Brothers and Sisters, Lovers and Sinners, come, let us play…
May is National Masturbation Month, having been so declared by the erotically aware jill-off gals at Good Vibrations and the Godmother of Masturbation herself, Dr. Betty Dodson. Why bother to have a National Masturbation Month? Since just about everybody plays sexual solitaire at least sometimes, it’s virtually the nation’s-and the world’s–preferred leisure past time.
Masturbation isn’t terribly controversial in these days of hotly debated sexual subjects. Why, it didn’t even make Senator Rick the Stick Santorum’s List of Naughty Sex Acts that the Government Should be Allowed to Break into Your Bedroom and Bust You For. Nor did Pope Rat mention it in his List of Reasons Good Catholic Americans Must Vote Republican. Still, what the Brits so adorably call “rubbing off” just doesn’t get the respect that it deserves.
Thus, the M Month. Otherwise, far too few of us private Onanists would be willing to admit publicly that we indulge. Here in our Land of the Somewhat Free, we have plenty of Gay Pride and Leather Pride, even a bit of Libertine Pride out in the Blue States, but not much in the way of Wanker Pride. After all, “sex for one,” as harmless and healing as we now know it to be, is still condemned by many as an illicit, shameful act, forbidden even to lonely priests. Thus, most of us keep our single-handed pleasures under the covers and in the closet.
O, Brothers and Sisters, Liars and Fibbers, who will testify to the truth of masturbation?
Actually, that word “testify” tells us a little something about masturbation and truth, coming, as it does, from the same Latin root as the words “testament,” “testimony,” and “testicles.” See, way back in Old Testament times, when our forefathers swore an oath, they didn’t put their hands on the Bible, because these were Bible times, and the Bible hadn’t been written yet. When our forefathers testified, they put their hands on their testicles. That’s right, they swore by their family jewels! Telling the truth (for a man) was assured by the public act of squeezing, stroking or gently cupping one’s sac.
So do like your ancestors, do like your Old Father Abraham, grab your balls and testify! Grab ’em right now, Brother! Don’t grab ’em too hard. But don’t be too soft on yourself either. And Sister, you just grab your holy vulva right where it feels good. Feel the power, the glory and the truth of solo sexual revelation! Finger yourself with joy! Stroke yourself into rapture! Surrender to self-pleasure. Testify to the truth of autoerotic ecstasy. Testify and be healed of stress and frustration, sleeplessness and Desperate Housewife Syndrome…What’s the matter, Brother Jack? Are you embarrassed, Sister Jill? Feel silly? Guilty? Naughty? Baad? Don’t you know that if God had intended you not to masturbate, he would have made your arms shorter?
No, Jesus didn’t say that, and neither did Mohammed. George Carlin did. But it rings with more truth than most psalms.
Then why is such a natural, pleasurable, healthful, free, convenient, ecologically sound (population control, anyone?) and virtually harmless act as masturbation so embarrassing, so unmentionable, so vilified? Ball-fondling oaths aside, society’s prohibitions against “self-abuse” seem to have begun thousands of years ago as a moral code to sustain agrarian culture and tribal wars. Back again to those Bible times, when the infamous Onan was struck dead by God for “spilling his seed upon the ground” (which was, Biblically speaking, more of a case of coitus interruptus than masturbation). Tribal leaders assumed that if folks were masturbating–that is, having “sex for fun” instead of channeling their entire sex drive into reproducing the tribe–they wouldn’t “be fruitful and multiply.” They wouldn’t spawn enough children to work their harvests and go to war against opposing tribes. You could call this ancient tribal taboo against masturbation and other forms of nonreproductive sex the Mother of All Membership Drives.
Medieval Christians went on to further denigrate the joys of self-diddling by equating sexual pleasure with pure evil. Though Jesus himself, according to the Gospels, said remarkably little about sex, early Christian Fathers like Saint Paul and Saint Augustine were inflamed by what they saw as sexual degeneracy in themselves and others. They declared masturbation to be a gargantuan sin, one of the worst a human being could commit. Unlike a so-called “natural sin” such as fornication, bigamy or adultery, masturbation was a “sin against nature.” What made masturbation “unnatural” is anybody’s guess, since nature shows us many creatures–dogs, cats and bonobos, to name a few–having sex for one just for fun.
