Talk about coming together: We can thank a former surgeon general, Bill Clinton, Congressional Republicans and a California sex shop for National Masturbation Month.
Last month while working on a story about a gay porn star who launched an online fundraiser to buy a new bed, I dropped a random piece of trivia during a conversation with TheBlot Magazine’s editor Nikki M. Mascali that led to this story.
“Did you know that May is National Masturbation Month?” I asked her.
My brain is a repository of useless facts and knowledge that I’ve learned or read about over the years that, for some reason, has stayed with me, just in case I ever become a contestant on “Jeopardy!” or “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” The masturbation fact is lodged somewhere between “Did you know television station call signs are often acronyms?” and “Did you know the band Nine Inch Nails managed to hide a picture inside a song?”
I don’t know why I know this stuff either. But the masturbation month struck a chord with my editor, and the next thing I know I’m doing research and interviewing sources on National Masturbation Month for this article.
After a few days of reaching out to people for quotes, looking through back issues of The New York Times online and consulting pro-masturbation forums and web pages, I’ve got everything I need. Sunday rolls around, and it’s time to collate all this knowledge into an eloquent, entertaining and informative article for the masses.
I start by spending hours looking at a blank screen, waiting for the words to jump out at me. I come up empty. I do a little more research on the topic, hoping that I’ll come across an article that can spark an imaginative lede. Nothing comes to me. I pace around my house picking up clothes, cleaning things, annoying the cat still nothing.
It occurs to me I haven’t eaten all day, so I grab a chili bread bowl from the bakery down the street and do a little reading on a different topic altogether. At that point, it feels like I’m just avoiding the topic, like if I think less about the masturbation article, I’ll have a sudden stroke of inspiration. But that doesn’t work either.
I come back home, sit back down at the laptop, and stare at the blank screen some more. I eventually concede defeat I have no idea how to start this article. How do you begin to talk about a month-long holiday in observance of masturbation? I’m at a complete loss for words.
It is sort of ironic I use that word in the Alanis Morissette sense, not the literal one because that’s kind of the whole point of the month. To encourage an open and honest discussion about something that people have relegated to the “socially taboo” pile, something that few people will admit openly to doing even though most people do it at some point in their lives (and quite a few of those people make it a regular habit).
The month was started 20 years ago by a group of activists, not so much in honor of masturbation, but in honor of a former government official who, unlike yours truly, didn’t seem to have a problem finding words when it came to the topic of self-pleasure.
An education in masturbation almost
When former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders suggested the idea that masturbation might be taught as part of sexual education curriculum, the immediate reaction was a firestorm of controversy. The Clinton appointee made the remarks at a 1994 United Nations conference for World AIDS Day when asked by an attendee for her thoughts on masturbation.
“I think that is something that is a part of human sexuality and it’s a part of something that perhaps should be taught,” Elders answered. “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.”
Elders had something of a reputation in Washington for making statements that many felt were abrasive, outlandish and at odds with the president’s own agenda. She called handguns “a public health issue,” compared abstinence-only education to “child abuse” and suggested studying whether legalizing drugs would cause a reduction in crime.
In the months following her appointment, Clinton was besieged with criticism from most Republicans and a small consortium of Democrats for his decision to make the military veteran and former head of the Arkansas Department of Health the top health official in the country. Her outspoken and candid opinions on controversial topics some of which contradicted the administration’s own position further irked politicians on both sides of the aisle.
Clinton, who was once famously asked during an MTV town hall if he preferred boxers or briefs, asked Elders to tone down her outspokenness on sex and drugs. Being asked by a teenager on cable television about his choice in junk-supporting fabric was fine, but the nation’s top doctor having a frank discussion about what people do with their junk was not.
Elders heard Clinton’s appeal but ultimately rejected it, choosing instead to follow a mixture of science, experience and her own intuition over any politician’s empty rhetoric even if that politician was the president.
Clinton’s staff learned about Elders’ suggestion on teaching masturbation in schools days later when a U.S. News & World Report journalist asked Leon Panetta, Clinton’s then-chief of staff, for comment. Elders eventually clarified her remark, saying she didn’t intend for her suggestion to be construed as advocating for teaching children how to masturbate, only that masturbation should be included in sex ed teachings. “You can’t teach people how to do that, just like you can’t teach them how to have sex,” she told an Associated Press reporter.
But her suggestion, no matter how it was interpreted, sealed her fate. At a press briefing on Dec. 10, 1994, Panetta informed reporters that Elders had resigned, adding that “if she had not resigned, she would have been terminated.”
Spreading Good Vibrations about masturbation
While most in the political world shrugged off Elders’ departure as something inevitable, workers at one of California’s premiere adult novelty stores were stunned and saddened by the sudden resignation of one of the biggest and most-outspoken sex education advocates at that time.
Dr. Carol Queen of Good Vibrations. (coachbettylive.com photo)
The employees at Good Vibrations, a hybrid adult toy store/sex counseling center in Oakland, thought Elders’ advice had been one of the most-sensible things a public official had said on the subject of masturbation in a long time.
“If everyone thought masturbation was just gray or no big deal, the surgeon general would have kept her job,” Dr. Carol Queen, one of Good Vibration’s sex counselors, said in an e-mail interview with TheBlot. “We at Good Vibrations, shocked at the negative message this all sent, decided we had to do something.”
In May 1995, just a few months after Elders resigned, Good Vibrations launched National Masturbation Month, a guerrilla holiday that was part protest, part advocacy meant to “insert positive discourse about masturbation into the media-sphere and elsewhere.”
