How do you know when you’ve made it these days? When you show up on Oprah, of course.
On April 9th of this year, masturbation had its big coming out party and became the subject du jour as part of a special on talking to your children about sex. Of course, it was still far too controversial to be referred to by its correct name and so the usual euphemisms were employed by the guests. At least we were spared the all too common “vajayjay” references and the female anatomy was correctly named. If we are going to have a discussion about masturbation, making up names for our body parts means that we are talking around the issue and not being as open as honest as we need to be. This would be far from the best way to empower women or young girls.
Sexual health is an important factor in overall happiness and when 40% of women report some sort of sexual dysfunction, clearly there are issues that need to be addressed. We already live in a society that shames women when we are sexual outside of patriarchal power structures and therefore masturbation can be an important tool to teach women about their bodies and furthermore, encourages a form of sexuality that is not dependent upon performing or sharing with a partner. In a world where sex is conceived of as something men do to women rather than an act of reciprocal pleasure, a sexually informed and aware woman can prove threatening to patriarchy.
Men are encouraged to be sexual as part of their coming of age process. They openly speak about masturbation and it is expected that this is an activity that they will participate in as often as the opportunity represents itself whereas women are often discouraged from touching themselves, much less masturbating to orgasm.
Dr. Berman who appeared on the show alongside Gayle King and 17 magazine in-chief Ann Shoket said, “You’re teaching them about their own body and pleasuring themselves and taking the reins of their own sexuality so that they don’t ever have to depend on any other teenage boy to do it for them.”
While sexual sensations may be new to a teenager, they should never be unexpected. Though we should feel encouraged that at least some conversation is happening considering how invested we have become in abstinence education, unless the information that is presented is not only honest and reflective of the various different ways in which women can be sexual, we are still reinforcing artificial patriarchal heterosexist norms.
Part of a conversation with children about sexuality should involve the fact that people of the same gender do engage in physical relationships and find them not only satisfactory but necessary to their health and happiness. Simply because a parent is heterosexual does not mean that the child will not identify as queer. It is important that this very possibility be reflected in conversations. Furthermore, sex does not simply mean the act of intercourse and until we can validate this very reality, children will continue to be given false and or misleading information that could lead to a sexually transmitted disease.
The invisibility of homosexuality in our conversations about sex is a reflection of our heterosexist society. To erase some people’s very existence is normal, because we understand heterosexuality as naturally occurring and homosexuality as deviant. It is simply not enough to discuss the different make up of families and cite that some kids have two mommy’s or two daddy without discussing how that love is expressed. Erasure of same-sex love means that children learn through our silence that they or their friends are not only unacceptable but abnormal. Do we really want our children to believe that gay sex only occurs in seedy bathrooms or public parks after dark?
Sex need not be a loaded conversation, if we separate ourselves from the various moral gatekeepers that are continually employed to discipline and control behaviour. There is this sense that we live with norms and yet no single sexual act is universally taboo. Norms evolve for the sole purposes of creating or maintain a hierarchy of beings and not because a form of sexual contact is necessarily harmful between two consenting adults.
To effectively inform our children, we need to step away from that which has been normalized and focus on infusing our conversations with the idea that sex is meant to be a life affirming pleasurable experience. Our personal shame only adds to the confusion and ensures that these misconceptions will be passed onto yet another generation. Despite the fact that conservatives claim that we have live in a far too progressive age, we spend far more time talking about all the reasons not to have sex and stigmatizing the behaviour. Ours is a culture of shame and not permissiveness.
If we have to invent pet names for sexual organs, erase gays and lesbians and construct masturbation as filthy, how can we possibly claim that a free and open sexuality is part of our normal discourse?