Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.
News

Christine O’Donnell and Norman Mailer: A Masturbation Double Standard?

A previously little known, earnest Christian woman running for a high-profile office her first time out confronts derision, scorn and outrage in 2010 thanks to dredged up 14-year-old comments in which she criticized masturbation for its purported role in stoking lust and discouraging intimacy. She’s pummeled, eviscerated, all but left for politically dead.

That’s Republican Christine O’Donnell today as her numbers continue to fall in the race for Delaware’s open Senate seat.

Forty-one years ago, on the other hand, it was a gruff and celebrated Jewish male from Brooklyn running for high-profile office his first time out, just six years after denouncing masturbation as conduct so heinous that “it’s better to commit rape than masturbate.”

And public reaction was — well, nothing.

“It never came up,” recalled Paul Krassner, the legendary journalist and social satirist, recalling Mailer’s 1969 campaign for mayor of New York City. It was Krassner, a protégé of Lenny Bruce and later founder with Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman of the Youth International Party, who elicited Mailer’s remark on masturbation and rape—and much more—in a dead serious 1963 interview in his groundbreaking publication, the Realist.

Mailer’s often forgotten quixotic mayoral campaign in the end won 5% of the Democratic primary vote. Many credit his run, or blame it, depending on their viewpoint, with snatching the Democratic mayoral nomination from liberal Bronx Borough president Herman Badillo and handing it to law-and-order city controller Mario Procaccino. Liberals fled from Procaccino in the general election, giving their vote instead to ultimate victor John Lindsay, a liberal Republican (a now extinct species).

It was a wild and crazy campaign at the height of the sixties, and as today, anger was in the air. Crime and social disfunction in the city was rocketing while trust in conventional politics and politicians was plunging in Tea Party-like fashion.

Mailer faced a slew of doubts about his candidacy—some of them from out of his own mouth (”The difference between me and the other candidates,” Mailer said at one point ”is that I’m no good and I can prove it.”) But his stand on masturbation was not part of this.

In his earlier 1963 interview in The Realist — Krassner’s pre-Jon Stewart hybrid of the Nation and Mad Magazine for adults — Mailer declared, “I wouldn’t say all people who masturbate are evil, probably I would even say that some of the best people in the world masturbate. But I am saying it’s a miserable activity.”

In response, Krassner suggested masturbation could be “a thing of beauty.” Certainly, he suggested, it was better than the “beauty of bombing,” whose perverse visual beauty Mailer had remarked on earlier in their discussion. And besides, Krassner added, it “at least it saved some people who might otherwise go out and commit rape.”

“It’s better to commit rape than masturbate,” Mailer replied. “Maybe, maybe. The whole thing becomes difficult … . one is violence toward oneself; one is violence toward others.”

O’Donnell’s objection to the activity seems pretty tame by comparison.

“We have God given sexual desires, and we need to understand them and preserve them to be used in God’s appropriate context,” she said facing the camera in a 1996 MTV program on young people and “Sex in the ‘90s.” “You’re going to be pleasing each other, and if he already knows what pleases him and he can please himself—then why am I in the picture?”

Why, indeed?

Is there a sexual double standard going on here? Like O’Donnell, Mailer, in his interview in The Realist, also attacked contraception. But this, too, never came up in his campaign, in the very heartland of feminism.

Krassner, now 78 and living in Desert Hot Springs, Calif., rejected the notion of a double standard. It’s more, he said, about changing standards about what can be discussed in the mainstream media and the changing nature of media technology itself.

O’Donnell’s comments “became news with the aid of YouTube,” noted Krassner. Mailer, who died in 2007, “never had such a visual aid, one that would travel so immediately and become so widespread. So because of the prudishness then and the technology now, I don’t think it’s accurate to label this as a double standard genderwise (and poundfoolish).”

In a Time/CNN poll released September 21, O’Donnell’s Democratic opponent, Chris Coon, was trouncing her 55% to 39%; not yet Mailer territory poll-wise. On the other hand, her decision to run, like Mailer’s, may come to be seen as a decisive factor for the ultimate outcome. O’Donnell defeated popular Delaware pol and former governor Mike Castle in the GOP primary. And Castle, according to polls at the time, would have pummeled the now confident looking Coon.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.