“I didn’t know what would make a female have pleasure until I had been a year into being sexually active.”
Kate, a junior at Muhlenberg, thoughtfully picks at her salad as we talk. She has her blonde hair tied back in a tight ponytail and just about three coats of mascara on her eyelashes. Her well-manicured, baby pink fingernails twirl the fork in her hand as she eats, and then make their way to the tip of her ponytail to move her hair slowly between her fingers. She shifts her legs from crossed to uncrossed to crossed again. She speaks clearly, and looks straight into my eyes each time she moves her gaze from her salad. After she’s finished chewing a small bite, she says that if she had not been in a long-term relationship she probably would have never discovered pleasure in sex. Then, when asked about her sex education experience and whether or not she thought it addressed female pleasure, she gave a hard no. Her voice is certain and nonchalant as she confirms that many of her friends feel the same way. Kate suggests that her positive encounters with sex are more rooted in real time experience, rather than self-experimentation and education. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
The sex education curriculum has been controversial since its origination. As sex education movements progressed, many became more elaborate and willing to include more information in an effort to preserve the sexual health of young people. Planned Parenthood highlights the importance of sexual health, and describes its root in sex education. This shift in understanding is visible in the transformation from a focus on physical sexual health, to the understanding of psychological, emotional, and social elements to sexual health that had previously been neglected. Planned Parenthood cites the World Health Organization’s definition of sexual health, which specifically highlights not only a “fundamental…right to sexual information” but also “the right to pleasure.” This is crucial in redefining the purpose of sex education to include the element of enjoyment, which had previously been hidden away or eliminated from the conversation. Planned Parenthood makes a distinction between medically accurate-comprehensive sex education and abstinence-only sex education in this country. Research done by this organization suggests that the former has proven to be more effective in curtailing risk-taking sexual behavior, but there has been a prominent governmental controversy over these two sex ed frameworks. Since there is so much controversy surrounding this conversation as a whole, even the comprehensive discussions of sex may be infiltrated by notions of shame and can neglect to cover the importance of pleasure. This leads to a domino effect on many students, particularly women, since if pleasure finds its way into the conversation at all, it almost entirely appears to be male-centered. This leaves female youth in a crippling state of uncertainty, confusion, and guilt about their own body and the functions it has in sexual scenarios.
“[My sex education] just explained periods. We were probably too young (fifth grade) to explain pleasure,” says Nicole, a Muhlenberg student reflecting on her own sex education experience. A lack of pleasure may have been true for Nicole, but have things changed since she was introduced to sex education? In contrast, Olivia, a fourteen-year-old girl in high school, spoke fairly highly of her sex education experience at Livingston High School in New Jersey. “[My teacher] talked about pleasure, and someone mentioned masturbation, but I don’t really understand it. I knew that it was a thing before health class, but I don’t know how it works.” When asked what the clitoris was, she said she didn’t know. She claimed to have a better understanding of male masturbation than female. Although her teacher addressed sexual pleasure, Olivia still seems to have a limited understanding. So, maybe things are evolving, but there is still work to be done. “It’s better to be knowledgeable about [sexuality] than going through your life not knowing what it is about,” said Olivia. Maybe we should take her advice.
Before pleasure entered the discussion, sex education originally served a different purpose. Beginning in the early decades of the twentieth century, there was talk of sex education entering the school systems, although the conversation centered around one specific aspect of the sexual experience: venereal diseases. According to Bryan Harris from Planned Parenthood’s Center for Sex Education, this conversation developed due to the number of soldiers exposed to diseases like syphilis and gonorrhea during World War I, which they thought they could simply educate them to avoid. Thus, sex ed was instituted in schools throughout the United States with administrators maintaining a hesitant hold of the content being distributed to the nation’s youth. Julian Carter, a critical historian at California College of the Arts, comments on the framework of these education programs and specifically highlights the way that venereal diseases were marketed as the cause of destruction to nuclear families. “The chief message of almost all twentieth-century sex education amounts to ‘Just Say No.’ Thus, the history of sex education can be seen as the story of shifting strategies aimed at discouraging people from having sex outside of marriage,” writes Carter in his essay Birds, Bees, and Venereal Disease: Toward an Intellectual History of Sex Education. In its initial development, sex education was used as a tool to prevent sexual activity that was perceived as destructive to the social structures in place at the time.
