You may have seen articles online indicating (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) that May is Masturbation Month. As though something were special about this?
I was having brunch with a friend this week and they asked me what I was writing about. When I told them about Masturbation Month, they began giggling. After all, an individual can masturbate whenever they like – why do we have to have a special month for it? Although they may have been dismissive, I felt that was a really good question. Why do we need a special month for it?
First off, Masturbation Month is not about masturbating every day. You can do that if you want, of course. But that’s kind of intimidating and, really, not what it’s about. In the same way that we have Cancer Awareness Month, you’re not expected to contract Cancer for a month, or even visit a Cancer ward at your local hospital. Instead, it’s an opportunity for awareness, conversation, and support. The same is true for Masturbation Month. Helping you know your body, what works for you, and being okay with both is the basic goal of educators, but again there’s no real right or wrong and there’s certainly no pressure. Some women don’t enjoy masturbating. That’s cool too. Some only enjoy it under very specific conditions. Again, that’s cool. There’s no “right” way to masturbate – and all of these nuances are what make up the merry month of May(sturbation)!
National Masturbation Month started with the San Francisco-based sex toy company Good Vibrations. Good Vibrations has been really good about publishing informational materials, hosting educational seminars, and challenging the taboos around sex in general over the years, and about the use of sex toys specifically. Sexologist Emily Morse credits Good Vibrations with helping her understand the basic tenets of Sexology.
In 1995, their company began to really go after the stigma around self-stimulation and four years later, they held an event encouraging individuals to masturbate in an effort to raise money for charities and increase awareness that masturbation was natural and healthy. Not that crazy an idea, really. Because of the respect Good Vibrations had among sex-positive communities, “Masturbation Month” caught on around the world and continues today. In my home town, there are two sex shops and both are offering seminars this month for adults and couples to help them how to use new sex toys, to encourage masturbation and orgasms, and to promote these same ideas – that masturbation is natural and healthy. Good Vibrations can be felt throughout the world (pun intended), and their basic message remains the same: there is no shame in feeling good, and they still seek to challenge the stigmas presented by religion, culture, and perhaps even family members. Generally speaking, those are the most common stigmas.
- Scientific – There’s a popular folk tale that masturbating leads to blindness, hairy palms, or dementia. These tales are terribly incorrect and, it seems, so prevalent that studies continue to be conducted to determine their accuracy. Dr. Eli Coleman writes that “Despite the scientific evidence indicating that masturbation is generally a normal variant of sexual expression and that it does not seem to have a causal relationship with sexual pathology, negative attitudes about masturbation persist and it remains stigmatized.” To date, no recognized study – ever – has found a link between masturbation and health issues like the one stated. To the contrary, masturbation has been found to decrease depression, decrease stress and anxiety, boost mood, increase self-image, help you sleep better, increase blood flow throughout the body and particularly the brain. Additionally, studies have shown that women, who are more likely to die from heart disease, are less susceptible to heart disease and Type-2 Diabetes when they experience regular orgasms alone or with a partner.
- Religious – “Onanism” is a term I was familiar with at a very (re: unusually) young age. I remember vividly one summer at church being told about the Biblical character, Onan. Onan, we were told, brought shame to the family of God because he masturbated. This was a message that was reinforced in subsequent years at the churches I attended – Onan masturbated, or committed “evil in the sight of the Lord,” so God killed him. Technically, that’s not what the Bible teaches – not at all. But I’ll leave the interpretation of Genesis 38 up to you. In 2015, a Muslim televangelist warned his viewers that “One hadith states that those who have sexual intercourse with their hands will find their hands pregnant in the afterlife.” Clearly, traditional religions have some disturbing messages about self-love.
- Relational – Many people feel masturbation “robs” your current or future partners of sexual opportunities. There are only so many orgasms you can have, the argument goes, and when you’re in a relationship, those orgasms belong to your partner. I don’t want to entirely dismiss this, but I’m a firm believer that no one “owns” anyone else’s body. Your body is your body. As for “robbing” your partner, I would argue the opposite is true. For example, some people think that men who masturbate frequently have a difficult time reaching orgasm with their partner (totally true) or that women who use powerful sex toys cannot orgasm naturally with a sexual partner (again, true). Then again, those who study sex and sexuality argue back that masturbation is a great way to figure out what you like in bed and then share that with your partner, thus increasing the intimacy and desire between them. “Delayed orgasm” is a great thing for many individuals who are uncomfortable with premature orgasm and ejaculation. So, given a different understanding, masturbation could be a really good thing for couples.
