Well, it's all over but the shouting, but in case you haven't heard, May has been National Masturbation Month. Indeed, May 2005 marks National Masturbation Month's tenth anniversary, which is to say it's become something of a national institution. In this young, ever-reinventing-itself country of ours, where history is measured in weeks instead of centuries, and three-month-old news events have already dropped out of national consciousness and politics, something that's going strong after ten years is a force to be reckoned with.
National Masturbation Month was proclaimed in May 1995 by the folks at Good Vibrations. Good Vibrations is San Francisco's pioneering sex-education and women-friendly sex-product emporium. In the spring of 1995, Surgeon-General Joycelyn Elders had just been fired by otherwise generally sex-friendly President Bill Clinton (remember Bill Clinton?) because Dr. Elders had said, in public, that teaching adolescents about the joys of masturbation might be a good idea in the safe sex era. Somehow that was enough, all by itself, to cost her her job. And that's when the Democrats were running things.
Good Vibrations decided that if promoting masturbation had become sufficient cause to be banished from Washington politics, then it was time for some masturbation advocacy, specifically to "raise awareness and highlight the importance" of masturbation, of self-pleasuring, of solo sex, of jacking off. (For a list of no fewer than one thousand terms for masturbation, check out www.masturbationlist.com.)
It's either odd or completely to be expected (you decide which) that a sexual act which is arguably the most common of all sexual acts is also an act that is hidden, lied about, and twisted into a mere shadow of being everything it could be, under the weight of a nearly universal blanket of shame and embarrassment.
What started out as an amusing, celebratory semi-political jaunt -- and , perhaps a clever marketing angle as well -- has taken wings over the last ten years and become something of a countercultural tradition and observance, with increasing tendrils into mainstream culture as well. This morning, a Google search for National Masturbation Month produced no fewer than 48,500 postings. This year, New York's Toys in Babeland sex store kicked off Masturbation Month by convening what is called a "National Summit Press Conference" on masturbation, May 4th. National Masturbation Day came three days later (May 7th), proclaimed by sex pioneer Betty Dodson (author of the groundbreaking 1974 book, "Liberating Masturbation," later republished as "Sex for One").
Masturbate-A-Thon's (fund-raising events for which people solicit pledges of contributions to sex-related charities for every minute they masturbate, either at home or at a special masturbation party thrown for just that purpose) were held this year not only in San Francisco (on May 28th, San Francisco's seventh such event -- www.masturbate-a-thon.com), but also in Portland, Oregon, on May 14th (www.masturbate-a-thon.org), and in Toronto, Ontario, on May 28th (www.comeasyouare.com/masturbate) -- making the Masturbate-A-Thon an international vent for the first time. Not to be outdone, Seattle held its own "JO-Palooza," also a group (though not fund-raising) celebration of masturbation via mass participation on May 22nd.
Lest you think that celebrating masturbation for a month, or coming together in large groups for communal masturbation rituals is only for the fringe of heart, take note that during last year's Masturbate-A-Thon in San Francisco, no fewer than 1700 people participated by turning in pledge forms and checks (though only a fraction of that number attended the central group event). The fund-raiser came up with close to $5,000 for San Francisco's fledgling Center for Sex and Culture. Records were set and records were kept, as befits a sex-cultural center, perhaps with an eye to goading greater-than-ever exuberance from this year's Masturbate-A-Thon participants. (Longest time masturbating: 6 hours, 32 minutes. Most money raised by one individual: $1,000. Most documented orgasms: 36.)
Now there's even an article (www.vgg.com/tp/tp_053101_nmm.html) online decrying the "crass commercialization" of National Masturbation Month, meaning the use of same to sell increasingly complicated and expensive sex gadgets, in place of what author T. Mike esteems as the traditional, tried-and-true, organic, and expense-free mainstays of "my imagination and my trusty right hand."
"The decorations go up earlier and earlier every year [at] my cosy local mom 'n' pop sex shop," complains T. Mike. What is the world coming to, he laments, when National Masturbation Month has been reduced to what he calls a "hollow sham and a mockery."