Of course, Medieval Christian Fathers were no bigger on fun than Rick the Stick or Pope Rat–at least not for the common folk. Around 1300, the Archbishop of Sens wrote regarding sins against nature that “the first branch is when man or woman by him or herself, alone and aware of the fact and awake, falls into the filth of sin.” This proclamation encouraged the already popular practice of feigning sleep whilst flogging the hog.
Though a natural sin like fornication was considered fairly minor, and could be absolved by a parish priest, masturbation, being “unnatural,” could be absolved only by bishops or their lieutenants. Thus, the Church Fathers shrewdly used the masturbation taboo to gain deep psychic power over an uneducated, frightened populace. In other words, they had ’em by the balls! Since everybody masturbated, everybody could be made to feel guilt, shame and the profound need for expiation, from whom else but the Church Fathers?
Over the centuries, frightening superstitions built up, e.g., that indulging in a little self-love caused warts, blindness, insanity and hair on the palms, not to mention, eternal damnation in hell (though if one could rub off in hell, that might make it bearable–beat your meat in the heat).
Then there’s the more “modern” notion that masturbation is wasteful. This humdinger, which reached its heights in Victorian times, has its roots in the widespread misconception that men have a limited amount of sperm, and that every ejaculation depletes a man’s finite allotment of precious semen, resulting in weakness and eventual impotence. Actually, the opposite is closer to the truth: use it or lose it. If a man doesn’t have sex or masturbate consistently throughout his life, as he gets older, he is more likely to lose his ability to get erections and ejaculate. Some experts say he may be more likely to have prostate problems.
Of course, Brother Jack, if you ejaculate five times a day, you will not shoot more than a gasp and a dribble by Ejaculation #5. So if you want to maximize your spunk output, keep your hands off your treasure for 72 hours. That’s enough time to build up your maximum load. Wait much longer than that, and you won’t be building up anything but an unholy case of blue balls.
Though women don’t produce semen, the myth that female masturbation is debilitating, unfeminine or just plain wrong, has also held sway. Both witch doctors and medical doctors, in their vain attempts to stop women from touching their clitorises, have gone so far as to chop them off, sometimes along with the labia too, performing horrific “female circumcisions” that sometimes kill their victims (usually young girls) and always deform them. Though Western doctors don’t perform these operations anymore, female circumcisers still practice their trade in various African and Asian villages.
Then there’s male circumcision, widely practiced all over the world, sometimes with elaborate religious ritual, but more often in hospitals where it is presented as “necessary” for “hygiene.” In this sex therapist’ view, it’s all a byzantine smokescreen for a massive, brutally child-abusive, and rather fruitless effort to control male masturbation.
Two of the biggest American anti-masturbation activists and super-capitalists of the 19th century, also big hygiene enthusiasts, were Sylvestor Graham, designer of the Graham Cracker, and John Kellogg, creator of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, the consumption of which was supposed to suppress the sex drive. Kellogg called self-love “the vilest, the basest and the most degrading act that a human being can commit.” Wonder what he’d say about all the semen fetishists who like to consume their cum with his cornflakes.
There are far too many anti-wanking superstitions that have proliferated though history to list here, and modern science has disproved them all. Experts consider masturbation to be a normal, safe sexual activity, not to mention a superb cardiovascular workout. Still, in many circles, self-pleasuring is unmentionable. American Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders was forced to resign when she mentioned masturbation in the context of safe sex education. Maybe if Bill Clinton had taken Dr. Elders’ advice instead of firing her, he’d have sidestepped being sideswiped by the Religious Right.
Speaking of American presidents, as the whole world is all too aware, George Bush’s demonic twist on the touchy subject of solo sex involves getting leering American soldiers to force helpless, hooded prisoners to do it (sometimes on camera!). What this is supposed to accomplish is unclear. Is it a punishment? A reward? A bizarre, religiously inspired humiliation? A way to “blow off steam”? A very bad joke? Some kind of interrogational inducement to spill the beans along with the seed? Whatever its ostensible purpose, Bush’s Mandatory P.O.W. Jack-Off Policies cast yet another deeply sinister shadow on the innocent pleasures of masturbation.
