In Honor of May Masturbation

By: Rob Brooks

The workers of the world can have their International Workers’ Day, or Labor Day or whatever, but the month of May belongs to an equally fundamental dignity: masturbation.

The Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself” polled most strongly among my Twitter followers, who were asked to nominate masturbation songs — that is, songs aboutmasturbation.

The fact that a whole month is devoted to self-pleasure raises two important questions: Who decides these things, and what are people meant to do over the 11 months from June through April?

On the former question, it seems that anyone can declare that a day, a month or even a year be dedicated to a particular cause. The UN endorses some of these. For example, last year, 2013, was both the International Year of Water Cooperation and the International Year of Quinoa. Oh, yes, it was!

Perhaps I needn’t say it, but International Masturbation Month has not been recognized by the UN… yet.

Like many ideas surrounding sex, Masturbation Month is American. Formerly “National Masturbation Month,” it did not require Republicans and Democrats working “across the aisle” to enact a special law. It only took a unilateral declaration of self-service by Good Vibrations sex shop in response to the firing of U.S. Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders.

Elders’ dismissal followed comments at the UN World AIDS Day in 1994. Asked whether promoting masturbation might discourage school-aged children from riskier sexual activity, Elders agreed, noting that children should be taught that masturbation is a natural part of human sexuality.

The common-sense comments that got Jocelyn Elders fired from the post of U.S. Surgeon General.

Conservatives, already outraged by her progressive views on abortion and drugs, construed her as saying masturbation should be taught in schools. An embattled President Clinton, whose own seed-spilling later sucked the life out of his presidency, saw this as a step too far.

So, in Elders’ honor, Good Vibrations says:

We started National Masturbation Month — now International Masturbation Month with people celebrating across the globe! — to raise awareness and to highlight the importance of masturbation for nearly everyone: it’s safe, it’s healthy, it’s free, it’s pleasurable and it helps people get to know their bodies and their sexual responses. Of all the kinds of sex people can have, masturbation is the most universal and important, yet few people talk about it freely — worse, many people still feel it is “second best” or problematic in some way. Masturbation Month lets us emphasize how great it is: it’s natural, common and fun!

Politics of the Pull

The U.S. political battle over masturbation that led to Elders’ firing nearly two decades ago represents one minor shift in a centuries-old ideological tug-of-war over self-pleasure.

The history of attitudes toward masturbation — from the ancient Egyptians, whose creator god Atum masturbated the universe into being and then generously continued to control the Nile’s flooding by his ejaculations, to the ancient Indians with their rather athletic how-to instructions in the Kama Sutra — makes for fascinating reading.

The cover of the 1875 Italian version of Samuel Auguste André David Tissot’s pamphlet “Treatise on the Diseases Produced by Onanism.” (Photograph by Giovanni Dell’Orto via Wikimedia Commons.)

The Judeo-Christian tradition has usually not embraced, and occasionally condemned, the solitary vice. But things got seriously weird in the 18th century, when masturbation attracted the blame for all manner of evils and ailments. One early pamphlet, published anonymously, really says it all in the wonderfully descriptive title: Onania, or the Heinous Sin of self-Pollution, And All Its Frightful Consequences, In Both Sexes, Considered: With Spiritual and Physical Advice To Those Who Have Already Injured Themselves By This Abominable Practice.

Nineteenth-century quacks such as Rev. Sylvester Graham lectured against the dire health consequences of “venereal excess” and the corrupting evils of self-pollution. Today much of his health recommendations look like common sense: exercise, bathing, brushing teeth, drinking clean water and consuming a diet of mostly vegetables and whole grains.

Visionary as he was, he is remembered because the bland diet he promoted, and the whole-wheat Graham cracker he invented, were designed to dampen libido. Likewise, the equally odd Dr. John Harvey Kellogg proclaimed, “If illicit commerce of the sexes is a heinous sin, self-pollution is a crime doubly abominable.” Masturbation is worsethan sex? Not as good, maybe, but worse? Kellogg’s lasting contribution to suppressing libido was the insipid corn flake.

And it wasn’t only the self-abuser who was in line to suffer. In “What a Young Woman Ought to Know,” Mary Wood Allen counseled young ladies to consider the fate of their as-yet unborn offspring. Does this sound familiar?

