Masturbation Month Comes to Town

If you didn’t know May was National Masturbation Month, you’re not alone.
By Liz Spikol

If you didn’t know May was National Masturbation Month, you’re not alone—nor are you even necessarily Catholic. The annual observance doesn’t have a hugely high profile. It started in 1995 in—where else?—San Francisco, as a response to the forced resignation of U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders. After a speech at the United Nations World AIDS Day in 1994, an audience member asked Elders about masturbation’s potential for discouraging early sexual activity. She replied: “I think [it] is something that is part of human sexuality and a part of something that perhaps should be taught.”

That was the end of the first black surgeon general’s Washington career, but the beginning of National Masturbation Month, a protest effort started by the company Good Vibrations. This year it has its Philadelphia debut.

Elicia Gonzalez, 34, is spearheading the local self-pleasure education effort in conjunction with the Mazzoni Center, Philadephia’s LGBT health center, where, as manager of the Collective, Gonzalez addresses sexual practice and drug use among men of color. We spoke with her about the fine art of onanism.

What motivated you to start a National Masturbation Month observance in Philly?

“I initially had the idea to do it primarily because at Mazzoni we talk about masturbation quite often with clients, and I talk with my staff about talking to their clients about masturbation as a way of expressing their sexuality, but doing so with very low risk. I knew that May was coming around and that raising awareness about masturbation in general would be a good idea.”

And it seems to tie into the workshop you offer to women on the subject.

“I’ve had a longstanding mission to help empower and educate females. I did the workshop at the LGBT Women of Color Conference and at Sister Song. The workshop helps women dispel the myths surrounding masturbation and encourages women to talk openly about their values and beliefs about masturbation, which is also the goal is for the Hot Button event.”

So the Hot Button event is a party?

“We’re having a sort of Hot Button lounge, if you will, in the basement of the Fuse party and we’re going to have a Masturbation 101 workshop, a sexuality Pictionary and masturbation Quizzo. So that’s going to be a very fun and interactive way of getting education out there but also raising awareness and helping people talk about it. Because a lot of the shame and stigma that I’ve heard comes from not being able to discuss it openly and honestly, and being really ashamed about it.”

Do you feel like religion has something to do with that shame?

“I think a lot of the myths that are currently still at play stem from religious teachings that say that masturbation is a sin against God and various religions. The Old Testament stated that Onan basically sinned against God because he didn’t impregnate his brother’s wife. Instead he masturbated and spilled the semen on the ground. That has been interpreted as a sin against God. But in actuality, [the story] has more to do with procreation. This is just my own personal view, but in my understanding, part of religious teaching is promoting procreation. Anything that kind of goes against procreation, including masturbation as well as homosexuality, is sort of condemned.”

I recently learned about the Passion4Christ Movement’s anti-masturbation campaign, which claims masturbation is dirty.

“There are a ton of different [myths]. Doctors used to think that bringing your body to orgasm would basically cause it to get so excited that it could potentially result in brain damage.”

Do you think there’s more shame around masturbation for women?

“I think so. Historically, female masturbation has been equated with immorality and insanity. When we introduced the idea of having a Hot Button party, there were several people who came out saying that they were surprised to learn that females masturbate. They thought it was only something that men did. … It goes really, really deep. Women are constantly talking about the impact that this has on their sexuality because I think that sometimes our sexuality exists only for the pleasure of others. You’re not necessarily allowed to explore your own sexuality. It can kind of keep you a prisoner of your own shame. Women’s bodies have been demonized for centuries and women have often been discouraged from discussing their sexuality.”

Is that why you feel it’s important for women to masturbate?

“I think in terms of overall general health and well-being, masturbation is a healthy sexual expression that we have for ourselves, by ourselves, on our own terms. It’s a way of expressing sexuality while staying safe. In terms of the overall mission of the Mazzoni Center, we provide health services to LGBT Philadelphians, and sexuality is part of that. And this is one of my life missions: making people feel empowered to make decisions, to take control of your own body. When you feel empowered about your own body, I think that makes all the difference in the world.”