. Entombed in my embarrassment, my questions stayed buried. My eyes turned back to the carpet and I tried to swallow the sawdust that seemed to line my tongue and mouth.
Not long after that, the desire and sensations that existed inside my body led me through the process of masturbating for the first time. My chest filled with warmth and all thoughts were washed from my mind. My body, this pleasure, was all that existed. But as my breathing slowed from the ecstasy of my first orgasm, my mind raced. Without any knowledge or understanding of female sexual response, I wasn’t sure what had happened or why, but guilt tugged at my stomach. Being raised in a sexually conservative religion, fear of my own body and my own pleasure were imparted to me from the time I was small. I looked up the word “masturbation” in the dictionary and figured out what I had done was the same thing my mom warned us about. The rapture of my own pleasure was tainted with shame that would shadow me well into my married years, cementing my feet to the end of the diving board that dangled over the equally terrifying and inviting waters of my sexuality.
Aside from a few other shame-inducing forays into masturbation after that first experience, I never had partnered sex or did anything sex-adjacent until after I was married. Even talking about sex felt bold and daring during our engagement. I felt brave lying out in the courtyard at BYU, poring over a Christian sex book with my betrothed. We were about to enter into a temple marriage, the one “acceptable” time for sexual thoughts, feelings, and discussions, and shame swirled around with the excitement and desire that filled me fit to burst. These holy, God-given feelings I had for this man, this mortal body created to crave the touch of my partner, were wrong. After marriage, the tension between wanting to dive completely into the deep end and fearing what might happen if I did, remained.
When I became a mom and my daughter was small, I tried to let her questions guide me in deciding what to say to her about sex and her body, per the advice in all of the books, articles, and blog posts I had read on the subject. I was nervous the first few times she brought up baby making or genitals in her preschool years, but as she grew I realized the conversations were as comfortable or uncomfortable as I made them. We developed an open dialogue about sex and bodies, just as I hoped we would, no carpet-staring or red faces needed. Unfortunately, it would be a several years before I was ready to undo most of my own sexual shame.
While I felt good about how I responded to my daughter’s exploration of her body when she was small, I knew she continued to touch herself as she grew, and I worried about it. I didn’t want her to sin or develop a “bad habit.” So around the time she was eight or nine, as I tucked her blanket around her wiggly body, I told her that I knew she still touched herself, and that Heavenly Father didn’t want her to do that. She nodded. The fear in her eyes was unmistakable–the distance between the diving board and the water suddenly greater than she could handle. I told her she wasn’t bad for having done it, but she should try to stop because it could lead to other bad things. Looking back, I can see that all my fears about the deep end were imagined. I passed my own distrust of my body on to her, like my mother had done with me.
Over the next year or two I read and listened to experts like Natasha Helfer Parker, Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, and Daniel Burgess and finally dove into the blue water of my own sexuality. I embraced masturbation as a way to own my self and my sexuality in ways I never had before. This change in paradigm helped me emerge from a long depression, and the need to correct my earlier parenting mis-step became urgent. “I told you before that touching yourself is bad, and I was wrong about that,” I told her as I settled myself on the edge of her bed. “I was taught that it was wrong when I was growing up, but I had wrong information. As long as you do it in private and you wash up before and after, you can go ahead.” She asked me some more questions and I answered them simply and directly. She looked up at me with the glimmering water reflected in her eyes as she realized it wasn’t so far away after all, and she heaved a sigh. An unburdened smile crossed her lips when I planted a kiss against her forehead, and I knew we’d successfully chucked the shame in the bin. Neither of us has to carry it now.
In the summer, I take her to the local swimming hole. She runs full speed to the end of the dock, never hesitating or looking back, and launches herself off the weathered wood. Her body flies effortlessly through the air before splashing down. She trusts herself to know right where to place her feet to take off at the right moment, her full momentum thrusting her forward and up. Once she lands, she trusts the water to cradle her body until she bobs back up to the surface. To her, there is only the joy of flying, the sensation of her cold-water landing pad crashing against her skin, the safety of a big breath of air rushing to fill her lungs when she comes to the surface. Her pleasure is its own reward, no Pillow Person required.