It’s 2020. Why are we still embarrassed to talk about masturbation? It’s an unspoken rite of humanity; most of us do it, yet very few of us talk about it, and even fewer discuss it with our children. Like eating or breathing, sexual urges are a natural part of our biology, and by telling our children otherwise, we can set them up for a lifetime of sexual shame. If there’s anything to feel guilty about here, it’s whether we as parents are doing the best we can to erase this unnecessary stigma for our children.
I remember the first time I discovered masturbation; I was only 9 years old. I had a sudden desire to see what the bathtub water from the faucet would feel like on my vulva — and I experienced a pleasant surprise. Suddenly, I couldn’t wait to take a bath each night.
But I also became paranoid that I was doing something “bad.” Somehow, in my young mind, I correlated masturbation with dirtiness, and my self-pleasure became a burden of shame that I carried for years.
When did the shame surrounding masturbation begin? Some of us learned it at church or through our parents, others through social encounters or mainstream media. Regardless of its origins in each of our life stories, this stigma has a long-lasting psychologically damaging effect that teaches children to be ashamed of their desire and their bodies, which can lead to sexual issues or depression down the line.
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Exploring one’s own genitals is a valuable part of sexual health that often begins in childhood. . Becoming aware of body parts like the foot, ear, and nose are seen as socially acceptable developmental milestones in infancy, but for some, an infant or toddler’s discovery of parts like the vulva, penis, or anus yield a different reaction. It’s critical that caregivers understand that genitals are body parts just the same as other parts. They have names and functions; therefore, projecting adult sexuality or erotic intentions onto a child’s exploration of their body is not an issue of the child but of that adult’s misunderstanding of healthy sexual development and their internalized shame received from socially constructed messages. . It is critical that children experience shame-free connections to their own bodies, so they can become attuned to sensations that feel positive and pleasing as well as those that do not. So that they can communicate clearly about what goes on with their bodies without keeping secrets or feeling ashamed. This body awareness keeps them safer and positioned for more confident, satisfying encounters when the time for consensual sexual experiences arise. . As children develop into toddlerhood and preschool ages, we can introduce discussions about privacy, safe/unsafe touch, consent, hygiene and tricky people. None of these discussions have to involve shame or disrupt their right to get to know their own bodies. . If you’d like to learn more about supporting a young person’s shame-free understanding of pleasure, across the ages and stages of childhood, join us on Thursday, February 27th from 9pm-10:15pm CST for an interactive webinar presentation followed by a live Q&A. Follow the link in our bio to learn more and register or head to sexpositivefamilies.com/webinars. A playback link will be sent to all registrants, for unlimited access, whether they attend the live version or not. We’re here to help you feel better prepared, not scared, along the journey.
Eventually, though, even I learned that masturbation is a totally normal, natural human activity. By the time I became a mother, I was firmly in the pro-self-pleasure camp. Still, it was difficult to gauge when to discuss masturbation with my kids. But when my sons hit puberty, my husband and I agreed it was time to talk to them about all aspects of sex, including the solo variety. My husband explained ejaculation and wet dreams to them so that they wouldn’t be embarrassed or scared when that happened (which it did, many times).
I taught them that it’s totally normal to touch their private parts, as long as it happens in private. I also taught them about consent and inappropriate touch.
Of course, this talk left my sons embarrassed. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth it; as it turns out, they had already discovered self-stimulation and, like so many of us, were uncertain as to whether what they were doing was normal. I saw visible relief on each of their faces when they learned how widespread masturbation is, and that as long as it’s something they enjoy privately and that doesn’t take over their lives, it’s safe and healthy.
Today, my sons are healthy, functioning young men who have so far managed to stave off every masturbation myth in the book (all that stuff about blindness, broken genitalia, and infertility? Yikes). And although I didn’t realize it when I first talked to my sons about self-stimulation, there are many health benefits enjoyed by those who regularly masturbate. It can decrease the risk of prostate cancer and type-2 diabetes while boosting our mood (thanks, endorphins) and relaxing us so we can fall asleep easier.
Sure, I witnessed my sons make a few terrible jerk-off jokes over the years (preteen boy humor will be preteen boy humor). But that’s honestly the only negative aspect of de-stigmatizing masturbation in our home. And for my sons to grow up living shame-free lives with a healthy attitude towards sexuality and their bodies — all in exchange for one awkward conversation and a couple lame jokes? Definitely worth it.
It’s not a matter of life and death, people. It’s just orgasms.
A version of this story was originally published in September 2016.
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