Launching a new holiday wouldn’t come easy. This was the mid-1990s, a time when businesses faxed press releases to journalists and when most people used their phone lines to connect to the Internet for just a few hours every day. Social media platforms didn’t really exist newsgroups and chatrooms were the closest things to Twitter and Facebook. Things like Reddit, hashtags, infographics and viral videos would be a long way out so getting the world’s attention required a considerable amount of tenacity, effort and dedication.
To generate interest in National Masturbation Month, the staff at Good Vibrations came up with a new initiative every year, firing off press releases, speaking with reporters and radio talk show hosts and eventually bringing a few willing celebrities on board. Its first initiative was the Masturbation Hall of Fame, which honored Elders and several other public officials and celebrities for speaking candidly and openly about masturbation. Another year, Good Vibrations brought its holiday to the attention of prolific media pundit and author Dan Savage; he would go on to ask readers of his column to submit their best and worst masturbation stories, something that Queen said significantly “boosted the signal” for the month-long holiday.
But none of that exposure compared to the initiative launched in 1999 a charity event that would thrust National Masturbation Month toward global exposure.
“Come for a cause”
When Good Vibrations conceived the idea for the Masturbate-a-Thon, it wasn’t designed to be something that people did in front of each other.
In 1999, the sex education center put out a call for people around the world to masturbate as a way of fundraising for charity. The initiative worked similar to a walk-a-thon: People would solicit donations from others who would agree to pay a certain amount each time the participant masturbated. The goal wasn’t so much to encourage people to masturbate, but to talk openly with others about masturbation in an effort to normalize and de-stigmatize the topic.
“People from all over the country and world took part,” Queen said. “It wasnt intended to be a group event, but a private one, like most masturbation.”
But a handful people in Salt Lake City took the initiative a bit further, choosing to fundraise for the month by masturbating in a group setting. When Queen heard about the event in Utah, it gave her an idea.
The following year, she launched the first live Masturbate-a-Thon at the Center for Sex and Culture, a non-profit sex education center founded by Queen and her partner, Dr. Robert Lawrence, in San Francisco. If the announcement had been made in any other city, it likely would have been met with public opposition and a threat by the city to shut it down but this is San Francisco, home to a twice-yearly kink festival and where nudists are a common sight at parades and marathons. A Masturbate-a-Thon was just one more quirky thing for the city, and the media ate it up.
Each year, the Masturbate-a-Thon grew in popularity, attracting people from across the country and around the world. To keep things fresh, event organizers added various activities and challenges, such as “Longest Time Spent Masturbating” (Queen says the record is nearly 12 hours), “Most Orgasms” and “Longest Distance Ejaculated.” The center also created theater seating, exhibitionist spaces and private areas to accommodate the brazen and shy alike. At its peak, Queen estimated that around 150 people participated in the event.
The Masturbate-a-Thon is a lot of things: A chance to raise money for San Francisco’s most-prominent sex education centers, an opportunity to spark an honest and frank discussion about self-pleasure and a space to show off if so inclined for a few hours during National Masturbation Month. But one thing the Masturbate-a-Thon is not: A sex event.
“While we certainly encourage partners to come to the Thon together, they may not have partner sex,” Queen said. Mutual masturbation counts, although Queen says compromises have been made to allow partners to add sensual touch, like massages, to their partner’s masturbation session (“It’s not hands-off completely,” Queen said).
It all comes together
San Francisco’s Masturbate-a-Thon now a staple every May for the Center for Sex and Culture has inspired similar events nationwide and around the world.
In China, an adult toy manufacturer sponsored a masturbation contest to commemorate World AIDS Day in December 2012. The event attracted 10 male participants who orgasmed into orange buckets while scantily clad female models danced around them with blow-up dolls and sex toys.
Several other masturbation events have been held in London, Montreal and Philadelphia. Some involve live-action masturbation events while others simply borrow the “Masturbate-a-Thon” moniker as a publicity stunt to raise money for charity. In 2013, a month-long Masturbate-a-Thon campaign launched by two sex education centers raised more than $2,300 for the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition.
Despite its fundraising successes, the novelty of masturbation events has slowly started to wear off. Last year, Montreal canceled what would have been its third annual event due to a lack of registered participants, and the Center for Sex and Culture has anticipated smaller crowds over the past few years for its live Masturbate-a-Thon.
There’s still one thing keeping National Masturbation Month alive: Capitalism.
Digital adult novelty retailers and pornographic websites are now often the first to point out that May is a month for self-pleasure. Pornhub and other porn repositories have in recent years tweeted out graphics that list the benefits of masturbation while at the same time encouraging people to visit their websites. And many online stores specializing in adult sex toys and other erotic novelties offer sales and discounts throughout the month of May.
That’s all good and fine as far as the originator of National Masturbation Month now re-tooled International Masturbation Month is concerned.
“It was never the goal that it would only be a PR initiative for us,” Queen said. “We really wanted it to be a PR initiative for masturbation!”
For those who live or will be visiting the San Francisco Bay Area in late May, the Center for Sex and Culture will host their annual Masturbate-a-Thon on May 30. Participants are asked to bring a pledge sheet with money raised or donate $40 or more at the door (Queen says the donation is simply a request; in the past, the center has suggested discounted donations for couples and groups who attend). Full information and a downloadable pledge sheet will be posted on the Center for Sex and Culture’s Masturbate-a-Thon Tumblr in the days leading up to the event.
When he’s not masturbating, Matthew Keys is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.