Since I'm asked to speak at colleges about sex, I've become aware of the ways that today's young adults are different from those that came before.
This is the first generation whose view of the world has been shaped by videos that last for less than a minute. They consume massive amounts of information, but usually in short bursts that are between five and 250 words. They have seen porn on their laptops and phones since middle school, and they can't remember a time when couples didn't text or sext. The quality of the camera on their phones is more important than the sound. (Casual sex? No big deal. Some do, some don't.)
So I spent the past year trying to create a unique new talk that would capture the attention of today's college students who are used to texting and checking social media during lectures and presentations. With Wikipedia at their fingertips, I figured the last thing today's students would want to hear from me are the basics about sex.
And then it happened...
One week before I was off to North Carolina to give my new talk at two universities, a student reporter interviewed me. One of the questions she asked was whether I thought it was okay for women to masturbate.
What? To me as a sex educator, this was like asking if I thought it was okay for women to vote. Here I'd spent hundreds of hours trying to create a cutting-edge talk and, with this one question, the clock was suddenly turned back to 1950.
When I asked the reporter what she thought might be wrong with women masturbating, she said a lot of women thought it was nasty.
Nasty? It's North Carolina! I said to myself. That's what this question is about. It can't be true for women in the rest of the country. So I emailed a young woman who had graduated two years earlier from a fairly liberal college and was now working as a health educator at an even more liberal college.
"Melissa," I wrote, "tell me it ain't so!" Here was her response:
"I had a lot of friends who'd had sex multiple times with multiple partners and had never had an orgasm. When I asked them if they ever masturbated they would gasp like it was the nastiest thing ever. Then I would say well there's your problem... how is someone else supposed to get you off when the best person for the job has no idea?"
She said that just a few weeks before, an RA in the dorms had asked her to give a workshop on women's masturbation, because a lot of young women apparently don't think masturbation is a sensible thing for women to do. The RA got flack from students for scheduling this voluntary workshop — and this is a liberal college on the west coast.
I also checked in with an instructor at a highly-rated community college who uses my book in her popular sex education course. She said that young women think women's masturbation "is nasty indeed!" Many of today's young women will have sex as long as a penis is attached. But use their own fingers or a vibrator and all bets are off.
We live in a world where most people believe it's normal for young women to have sex. So why do a number of women today think that masturbation is nasty?
I blame it on the unfortunate state of sex education, which for many young adults is little more than a bizarre combination of abstinence-only curricula and porn. For women, this has resulted in a heavy dose of shame from the abstinence-only side of things, mixed with the idea taken from porn that the only good girl is a girl gone wild. In porn, good sex happens magically whenever a guy pulls out a penis.
Nowhere is there a healthy middle ground. We don't help young women understand how to become more comfortable with their sexual selves. No one is encouraging young women to explore their bodies on their own. No one is giving them permission to learn about their own sexual responsiveness without a partner present.
Needless to say, my college talk received some massive edits in the days before my flight to North Carolina. As talks go, it's still quite unique. But I’ve woven throughout it some very basic facts about sex that are surprisingly simple. This one of the challenges that we as sex educators face — how to weave simple and complex in a way that works for today’s younger generations.
How do you incorporate masturbation into your own sexual health curricula?