Originally published in Pittsburgh City Paper.
This week marks the close of International Masturbation Month. Dedicating time to celebrate masturbation may seem trivial, but the month has political roots that are particularly significant given the current attempts to repress sexual freedom and bodily autonomy.
In 1994, after a speech at the United Nation World AIDS Day, then-Surgeon General, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, was asked about masturbation’s potential for discouraging risky sexual behavior. She answered, “I think that is something that is a part of human sexuality and it’s a part of something that perhaps should be taught. But we’ve not even taught our children the very basics.”
This statement led to an intense moral panic, with conservative commentators mischaracterizing her statement, even suggesting that, if she had her way, dildos would be introduced into elementary school classrooms. The masturbation comments led to her forced resignation. You read that right: In 1994, talking about masturbation in a positive light was still radical enough to provoke a major political backlash.
The next year, founders of San Francisco sex toy shop Good Vibrations organized a national masturbation month. Dr. Lynn Comella, author of Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Change the Business of Pleasure, reflects on the continuing impact of this event, saying, “Masturbation May has been a highly effective way to get people talking about the positive benefits of masturbation, both in terms of overall sexual health and sexual esteem.”
Indeed, if it seems shocking that the U.S. Surgeon General would be forced to resign because she suggested that masturbation has benefits, it is because this campaign has changed the way we talk about masturbation over the past 24 years. Additionally, the explosion of the sex toy market, which has made a business of selling masturbatory aids, has done a lot to normalize masturbation. It is no small thing that sex toy parties — like Tupper Ware parties but focused on masturbation practices and information — have become more mainstream.
Given this massive cultural shift, it is worth asking what significance May Masturbation month still has, and in what ways we as a culture are still conflicted about masturbation. I believe that while we are really good at talking about masturbation as a source of pleasure, self-discovery, and stress relief outside of the context of relationships, we still have a significant number of hang-ups when it comes to the masturbatory habits of our sexual partners. Indeed, I have heard people who were angry when they “caught” their partner masturbating, or hurt when they found that their partner still masturbated. Some have characterized it as cheating, and others have lamented their own perceived inadequacy.
However, both solo and mutual masturbation within the context of romantic/sexual relationships can be really beneficial to the relationship: Solo masturbation as an important space of self-pleasure and discovery that doesn’t require the negotiation and compromise of partnered sex; and mutual masturbation as a space where you can teach your partner how you like to be touched. Being open to toys or other forms of stimulation such as pornography goes a long way in opening sexual communication and creativity within your partnership, expanding the range of sex that is possible, and making it more pleasurable for both partners. Don’t we want our partners to experience as much pleasure as possible?
We have come a long way since the inception of May Masturbation Month in 1995. The fact that, 24 years later, it is still something we are exploring points to how important self-love is for our well-being. In Comella’s words, “The fact that Masturbation May has had such staying power as a month worth celebration, and enjoying, is nothing short of remarkable.” Fortunately, we can carry this spirit throughout the rest of the year, both on our own, and with our partners.