Next month, give yourself a hand

Next month, give yourself a hand

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Mark your calendars: May is National Masturbation Month. The idea for this ob-servance originated in 1995 when a San Francisco-based adult sex-toy store wanted to protest the firing of then-U.S. Surgeon Gen. Dr. Joycelyn Elders.

Elders, the first African American to hold that position, had come under fire from conservatives for espousing a number of controversial views, including the distribution of condoms in schools. But the final straw came at a speech she delivered at the United Nations on HIV and AIDS. In response to a question posed to her following the speech, Elders suggested that masturbation “might perhaps be taught in public schools” as one way to combat the spread of the disease. Her opponents seized upon the off-the-cuff statement, and, one week after her statement on World AIDS Day, President Clinton fired his appointee.

Masturbation as sin?

So why the uproar over masturbation? The taboo surrounding masturbation dates as far back as Biblical times and persists to the present day (at least in Western society). It wasn’t always so. In certain cultures throughout history, masturbation was regarded not only as normal but was highly praised. More often, however, it has been equated with immorality and mental illness.

An Old Testament passage tells of God striking down Onan for “spilling his seed on the ground” rather than father a child by his brother’s widow. Ancient Hebrews thus condemned masturbation as a sin against God. To this day, many religious teachings continue to perpetuate the idea of masturbation as a sin.

Masturbation causes insanity?

In the mid- to late 1700s, during the Age of Enlightenment, clergy and medical professionals alike carried a very dim (one might say “unenlightened”) view of masturbation, asserting the practice led to insanity. They believed that since sexual arousal involved stimulation of the nervous system, the “chronic” nervous excitation accompanying this “unnatural” act could eventually produce brain damage. Masturbation was sometimes even “treated” in women by the removal of the clitoris. Now that is crazy!

Children of this era did not escape the ramifications of this morally based “science.” A common practice by some parents was to have their children wear binding clothing or other paraphernalia aimed at physically preventing masturbation. Diet has also been used as a method of attempting to curb sexual arousal; so-called “stimulating” foods, such as chocolate, sugary foods and meat, were to be strictly avoided. In the mid-19th century, Dr. J.H. Kellogg (of the same family that brought us the cornflakes) considered masturbation to be downright deadly, claiming its victims could “quite literally, die by their own hand.” (Interesting turn of a phrase, don’t you think?) He recommended such draconian measures as circumcision among young males (without anesthesia, ouch!) and pouring pure carbolic acid on the clitorises of young girls.

Masturbation is healthy!

Fortunately, today most physicians support the premise that masturbation is a normal and healthy sexual activity. Alfred Kinsey’s studies showed 92 percent of men and 62 percent of women have masturbated during their lifetime. It frequently begins well before puberty and some even report masturbatory behavior in utero. Among the numerous benefits ascribed to masturbation is that it is 100-percent safe: Nobody ever got an STD (or pregnant!) from masturbating. It can also be a means for self-discovery and intimacy. In order to learn how to please others sexually, it helps to know how best to please ourselves. Masturbation can help relieve stress as well as sexual tension, and can often help reduce the pain and discomfort associated with women’s menstrual cycles. Research shows sexual arousal and climax can actually alleviate pain, likely owing to the body’s release of endorphins during orgasm, which induce feelings of mental and physical well-being.

For decades, sex therapists have advocated the use of masturbation to help individuals and couples improve their sexual responsiveness, particularly with women who have difficulty achieving orgasm, or men who may achieve it too quickly (i.e. premature ejaculation). It can also be a means to enhance sexual pleasure for couples who engage in the practice mutually.

Of course, one of the real luxuries of masturbation is that it can be done purely on your own terms. After all, when is the last time you told yourself, “Not tonight, I have a headache!”

Masturbation can help you fall asleep and can even be good cardiovascular exercise (get busy, bikini season is fast approaching!).

Perhaps the most pertinent benefit, however, is that it just plain feels good! And while we have learned, painfully at times, that the old maxim dating back to the Free Love Generation does not apply universally, when it comes to masturbation, “if it feels good, do it!”

For more information about events taking place in Philadelphia in recognition of National Masturbation Month, contact Mazzoni Center Collective manager Elicia Gonzales at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call (215) 563-0652 ext. 243. Mazzoni Center is Philadelphia’s only LGBT-specific health center.

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