As you can probably surmise by the title, this post discusses masturbation.
Deenie didn’t make me masturbate.
That is important to know, right up front, even before knowing what this post is about.
For folks who didn’t know, the American Library Association’s 2011 Banned Books Week runs from September 24 through October 1.
For folks who didn’t know, the main reason Judy Blume’s novel Deenie is challenged is because it discusses an adolescent girl’s masturbation. Even though Deenie didn’t make me masturbate.
But let’s back up a moment or a few decades.
Between grades 5 and 12, I attended conservative fundamentalist religious schools.
Somewhere in either grade 5 or 6, I acquired a copy of Deenie from some book sale somewhere. My mom bought it for me. (For any of the ways my parents and I clashed, they always allowed me to read whatever books I wanted. Because, you know, reading. Books.) Like every other book I read during the school year, I brought Deenie to school. I read it before school, after school, and during indoor recess. (Note to all: Indoor recess in Michigan is boring as odorless shit.) I did not read in class, I am sure; I was not brave enough for that until my sophomore year of high school.
But I read Deenie. In school. At one point, a classmate asked me about it. I said it was about a girl who wanted to be a model but was recently diagnosed with scoliosis.
Note how there is no masturbation in my one-sentence summary.
Though, yes, there is masturbation in the novel. One issue Deenie, the main character, works through is that she has a “special place” on her body where she touches herself, and it makes her feel good. At some point, one of her teachers — maybe her health or PE teacher? — reads Deenie’s anonymous question (via non-digital drop-box) and identifies the behavior as masturbation.
And that rocked my world.
That is the moment where I recognized that I have been masturbating since I was approximately five years old. More importantly — that there was a name for this thing I was doing and that it is normal. In all honesty, I didn’t identify with the “special place” descriptor at that point because what I was doing didn’t make me feel particularly good. (Not that it made me feel bad, but it was more neutral-release oriented than it was sexual-pleasure oriented.) But it was incredibly validating to recognize that I was engaging in a behavior that was normal and understood and part of a healthy development.
For a decade or more of my life, I’d had no word for masturbation. For five or more years of my life, I’d been routinely engaging in a behavior — that I hadn’t understood and that I’d tried to hide from people without understanding why — for which I had no name.
I want to make this clear: For at least five years of my live, I had no word for this behavior but was regularly engaging in it anyway.
In other words, Deenie did not make me masturbate, did not even plant the seminal idea of masturbation in my mind. I had that covered half a decade beforehand.
What Deenie did do was give me a name for my activities, along with a cultural context in which this activity — and I — was normal and acceptable. In a place where my parents did not tell me, my friends did not know, and I could not ask my teachers, this novel gave me the power of language — to name my activities for what they were and to proceed with my life accordingly.
I never mentioned this to anyone at school, I am certain. In the novel, some of the adolescent characters don’t accept masturbation as an okay thing. My place in the social hierarchy of school was not so secure that I could afford to have my classmates think of me like that.
Yet at some point when I was more than halfway through the book but less than approaching the very end, a (female) teacher approached me and asked me not to bring the book anymore. “It’s not appropriate for a Christian school.”
At this school, the same folks who taught adding fractions and sentence fragments also taught the finer points of salvation and going to hell. Being told that this book was Not Okay for school, while not government-sponsored censorship, nonetheless had a chilling effect on me. Not only did I stop bringing Deenie to school, but when I read in the future, I questioned whether it was safe for me to be seen reading those at school either.
Technically, Deenie was never banned or even formally challenged in my school. Because she didn’t have to be. What did happen was that adults used a climate of social and religious dogma to remove material they deemed “objectionable” from public sight and discussion — even though that “public” was middle-schoolers and the material was by and large appropriate for its audience.
Certainly — as a non-government institution telling one of its students not to bring a particular book to school — this was 100% within the scope of the First Amendment. My school had the right to make this rule for me, but that didn’t make the rule right.