You may have heard the old joke that 98% of people masturbate, and the other two percent are lying. Well, I guess that makes me a liar.
May is Masturbation Month, an annual event that reaches its climax on May 28, National Masturbation Day. The holiday was started by the sex-positive sex store, Good Vibrations in 1995, some months after Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders was fired by President Bill Clinton for daring to suggest masturbation be written into sex education curriculum for students. According to its creators, the intention of the occasion is “to raise awareness and to highlight the importance of masturbation for nearly everyone.” The retailer describes masturbation as a safe, healthy, free, and pleasurable way for people get to know their bodies and their sexual responses.
No doubt, masturbation is a totally common and healthy habit for many, but I must take issue with the claim that nearly everybody masturbates — or should. For starters, there are individuals for whom masturbation is part of an addictive or compulsive pattern. Beyond this, there are individuals with physical disabilities that make masturbation difficult or painful, one sex toy retailer points out. And then there are people like me, for whom masturbation simple doesn’t — er, come easy. Though I consider myself sex-positive, the truth (I swear!) is that my experiences with masturbation have been few and far between.
I have a vague memory of masturbating once in college. We had finally gotten Internet in the dorms and I was eagerly exploring all the World Wide Web had to offer. Inevitably, this resulted in my looking at porn, which inevitably led to the overwhelming desire to touch myself — which I did, until I got off.
It was a bit of a shock. When it was over, I felt embarrassed and ashamed. I can’t tell you exactly why I thought masturbation was problematic, beyond the fact that a sex-negative culture teaches us that it’s wrong. I suppose one reason I had never even thought to try it before was because I had always assumed it was something that boys did.
At nineteen years old, I started working as a stripper. Here is where I learned that when girls did it, it was for an audience. I wrote a piece recently for Salon about how sex work affected my sexuality — how basically everything having to do with my body became a source of power and means of capital rather than a way to feel pleasure. As a sex worker, masturbation became something I performed for money — and not something I did for myself, to get off. Working in the sex industry, I learned how to touch myself without feeling anything at all. Fifteen or so years later, when I finally tried to go back to feeling something, it didn’t really work that way.
Now in my 30s, I’ve been working actively for a healthier sex life and a healthy sexuality, which, I’m figuring out, may or may not include masturbation. A couple of years ago when I was single and purposely not dating, I picked up the habit briefly— only to put it down again when I went back to “real” sex. At that time, I recall, it sometimes worked, but sometimes didn’t. Sometimes, it wasn’t fun. It could be frustrating. It brought up feelings I couldn’t explain.
These days, I sometimes tell myself I don’t need to masturbate because I’m in a relationship, even though I know the idea that masturbation is a “second rate” substitute to sex with a partner is wrong. I know, as sex writer Mandy Stadmiller reports, that lots of people in relationships masturbate — even when they’re getting enough satisfying sex.
Stadmiller talks about how some people may be made to feel hurt or even jealous by the fact that their partner masturbates, and while it’s understandable to feel this way, basically, if you do, you need to get over it. If you try to manage your partner’s solo sex routine, Stadmiller writes, it won’t work. She cautions people to not criticize their partners' masturbation habits and says, bottom line is that couples need to talk about sex — which includes masturbation.
The good news for me is that none of these problems are our issues. My partner and I talk about sex constantly. Certainly, we’ve had a conversation about his solo sex habits. His sex drive is higher than mine, and so I’m not at all threatened by the fact that sometimes he needs to clean the pipes. Masturbation has also long been a part of our sex routine as a way for him to finish, and recently we’ve incorporated it into finishing me off as well. Still, I find it easier with him watching.
Experts say there are benefits to masturbation: menstrual cramp relief, stress reduction, endorphin release, stronger pelvic muscles, reduction of prostate gland infection for men and resistance to yeast infections for women, the list goes on. Beyond this, sex therapists celebrate the act as an expression of self-love. Maybe it’s time I develop a solo sex routine of my own. Or maybe not. Being sex-positive means it’s cool to masturbate. It also means it’s okay if you don’t.