There are special designations and celebrations for every month of the year. October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. November is AIDS Awareness Month. February is Black History Month. There’s also National Hot Dog Month, Raptor Month, Play-the-Recorder Month and Potty Training Awareness Month. Yet sandwiched between Earth Month and Gay and Lesbian Pride Month is one of the most interesting and fun months of all: Masturbation May, a national celebration of self-love.
National Masturbation Month was created by the Good Vibrations retail store in San Francisco following the firing of U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders in 1994 for suggesting that information about masturbation should be included in sex education courses.
Although it began as a form of social activism, a way to speak out about masturbation and its benefits, Masturbation May has since evolved into a highly successful campaign to promote the business of masturbation—vibrators, “how-to” guides, educational workshops and pornography—as part of a healthy and happy sex life.
Masturbation has a long history of stigma, shame and misconceptions. In Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation, historian Thomas W. Laqueur argues that ideas about modern masturbation emerged quite powerfully in the early 18th century in the form of a new “disease” that required medical intervention. Masturbation was thought to cause blindness, madness and a host of other physical ailments and moral defects. By the mid-19th century there was a booming anti-masturbation market, including devices such as erection alarms, penis cases, sleeping mitts and hobbles to prevent girls from spreading their legs.
- Masturbation May Events and Resources
- • Self-Pleasuring For Women: The Art of Teasing and Pleasing Yourself May 22, 5-6:30 p.m., $20. Erotic Heritage Museum, 369-6442. Email [email protected] or call to reserve your spot. Limited spaces.
- • Sex For One: The Joy of Selfloving By Betty Dodson
- • Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation By Thomas W. Laqueur
The meanings associated with masturbation underwent a slow but steady transformation in the 20th century. In the 1960s and ’70s, masturbation was embraced by the women’s movement as a vital part of female sexuality and a stepping stone to sexual liberation. Feminists challenged Freud’s theory of sexual development, which posited that both masturbation and clitoral orgasms were infantile. They wrote books, held workshops and started vibrator businesses in an effort to reclaim masturbation as a feminist issue, turning the previous “anti-masturbation” market completely on its head.
“For the first time in history,” Laqueur writes, “masturbation was embraced as a mode of liberation, a claim to autonomy, to pleasure for its own sake, an escape from the socially prescribed path toward normal adulthood. It went from being the deviant sexuality of the wrong kind of social order to being the foundational sexuality of new sorts of imagined communities.”
National Masturbation Month is a by-product of these and other efforts to recast masturbation in positive terms. According to Charlie Glickman, the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations, Masturbation May provides a context for talking about masturbation. “The purpose behind National Masturbation Month is to break free from some of these stereotypes and misconceptions and to create a space where masturbation is not seen as a lesser option [but] just another option on the buffet table.”
There are many reasons to masturbate, Glickman explains. It’s fun. It feels good. It relieves stress. And it’s likely the safest sex you’ll ever have. Masturbation is also one of the best ways to learn about your body and discover what turns you on.
“[Masturbation] is an amazing way to discover what you like,” says Glickman. Bodies are unique and knowing what feels good is an important part of being able to communicate your likes and dislikes to a partner. Masturbation also helps individuals take responsibility for their own pleasure, so they aren’t solely dependent on a partner, or partners, for meeting their sexual needs. And finally, there’s truth to the adage, “Use it or lose it.” Evidence suggests that when people experience prolonged periods without engaging with their sexual responses, those responses diminish. According to Glickman, “Solo sex is a wonderful way to keep bodies happy, healthy and responsive.”
Markie Blumer, an assistant professor in the Marriage and Family Therapy Department at UNLV, builds upon many of these tenets when she talks about masturbation to students in her Human Sexuality class. Blumer introduces the topic of masturbation in the context of discussing a wide range of sexual behaviors and attitudes. She finds that masturbation creates a useful middle ground for talking about sexuality, especially among diverse groups of students with varying sexual backgrounds and experiences.
I ask Blumer if there are differences in how male and female students talk about masturbation. (This is, after all, a post-Sex and the City era.) Blumer claims that while it’s better, it still hasn’t leveled out. “Fourteen years ago, a woman uttering the word ‘masturbation’ was a big deal. Now I just get the sense that there’s still a big difference in exposure [to the subject of masturbation] for women.”
“With guys, there’s just an assumption they’ve masturbated,” Blumer continues. “Men will share openly that they’ve masturbated since they’ve been a teen. They’ll tell stories of ‘circle jerks’ or masturbating in front of other guys on a football or basketball trip.”
With women it’s a different story. Female students are more hesitant to talk about masturbation. For some, although certainly not all, it’s something they’ve never done or even thought about doing. “I thought that was for guys,” some have admitted to Blumer.
Attitudes such as these take time to shift. Which is why, 16 years after the first Masturbation May events were held, sex educators like Glickman contend that it’s as important as ever to talk openly about masturbation, debunk its myths and champion its benefits. “Until you don’t have to worry about getting fired for suggesting that masturbation might be part of sex education, we still have to do this work.”
For others, the meaning of Masturbation May is simpler. As one of my guy friends recently remarked: “Wow, a whole month to whack off without any guilt? Count me in.”
Lynn Comella is a Women’s Studies professor at UNLV.