Masturbation Nation

by Susan Block, Ph.D.


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 here in the Masturbation Nation? Since just about everybody plays sexual solitaire at least sometimes, it's virtually the nation’s—and the world’s--preferred leisure past time.

Yet 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. Thus, most of us keep our single-handed pleasures under the covers and in the closet. National Masturbation Month is a respectful attempt to open that closet door, just a crack, letting a little light shine in on that which is usually hidden and forbidden.

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. One explanation for this gesture is that the man is swearing by the lives of his future children. Another reason is that there is something inherently honest about touching your own genitalia. It is the place of your greatest physical vulnerability, sensitivity and power.

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. You might want to grab it with one of those holy vibrators for an intense erotic sensation. Feel the power, the glory and the truth of solo sexual revelation! Finger yourself with joy! Stroke yourself into rapture! Buzz yourself into bliss! Surrender to self-pleasure. Testify to the truth of autoerotic ecstasy. Testify and be healed of stress and frustration, anger and sleep deprivation, Horny Toaditis 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." Biblically speaking, this was more of a case of coitus interruptus than masturbation. But the general tribal assumption was that masturbation was taboo. Why? 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 join their armies in their wars 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 and nothing at all about masturbation, 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.

Medieval Christian Fathers were not big on fun, 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 indulgience in 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 of those "precious bodily fluids" that Dr. Strangelove's Jack D. Ripper is so obsessed with. This humdinger 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 scientific 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. Many experts say he is also more likely to have prostate problems.

Of course, Brother Jack, if you ejaculate six times a day, you will not shoot more than a gasp and a dribble by Ejaculation #6. 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 "cliterectomies" or "female circumcisions" that sometimes kill their victims (usually young girls) and always deform them. Though Western doctors now rarely perform these operations, female circumcisers still actively 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, as among Muslims and Jews, but also 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, rather fruitless effort to control male masturbation.

Two of the biggest anti-masturbation activists of the 19th century, also big circumcision enthusiasts, were Graham Cracker inventor Sylvestor Graham and John Kellogg, creator of Kellogg's Corn Flakes. The consumption of either Graham Crackers or Kellogg's Corn Flakes was supposed to suppress the sex drive. Did it work? Not at all, scientifically speaking. But then Kellogg and Graham weren't very scientific, especially when it came to masturbation. Kellogg called it "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 along with his cornflakes.

There are far too many anti-wanking superstitions that have proliferated though history to list here, and 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. Dr. J is now a patron saint of strumming, a nickname for sex for one is now "firing the surgeon general."

Speaking of American presidents, George W Bush demonstrated his own dark twist on the touchy subject of solo sex in the notorious Abu Ghraib pictures that show leering American soldiers forcing helpless, hooded prisoners to masturbate. 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? A military-industrial fetish? Some kind of interrogational inducement to spill the beans along with the seed? Whatever its ostensible purpose, Bush’s forced Detainee. 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 Greeks, masturbation was a gift from the gods. Hermes revealed it to Pan, whose love for a nymph was unrequited, demonstrating how the simple act of jacking off could be a superb rape prevention technique. 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." The Greeks understood the powerful benefits of masturbation.

Some Americans have also had a "feel" for solo sex. Mark Twain, in between penning literary masterpieces, spoke of it 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." As yes, 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, unlovable "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 hand…

If you can't manage to shake your shame, you can always eroticize it. You might do this already. Sex is intrinsically perverse, and our anti-sex society makes it more so. Thus many of us need to feel bad in order 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? How does it feel when you masturbate? Is it wild? Is it wonderful? Is it weird? Is it just a tremendous 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? Romantic Fantasy? 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 nirvana?

Whatever our feelings about it, masturbation is almost always the very first sexual activity of our lives. 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, probably 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 George Carlin or Diogenes or Mark Twain or even Truman Capote, but at least Mom had a fairly sex-positive way of attempting to regulate my masturbatory passions.

Speaking of the positive...It may feel like playing hooky, but masturbation is really very educational. It teaches you about your own 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 also tends to be more nerve-wracking. Unless you're a total narcissist, you're probably going to concentrate more on your lover's pleasure than your own. But 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, the perfect time to try them is during a private session of solo sex. 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 kitties. In fact, that's how I had my own first orgasm.

I was 19 years old, a sophomore at Yale, and I'd never had an orgasm. Oh, I'd had sex a few times, mainly with my high school boyfriend, and he'd had plenty of orgasms. I'd masturbated since before I could walk, but not yet to *completion.* I did have involuntary climaxes occasionally when I rode a horse or did kip-ups in gymnastics. But no full-fledged voluntary orgasms until my first semester of my sophomore year at Yale. That was when I read a book that was most definitely not required reading for any of my classes: Betty Dodson’s Liberating Masturbation.

