A meme recently popped up in my Facebook newsfeed, boldly declaring, “May is Masturbation Month!” Obviously, it caught my eye and I enjoyed reading the funny replies. Yet, at the back of my mind, I knew many of those comments were nervous reactions to the “m-word,” and that this nervous discomfort is no doubt a part of what’s fuelling the current backlash to the changes in Ontario’s sex-education curriculum.
I understand the nervousness. Even parents like myself, who want our children to have the correct information about sex, sometimes feel a little awkward discussing the concept of physical self-love with our kids. Yet experts agree that very young children do touch themselves sexually out of curiosity and for pleasure.
As a teen, I heard a story of a mother walking in on her teenage son masturbating in his room, and then punished him by removing his bedroom door. Even then, I felt so much pity for that boy and vowed to myself that I would be much more open about sex when I had kids.
Ontario mom Jenny K.* recalls a trip to the mall pushing her toddler in a fold-up stroller. She began to notice strangers looking at her daughter, smiling with a funny look on their faces and then quickly looking away. Jenny peered over the top of the stroller to see her child smiling happily with her hands down the front of her pants. As embarrassed as she was to have strangers drawing conclusions about the situation, Jenny didn’t want to react in a way that would negatively affect her young daughter’s early concepts of sexuality. My kudos to her for simply leaning over and quietly telling her daughter that what she was doing probably felt good, and it was a normal thing many people do, but it was a private activity.
I agree with her and have had similar conversations with both my daughter and stepson. I don’t have moral, religious or personal influences affecting my attitudes and acceptance of masturbation, but even if I did, in a world of sexually-transmitted diseases, unplanned pregnancies and the suspicion of oppressed, repressed and suppressed sexual urges leading to sexual dysfunction, I would ask myself as a parent why I’d be opposed to educating my child early about the safety of satisfying their sexual urges independently. I get that some religions consider masturbation a sin, but on the sliding scale of sins, in my mind, touching your own body can’t be the worst. Some parents worry their kids are too young to know, or that their child will grow up to become a sexual “pervert” obsessed with masturbation. I’m guessing that many of their children who are older than toddlers have probably already experimented with touching themselves and may be feeling some guilt and confusion about their feelings and actions. Parental education and assurance instead of negative judgement about masturbation helps children have healthy sexual beliefs and actions.
I want my daughter to understand her body and her sexual desires and needs. I want her to know that sex—whether it’s with herself or a loving, respectful partner when she’s emotionally mature enough—isn’t dirty or bad. As a parent, I believe it’s my responsibility to positively shape my kids’ sexuality. Pretending not to notice their sexual awareness or chiding them for sexual behaviour instead of calmly educating them just creates a pathway to negative influences. I don’t want either of them to learn about masturbation or other aspects of sex from the Internet or misinformed friends.
I’m not suggesting you throw a “May is Masturbation Month” party or bake a cake to commemorate the cause, but as a parent, I’m using this month to examine my own thoughts and feelings on the subject to ensure I’ve done all I can in the best interests of my kids and their current ages and maturity levels. Having a well thought-out plan of what I wanted to tell my kids about masturbation meant I wasn’t caught off-guard when the opportunity arose to discuss it. I hope that in doing so, I’ve given them a blessing for harmless, normal and healthy sexual expression.
*Names have been changed for privacy
Jackie Gillard is a Toronto-area freelance writer with plenty to write about as the second wife to her second husband, mother to the daughter they adopted in South Africa and stepmother to a teenage boy. Check out her other Today’s Parent articles or tweet her at @PapayaJambalaya.