Can We Talk About Sex Positively?

In 1994, Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders was invited to speak at a United Nations conference on AIDS, and when directly asked her opinion on masturbation as a safer sex strategy, answered with what turned out to be too much common sense: "I think that it is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught."

Obviously, what Elders meant was that sexual health education programs should address masturbation, teaching that the widespread, harmless practice is, well, both widespread and harmless. But Republican opponents conjured up hysterical images of classrooms full of teenage girls being stripped naked and judged on their vibrator-wielding technique, and the controversy proved too much for the cowardly Clinton administration, who let Elders go. In 1994, the price of admitting that sex is about pleasure was getting canned, but surely in the 15 years since then, people have come around a little more to common sense, right?

Well, yes and no. No, because no one has gotten fired from prominent public health positions for admitting they know about a practice embraced by over 90% of the public (and a handful of liars). On the flip side, as the experts RH Reality Check recently invited to live chat about the language of sex pointed out, there’s still a strong tendency, even amongst self-identified sex-positive activists, to use the "disease, disaster, dysfunction" language for sex education. The problem with this is that most people experience sex in positive terms. As healthy as orgasms are, people aren’t having orgasms for their health. Discussions about sex that incorporate pleasure, fun, and relationships attract a lot more attention than those that focus merely on the possible negative outcomes, even if you’re focusing on minimizing them. You only have to look at Dan Savage’s popularity to confirm this reality.

Of course, talking about sexual pleasure, particularly with young people, is embarrassing and that’s why sexual health advocates sometimes shy away from the topic outside of parenthetically acknowledging that people will have sex whether the anti-choice movement likes it or not (because it’s fun). And really, it’s fine to be a little embarrassed about the topic; I’m blushing as I write this. Young people don’t need sex educators to try and fail to be hip or daring, but what they do need is for sex educators to be frank about why people want to have sex, and to let young people know that they’re well within their rights to desire sexual pleasure and that it’s a natural part of being human and not shameful at all.

With this reality in mind, the Centre for HIV and Sexual Health at NHS Sheffield has published a pamphlet called “Pleasure” to instruct parents and educators how to talk to teenagers about sexual pleasure in ways that reaffirm teenagers’ self-regard and don’t cause everyone to run for the hills with embarrassment. The pamphlet’s materials are what any reasonable person would consider tame: acknowledge the existence of the clitoris, teach kids that masturbation is not only harmless but good for your health, and teach kids that trusting, consensual experimentation is part of the fun of having sex (and has the side benefit of teaching them ways to delay intercourse, like engaging mutual masturbation or oral sex). We’ve all benefited from learning this stuff, if we learned it, so why be stingy with teenagers?

Unfortunately, as Joycelyn Elders’ firing 15 years ago demonstrates, many people will not allow common sense or concern for teenagers’ health to get in the way of having a leg-flinging temper tantrum over the fact that teenagers, as they have since the beginning of time, enjoy sexual pleasure as much as adults. You’d think after eons of trying to change this by pouting and screaming, reactionaries would realize that you’re never going to make teenagers asexual, but sadly, this isn’t how reactionary politics work.

No, instead British conservatives resorted to a misinformation campaign, accusing the NHS of child abuse, lying about the contents of the pamphlet by claiming that they’re distributed to children directly (instead of to adults to teach them to work with kids) or claiming that the pamphlet encourages kids to have sexual intercourse every day. Obviously, it does no such thing and it’s obvious that the emphasis on masturbation and other sexual activities are there to help adults teach kids that they can do other things besides intercourse. But as the Elders example shows, reactionaries can be counted on to panic over masturbation as if it was some boutique perversion. At the end of the day, the most routine way to set off conservative alarm bells is to suggest that people, especially young people, have a right to a private sexual life outside of right wing control.

Indeed, since the pointless panic attacks of reactionaries will never change, those of us who sincerely want better sexual health outcomes for young people need to start tuning them out and doing what’s right, regardless of who throws a temper tantrum or lies about it. And what’s right is talking about sex in a way that makes it clear to your audience that you even know what it’s all about.

And contrary to the lurid claims of reactionaries, admitting what kids already know—that sex is fun and that’s why people do it—won’t entice kids to have sex and younger ages. Responsible discussions about sexual pleasure can drive home the message that if it’s not fun for you, then you’re not ready yet.

Director Steve Slack indicated as much:

"Far from promoting teenage sex, it is designed to encourage young people to delay losing their virginity until they are sure they will enjoy the experience," he said.

When we tell kids that sex is about pain and fear and misery, then when they’re young and they’re in painful, scary situations—such as having sex before they’re ready or having sex without proper protection—they won’t have the tools to say, “Hey this isn’t how it’s supposed to be.” It’s this bit of common sense we need to cling to as sex-phobes try to shut down rational discourse through knee-jerk anti-sex hysterics.

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  • invalid-0

    My favorite retort for those who oppose teaching masturbation is, “So, you’d rather these kids have real sex instead? Why are you so gung-ho about promoting promiscuity?”

    Comprehensive sex ed has many good arguments in its favor, but masturbation is a no-brainer. It needs to be part of the curriculum, and the voices that speak out against it need to be ridiculed and marginalized.

