Critical Social Psychologist Christin Bowman Talks Sex, Masturbation, Media, and Schools
Dr. Christin Bowman grew up in Michigan. She attended K through 12 in Okemos and later went to the University of Michigan for college. At the time, Bowman thought she would eventually go to medical school. She did the pre-med track and studied biopsychology and music. “I couldn’t make up my mind,” Bowman said.
After graduating college Bowman joined Teach for America. She was sent to New York City and taught high school biology to ninth graders in the Bronx for two years, an experience which led her to want to study sexuality in grad school. “I was teaching ninth graders biology and realized that they didn’t have a sex ed class anywhere in their curriculum. I think maybe it got touched on a little bit in their health class, but there was nothing standardized or institutionalized for it.”
There was a reproduction unit in her biology curriculum, so Bowman decided to expand on it and make it a week-long sex ed class. “I created my own curriculum because I really felt like my kids needed it.”
A lot of her students were already sexually active or were thinking about being sexually active. They had lots of questions but nowhere to go. This was 2006, so the internet was around, but there were still not as many reliable sources that were easily accessible. Plus, Bowman noted, it’s different to learn sex ed in school than to have to look it up on your own.
Teaching her week-long sex ed course revealed how little information her students had as ninth graders. “They had so many questions and they were so uninformed. Above all else, they really needed support,” Bowman said. The experience sparked her interested in studying sexuality, adolescent sexuality in particular.
After two years, a budget issue at her school caused her to be let go. For the next year, Bowman worked as a med school recruiter while she looked around for programs where she could do sexuality research. She found the professor who ended up being her advisor, Deborah Tolman, a well-known figure in the field of adolescent sexuality, especially girls’ sexuality. Tolman’s book, “Dilemmas of Desire” is considered a groundbreaking account of adolescent sexuality both inside and outside of academic circles. Bowman applied to the CUNY Graduate Center, where Tolman was teaching, and was accepted.
Bowman ended up branching off of adolescent sexuality and mostly researched women’s masturbation throughout her grad school years.
For her independent work, she was looking for something that was really under-researched and unique – something she could make a bigger mark on. She recalled sitting in one of the conference rooms at the grad center, racking her brain about what she wanted to do her Master’s thesis on, when one of her other professors, Michelle Fine, came in.
“She has this really breezy energy about her,” Bowman said. “She would just breeze into the room. She goes, ‘What are you doing?’ And I was like, ‘Ah, I’m so stressed out, I don’t know what I want to write my thesis on.’ And she’s like, ‘You know, I always thought people should do some more work on masturbation.’ And then she just breezed back out of the room, just like that. And I instantly thought: masturbation, oh my God, I’d never thought of that, that’s really interesting.”
After looking into the subject more, Bowman found the amount of research available on women’s masturbation “abysmal.” The reason is likely due to the fact that masturbation is still relatively taboo. “It’s stigmatized in our society today, but it has a long history of being stigmatized,” Bowman added. The social stigma scares people away, and not just the researchers. It can be difficult to get people to participate in research or to be honest about their experiences when a subject is really taboo.
As for the research on masturbation that was already available, Bowman found that it tended to shine a spotlight on the stigma, making the findings more about stigma than masturbation itself, which might arguably result in its perpetuation.
“The questions I’d see on old studies were like, how often do you feel ashamed about masturbating?” Bowman explained. “Whereas, I wanted to do research that asked things like, how often to do you feel empowered and awesome about masturbating?”
And that’s what she did when she surveyed 765 American women on the subject of masturbation. Most of the women who participated were under 30 years old, white, and educated with at least a bachelor’s degree. Bowman found that the majority of the women in her study reported feeling sexually empowered in relation to masturbating. Participants were more likely to feel this way if they also reported being more “sexually efficacious” (feeling entitled to pleasure and in control during sex), having higher “genital self-image” (i.e., not being ashamed of their own genitals and/or thinking they’re ugly/gross), and masturbating either for sexual pleasure or to learn more about their bodies.
“Women’s Masturbation: Experiences of Sexual Empowerment in a Primarily Sex-Positive Sample” was published in Psychology of Women Quarterly in 2014, the first study to officially link masturbation with feelings of sexual empowerment. In the conclusion of her study, Bowman cited the forced resignation of Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders in 1994 because of her suggestion that masturbation could be taught in schools as a safe alternative to partnered sex. Bowman implores clinicians and policy makers to reinforce to girls and women that masturbation is a normal and healthy practice, and a great way to feel pleasure and learn about their bodies.
Bowman built upon this research, eventually publishing a greater body of work on masturbation in 2017 as part of her doctoral thesis.
Bowman weaves feminist theory into her analyses of sexuality, and part of that is taking a critical look on the impact the media has on women’s and girls’ experience. “Media is one of the biggest mirrors of our society, but it’s also a driver of society. It doesn’t just reflect back cultural norms – it actually manufactures some of the biggest ideas that we live by.”
When she looked into media representation of masturbation, she found that the little there was usually tended to be negative, or at the very least, embarrassing, and predominately male. And while we often think about representation as either positive and negative, Bowman says another way to think about it is whether it’s light or heavy.
“Sexual topics seem to carry this weight – they’re so serious and heavy. You very rarely see masturbation – especially when it’s a woman – portrayed as just no big deal, just like another thing, like something else I like to do. ‘I like to eat potato chips and watch TV and I like to jerk off, it’s not a big deal.’” One can’t help but think about the simultaneously silly and yet highly intense masturbation scene in Black Swan…
Women’s bodies are so often portrayed as sexual objects, and Bowman has investigated the impact that digesting that kind of media can have on women’s and girls’ body image, sexual health, sexual psychological wellness, etc. Bowman posits that much of the shame experienced by girls and women results from a lack of representation in the media, and a lack of discussion in everyday life.
“I tend to want to talk about things that don’t get talked about enough. That’s part of my interest in masturbation: we don’t talk about it and I would like us to talk about it. I had a miscarriage – which is another thing women don’t like to talk about – and I like to talk about that, too. STIs are another area of sexuality that are under-addressed, and I’d like to see more discussion around that. It’s perfectly normal and common to be living with an STI, and it’s too bad that we as a society are not ready to recognize that.
“Talking helps to reduce stigma and feelings of shame. It helps people realize that they’re not the only ones who have thought these things, or the only ones who’ve experienced these things. None of us are as alone as we think we are. So, the more we can talk about things in honest ways, and the more we can provide reliable, accurate information to people, the better it is for everybody.”
Bowman earned her doctorate in Critical Social Psychology with a certificate in Women’s Studies in 2017. Afterwards, she moved to Lawrence, Kansas, her “awesome liberal blue bubble in a sea of red.” She does evaluation work as part of a fellowship, and is working with Let’s Talk Lawrence, a nonprofit that provides sex ed to local high schools and parent. She, along with her advisor and another student, recently submitted a paper on adolescent sexuality.
Bowman doesn’t know yet if she’ll apply to professorships. Right now, she’s content with her work, both professionally and within her family, and – like many of us – is trying to figure out how to find balance in her life.