Despite millennia of anti-masturbation mania, there does exist some positive folklore on the natural wonders of whacking off. According to the ancient Greeks, masturbation was a divine gift. Hermes revealed it to Pan, whose love for a nymph was unrequited, demonstrating how stroking off could be a superb rape prevention technique. (Stop Sex Crime! Masturbate!) Pan then taught the shepherds (for which the sheep must have been grateful), The Greek philosopher Diogenes praised the extraordinary physical efficiency of masturbation, “Would to heaven that it were enough to rub one’s stomach in order to allay one’s hunger.”
Mark Twain, in between penning literary masterpieces, spoke of masturbation with satiric yet compassionate, truthtelling eloquence: “to the lonely it is company; to the forsaken it is a friend; to the aged and impotent it is a benefactor; they that are penniless are yet rich, in that they still have this majestic diversion.”
Then there’s Truman Capote: “the nice thing about masturbation is you don’t have to dress up for it.” Come as you are.
But self-pleasuring taboos never die; they just mutate with the times. Now, instead of fearing masturbation will make us blind, we worry that it will brand us as lonely or desperate, or as a pathetic, oversexed “sex addict.”
Of course, you can become addicted to masturbation. Anything really good in life is addictive. Jerkin’ your own gherkin can be so damn convenient that you don’t want to bother with the rigors of dating, or communicating with your spouse, or whatever hurdle you’d have to jump in order to have partner sex. Physically speaking, you can get so accustomed to the rhythm of your own hand, or the megabuzz of your vibrator, that you prefer masturbation to making love.
Then again, self-love is a kind of love. And sometimes, especially after a bad break-up, or when you’re sick, or stressed, or physically separated from your lover, it’s the best kind of love.
So, shake that shame and shimmy, Brothers & Sisters! Give yourselves a handCelebrate the Month of May!
If you can’t manage to shake your shame, you can always eroticize it. You probably do this anyway. Sex has “evolved” to be intrinsically perverse in our anti-sex society, and many of us need to feel bad to feel good. The naughtier we feel about masturbating, the better masturbation feels. Take it from a sex therapist: People that grow up tortured by religious dicta against “self-abuse” often become some of the world’s most avid masturbators.
So, how about you, Brother Jack and Sister Jill? Will you testify? How does it feel when you masturbate? Is it wild? Is it wonderful? Is it weird? Is it just a great relief? Do you get a mystical, spiritual sense of fulfillment? A primitive, animal sense of contentment? Does it give you energy – or put you to sleep? Does it make you feel alone? Or like an ecstatic link in the Great Chain of Sexual Being? Does it make you feel powerful? Peaceful? Beautiful? Bountiful? Biological? Do you masturbate to be safe, or do you do it for the danger? Do you enjoy an audience, or would you rather be the audience? Do you like to use props? Vibrators? Dildos? Erotica? Porn? Phone sex? Bondage gear? Aromatic oils? Special music? Fetish objects? How do you touch yourself? Quick strokes or long? One hand or two? Lube or natural juices? What do you think about when you masturbate? Do you fantasize, or do you just feel the sensations? Do you feel great right up until orgasm, then feel guilty, sinful, silly, lonely? Or do you feel even better after you’ve come, as you float down a stream of natural bliss?
Whatever our feelings about it, masturbation is almost always our first sexual activity. Even in utero, we touch ourselves for relaxation and pleasure. As babies, we play with all parts of ourselves, but our genitals are especially exciting, because of the intensity of sensation.
Thanks to my own Dr. Spock-influenced Mom, I didn’t grow up too inhibited about masturbation. Like most kids, I started playing with myself at around the time I started playing. Not that my mother approved of my masturbating. But she did, at least, put up with it. That is, she didn’t punish me for it, just warned me to cool it in public, like when she caught me holding the sprinkler under my crotch on the front lawn, or sliding my hand under my skirt during the duller portions of the Passover Seder.
