The History Of International Masturbation Month Shows How Protest & Awareness Helped Break This Taboo

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By now you probably already know that May is International Masturbation Month. It exists because there's nothing quite as fantastic as loving yourself (and loving yourself every day, maybe even a few times a day, all month long). But the history of International Masturbation Month — and why we celebrate it — is a fascinating piece of sex-positivity lore. In fact, it actually started as a form of protest.

"After then-Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders was fired/forced to resign in late 1994 by Bill Clinton for saying something brief and sensible about masturbation, the PR team at Good Vibrations came together to think of a strategy to protest this action," Good Vibrations staff sexologist and author of The Sex & Pleasure Book: Good Vibrations Guide to Great Sex for Everyone Carol Queen, PhD, tells Bustle. "The first National Masturbation Month, launched in May 1995, was the result."

So what, exactly, happened? In 1994, at a United Nations conference about the AIDS epidemic, Dr. Elders was asked her thoughts on masturbation advocacy in the hopes of reducing the spread of HIV and other STIs. In response, Dr. Elders said, "I think that is something that is a part of human sexuality, and it's a part of something that perhaps should be taught." At a time in the U.S. when AIDS was reaching crisis levels, Dr. Elders thought that teaching masturbation could help. There was also the fact that the United States had the highest rates of STIs of any country in the developed world and the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in the world. She was also an advocate for condoms being handed out in school.

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But that pro-masturbation comment was the straw that broke the camel's back. Dr. Elders was forced to resign, as The New York Times put it. And the sex-positive community flared up in protest. As a form of both protest and awareness, National Masturbation Month was created.

"We conferred with our sister stores (like Babeland and Grand Opening) and did a group promo of this new month," Dr. Queen says, "using that springboard for the next several years to talk up self-love." Then, things really got rolling.

"There was the Masturbation Hall of Fame, the Favorite Masturbation Euphemism contest ('tossing the pink salad' is my fave!), and a collaboration with Dan Savage and his Savage Love readers telling their most memorable masturbation stories," Dr. Queen says. "Each year we tried to create something especially high-profile, because the whole thing was, besides obviously educational activism, a promo project to get the media and high-profile people to talk about masturbation. (Which was itself a form of educational activism.)"

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The reason National Masturbation Day is May 28 stems from one, particularly high-profile initiative around National Masturbation Month.

"In 1998, one of our marketing teams thought of a new element that turned out to be the most high profile thing we'd done with NMM," Dr. Queen says. "The Masturbate-a-thon was intended to be a fundraiser for non-profits, but the main point was getting people to get pledges — normalizing masturbation in this cheeky way by treating it like a walk-a-thon, only private (as I used to say, 'except your feet don't hurt when you're done, unless you masturbate in a very unusual way')."

People would collect pledges for either how many orgasms they had or how long they lasted. "We collaborated with Babeland, Come As You Are in Toronto, and other sex shops and sex-positive organizations to get lots of people to participate," Dr. Queen says. "It was a huge hit, with lots of press — and that meant, of course, lots of discussion about masturbation."

Masturbate-a-thons popped up all over the world — each one raising money for charities. Some private, some via webcast, and some as theme parties. "Good Vibrations only did the ones where people masturbated privately," Dr. Queen says. "But the horse got out of the barn, which is great — the whole point was to get people communicating about this topic that so often people were completely silent about."

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Now, 24 years later, National Masturbation Month has become International Masturbation Month, and something that's celebrated the world over. But the fight to get rid of those masturbation taboos is still ongoing.

"Masturbation is still controversial... and it still needs to have advocates to normalize it for people," Dr. Queen says. "Since masturbation is so common, when people engage in it who don't think they should, it can really bring up feelings of shame." But as Dr. Queen points out, the benefits of masturbation are endless. From pain relief, to stress relief, to building a strong immune system, to a whole boatload of other positive aspects.

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Even if you don't masturbate more this month than usual, Dr. Queen says that a good way to celebrate is to ask questions. Asking, "'Why are so many humans uptight about this?' is a worthy way to celebrate," Dr. Queen says. "National Masturbation Month was invented to get people to talk about masturbation, and essentially to consider this question: 'Why is an act that doesn't hurt or pester anyone, that has positive effects, that is usually done in private, denigrated and not celebrated?'"

While the taboos surrounding masturbation aren't what they used to be, it's still a controversial subject for some, especially in the United States. Although we may not be able to make our culture more sex-positive right this minute, we can at least do our part in normalizing masturbation in our own lives.