We Need To Talk About Betty White And Handjobs

"All of this pearl clutching feels especially ironic, perhaps even disrespectful, in light of White's own approach to comedy."

Earlier this week, when I was feeling both blue about Betty White’s death and inspired by all of the remarkable things she said and did in her 99 years, I wrote what I thought was a sweet, innocent little piece as a tribute to the beloved comedian.

In that piece, I noted several of White’s secrets to living a long, happy life, and then offered 17 additional tips that I had come up with, based on researching other folks’ advice and my own experiences.

Admittedly, none of my suggestions were groundbreaking, but (if I say so myself) the piece felt useful. After I published it, a lot of people told me they enjoyed it.

But apparently not everyone was quite so charmed.

Tip #8 in particular ― “Allow yourself a few vices, whether it’s Betty White’s aforementioned hot dogs or Hallmark Christmas movies or an occasional handjob from a stranger, and enjoy them without regret or apology or explanation to anyone, even yourself” ― rubbed a bunch of people the wrong way. (Pun very much intended.)

One man tweeted at me: “Was about to share what I thought was a very good list with my family (including my 2 teenage kids). Since 99% was mainstream content, I’m sorry you had to fail on #8 (handjobs). Your secret intent?... people forwarding it without reading it? Disappointed.”

Another person, who also works in media and has since blocked me, tweeted that the line about handjobs was “vulgar” and demanded to know if it was some kind of “sick joke.”

They weren’t the only ones, either.

To answer the above questions: No, I had no “secret intent,” and yes, that line was meant, at least partially, to be a joke. But I honestly didn’t think so many people would be so “disappointed” or outraged by the word “handjob.”

“I’m still frustrated by how puritanical our culture is, or rather pretends to be, since so much of that 'piety' is manufactured, hypocritical and completely bogus.”

To be clear, I don’t really consider handjobs to be a vice (or hot dogs or Hallmark movies, for that matter). Instead, I was commenting on what our culture sometimes labels problematic (or unhealthy, or just plain silly), and arguing that we should find and enjoy whatever gives us a little pleasure, especially right now, with things as bleak as they are.

It was also a nod to the fact that even though this country is obsessed with sex, we still have a hard time discussing and embracing it in honest, healthy and nonjudgmental ways. I’ve spent the past 10 years talking and writing and hosting two different podcasts about sex and sexuality. A lot has changed during that decade, but a lot hasn’t ― and I’m still frustrated by how puritanical our culture is, or rather pretends to be, since so much of that “piety” is manufactured, hypocritical and completely bogus.

I imagine that most people (unless they identify as asexual) consider sex ― including handjobs, presumably ― to be an integral part of a happy and fulfilling life. And being able to openly claim that for ourselves, without feeling ashamed about it, is equally important to me.

The fact that a dad wouldn’t want his teenage kids to read about handjobs, to the point that he would refuse to share my piece with them, says a lot. Unfortunately, I’m certain he’s not the only parent who feels this way. But handjobs are exactly what we should be talking about with our kids. They aren’t “vulgar” or “sick.” On the contrary, no matter what gender you are and whether you’re with a stranger or a partner or just by yourself, handjobs are one of the safest sex acts you can engage in, since there’s very little chance of transmitting an STI and virtually no possibility of getting pregnant.

What’s more, all of this pearl clutching feels especially ironic, perhaps even disrespectful, in light of White’s own approach to comedy. She was notoriously playful and loved a “naughty” joke, as she would put it. Just check her out at William Shatner’s roast. Or hosting “Saturday Night Live.” Or her literally hundreds of other appearances and routines littered with slyly (or not so slyly) filthy references during her near-century on this planet.

A little bit of raunch catapulting from Betty’s mouth was especially delightful ― and hit so hard ― because she was so sweet that we never saw it coming until it slapped us upside the head. But sweetness and sex can coexist beautifully, and that was exactly Betty’s point. Just because she was seen as America’s favorite grandma didn’t mean she was bereft of her sexuality. Let’s also not forget how ahead of its time “The Golden Girls” was when it came to exploring the sex lives of women ― older or otherwise. In fact, in many ways, the sitcom’s candor, its humor, its unapologetic approach to the characters’ sexualities and all of the joys and challenges that came with them ― all of this remains as radical today as it was in 1985, when the show premiered.

This isn’t the first time I’ve witnessed the urge to launder a celebrity’s life after they’ve died. When George Michael passed away in 2016, I wrote a piece celebrating his sexuality ― and how vocal he was about being a “filthy gay fucker” ― and I received a ton of hate mail for that, too. People wanted to know why I had to bring up “all that stuff,” and why I couldn’t just “focus on the music.” It’s the same reason that I think mentioning a handjob in a piece inspired by Betty White is entirely appropriate: There’s nothing shameful about sex. These people loved it, and loved to talk about it (as their own words and their own work make clear). And if we pretend they didn’t, it does them, and us, a disservice.

When we look past, or away from, the entirety of who someone was, we only get part of their story. Every person is a complex creature made up of countless beliefs and experiences and longings, and ignoring the ones we don’t like ― or the ones we’ve been programmed to think are unseemly or “vulgar” ― erases the totality of who they were and what they offered us. It also reinforces the idea that sex is dirty or deviant, and we know that’s just not true, even if we refuse to admit it.

Ultimately, I want us all to talk more about sex ― whether it’s a handjob or anything else that might be among our carnal predilections ― and I want us to do it with honesty and humor and daring. When it comes to our desires, we still have a lot to figure out, a lot to share and a lot to learn. Celebrating people like Betty White -- people who are willing to go there and do it in a way that doesn’t feel prescriptive or scary or judgmental -- is crucial to us breaking down taboos and stereotypes, finding out who we really are and what we really want, and hopefully living happier and more fulfilling lives. The more we follow their lead and commit to talking about this stuff, the better off we’re going to be. I promise!

Who knows how Betty would have felt about my stupid little tip about handjobs and hot dogs. I’d like to think she’d laugh, but really, I hope she’s way too busy shagging Allen Ludden on some king-size cloud to worry about it.

Noah Michelson is the head of HuffPost Personal and the host of “D Is For Desire,” HuffPost’s love and sex podcast. He joined HuffPost in 2011 to launch and oversee the site’s first vertical dedicated to queer issues, Queer Voices, and went on to oversee all of HuffPost’s community sections before pivoting to create and run HuffPost Personal in 2018. He received his MFA in poetry from New York University and has served as a commentator for MSNBC, the BBC, Entertainment Tonight, Current TV, Fuse, SiriusXM and HuffPost Live. You can find more from him on Twitter and Instagram.

Do you have a compelling personal story you’d like to see published on HuffPost? Find out what we’re looking for here and send us a pitch.