Ten years of history, and now a plump target for commercial exploitation! National Masturbation Month has truly arrived. In America, you know you're culturally relevant when you've got enough market share to become worthy of corporate co-optation. First Gay Pride, now National Masturbation Month. Of course, it's true that being promoted by stores the likes of Good Vibrations and Toys in Babeland is not the same thing as being sponsored by Toyota. But now that National Masturbation Month is being promulgated by virtually every politically-conscious sex-positive boutique from coast to international coast, can the influx of corporate logos from Bud Light, Phillip Morris, Hitachi, and Liquid Silk be far behind?
There are people who, in the process of redeeming masturbation from the junk heap of "losers' sex," are inclined to raise it to the level of the ultimate sexual experience. Good Vibrations sells t-shirts that read, "If you want something done right, do it yourself," and I've often heard it argued that skillful masturbation can produce more intense and more satisfying orgasms than partner sex can ever hope to match.
As much as I stand ready to mount the barricades that would liberate masturbation from centuries of embarrassment and shame -- as much as I enjoy elaborate solo sex sessions that slowly build to truly powerful ecstatic orgasmic releases -- as much as I have always masturbated regularly, whether I had an ongoing sexual partner or not -- still, I have to say that, when it comes to ultimate sexual experiences, my mind (and body, and, dare I say, soul) have a way of turning to something other than masturbation, something that goes beyond myself into the world of interpersonal connectivity. I like a good orgasm as much as anyone else, but for me, the heart of the sexual matter is not about achieving reliable and powerful orgasms, but about mixing something down deep inside me with something down deep inside someone else, about interpersonal intimacy, about transcending the boundaries of self.
So maybe it's not surprising that, when I sat down to make a list of personal masturbatory experiences worth writing about in a column -- masturbation events that stand out from every day, business-as-usual fare -- what kept coming to mind were experiences that involved other people, one way or another.
I don't remember the first time I masturbated. I don't even remember the first time I ejaculated. I forgive myself the first bit of forgetfulness, especially since I have reason to believe that I masturbated regularly as an infant, as a way of dealing with starvation panic. But the second memory lapse strikes me as both strange and disturbing.
I've heard all kinds of stories from other men (more often frightening than pleasurable for people who grew up in relative sexual ignorance) about first ejaculation surprises. You'd certainly think a person would remember something as dramatic as liquid spurting unexpectedly from his penis. But for the life of me, I have no memory whatsoever of that coming-of-age event, the boy's equivalent of first menstruation, my physiological emergence into the possibility of propagating the species.
The earliest masturbation routine I remember involved kneeling by the side of my bed (a posture that other kids used to say their prayers, I suppose) and playing with myself while looking at sexy pictures of busty movie stars in tight angora sweaters. (I know I'm dating myself here, but you'll have to do your own math.) There were a host of tacky little magazines published back then, truly miniature in size (maybe five inches high and three inches wide), with titillating stories about movie stars and other celebrities, and even more titillating pictures of the sex sirens of the day. The magazines were called things like Pix and Vue, and they wouldn't raise an eyebrow even among the Religious Right these days, but each era has its own boundary where things get risqué, and these magazines were on the edge of mine. I would steal them from the corner store because I was too young to buy magazines with sexy pictures (I would have been too embarrassed to buy them, even if Mrs. Meyer would have sold them to me, which she wouldn't have), and these were the only ones I could easily stuff into my pockets. I'm not sure how old I was. Maybe ten.
I'm sorry to say that I don't remember any particularly noteworthy masturbational events while I was growing up. Nothing particularly ecstatic, nothing particularly humiliating. (My dad would always whistle as he was walking up the stairs, toward my room, so that I would have time to conceal anything I didn't want him to see.) No circle jerks, no masturbating in front of other people, no seeing other people masturbate. (I'm taking masturbation to be what my dictionary says it is -- sex you do by and to yourself, rather than the other meaning that some people give it -- sex you do with your hand. In my book, "mutual masturbation," while a distinctly pleasurable activity, is also simply a contradiction in terms....) For me, masturbation was ubiquitous, to be sure, but hardly inspiring of poetry.
