THERE'S A PRAYER that goes "Oh Lord, let my enemies go too far" that comes to mind when one considers former Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders and her advocates.
She does have advocates, it turns out, even if President Clinton offered the unconvincing explanation that her statements were at variance with his "values." At first blush, Dr. Elders' remarks about teaching masturbation in the schools seemed, in the words of Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute, to be a hilarious instance of "bringing coals to Newcastle." Even "Saturday Night Live" thought her comments were worthy of attention. Their parodist featured Dr. Elders warning that high school graduates were only masturbating at a fifth-grade level.
But the humorless liberals at the New York Times and the Washington Post were hot to defend Dr. Elders and her proposal. The Times ran a scolding little story about masturbation myths through the centuries, in which Charles Dickens, Sylvester Graham (of the crackers) and J.H. Kellogg (corn flakes) all come in for their share of shame for propagating myths about the consequences of masturbation.
Must masturbation now make its debut in the spotlight? Will we be condemned to listen to the public confessions of those who used to feel shame about the practice but now wish to go public? Heck, Madonna makes great money doing it on stage.
What good is supposed to come of this? The answer, from Dr. Elders and from Frank Rich of the New York Times and Patrick Welsh writing in the Washington Post, is fewer unplanned pregnancies. The Post calls masturbation "the safest sex." And the New York Times calls it "The Last Taboo" (don't bet on it).
If they are right, we have to assume a few facts. The first is that masturbation is inadequately understood by youngsters. But the second, and more serious, point is this: Trust in sex education, condom distribution and the rest is founded on an idea -- I call it the hydraulic view of sex -- and if you believe in that idea, then teaching masturbation is no more peculiar than teaching "safe sex."
The hydraulic view of sex amounts to the belief that sexual orgasm is a physical release, like exhaling. Pressure builds in the adolescent body, goes the reasoning, fueled by hormones, and it must find release. It is foolish to tell children not to indulge in sexual behavior because the pressures are too great to resist. Sex educators, like Dr. Elders, are accordingly enthusiastic about every possible method for keeping kids from suffering the consequences of their behavior. She once told an interviewer that she wanted every girl to leave the house with a condom in her purse.
Patrick Welsh, writing in the Washington Post, describes young people "without the imagination to masturbate." Willing sex partners are so plentiful, he explains, that masturbation is unnecessary.
Mr. Welsh then goes on to lament the lack of courtship among teen-agers. "According to several family-life teachers, the old concept of working one's way to first base in boy-girl relationships is not in the game plan for many kids."
What the masturbation enthusiasts can't see is that the crude, loveless, sexually promiscuous world we have created for kids is not unrelated to teaching them a hydraulic view of sex. Sure, the culture sends the wrong messages. But so do sex education programs that speak in terms of "skills" and methods and condoms.
What a difference it would make if sex educators took the view that teen-agers are moral actors, fully human personalities with a spiritual dimension, instead of tightly wound bundles of hormones. Wouldn't it be revolutionary to speak of love and commitment in connection with sex? And wouldn't it be brave to assume that our teen-agers are capable of delaying gratification, as millions of their forebears have done?
The liberal regime in sexual matters has bequeathed our kids a world in which raw appetite alone governs sex. Girls get little respect from the boys to whom they submit, and boys learn nothing of the ancient art of courtship. Leave it to Dr. Elders and company to conclude that the answer is instruction in masturbation.
Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.