No I didn’t date any Skull & Boners during my sojourn at Yale, but I was seeing a gorgeous young math genius on the crew team named Steven, tall and sensuously lean, with long flowing blonde hair and eyes the color of an unspoiled lake. The only problem was that Steven was very shy, and since I was fairly shy too, our evenings tended to be pretty dull. But I was infatuated with his golden athletic beauty and dazzling numerical brilliance. And one night, when I let him stay over in my tiny little dorm room in my tiny little single bed, 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 Steven left for his early morning math class, I remember lingering in bed. Lazily, I started to touch myself, picking up where Steven had left off. But I didn't know what to do. Not exactly. So, being a bookish girl, I reached for a book. We were reading Antony and Cleopatra in Shakespeare class. Though I found the play to be quite erotic, I knew old A&C wouldn’t tell me what I needed to know at that critical moment. Nor would my psych or philosophy textbooks or even my French Fleurs du Mal. So I pushed them all aside for a little illustrated pamphlet I’d picked up from one of the women’s consciousness raising groups so popular back then.

This was Liberating Masturbation. I perused a few paragraphs as I continued to touch myself. Within less than a dozen pages, I’d received a lesson in female anatomy like I’d never been given before. In a smart, friendly, no-nonsense style, Betty told me exactly what and where my clitoris was (nobody else ever had!), and how to touch it to make it feel wonderful. She told me to relax and breathe deep, something I’d never thought of doing with sex, despite my years of yoga. So, I relaxed and breathed deeply, as I stroked and played with myself like I'd played since I was a baby, but this time I followed Betty’s instructions, pushing myself farther. I inhaled and exhaled deeper and deeper, and rubbed and tickled and poked and pulled, licking my fingers and feeling the power, checking back with the book for ideas, breathing more and more deeply, rubbing faster and slower and then faster again, until lo and behold, the proverbial dam burst, the bed shook, the dorm room spun, and I bounced off the cliff into orgasm. My first full-fledged, voluntary orgasm.

I remember feeling awed and amazed, like I'd gone through a personal revolution right there in my tiny, overprotected, little dorm room bed. I knew I had passed through a "rite of passage" that none of my anthropology books dared describe. I felt blessed, or maybe just lucky, like I'd been given a gift from God, or the Goddess, or Nature, a pure pleasure that I didn't have to work for, didn't cost any money, didn't have any calories and didn't require *faith* in myths or suppositions. I marveled that something so easy could be so explosive, yet so gentle. And I remember realizing I was hooked, that at that point, after 19 years of life on earth, I had become orgasmic. I knew, right then and there, that no matter what happened, the rest of my life would include these exquisite explosions of pleasure, that pretty much whenever I wanted, I could enjoy a little piece of heaven on Earth. It was all just as close as my fingertips.

I remember drifting blissfully in that tiny little dorm room bed, as if I were Cleopatra floating down the Nile on her perfumed barge toward Antony, her erotic destiny. Then I remember glancing at the clock and realizing that if I didn't get out of bed that minute, I'd miss that Shakespeare class! So I threw on my clothes, picked up my books and left--a New Orgasmic Woman--then, now, and forever, a proud citizen of Betty Dodson’s Masturbation Nation, joining her "on the barricades" against sexual ignorance and repression.

Betty’s Liberating Masturbation was eventually revamped and renamed Sex for One. It became a classic. Over the decades, it has helped millions of women like me to have their first orgasms. And it has eased the guilt and opened the minds of many others, male and female. Like another bestseller of its time, The Joy of Sex, it carried the sexology research of Dr. Alfred Kinsey, along with the pioneering efforts of Victoria Woodhull, Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger, into the burgeoning self-help arena. It reached the masses, grabbed them (gently) by the cajones, and stoked the Sexual Revolution. As the title indicates, Sex for One is the quintessential self-help manual (pun intended). Its message is self-revolutionary: If you can help yourself to the greatest sexual pleasure, you really don’t need to kow-tow to the demands of an unreasonable husband, or wife, or religion, or government. No wonder masturbation is still so taboo.

And now here I am, a few million orgasms richer, Brothers and Sisters, Lovers and Sinners, wishing you a Merry Masturbation Month! Make love to someone you love tonight, even if that someone is you...And don't forget to wash your hands before you do! Afterwards, you can lick your fingers...