Why it’s Vital That We Talk About Masturbation in RSE

May is ‘Masturbation Month’ which I wish could become a more important month in the sex education calendar.

Masturbation Month (it started as a day, 28th May but now is a month) was started by sex toy and sex education pioneers Good Vibrations in 1995. This was in response to Dr Joycelyn Elders being sacked from her post as Surgeon General in the US for suggesting that masturbation should be taught in sex education classes in schools.

This was over two decades ago and I’m not sure how much has changed really. Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) is pretty patchy. I know of some great schools and teachers that can teach about masturbation but I’m sure that there are a great deal more that would just not feel able to. I think it’s super important that we teach that masturbation can be one of the many different kinds of sex that we might enjoy and here’s why.

Pleasure

A lot of what is delivered in schools is about the prevention of unplanned pregnancies and Sexually Transmitted Infections — both extremely important outcomes. These narrow outcomes, added to the messages we get in society about ‘what is sex,’ means that often what is taught is that sex means penis in vagina sex. However, penis in vagina sex is usually more enjoyable for the penis than it is for the vagina, as I explain in this post https://www.bishuk.com/bodies/why-penis-in-vagina-sex-can-be-meh/

So by teaching that there other kinds of sex that can be more enjoyable, such as masturbation, we are offering a counter-balance to the messages that we all get about what counts as sex. However by talking about masturbation we can say that it’s actually okay to have sex that is pleasurable and that penetrative sex isn’t just something that is done to us, or something we have to put ourselves through.

Sex isn’t just partnered

It’s also important to point out that not all sex happens with a sexual partner. If we include fantasy, masturbation, self touch we might go as far as to say that most sex is not actually with a partner. Solo sex (if people want to do it) can be just as, if not more, enjoyable and valuable than partnered sex. There are many reasons for that, but it’s not necessarily a problem for people to prefer solo sex to partnered sex.

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Agency

From a rights based perspective it’s important that students learn that sexual experiences can be enjoyable, if this is something they want. Maybe the World Health Organisation put it better than me in their definition of sexual health “… the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences… ” Perhaps it sounds obvious to some of us that sex can be enjoyable, but to many people it isn’t and because of power differences this is something that can be difficult for people to comprehend.

Teaching people that they can masturbate by themselves or with another person/s teaches them that they can have agency. That is, that they get to choose how they want to touch themselves and how they might want someone else to touch them. In addition, as Good Vibrations point out, solo masturbation is a great way of learning how your body feels and what kind of touch feels nice.

It’s okay not to masturbate too

Of course, we should be very careful not to suggest that everyone should masturbate. Not everybody masturbates and some people just don’t want to, feel the need to, or experience sexual desire. So switching from the ‘sex negativity’ of reproductive sex to the ‘sex positivity’ of compulsory masturbation is just replacing one set of rules for another. In sex it’s the normative rules, and their cruel enforcement by shame and stigma, that is the problem.

So in teaching about masturbation we really need to adopt a very matter of fact approach and say ‘some or most people do it, it’s completely fine to do it if you want to.’ Not, ‘it’s normal to do it.’ Agency is about giving people choices and maximising freedoms.

Inclusion

When we frame partnered sex as penis in vagina (PiV), and that everything else is ‘just foreplay’ or ‘not normal’ then we are saying to many people that they don’t get to have sex. Masturbation, or any other kinds of sex, counts just as much as PiV. If we don’t say this then we are also saying to many lesbian, gay and bi folk that they are not having sex, or that they aren’t having ‘real’ or ‘normal’ sex. We are also saying to many physically disabled people that they are not capable of having sex, because some disabilities mean that this kind of sex is too difficult or uncomfortable to try or to enjoy.

So if we’re not talking about masturbation in RSE (yet talking about PiV sex) then we run the risk of contributing to the ongoing desexualisation, discrimination, and disabling of disabled folk whilst also excluding and discriminating against many queer folk. But also, my favourite topic …

Consent

Another important reason for talking about masturbation is that unless we disrupt and rewrite the heteronormative script, then relationships and sex education is not going to open up the possibility for people to have consensual sex.

If the only thing that counts as ‘sex’ is penis in vagina (or penetrative sex generally) and everything else is foreplay then we are just reinforcing the idea that one thing leads to another. Where, in that game of sex rounders (rounders is like baseball but better), masturbation is assumed to be a 2nd or a 3rd base activity that we need to navigate in order to get to 4th base, and that 4th base is where we have to get to to say we’ve done ‘it’ and to have ‘lost our virginity.’ The sexual script: kissing, clothes off, stroking, masturbation, oral, penetration, orgasm. An escalator that people can’t get off until the end.

So if we’re not saying that masturbation can be an enjoyable sexual activity in and of itself and you don’t have to do anything else (either by yourself or with another person/s), we’re not really giving people the opportunity to think about what sex they may or may not want. And consent is a hell of a lot more than one person getting to choose whether they want penis in vagina sex or not.

So how to do this

Teaching about masturbation doesn’t have to involve teaching people how to do it, but the first step is just to make sure that whenever we are talking about ‘sex’ that we make it clear that this can include masturbation.

There’s a great example of how to do this in lesson 5 of the DO… RSE for Schools curriculum (brought to you by the leading organisations and experts in RSE). There are also some self-reflection activities for teachers to think about what we mean by sex and the importance of thinking about this.

And if you want to direct young people to advice, there is plenty of stuff at my website for over 14s about masturbation but also about lots of other sexual activities people might enjoy.

© Justin Hancock, 2023

Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people and adults in person and millions online at his website for young people BISH. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health. Find out more about Justin here and stay up to day by signing up for the newsletter.