The results of self-abuse are most disastrous. It destroys mental power and memory, it blotches the complexion, dulls the eye, takes away the strength, and may even cause insanity. It is a habit most difficult to overcome, and may not only last for years, but in its tendency be transmitted to one’s children.

Touching the Enemy

All of this excitement proved baseless. Masturbation now seems, at least to the educated, to be the quintessential victimless crime, at least when practiced alone or among consenting adults, and as long as the method of fantasy doesn’t impinge on anybody else’s rights. Yet the subject still cleaves opinion in contemporary educated societies.

Consider the recent cringe-worthy campaign by Brigham Young University Idaho that considered modern masturbation and porn-use patterns alarming enough to erect a turgid war metaphor. The masturbators are personified by spent soldiers, left dying (and, it seems, tugging) on the battlefield by their fellows, which of course invites the question of what the soldiers are masturbating against in this so-called “Great War.”

BYU Idaho took down their “Wounded on the Battlefield” video once the scale of their public-relations fail became clear, but it is still available within YouTube posts of segments such as this one.

Last May in The Atlantic, Hugo Schwyzer made a very interesting proposal regarding the controversy inherent to self-pleasure: “Tell me how you really feel about masturbation, and I can more or less predict how you’ll feel about the more frequently debated ‘sex war’ issues.”

His point was that all the issues at stake in the “sex wars,” among which I would include the ideological tussles over abortion, contraception, promiscuity, sexual autonomy, sex education, mens’ and womens’ work and roles, homosexuality, gay marriage and even the importance of gender, are polarized over the question of what sex is for. If you believe sex is exclusively about connecting intimately with one other person and thereby producing children, then you will tend to take the conservative positions on these issues. You will also tend to view masturbation as wrong, wasteful or even sinful.

On the other hand, “delighting in something that, first and foremost, belongs to us as individuals” tends to be associated with more progressive attitudes about all these issues. And what purer expression of sex belonging to individuals can be found than the art of self-pleasure?

Who Wins? Who Loses?

Where does this tension about what sex is for come from?

Much resistance to masturbation turns on the perception that it represents a theft, robbing those who take matters in hand of their own health, vitality or ambition, or of taking something essential from the partner and the family unit. Some of the shame and stigma attached to masturbation in contemporary society prods at inadequacy. Calling someone a “wanker” implies that whatever they are doing, that isn’t the way proper grown-ups roll.

Is masturbation only for losers, the terminally unattractive, and those stuck in sexless relationships? A large study of masturbation behavior in the U.S. suggests that the reality is far more complex. For some, masturbation “compensated for a lack of partnered sex or satisfaction in sex,” while for others it “complemented an active and pleasurable sex life”.

The fact that the most sexually satisfied subjects were also most directly in touch with their bodies supports the positions taken by Jocelyn Elders and others who maintain that masturbation is part of normal human sexuality. Masturbation is also most prevalent among the highly educated and those not in conservative religious groups — that is to say those least likely to be swayed by supernatural or secular authority.

The narrow conception that sex is for procreation and the satisfaction of life-long spouses has served religions, monarchs and political leaders at various times. For one thing, it restricted the supply of sex. As I recently wrote, conservatives aren’t too keen on an oversupply of sex, because that lowers the “price” — how hard men have to work to have (proper, married) sex. Mark Regnerus, in-house sociologist at the conservative Austin Institute, warns, “Don’t forget your Freud: Civilization is built on blocked, redirected, and channeled sexual impulse, because men will work for sex.” But to whose ultimate benefit that work goes remains opaque.

The societal changes associated first with the Enlightenment, then with first-wave feminism and, eventually, the sexual revolution, concerned the elevation of the individual and the capacity for individuals, especially women, to own themselves. If people are not the property of a deity, a religious institution, or even a spouse, then they are not bound by the narrow conceptions of sexuality that suit the interests of those other “owners”.

This line of thought may provide one reason that the Enlightenment, early feminism and the sexual revolution caused both new, more progressive attitudes to sex and strong backlashes — led by the likes of Tissot, Graham, Kellogg and BYU Idaho — against those new attitudes.

Have a good month appreciating self-ownership in your own chosen way.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions performing “Pump It Up” in 1978.
 

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