    • invalid-0

      amen to your comment brother. it’s time to take the taboo of sex and masturbation away. it’s gettin old and ridiculous.

    • ajbaluyut

      Explain to children that masturbation and the exploration of their bodies as sexual beings is normal, and when approached in a healthy manner, should be encouraged. Can we also add how to stop masturbation to the subject and this time it’s for adult.

      The fact that masturbation is "encouraged" as normaland healthy by a majority of educators and secular leaders todaydefinitely does not mean that the majority viewpoint is the correctone—the opposite is more likely to be true.


  • invalid-0

    I totally agree that masturbation should be part of sex education. It should also be taught that one is not “guilty” or “dirty” for masturbating. This misconception is a large problem especially throughtout the Biblebelt. I remember in my teens their was no sex education in public schools throughout the South. Speaking the word masturbate was as bad as any curseword around. Through real education I am hopeful this image will change and people will realize how foolish this has all been for the past few centuries.

  • heather-corinna

    Just a couple little niggles?


    "Real" sex and "promiscuity" are both terms I think are HUGE barriers to framing sex positively. 


    Masturbation is real sex, it’s just not partnered sex. The idea that a partner, and only a partner, makes sex "real" is really problematic in a whole lot of ways, especially for young people.  For young women, that tends to result in the idea that partners "give" them their sexuality; for young men it tends to be about a need to "get" sex to prove they are valid, worthy and real.


    And I can never help but ask someone when they use the term promiscuity what on earth that term really MEANS, and to address that what it means to people is not only often incredibly relative and arbitrary, but that it is laden with personal value judgments about what kinds of sex or sexual relationships are morally acceptable (as if we all agreed on that, or had the same life experiences) and which are not.

  • invalid-0

    “Real” sex and “promiscuity” are both terms I think are HUGE barriers to framing sex positively.

    Oh, I know. The retort is meant to denigrate the anti-masturbation view with the same sort of logic and tone as it uses to attack the pro- side. It’s deliberately brainless, well into O’Reilly territory—“oh, you’re against masturbation, which means you’re for kids having wild sexual orgies! We don’t want your kind here!”

    It has no place in a meaningful discussion. But then, neither does the view that masturbation should be avoided.

  • invalid-0

    This one comment about masturbation isn’t what cost Elders her job in the Clinton administration. This was but one of a number of provocative things — like “we’ve been teaching kids what to do in the front seat of cars for years, it’s time we teach them what to do in the back seat” — she said.

    All of them needed to be said, but let’s face it, Elders was a lightning rod for controversy. And the Clinton administration had already had the crap kicked out of it over gays in the military, health reform, the budget, and others. The real outrage around the job of Surgeon General was the Clinton’s failure to really fight for Henry Foster when his nomination was being opposed by the Republican Senate.

  • clydweb

    great piece Amanda! If only more common sense could be injected into all discussions of reproductive and sexual health.

    And THANK YOU! Heather! right on, as always!

  • invalid-0

    what is masturbation healthy?

    • crowepps

      Health Benefits for Men

      Research summarized in a 2007 article in Sexual and Relationship Therapy found that masturbation may help men by:

      — Improving his immune system’s functioning.

      — Building his resistance to prostate gland infection.

      — Making for a healthier prostate.

      Australian researchers have reported that frequent masturbation may lower a man’s risk of developing prostate cancer. A survey of men found the more frequently a man masturbates between the ages of 20 and 50, the less likely they are to get prostate cancer. In fact, those who masturbated more than five times a week were one-third less likely to develop prostate cancer.

      Health Benefits for Females

      When it comes to a woman’s health, self-pleasuring serves her well by:

      — Building her resistance to yeast infections.

      — Combating pre-menstrual tension and other physical conditions associated with their menstrual cycles, like cramps.

      — Relieving painful menstruation by increasing blood flow to the pelvic region. This will also reduce pelvic cramping and related backaches.

      — Relieving chronic back pain and increasing her threshold for pain.

      Health Benefits for Both Sexes

      Masturbation rewards both men and women because it’s:

      — The safest kind of sex, keeping you free of sexually transmitted infections.

      — A great form of stress relief.

      — A mood booster in releasing endorphins.

      — A natural sleep sedative.

      — A mechanism for building stronger pelvic floor muscles, which can lead to better sex.

      — A natural energetic pick-me-up.,2933,401722,00.html


      Medically proven damage to physical health caused by masturbation: none.

  • invalid-0

    Another great piece Amanda. And Heather, you never rest do you? Your passion is amazing.

  • heather-corinna

    I do, just not as much as I probably should. :)  I appreciate the recognition, though: thanks!

  • invalid-0

    we are already post sex revolution talking about sex in any way is not a big deal casininio

  • invalid-0

    Can we also add how to stop masturbation to the subject

    Why? Because you are personally uncomfortable with masturbation?

    The fact that masturbation is “encouraged” as normaland healthy by a majority of educators and secular leaders todaydefinitely does not mean that the majority viewpoint is the correctone—the opposite is more likely to be true.

    What opposite viewpoint? That masturbation is disordered and harmful? What’s next, are you going to tell us that homosexuality is a mental disease or something?