Masturbation deserves to be mentioned and normalized within the context of the classroom. Here's how you can help in your area.
By James Sheldon
[James Sheldon is a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, studying interdisciplinary computer science teaching.]
Despite the fact that almost all males and many females do it, masturbation is something schools almost universally do not even mention – even in the context of sex-education curricula. The mere suggestion is repugnant to many educators and to the general public – most of whom, ironically enough, masturbate themselves! Former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders was kicked out of office for suggesting that perhaps masturbation should be covered during school sex ed. Yet, as a respected and important part of sexuality, masturbation deserves to at least be mentioned and normalized within the context of the classroom. This guide is intended to assist you with the process of advocating for masturbation education as part of comprehensive sexuality education in your local public schools.
First, an important point: In most areas, if you simply went to the school board and said that children or even teenagers should be taught about masturbation as part of a sexuality-education curriculum, you would probably either have one of two reactions – an extremely shocked school board, or one that laughs you out of the room. On the other hand, advocating for comprehensive sexuality education, which by definition includes coverage of masturbation as being within the range of normal human sexual practices, is much more reasonable and possible.
Comprehensive sexuality education differs from fear-based "abstinence education" in several ways. Although it teaches that abstinence is the healthiest and safest option, it also gives information about contraceptives, gender roles, homosexuality, gender identity, values, and other related issues. Comprehensive sexuality education is fact-based and non-judgmental. Instead of forcing values on students, it encourages them to examine their own attitudes about sexuality.
SIECUS, which stands for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, has guidelines for comprehensive sexuality education, which include masturbation under the category of sexual behavior. Teaching about masturbation probably wouldn't mean providing JackinWorld-style how-to information, but rather explaining about self-stimulation and explaining that it is a completely normal and common sexual practice. Discussion about the values and ethical implications of masturbation might also reasonable.
The first step in advocating for comprehensive sexuality education would be to assess what is currently done. Is there already a comprehensive sexuality-education curriculum, following SIECUS guidelines, in place? Does the curriculum include a unit or section on masturbation? If not, the best place to start may be talking with the teachers responsible for the actual teaching of the curricula and finding out why it is not covered. Be sure to keep an open-minded, non-judgmental attitude at all times.
If there is not a program already in place, or there is a fear-based sexuality-education program in place, you clearly have much more work to do. An important first step is to build coalitions with local groups.
The UU Project Freedom of religion has the following suggestions:
* Think through your likely allies
* Build relationships
* Work on the issues at hand, but think in terms of the long haul
* You can't have everyone as an ally all of the time – for instance, broad-based coalitions on clearly focused issues, narrow coalitions on lots of issues, broad-based coalitions on many not-too-controversial issues, and temporary coalitions in response to egregious situations in the local community.
* Figure out what resources other organizations have that you don't * but be clear of your group's identity.
* Be clear about what you have to bring to the table – competency, knowledge and a willingness to learn, human connections, and activism.
For more information, see the SIECUS document Suggestions for Community Organizing.
You might investigate allying with Unitarian Universalist churches, United Church of Christ (Congregational) churches, civil rights groups, gay rights groups, abortion-rights groups, environmental groups, progressive groups, Democratic party organizations, Planned Parenthood chapters, local interfaith alliances, Interfaith Alliance chapters, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State chapters, and other similar groups.
When looking for allies, don't forget about parents, teachers, and students. Many parents want the school to be an ally in their efforts to help their kids learn about sexuality. Teachers, especially in the area of sexuality instruction, often feel constrained by the rules and restrictions places on them by the school system. School nurses or school psychologists might also be a good resource. And students may be important allies – talk to student governments, debate clubs, service clubs, young democrats, environmental groups – anything like that.
If you are a youth, all the better. Talk to your fellow students about these issues. Speak to your student government – get them to do something other than plan dances and Homecoming. Ask them to take a position on comprehensive sexuality education – possibly even with a formal vote. If you have a student board member on your school board, talk to them. In California, school districts that don't have a student board member can be forced to do so by a special petition process with a certain number of student signatures. For more info on this, contact the California Association of Student Councils at (510) 834-CASC.
When making any sort of presentation to a school board, keep in mind good public-speaking strategies. There are many good resources available to help you. Try the following:
If you have a moderate, reasonable, well-intending school board, you should be able to have a rational, calm discussion with them. There are a growing number of school boards, however, that have been taken over by the religious right.
Myths & Facts about Sexuality Education
Working with School Boards
Public Speaking Tips for People of Faith
SIECUS Public Speaking Tips
A few warning flags can help you spot these: turning down federal funds, negative talk about the federal government, elimination or curtailing of existing sexuality-education programs, talk about "back-to-basics," attacking the educational establishment and criticizing Goals 2000, mention of "outcome-based education," critcizing liberal education, instituting prayer at school-board meetings, talk of introducing prayer back into the schools, anti-gay rhetoric, and other similar signs.
If you have a conservative school board, dealing with them is probably beyond the scope of this document. Try contacting Americans United for Separation of Church & State, or People for the American Way, or the Unitarian Universalist Project Freedom of Religion (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org) for Advice. The most important thing you can do, though, is to vote in school board elections and get your supporters to do the same. Make sure to find out about the candidates – talk to them, send out questionnaires, go to candidates' forums, organize candidates forums' (the League of Women Voters can be a big help with this) – do whatever you can to find out where candidates stand and get the word out.
If you have a supportive school board, try to get them to adopt a comprehensive sexuality-education curricula. These include age-appropriate programs from grades K-12. In such a curriculum, masturbation probably would not be covered until middle school, but it may vary. Encourage the school to implement the program in its entirety.
One such program, known as Our Whole Lives, has been co-developed by the United Church of Christ and Unitarian Universalist Association. Our Whole Lives follows the SIECUS guidelines and is a secular program that can be used either in a church or school setting. There are no religious references in the program – only secular values presented in a non-judgmental, exploratory way. Copies of the Our Whole Lives curricula may be ordered through 1-800-215-9076 for a fee.
If you succeed in getting such a curriculum adopted, it's not over yet. Make sure to set up individual appointments with sexuality-education teachers in the schools, or with the committee or persons at the district level responsible for overseeing the program. Emphasize that the material on masturbation is extremely important. If necessary, use statistics and other facts to back up your point. Be sure to follow through to make sure they don't just delete the masturbation material from the curricula to avoid controversy. It is probably one of the most important parts of the curriculum – but of course, since you are reading this article, you presumably know that.
For additional information, see the following web sites:
The Interfaith Alliance
All About Sex – particularly the article "Why We Need Better Sex Education" and "The Politics of Masturbation"
National Coalition Against Censorship, particularly the article "Sex and Censorship"