Youth are exposed to sex early and often. Comprehensive sex education should be taught at an early age because it is important not to shame people or hide the facts. Educating high school students about all aspects of their sexuality teaches them to feel comfortable about their bodies, and one hopes, by extension, all of their abilities, choices, and perspectives. Knowledge and self-awareness are critical to one’s sense of agency.
Even though all teens begin masturbating at an early age, and often feel embarrassed and ashamed about it, when we become adults, it is males who tend to be empowered to talk about their sexual practices, while females sit in silence. This embarrassment is the primary reason we decided to advocate for more inclusive sex education and a more open dialogue about masturbation. We know that healthy choices and respectful behavior are the products of a mind that has been nourished by knowledge and confidence in oneself. Trusting individuals to make the right choices about their own bodies and sexualities is crucial to empowering women. But because we are trained to think of our bodies as objectified and publicly displayed, we are taught to believe masturbation is inappropriate, disgraceful, and certainly not practiced by “ladies.”
The focus solely on the structure and function of reproductive organs in sexual education promotes heteronormativity and patriarchy by ignoring the role of sexual pleasure for females and by focusing on sex as being solely for reproductive purposes. This method of education encourages children and teens to think of themselves as agents of biological reproduction rather than as individuals with agency of their own. It is not taught that there is a female organ specifically for the purpose of pleasure! This, to us, is an outrage.
In our first semester of the Gender and Women’s Studies graduate program at Minnesota State University Mankato, we were required to take a course titled Collective Action. In this class we collaborated to create a community activist project. In our discussions, we all agreed on the need to empower sexuality, especially for females. We all shared experiences of inadequate sexual education in our high schools. Once we began research into adolescents and sexuality, we realized that many problems with the sex education curriculum stemmed from the language teachers were required to use. An abstinence-only approach to sexual education is supported widely in Minnesota and nationwide. Wanting to challenge the conversation and being aware of the conservative environment of Minnesota, we chose to focus on masturbation as a safe expression of sexuality and as an alternative form of abstinence. That was how we came to start Teach Safe Touch. Even as graduate students in a gender and women’s studies program, we were apprehensive about discussing such a taboo topic, but we believed in the importance of this dialogue.
We decided to start in our college campus community, since most of the students had recently graduated high school and their experiences with sex education were still fresh in their minds. We became a registered student organization, created a petition to submit to the Minnesota Legislature, and started promoting our project as the collective Teach Safe Touch. We expanded our audience beyond the campus community by developing a website and social media presence, visiting local businesses and other sexual health organizations, meeting with the school board and curriculum director of the Mankato School District, and talking to community members and parents. In short, our project quickly gained momentum and became a highly-discussed approach to sex education reform.
Because of the current social and political trend towards conservatism – witness the unfolding War on Women, which reaches new milestones of outlandishness each week (the latest twist has anti-choice groups protesting outside fertility clinics) – the fight for comprehensive sex education is an uphill one. However, we will continue to advocate for the health and dignity of all by challenging the current Minnesota sex education curriculum to include masturbation as a safe-sex alternative, and to promote healthy and fulfilled sexual identities.
To learn more about Teach Safe Touch’s campaign, visit their website and follow them on Twitter at @TeachSafeTouch.