May is National Masturbation Month, and we’re celebrating with Feeling Yourself, a series exploring the finer points of self-pleasure.
For a kid, there are few things more awkward than sitting in a sex ed class and learning about masturbation. For a queer or transgender kid, the experience can be simultaneously uncomfortable and painful.
That’s because, as some sex educators argue, sex education often fails to address masturbation in an inclusive way. In fact, it may not even be discussed at all. Less than half of American high schools and only one fifth of middle schools teach all 16 sex ed topics from the Center for Disease Control’s recommended list. Masturbation isn’t even on that list, much less inclusive masturbation education.
“Talking about self-pleasure doesn’t happen that much in sex ed,” says Andrew Townsend, teen program coordinator for Planned Parenthood Toronto.
By ignoring masturbation and not addressing it in a way that speaks to everyone, sex ed fails our youth. Inclusive sex ed should be a critical component of education, and masturbation should be a core topic. Regardless of gender identity or sexuality, the practice is an essential part of an individual’s sexual pleasure.
In general, sex education fails LGBTQ youth
from a number of sexual health and civil rights organizations, LGBTQ youth are less likely to report using contraception and more likely to start having sex at an early age, have multiple partners compared to their heterosexual peers, and have sex while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.
Despite that, inclusive sex education is rare. “We found that only 6.7 percent of middle and high school students received LGBTQ-inclusive sex education,” says Becca Mui, education manager at GLSEN, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ youth.
Mui points to “no promo homo” laws, currently on the books in six states, which prohibit sex education teachers from positively talking about — or even sometimes including — lesbian, gay, and bisexual topics.
For example, teachers in South Carolina are not permitted to discuss homosexuality except in reference to sexually transmitted diseases. In Alabama, sex ed teachers are mandated to teach, in certain lessons, that homosexuality is not an acceptable “lifestyle.”
These laws have very real consequences. “What we found in our research is that when a state has a no promo law, it really spills out into the educational culture,” Mui says. “It’s harder to have an inclusive Gay Straight Alliance in those places … and there’s an understanding that young people are more likely to embrace and hold queer identities, genderfluid identities, and transgender identities when adults are teaching this curriculum.”
On the other hand, the lack of a curriculum could come with risks. Mui is particularly concerned that LGBTQ youth who don’t receive accurate sexual health information won’t make healthy decisions. For example, sex educators who don’t discuss anal sex between gay men miss educating them about the risk of HIV and STDs.
It’s clear that many queer and trans youth aren’t getting the sex education they need.
Masturbation education, when it exists, can be heteronormative and trans-exclusionary
For Sarah Connell, sex educator and host of the podcast Queer Sex Ed, the heteronormative nature of sex ed extends into conversations about masturbation. “We talk about girls using dildos or vibrators or a man stroking a penis,” she explains.
Both of these acts imitate the act of penetration, but that’s reductive. Connell wants youth to know that pleasure can be found in different parts of the body, and that they should feel free to fantasize about things other than heterosexual penetration.
Sex education about masturbation can be particularly fraught for trans youth, Connell says. Sex educators often see genitals, sex, and gender as the same thing. That language can feel exclusionary for trans people, for whom genitals, sex, and gender are often different.
For Connell, referring to male masturbation only in terms of penises, female masturbation only in terms of vulvas, and leaving non-binary students out of the equation altogether, teachers can stigmatize trans youth.
“There are trans boys who have vulvas. There are girls who have penises. There are non-binary people with any [kind of] genitals,” Connell explains.
Townsend similarly worries that sex educators who only see masturbation through a heteronormative and cissexist lens (which implies feelings of superiority towards trans people) risk alienating both queer and trans youth who may not derive masturbatory pleasure from the opposite sex or who don’t identify with their assigned genitalia. They also risk hurting straight and cis youth, who may become queer or trans later in life.
“Your body is going to look different throughout your life,” Townsend stresses.
Every student — queer, trans, cis, and straight — could stand to benefit from an inclusive masturbation education.
Here’s how to fix the problem
Thankfully, there are ways educators can better — and more inclusively — address and teach their queer and trans students. Connell has three recommendations:
First, she urges educators to say what they mean. They shouldn’t refer to boys’ penises or girls’ vaginas. Educators should simply refer to penises and vaginas, or consider using a more general term like genitals. Trans girls, for example, may have a penis, may refer to their “girl penis,” or may have a vulva. Students may refer to their genitals in completely non-gendered terms altogether.
Second, Connell recommends that educators not treat queer sexuality and transgender identity like the plague. There shouldn’t just be a single day where educators talk about trans issues. Sex educators should normalize conversations about these identities and about masturbation.
Third, Connell encourages sex educators to be confident that the youth they are teaching are mature enough to handle the conversation. Many young people are already having conversations about sex with each other or online, Connell says. They’re prepared to handle “adult” conversations about masturbation, but they may not have have accurate information about it.
“Inaction or avoiding the subject is a choice … You’re harming people by not giving them the right tools to be aware of their bodies,” Connell says.
The benefits of direct, inclusive masturbation education are clear. In general, LGBTQ youth who see themselves represented in inclusive curricula report feeling safer in school and having higher levels of self-esteem, Mui explains.
Townsend is similarly optimistic about inclusive masturbation education. By opening up space for students to talk about this issue, he believes it can help remove some of the stigma surrounding self-pleasure for queer and trans youth.
Connell, for her part, holds that inclusive masturbation education could be an empowering educational experience for trans youth. “When I think about sex ed and masturbation especially, it can be really powerful for trans people to reclaim our bodies through masturbation,” Connell says.
Connell, who is trans herself, cites her own experience. While she was going through hormone replacement therapy, Connell experienced pleasure in different parts of her body and from different sources. Connell wants trans students who are going through the process to know that their experience of desire, and what drives them to masturbate, may change.
“It’s really hard to tell what someone’s reaction will be to hormone replacement therapy …. but there are a general set of changes,” Connell says. “You just don’t know what you’re going to enjoy.”
Educators can learn how to talk about masturbation with queer, trans, cis, and straight students equally. Inclusive masturbation sex education is possible, Connell stresses. Educators just need to be brave enough — and educated enough — to talk about it.