One night, when I was about 13-years-old, my dad caught me doing unspeakable things to myself and said, "You know, if you keep that up you're going to go blind." And I said, "Dad, I'm over here."
I've been telling that joke since I was 19-years-old, working in a bar, trying to get tips. It landed every time, probably because most people can identify with the premise. Not the idea of getting caught, but that it's something that everyone does, no one admits to, and almost nobody talks about. And if they do, it's in jokes, horror, or very quietly with your best friend with whom you've entered into some sort of mutually agreeable suicide pact. After all, we've been told that masturbation will: make you go blind, stunt your growth, make you go insane, give you hairy palms, give you acne, and according to some, will send you straight to Hell, regardless of how many charities you donate to or lepers you cure.
As Jenne Davis of clitical.com puts it:
Of course if that were true, half the world's population would be blind dwarfs with acne and hairy palms because surveys suggest that over 80 percent of women and 99 percent of men masturbate or have masturbated at some time in their lives.
You would think that the jokes, stigmas and myths would be a part of the past, like thinking you can get pregnant from a toilet seat, or that green M&Ms make you horny.
And yet, here we are, in the 21 century seemingly heading to the 1800s which brought us such pundits as Sylvester Graham, as in Graham Crackers, who toured the country warning people about "self-pollution" and John Kellogg (Rice Krispies and Froot Loops), who on his honeymoon wrote, "Plain Facts for Old and Young, a warning on the evils of sex." Hat tip to clitical.com for a terrific history lesson.
Back in the day, and not that long ago, devices were invented and the U.S. patent office has nearly 200 of these devices, specifically created to dissuade young horny kids from inadvertently feeling good.
On the other hand, there's an entire culture and community of "sex positive" people and groups, that I have spent the better part of the week talking to about masturbation, because this month, May, happens to be Masturbation Month. According to the press release from Good Vibrations:
National Masturbation Month is still a necessary reminder that self-satisfaction is a healthy, accessible form of pleasure engaged in by almost everyone, of every gender and relationship status, at some time of (or throughout) their lives: It's relaxing, allows people to learn more about their own sexual response, is a basic recommendation of sex therapists that can help people with many different sexual concerns, relieves menstrual cramps, and helps keep the genitals fully functional.
It all started, according Carol Queen, PhD, Good Vibrations staff sexologist and one of the originators of the National Masturbation Month concept, in 1995 when President Bill Clinton fired the Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders for what the far right seemingly considered crimes against humanity. Elders opined about masturbation being addressed in sex education curricula.
I think that it is something that's part of human sexuality and it's part of something that perhaps should be taught. But we've not even taught our children the very basics. And I feel that we have tried ignorance for a very long time and it's time we try education.
The movement has since spawned such events as Philadelphia's first Masturbate-a-Thon, China's World AIDS Day Masturbation Contest, and since 2000, the Center for Sex and Culture's (CSC) annual masturbation event. This year, the CSC, will join together with the "Jack-and-Jill-Off." The event, billed as, "a collaboration between the San Francisco Jacks and women from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. Intended to be a safer sex event that made it possible for people of every gender and orientation to enjoy a group sex environment without concern for HIV," will be held in San Francisco.
When I was contemplating writing this piece I immediately started thinking up fake names I could use for myself. I also spent more than my fair share of time staring at a list of sex experts and bloggers who had expressed an overwhelming desire to speak to me about this. I was pretty sure, that as soon as I made my first phone call I would immediately be transformed back into to that giggling middle school kid who had discovered his dad's Playboy collection.
I made my first phone call and before I knew it I was into my second day of chatting about masturbation with bloggers, doctors, and experts from all over the country. What I though was going to be a string of clinical reasoning and rationale for the physical benefits of self-pleasure, turned out to be some fascinating, enlightening conversation about just being human.
As Charlie Glickman PhD in Adult Sexual Education, put it, "We could talk about the physical, psychological and emotional benefits to this, but the bottom line is, it feels good and doesn't hurt anyone. It's so incredibly common and yet it's vilified."
While there are plenty of proven health benefits to masturbating, such as germ avoidance, stress relief, improved circulation, good prostate health, aleviating cramps and PMS symptoms, and curbing insomnia, the overall theme in all the conversations I had was more about the personal pleasure and benefits to relationships.
Walker Thornton, who runs the self-named blog, "Walkerthornton.com," and writes a regular column for betterafter50.com writes:
People have been masturbating since the beginning of time; in recent years there has been a movement to make masturbation a more visible and acceptable form of sexual expression.
Thornton started writing about sex for the over-50 crowd after hearing from other women in their 50s and 60s who had never experienced an orgasm -- alone or with a partner.
"It happens more than woman my age are willing to admit," Thornton said from her Virginia office.
Sarah Jayne, of unboundbox.com, a website that offers quarterly subscription box of products, erotica, and thoughtful guidance, explained, "Most products we feature are partner agnostic and we had originally created them for couples, but more women wanted items they could use themselves. They want to know themselves and help their partner to better know them."
Another blogger, JoEllen Notte from readheadbedhead.com, focuses on the potential benefits masturbation can offer to people in a committed relationship. As her site's tagline reads, "On a mission to save the world from mediocre sex,"
"What feels good? This does! I know because I've tried it," Notte said from her Oregon office. She goes on to say,
People have this impression that you're supposed to know everything about each other and be able to make each other feel good. We all know what feels good, we need to get better about telling each other. You wouldn't try to put up a bookshelf without talking, right?
The month of May has been, for nearly two decades, the month to celebrate masturbation. It was started, in part, by a knowledgeable, high-quality and comfortable "toy store" in California, Good Vibrations, and the movement has blossomed into a worldwide event.
In an era of repression and what some have called a war on women and sexual freedom, maybe events and movements like Masturbation Month will help us to get back to things that are good for us, feel good, and help us better understand each other and ourselves.