- Cultural – In the United States, there are several different regional customs, traditions, and cultural nuances. Jokes that work in South Louisiana are deeply offensive in Southern California. Asian communities, for example, are particularly silent about sexual issues, and a prominent narrative in the Midwest is that sex is for making children, not for pleasure. The husband who believes sex should be enjoyable is boorish and somehow “inferior” to the ideal of hard work, large families, and puritanical living in suburbia. Enjoying sex is playful, when these communities are known for industriousness.
When it comes to sex, what seems “normal” or goes without notice in one community is often taboo for another. That’s okay – differences make the world a great place – but silence is not a form of education and exploration of the body is not “weird” or “shameful.”
Because of these differences in opinion, masturbation might even mean different things for different people. In fact, the names that we give to self-stimulation can be telling of how we grew up, what we currently think about it, whether we feel ashamed, whether a partner is involved, and whether we use any kind of props – vibrators, or just our own hands. Take these euphemisms for female masturbation, for example.
★ Tripping the switch
★ Saucing the taco
★ Gilding the lily
★ Battery testing
★ Taming the shrew
★ Beating around the bush
★ Clubbing the clam
★ Finger painting
★ Muffin buffin’
★ Polishing the pearl
★ Visiting the finger vault
★ Getting lost in the deep end
★ Singing in the shower
★ Opening the ham wallet
★ Double clicking the mouse
★ Finding Nemo
★ Paddling the pink canoe
★ Diddling the skittle
★ Parting the Red Sea
★ Teasing out a vertical smile
★ Having a night in with the girls
★ Airing the orchid
★ Auditioning the finger puppets
★ Hitchhiking south
★ Jilling off
★ Pearl fishing
★ Rolling the dough
★ Taking a self-guided tuna boat tour
★ Tiptoeing through the two lips
★ Unbuttoning the fur coat
★ Buttering the whisker biscuit
★ Impeaching Bush
★ Roughing up the suspect
★ Menage a mois
★ Making soup
★ Circling the wagon
★ Tracing eights
★ Making a fish finger sandwich
★ Streaming the Goo Goo Dolls
★ Diddling the kids
★ Soaking the sponge
★ Undressing the wound
★ Hitting the self destruct button
★ Plunging the clunge
★ Entering the mosque
★ Making a flesh smoothie
★ Watching ET (i.e. “Phoning home”)
★ Dancing in the dark
★ Embracing feminism
★ Raiding the fridge
As should be obvious by now, each one of these euphemisms offers a unique visual. In this way, each one offers a different insight into, on, and around masturbation – not least of which about the individual who uses these expressions. Men have a list of their own which is, not surprisingly, more diverse and graphic. For brevity, I’ll provide the link here.
Because these are euphemisms, they do not actually address what masturbation is or, in many instances, how it is done. I remember the first time another boy asked me if I “pulled the pud,” I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. My parents had taught me to call masturbation by it’s clinical name, not by euphemisms like “wank the skank” or “walk the dog.” A few days after that casual conversation, my friend brought it up at a campout with other boys our age who thought it hilarious that I didn’t know what masturbating was. To the contrary, I did, but not in the way they were talking about it. These were, as I’ve said repeatedly over the years, exceptionally confusing to me. I felt like up to that point, I had been masturbating incorrectly. So, what exactly is masturbation?
The most universal understanding would be that masturbation is stimulation of one’s own genitals for sexual arousal or sexual pleasure, usually (but not always) leading to orgasm. This might involve using your hands, fingers, everyday objects like pillows or plastic bags, sex toys, or some combination of these. And while it might seem a bit insulting to define masturbation here for adult readers, it’s actually very important because of the ways these euphemisms can be misunderstood and, furthermore, used to direct shame at someone. As I said, when I was confronted by other boys, I was very confused, shamed, and felt like I was somehow less mature or less developed than they were.
