Each year, May brings us spring flowers, Whole Earth, Mother’s Day — and lots of self-love.
National Masturbation Month was created by the San Francisco-based sex shop Good Vibrations, but their goal wasn’t merely to boost vibrator sales. In 1994, U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders attended a United Nations AIDS conference, where she suggested that masturbation “is a part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught [in schools].” President Clinton fired her because of the resulting controversy.
Not long after, the sex-positive folks at Good Vibrations decided to use the month of May to fight the centuries-old social stigma surrounding masturbation.
And even though this has been going on for nearly two decades, we still have a long way to go. A few weeks ago, for example, high school science teacher Tim McDaniel was under investigation for saying “vagina” in a lesson on the human reproductive system.
Sex education has such great potential — not only for improving students’ future or current sex lives, but also for improving their physical and emotional health. However, this potential can only be realized if educators and parents can agree to get over their embarrassment, challenge their own preconceptions and finally offer truly comprehensive sex education — a lesson plan which would include masturbation.
It always surprises me that the more conservative the adult is, the less they seem to feel that masturbation has a place in the classroom. Even advocates of abstinence-only sex ed should see the benefits of learning about masturbation: it’s one of the few sexual activities that carries no risk of STIs or pregnancy. Mutual masturbation is a far safer way to be intimate for teens who may not have access to condoms or birth control, or for those who are not yet emotionally ready for other types of sex.
Flying solo every once in a while is even good for your health. For women, masturbating can help to prevent cervical infections and relieve UTIs. Men who masturbate regularly can reduce their risk of prostate cancer. A little self-love is also a great way to reduce stress or relax before bed, as sexual arousal increases levels of dopamine, the “feel-good” hormone, and orgasm releases the calming hormones oxytocin and dopamine.
What’s more, getting to know one’s own sexuality can vastly improve partnered sex. Masturbation teaches us what we like and don’t like, what works and what doesn’t work. And being able to communicate these needs and desires to a partner is especially important for those whose orgasms are harder to come by.
Including masturbation in sex ed could also help to dispel much of the shame and embarrassment that often goes along with solitary pleasure. For many guys, jerking off is seen as something of a last resort, a sad and lonely alternative to “real” sex. And although 50 to 70 percent of women masturbate, the act is still perceived by many as “unladylike,” and orgasms are often followed by a feeling of shame. Many girls do not even know that female masturbation is a possibility (I didn’t until I was 14, no thanks to seventh grade health class).
Providing information about masturbation could also prevent issues later in students’ sexual lives. For example, guys who masturbate with condoms not only save their tube socks, but also report fewer sensitivity issues when having protected sex with partners. Conditions like “death grip syndrome,” which occurs when guys who have used too tight of a grip have trouble maintaining an erection during partnered sex, could also be addressed and possibly prevented. For both girls and guys, encouraging variety in position and technique could lead to easier orgasms with partners as well.
That being said, this sort of sex education would not ostracize those students who chose not to masturbate. Just as abstinence from sex is always an option, so is abstinence from masturbation. But in order for us to teach kids that they have a choice, we also need to present both sides. Including masturbation in sex education is a great way to reduce social stigma, encourage sexual self-awareness and improve the physical and mental health of students. With all these benefits, a little embarrassment seems like a small price to pay.
MARISA MASSARA hopes this column has touched you. If you still don’t know what masturbation is, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.