At least, Mom’s pragmatic attitude didn’t denigrate my sexuality. “Suzy,” she said when she caught me petal pushing, “Stop that.. Your hands are dirty, and it’s clean down there.” She was right about my hands being dirty, sticky with peanut butter and jelly or something I’d pulled out of my nose. And I will always appreciate her designation of my netherparts as “clean.” She wasn’t Diogenes or Mark Twain, but at least Mom had a fairly sex-positive way of attempting to regulate my masturbatory activities.
Speaking of the positive…It may feel like playing hooky, but masturbation is educational. It teaches you about your body, what kinds of touch arouse you, what positions relax you, what fantasies stimulate you, what props get you hot. It helps you to find your mental and physical rhythm and style for maximum orgasmic pleasure.
Partner sex is more romantic, of course, and usually more meaningful, but it’s also more nerve-wracking. Unless you’re a total narcissist, you’re probably going to concentrate more on your lover’s pleasure than your own. During masturbation, you don’t have to worry about pleasing or impressing anybody but yourself. That way, you can relax and explore, learning all kinds of stuff about your erotic responses that you can use to become a better lover and a more orgasmic, sexually satisfied person.
If you’ve never done kegels or PC (pubococcygeus) muscle exercises, masturbation is the perfect time to try them. Like any kind of physical exercise, kegels take practice and concentration, tough to muster when you’re making love. Before or during masturbation, you can easily practice squeezing and releasing your PC muscles, making your orgasms longer and stronger, or multiple, and more under your control. Lots of quick-on-the-trigger guys learn to manage their tendency toward premature ejaculation this way. Many young women who can’t climax with their also-young, inexperienced lovers experience their first orgasms while petting their own sweet kitties.
That’s how I had my first orgasm – through the power and glory of masturbation! That’s right, Brothers and Sisters, Lovers and Sinners. It’s my turn to testify (those of you who have heard me tell some version of this story before can just skip down to the end, unless it’s one of your faves)…
I was 19, a sophomore at Yale, and I’d never had an orgasm. Oh, I’d had sex, mainly with my high school boyfriend, and he’d had plenty of orgasms. And I’d masturbated with those “dirty hands” of mine, but never to “completion.” I did have a few accidental orgasms when I went horseback riding, but no full-fledged voluntary climax. So, I was dating this gorgeous genius type, the only problem being that he was very shy, and since I was shy too, our evenings tended to be pretty dull. Nevertheless, I was infatuated with his dazzling beauty and dizzying brilliance. So we had sex. I don’t remember much about the sex. I think it wasn’t bad, but I know it wasn’t orgasmic. When he left for class, I stayed in bed, lazily stroking myself, picking up where he had left off, as I skimmed through a little booklet I’d picked up at one of my feminist circles, Betty Dodson’s Liberating Masturbation (now Sex for One). I washed my hands (no worries, Mom!), followed the instructions, squeezing and releasing my PC muscles, taking deep breathes like I’d learned in yoga, stroking and playing with myself like I’d played since I was a little girl, but this time I pushed farther, squeezing and releasing, wiggling and poking, licking my fingers and feeling the power, breathing deeper and deeper, rubbing faster, then slower, then faster again, squeezing and releasing, until, lo and behold, the squeezing released, and I had an orgasm. My first full-fledged, voluntary orgasm! I remember feeling awed and amazed, as if I’d been given a gift, a pure pleasure that I didn’t have to work for, didn’t cost any money, didn’t hurt anybody, didn’t pollute anything, didn’t have any calories or carcinogens, so simple and relaxing, so explosive, yet so gentle. And I remember knowing I was hooked, that at that point, after 19 years of my so-called life, I had become orgasmic, and no matter what else happened, the rest of my existence would include these explosions of pleasure pretty much whenever I damned well pleased.
And now here I am, a few million orgasms richer, Brothers and Sisters, Lovers and Sinners, wishing you a Merry Month of May! Make love to someone you love tonight, even if that someone is you…And don’t forget to wash your hands!
Dr. SUSAN BLOCK is a sex educator, host of The Dr. SUSAN BLOCK Show and author of The 10 Commandments of Pleasure. Visit her main website at http://www.drsusanblock.com. Send all comments, love letters, hate mail, questions, confessions and testimonials to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: This piece was initially published in Dr Susan Block’s Journal on May 1, 2003, and was updated on May 5, 2005.