The truth is, while we might agree on the basics of masturbation, there are a phenomenal degree of variations because masturbation is, ultimately, a very personal and individualized experience. Some right-hand dominant individuals prefer to use their opposite hand. Some people have a ritual to the act – they light candles or watch certain porn scenes in a particular order. Some people can just “get to it” and “get it over with.” There’s no right way to masturbate, and perhaps because of this we might sometimes train our bodies to respond in a particular way instead of experiencing new pleasures that would come from education, new insights, or new experiences.
For me, this means that I can remember coming home from kindergarten one day, taking off all my clothes, and proceeding to “play” with one of my pillows. Moments later, my mother walked in on me “playing” and calmly told me that what I was doing was masturbation. That was the first time I heard the word. And, she continued, if I was going to continue “playing” in that way, I should shut the door “because that’s something people do in private.” I’m very lucky that my mother didn’t call it something else but that she and my father were consistent about teaching me the clinical names for anatomy and behavior instead of euphemisms or, perhaps worse, ignored my behavior and developing body altogether. It made sex and the body seem normal and not something to be ashamed of, but an integral part of who I was as a person, a signature part of my personal identity. Pillows were once a part of my masturbation experience, but no longer. Or at least not always. The important thing here is to recognize that what works at one stage of life doesn’t necessarily work, or have to work at another stage of life. Our bodies change and we develop new interests with experience.
It’s things like that which make Masturbation Month a good time to talk about masturbation as part of a larger discussion on sexual pleasure. Peggy Orenstein, author of Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated Landscape, writes that when it comes to teaching American adolescents about sexuality, “we are completely silent around girls’ sexual entitlement and girls’ pleasure.” American culture, Orenstein proposes, has given a misguided message to young women, subtly communicating that “they’re supposed to be sexy, that they’re supposed to perform sexuality for boys, but that their sexual pleasure is unspoken.” This message conditions girls to become women who suppress, deny, or minimize their desires. Masturbation, an outlet for private sexual expression, is “dirty” or forbidden. This, Orenstein argues, is a destructive message. Instead, we need opportunities to speak “clearly and honestly to girls about their own desires and their own pleasure.” While Orenstein directed her research toward young women, a similar (though, I want to be very clear, not the same) message should be shared with young men. Individual sexual interests and desires should be explored, and dialogue that respects one’s partner is vitally important.
Still, as Lea Rose Emery says, there’s a great deal that goes unspoken when we talk about masturbation – if we talk about it at all. For example, “women love to masturbate, we love sex toys, and dammit do we love porn. In fact, Marie Claire surveyed 3,000 women and found that almost one third watched porn on a weekly basis— and 10 percent watched it daily.”
More, an important talking point during Masturbation Month is that masturbation is a good thing. If you are with a partner and masturbate, that does not mean your partner isn’t good enough – it means you enjoy partnered sex and solo sex. No big deal. Talking about self-love could open the door to some really good, important conversations that would help partners learn what works for each other’s bodies, what “gets you off,” what turns you on, what fantasies you might have, and also help reorient you to important truths. For example, columnist Jenny Block very bluntly shares something she is always having to help people learn, re-learn, and learn again.
I have to think that the number of emails I get every week from women asking what’s wrong with them that they can’t come from penetration alone means that the message has still not permeated our national subconscious. Women orgasm from external clitoral stimulation.
I want to say that again, just to be clear.
Women orgasm from external clitoral stimulation.
All women — queer, straight, bi. In fact, all people with clitorises. The clit is responsible for orgasm. It is its only responsibility. Sex is the pursuit of pleasure. It is not the putting of Tab A into Slot B. That is reproductive intercourse. It certainly can feel nice for a woman. But for more than 98 percent of women — it is not the road to orgasm.
Masturbation Month is a good time to have important conversations with the people close to you and to re-examine old thoughts and beliefs. It’s not just a time to giggle to ourselves and brush off. Loving your self, your body, focusing on what turns you on and where your body is at, challenging old folk tales and cultural customs and learning what works for you, your partner, and sexuality in general is important work. Don’t shrug that off – make the most of your May!
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What Nobody Talks About When They Talk About Masturbation, by Lea Rose Emery