There was lots of masturbating to porn. Masturbating silently in college so as not to wake up my roommates. Masturbating while driving -- enjoying the discipline of controlled surrender, giving myself over to orgasms (even big orgasms) while paying attention to keeping the car on the road, and not weaving enough to get pulled over by some cop. ("I'm not drunk, officer, I was just masturbating.") Is it illegal to masturbate while driving, if you keep your seat belt on?
The masturbation memories I have that are most interesting to me all seem to involve masturbating in front of other people, or watching other people masturbate -- something I got to do frequently later in my life at sex parties of various stripes.
In my mid-thirties I encountered swingers parties for the first time -- parties where people got together in groups for the explicit purpose of having sex with people who were not their primary partners. Masturbation at mainstream swingers parties, however, at least at the parties that I discovered in my early swinger days, was generally quite subdued, at least for men. People were either having sex or watching people have sex, but not doing both at the same time. Watching and playing with yourself just didn't seem to happen very much, which carried the implicit message, typical for masturbation, that it was vaguely, if unspokenly, an uncool thing to do, or to do openly.
But then the magnificent Jack-and-Jill-Off parties came to San Francisco, bringing with them a completely different sexual culture and a whole new set of sexual rules and norms. The pansexual Jack-and-Jill-Off parties grew out of masturbation parties sponsored by the San Francisco Jacks, a group of gay men who wanted to eroticize safe sex at a time when AIDS awareness was first coming to the surface. At Jacks parties, groups of gay men came together to masturbate -- themselves and each other (contradictions in terms be damned) -- and the word was out around town that the whole thing was extremely hot. Women and heterosexual men who wanted to come and just watch were politely turned away.
Eventually David Talbot (founder and editor-in-chief of Salon Magazine), Jerry Zientara, and a small group of friends, decided to organize the "World's First Jack-&-Jill-Off Party," a truly revolutionary event which came to pass on November 7, 1987. The party, attended by about 150 people encompassing a broad array of genders and sexual orientations, was a smashing success. Unprotected sex was strictly outlawed (monitors circulated to ensure compliance) and, much more significantly in terms of inspiring sexual creativity, intercourse of any kind, vaginal or anal, even with latex protection, was also forbidden.
No intercourse?!? What were people to do??? Denied the straight and narrow road to the same-old-same-old, people were forced to use their imaginations. "Just imagine a party of women and men using their heads as well as their hands to reinvent sex! Making whoopee while making history!" declared the invitation to the World's First Jack-and-Jill-Off Party. The result was the explosion of what JJO promoter Jerry Zientara brilliantly and accurately has described as a psychosexual laboratory of sexual invention -- a culture of sexual experimentation that managed to span, blur, and in many cases entirely obliterate previously sacrosanct distinctions of sexual orientations, tastes, practices, and preferences.
"We made whoopee! We made history! At the world's first J&J party hot Jills and sexy Jacks came together using imagination, minds and hands to prove that safe sex can make the earth move!" exulted Zientara's invitation, three months later, to the sequel Jack-and-Jill-Off Party, "The Second Cumming," a party that turned out to be even larger, even more imaginative, and even more fun than the first. To the delight and sexual edification of hundreds of grateful people, myself included, a long succession of JJO parties followed, becoming a significant feature of San Francisco's multifaceted sexual scene through 1995.
At the Jack-and-Jill-Off parties, masturbation was not only respected without reservation, but was revered as a truly first-rate sexual activity of preference. As a result, couple or group sexual activity took place, more often than not, surrounded by rings of intense observers, many or most masturbating openly with great enthusiasm.
Among other things, the openness about masturbation provided an opportunity for people of all sexual persuasions and orientations to experiment with new sexual roles and personas that they might have been much more reluctant to enter into with a partner. I remember watching a close gay male friend avidly masturbating while attentively watching two women who were engrossed in heated sex on a mattress at his feet. He explained that he wanted to see if he could get excited by women, by watching women being sexual, something he had never tried before. (It turned out that he could, indeed.)
