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Permanent link for Shame, Stigma, and Embarrassment surrounding Sex and Masturbation on January 26, 2021

Part of our Sex Ed Series

The world we live in conditions us to both want and fear sex, leading many people to struggle. Do they give into peer pressure and try to get laid? Do they listen to their parents and wait for marriage? And what about what they want? So much gets lost in the shame, stigma, and embarrassment surrounding sex and masturbation that sometimes we forget what it’s really supposed to be about: pleasure. 

Real Fears: Facts vs Myths?
Masturbation and sex are hidden from children and teens, so much so that we often don’t know basic facts from crazy myths. Some of the most common questions asked by teens reference scare tactics and old wives tales dating back centuries! Questions like:

  • “Will people be able to tell that I do it?”  
  • “Is there such a thing as too much masturbation?”
  • “Is it normal?”
  • “Is it okay to masturbate?”
  • “Will I go blind?”
  • “How do I stop feeling guilty after I do it?”
  • “...it’s easy enough for guys, but how do girls do it without seriously hurting ourselves?”

These questions show the fears and stigma surrounding sex and masturbation that teens and young adults today still hold onto. Unfortunately, these questions reflect very real fears for a lot of people and these fears can hold people back from having fun, safe experiences and being in healthy relationships. In fact, 50% of men and 50% of women who masturbate feel guilty about it; yet masturbation is a healthy and normal part of human development, and generally leads to a better sex life as well.

Sex Sells - So Why is There Stigma?
Misinformation, stigma, and shame can be propagated by the media and the Internet, which are both endless sources of videos and pictures of hypersexualized women and domineering men. This can lead to the idea that women are only used for sex, but are not able to desire or seek out sex or pleasure on their own. Additionally, it feeds into common language and slang which puts down women in a derogatory manner and hypes up men, even though both individuals may be participating in the same sexual behaviors. This kind of divisive and gendered vernacular has led to a society where young girls feel less sure of themselves and their bodies than young boys do. Girls are much more worried about getting caught with a hand down their pants than perhaps their brother is, and they are shielded from dating and sex for as long as possible by parents and other authority figures. Overall, women are oversexualized and expected to be able to pleasure their partners during sex, yet at the same time their own pleasure is disregarded and female masturbation is extremely taboo. These double standards only hurt women in the long run, fetishizing them and causing them to be less prepared for future sexual encounters as they have had less time to learn their own bodies for themselves first. 

Men also face sex-oriented stigma, often centered around the pressure to have sex and be good at sex. Boys who are not interested in sex or are “late bloomers” can be teased and shamed for their lack of experience in the bedroom. This ties into toxic masculinity, which is the concept that certain societal expectations placed on men influence their feelings and behaviors. Men experiencing toxic masculinity can feel like they have to act a certain way in order to fit in and be what they believe is expected of them. However this mindset can be harmful, both to the boy and those around him. Like everyone else, boys deserve to explore their own needs and desires at their own pace and not feel pressured to engage in activities they don’t want to do, or before they’re ready to do them. Men don’t always have to be the dominant or experienced partner, and they’re allowed to express their vulnerabilities during sex. Engaging in a culture that encourages boys to hide their feelings and measures their worth based on their “body count” will only serve to lessen self-esteem and further expectations. 

This Isn’t New: The History of Sex Shaming
Sex shaming has been occurring since the times of Ancient Greece, where the people believed the art of masturbation came from the god Hermes. Even in this ancient society where nudeness abounded, masturbation and sex were decreed private acts. The philosopher Diogenes disagreed  and masturbated in public to show his fellow Greeks that no human activity was so shameful that  it required privacy. His message, however, was not well received and he was banned for his actions. 

The Christian Church has also been averse to self-pleasure and any other kind of non-marital, non-proceative sex. Instead of calling the practice masturbation, the Church preferred the terms beastliness, self-abuse, and “the most detestable sin”. These sex-negative teachings from the Middle Ages had great influence on Western attitudes, as they still do today. This influence stretched from families, schools, and even to doctors, who began to assume the moralist ideas of the Church. 

By the 18th century, the Church’s attitudes were taken up by many medical professionals. A “post-masturbation disease” was coined, as well as the notion that masturbation would lead to “uncleanness” and excessive semen loss. It was also believed in this time period that practicing masturbation or pre-marital sex would “blunt the finer sensibilities for coitus in wedlock”. Many practitioners’ beliefs lined up with those of priests, as they believed that engaging in sinful activity would lead to physical and mental impairments and injury. 