Not only is pleasure from sex contested in education circles, but the introduction of masturbation into the conversation has been considered harmful and problematic. For example, Kate said she didn’t masturbate because she was taught it was wrong, and instead attempted to navigate her body’s wants and needs through experience. And she does not seem to be the only one neglecting self-experimentation. Many girls on campus admit to having never masturbated. The few that admitted to it described feelings of guilt, shame, and even ostracism. “I don’t think I would say [it is] socially acceptable,” said Abby, while reflecting on her experience with watching pornography for pleasure. “Like obviously the statistics show that women do watch porn and it’s not weird, but when I first started watching I didn’t tell anyone. I definitely think there is a little bit of shame, and you definitely feel like an outsider because it isn’t talked about in the same way that it is for men.”
The shame that Abby describes is not unique to her experience, and has actually been an elemental strategy of sex education from its introduction into school systems. Masturbation has been a weapon to elicit shame since ancient times and somehow the shame still persists today. Jannine Ray, and Shelby Afflerbach, both students at Minnesota State University worked on a study to analyze the effects of sex education on attitudes towards masturbation. The report discussed the way that the “taboo” around masturbation has been preserved despite the proven sexual benefits. Ray and Afflerbach claim that masturbation has been associated with “higher self-esteem, marital and sexual satisfaction, more orgasms, [and] greater sexual desire and arousal.” The results of the study signify that being exposed to information about masturbation is likely to create a more positive attitude toward the subject; in addition, they concluded that negatively framed information about masturbation led to negative attitudes. Planned Parenthood outlines the evolution in the understanding of masturbation across time and age ranges, and specifically points a finger at parents. If parents respond positively and with intent to instruct their children who may be experimenting with masturbation, those children will be less inclined to feel guilt and shame. Planned Parenthood specifies that while young children may experiment with masturbation, the shame and guilt emerges later on in adolescence when they attach sexual thoughts to these actions. As children develop an understanding of masturbation, Planned Parenthood emphasizes the importance of identifying this action as “positive sexual behavior,” so that the narrative can be controlled and reclaimed.
Perhaps the future seems to be moving towards a pleasure-friendly model of sex education that can find room to incorporate discussions of masturbation. Christin P. Bowman, a critical social psychologist in the Graduate Center of CUNY, studies the way female masturbation can lead to feelings of empowerment. Her research shows that sexual empowerment is linked to female masturbation, and that women were more likely to gain feelings of empowerment if they were self-reported to be “more sexually efficacious, having higher genital self-image, and masturbating for sexual pleasure or to learn more about their bodies.” Bowman emphasizes the power that women can possess if they are occupying a more autonomous perspective of their sexuality, and granting themselves the opportunity to concentrate on their own sexual pleasure, rather than concerns “of pregnancy or pleasing a partner.” This study provides evidence that the inclusion of female pleasure and self-experimentation, outside of the purpose of reproduction, may be valuable and helpful for sex education programs. Many young women exhibit confusion and fear with their own sexuality, and introducing pleasure into the narrative may help change that.
“I am not afraid to tell a guy what I want in bed.”
Jade sits with one caramel-colored, freshly shaven leg bent up on her chair. Her legs are long and winding, and it is hard to identify where they begin and end in her pretzel-like position. Her dorm room is small and cramped. The generic gray paint on the popcorn walls is decorated with small black picture frames devoted to friends she’s made both at home and on campus. Her twin XL bed is too high to get into without taking a step onto the chair she now sits on, or making an exaggerated running-start jump from across the room. She laughs when she tells me how the “really good” guys get her up there with no trouble at all. She absent-mindedly prods at her black nose ring.
A tribal tapestry hangs on the wall above her bed, and the window behind the wood planked headboard is cracked open, letting in a draft. Small potted eucalyptus plants sit on the ledge. They are plastic— “for decoration,” she says. She uses her hands in swirling motions out in front of her as she speaks. Her tone is matter-of-fact, and she is at ease, as her shoulders rest low at her sides. Her passion for the subject is clear as she raises her voice and picks up tempo when declaring her believed sexual abnormality. But every so often she lowers her gaze to pick at her long spindly acrylic manicure, declaring a nonchalance, as if she’s saying it’s someone else’s loss.
Upon first glance, I took this gesture to be a sign of boredom, but when she did this action after every comment about societal expectations, it became clear that she was proving that she did not care if she was “abnormal.” She scrunches her eyebrows, indignant, as if to say, who’s “normal” is it? Such defiance suggests she was not always this confident. She feels defiant because she was at one point faced with opposition. She had been made to feel like she was not normal, and now expresses adamance. She talks with conviction as she discusses her experience navigating Muhlenberg after hours as a sexually-active female student. Her demeanor is cool and confident as she picks at the side of the nail of her middle finger, raising it slightly out in front of the rest. She knows she knows what she is talking about.
*All names were changed due to the sensitivity of the information divulged by the subjects
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