Many men who steadfastly identified as heterosexual nevertheless experimented with jerking off while watching pairs or groups of men being sexual. For many of these men, it was a significant step in overcoming their own homophobia. For more than a few, this became a first step toward opening to more direct sexual contact with other men.
(At the other end of the homophobia spectrum, men whose homophobia was decidedly more entrenched could be seen at every party, discreetly wending their ways to the door early in the evening.)
So what are the experiences that stand out for me personally? I remember one very glamorous, dramatic woman, obviously enjoying being the center of attention of a large circle of men, all masturbating, while she danced and moved seductively among them, sometimes turning her attention to one or another of the men, sometimes to the whole group. The scene culminated with the men hoisting the woman off the floor entirely, suspending her in the center of the tight circle of male bodies with one hand, while masturbating with the other until all the men had ejaculated onto her belly, to the cheers and laughter of everyone, especially the glistening epicenter of the scene.
I remember another time, when I was masturbating rather absent-mindedly, leaning up against the wall while watching a couple, maybe several couples, maybe a group of people, having sex on mattresses in the center of the floor. At one point I became aware of a woman on the opposite side of the room, also leaning up against the wall, also masturbating. At first we were both watching the people in the center of the room, but after a while we caught into each other's eyes, and before long we were masturbating directly to each other. Gradually, the energy grew, and eventually we both came, exchanging warm smiles but without ever saying a word,.
There was another, somewhat similar, encounter, that I remember as being exceptionally powerful, also at a sex party. I was watching a couple playing with each other in a casual, light-hearted way, the two of them standing against a wall in a large roomful of people with lots of different couples and groups being sexual in various ways. The man stood behind the woman, both of them facing outward, and I loved watching while he played with her breasts, her legs, her belly, her pussy, the two of them gradually getting more and more excited. Not wanting to intrude, I kept my distance, masturbating quietly, as if my masturbation had nothing to do with them. Eventually the woman noticed me, then looked away, noticed me again, looked away again. Each time we made eye contact, I felt permission to move a little closer to them, until I was standing right in front of them, masturbating more and more vigorously as they got more and more excited themselves.
They clearly enjoyed being watched, but said nothing to me, made no overt recognition that I was there at all, certainly made no invitation for me to join them. If it weren't for the fact that I was standing only about two feet in front of them, I might have thought they hadn't noticed me at all. The unspoken agreement was that I could watch and masturbate as much as I wanted, as long as there was no physical contact between them and me, which is how we continued until both the woman and I came. (Maybe the man came too; I really don't remember.) Afterwards, we all smiled, more to ourselves than to each other. No one said anything to acknowledge the connection we had just had. I wandered off, thoroughly delighted, and never saw them again.
There are others, but these are the stories that come to mind. I'm sure that everyone who reads this has dozens of masturbation stories too -- pleasurable stories, painful stories, mundane stories, exotic stories. Hopefully you have someone you can (or could) tell your masturbation stories to -- a partner, a lover, a family member, a friend.
Maybe that's something to add to the mix in May, 2006, when National Masturbation Month will come again -- a gathering of appreciative friends, a time and place for people to come together, sip good wine, eat good cheese, sit around the fireplace, tell a bunch of their long-unspoken, long-neglected masturbation stories, and affirm together the goodness of sexual pleasure in all its forms.
© 2008 David Steinberg
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This column is written by long-term activist David Steinberg. David is a photographer, author, editor, and publisher. His previous books include Photo Sex: Fine art sexual photography comes of age; Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies, The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self and his most recent book Divas of San Francisco: Portraits of transsexual women. He is currently working on two books of couples photography, This Thing We Call Sex, and Sex and Disability. He lives in San Francisco. If you would like to receive Comes Naturally and other writing by David Steinberg regularly via email (free and confidential), send your name and email address to David at firstname.lastname@example.org. Past columns are available at the Society for Human Sexuality's "David Steinberg Archives": www.sexuality.org/davids.html .
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