The 19th century didn’t lend much to the way of advancements. Doctors recommended bandaging of the genitals, tying one’s hands to the bedpost overnight, straightjackets, castration, removal of the clitoris, and burning with a hot iron as treatments for masturbation. Furthermore, parents were recommended to keep their daughters home as often as possible and keep their sons involved in all-male activities, such as sports or the military, to keep them out of the bedroom. Parents would also encourage their children to practice abstinence (often through extreme measures) and marry them off as quickly as possible. 

As for the 20th century, expressing sexuality was still repressed and was viewed as lewd and unrespectable. Innocence and purity were highly valued in America and to engage in sexual activity before or outside of marriage would effectively ruin one’s reputation and social standing. It wasn’t until 1972 that the American Medical Association pronounced masturbation as a normal practice, and not until the mid-1970’s that sex became accepted as a more common practice. 

Sex Education Matters
Shame and embarrassment are closely related and are both due to the lack of cultural acceptance and the taboo surrounding sex and masturbation. Combined with the fact that most teens do not receive comprehensive sex education, if any sex education at all, most teens and adults in America are not prepared to broach this subject. The truth of the matter is that masturbation and sex are healthy for you and your body if you choose to engage in them. They can help you release tensions and stress, help you to learn your body and what you like best, provide an outlet for fantasies, and ultimately aids a person in developing sexually naturally. 

It is important for children, teens, and young adults to learn about sex and receive sex education because this will help them be more prepared and knowledgeable for their future lives. They will be able to make better and more informed decisions, help out friends or peers who have questions, and ensure that they are keeping themselves safe and healthy. It will also allow them to realize when they are entering a situation they might not want to be in - such as a hookup with someone who won’t use protection, or a date with someone who isn’t respecting their level of consent. Sex education is more than just watching a teacher put a condom on a banana. It’s also learning about healthy and unhealthy relationship signs, where and how to get tested for STIs, communication skills, and better understanding your body and its anatomy. 

It is also important for parents and adults to receive sex education, and to know about sexual development in humans. Schools might not always teach a young person everything they need or want to know, and Google isn’t the safest or most accurate place to turn to. That means an awkward talk with Mom or Dad (or other trusted adult) might be the safest bet a kid has to get the right information. And home life is super important in shaping a person’s relationship with sex and sexuality, especially when a person is younger. Interference with children’s discovery of their bodies as a source of pleasure is one of the main causes for failure to reach sexual satisfaction in adulthood. As kids and teens become more sexually aware, they can become interested or anxious about masturbation due to the amount of contradicting information they hear about it. They may need help understanding that masturbation is a positive sexual behavior, and that assurance may need to come from parents/adults at home. In this sense, parents or guardians should be just as educated and prepared as their kids so they are able to help them navigate the questions they may have and the things they may encounter.

Normalizing Sex and Masturbation
Due to a general lack of comfort and information about masturbation and sex, especially for teens, the topics tend to be embarrassing and avoided at all costs. However, if we truly want to end the stigma around sex and pleasure, we need to just realize that these behaviors are healthy and normal and most of us do them. Whether we talk about them or not, post about it on Instagram or not, most people will lock themselves in the shower or in their bedroom to have a little “me” time at some point. If we can work to normalize these behaviors and conversations about these behaviors, we can make it easier for people to ask questions, learn new things, figure out when something’s wrong, and have fun! It’s normal for us to have sex drives, desires, and fantasies - so it’s also completely normal to then act on them! No one could just walk around being horny forever. Sex and masturbation can be embarrassing, but there is nothing to be ashamed about as long as all parties involved are consenting and happy (even if you’re the only party). 

P.S. Single and embarrassed to masturbate? 
Here’s a study for you: “People who have regular sex partners, live with their sex partners, and/or are married, are more likely to masturbate than people without sexual partners and/or who live alone. This disproves the notion that adults who masturbate are sexual failures who lack the social skills to find sex partners or that masturbation is a behavior only for individuals who don’t have partners or who are otherwise sexually deprived.” So masturbation is not just for when you’re single or lonely, and it doesn’t mean that you’re not good enough to be with someone else. Masturbation is for you to get to know yourself, make yourself feel good, and be horny. ;) 

By: Beck Lukins, WIT Peer Educator

Source: Planned Parenthood Fact Sheet: From Stigma to Sexual Health

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Page last modified January 26, 2021