Overview:

In a time when abortion rights are embattled, you'd think masturbation would be touted as an alternative to sex. You'd be wrong.

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This is part of our Taboo Series.

Masturbation has been a taboo subject for much of Western history. Early Christians declared it a sin, while European medicine and psychology took it up in a pathologizing way.

But we’ve come a long way from thinking masturbation condemns you to hell or that it causes hair to grow on the palms of your hands, right? Or from the recommendations of John Harvey Kellogg (yes, the inventor of the breakfast cereal) to apply acid to the clitoris of a young girl to prevent her from masturbating?

Sadly, no. We are not very advanced when it comes to our thinking on masturbation, which is especially ironic in today’s context of the multifaceted attacks on reproductive freedoms.

If you were around in the 1990s, you might recall that U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders—the first African-American to serve in that position—was forced to resign for some very mild remarks recommending that masturbation be considered as part of the sex education arsenal for equipping American youth with sexuality knowledge. It was less of a “bring dildos to school!” recommendation than a “hey, this is a normal part of human sexuality, maybe we should destigmatize it and treat it as such” comment. And yet even that could not be brought into public discourse without penalty.

There are a few potential origins for National Masturbation Month; one website attributes it to the feminist sex toy shop Good Vibrations, while another account credits the sex-positive community more generally, including Dr. Carol Queen who worked with Good Vibrations on various publications.

Either way, the idea of masturbation hasn’t become that much more acceptable in the intervening decades. Having just taught a college course about the history and culture of sex education, I can state with certainty that very few school curricula touch on it, or teach it in any systematic way. And the various moral panics and social movements that have proliferated in recent years—from the No Fap movement to the anti-porn resolutions found in Utah that make masturbation out to be a public health crisis—still frame masturbation and its attendant ills (like pornography, “sex addition,” and so on) as evil.

What this really does is expose the hypocritical sex-negative attitude of many conservatives (often of the religious flavor) in the U.S. Because you’d think, if they actually wanted to reduce unplanned pregnancies and hence abortions, they’d be encouraging everyone to get down with a bottle of lube and a sex toy in order to avoid partnered sex.

Instead, we see a ruthless instrumentalization of sex as a tool for procreation alone. And any sex apart from heterosexual monogamous married sex is also demonized as deviant, dangerous, and immoral.

In tracing a bit of the history of views on masturbation, and coming to understand the various ways in which it is framed, we can reveal the religious right’s true attitudes on sex: punitive, restrictive, sexist, and heterosexist.

So, whether or not masturbation’s your thing, it’s a healthy part of human sexuality and a great way of exploring your own body or engaging in sexual activities with partners near and far.

Planned Parenthood has a good masturbation guide here; so does Scarleteen (an awesome sex-ed website generally geared towards younger crowds, but still full of accurate and inclusive information). Also, here’s a helpful lube guide, as alas, not all lubricants are created equal and some can actually be harmful.

At the end of the day, we all deserve access to accurate information about our bodies and our sexualities, which includes the knowledge that masturbation isn’t a sin or a crime. Bodily autonomy is a huge part of reproductive justice, especially in the current U.S. attacks on contraception and abortion access, and masturbation is one of the most fundamental expressions of bodily autonomy there is. The folks who would tell you otherwise aren’t worth listening to, whether we’re talking political rights or sex advice.

Jeana Jorgensen

FOXY FOLKORIST Studied folklore under Alan Dundes at the University of California, Berkeley, and went on to earn her PhD in folklore from Indiana University. She researches gender and sexuality in fairy...