Ready, set, masturbate!: The mastermind behind “International Masturbation Month”

In honor of Masturbation Month, Salon talks to the pioneer of self-pleasuring who coined this quirky holiday

Topics: Sex, Love and Sex, Masturbation, Editor's Picks,

Ready, set, masturbate!: The mastermind behind "International Masturbation Month" (Credit: miljko via iStock/Salon)

You probably hadn’t realized that May is a commemorative month — but you might have been celebrating without even knowing. It isn’t a holiday observed by post offices or banks, at least not in any official capacity. You won’t be getting a day off (although you might be getting off). And, no, it has nothing to do with Mother’s Day (ideally).

Give up? It’s International Masturbation Month, according to, you know, some people who decided it is. It’s also National Pet Month, National Bike Month, National ADHD Awareness Month and, like 14 other things. Of all the causes vying for the public’s attention this month, Masturbation Month certainly has the most pleasurable fundraising approach: masturbate-a-thons, in which people literally cum together for a cause. Yes, this is a thing that exists in the world, and it’s been around for nearly 20 years now.

I talked to Good Vibrations Staff Sexologist Carol Queen, one of the minds behind this commemorative month, to talk onanistic advocacy, vanishing taboos and masturbation slang.

How did Masturbation Month get started?

In 1994, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, then the U.S. surgeon general, was fired for saying one brief and sensible thing about masturbation: that “it’s something that perhaps should be taught” about in sex-ed curricula. Good Vibrations staff struggled to make sense of this senseless situation, and decided to create National Masturbation Month, now known as International Masturbation Month, to celebrate and provoke discourse about this so prevalent but often disrespected sexual practice.

What’s it take to make an international month, anyway? Is there an official process or do you just declare it “such and such” month and hope people listen?

I don’t know how all those other quirky holidays got on the calendar, but in this case, we just did it and waited for the people to celebrate.

Why do we need to have an International Masturbation Month? Is masturbation really something in need of awareness-raising?

Well, if the Kinsey Reports were right that almost everyone masturbates, at least at some point in their life, you could argue that this is a behavior that needs no boosters. But it’s also a serious source of shame and opprobrium. That’s, in fact, a terrible mix — it’s not rare, yet when someone notable says something neutrally, carefully respectful about it, they get the axe. Ordinary people who do it think there’s something wrong with them, and it’s painted as a pathetic third choice if you can’t get someone to have sex with you. In fact, if you can shake off this bad rap, masturbation is amazing. It can provide extraordinary pleasure, or just help you get to sleep, teach you about your body and sexual responses, and help keep the blood flowing in the nethers, as they might say on Firefly. It’s good for you, unless you do it so much that you forget to eat or run afoul of the laws of physics — here I’m really talking about friction.

Just how far have we come since Jocelyn Elders’ Masturbationgate? Have much have people’s views on masturbation evolved?

It’s a glass-half-empty thing. We’ve had almost 20 years of more open discourse about it — at least during May every year — so of course things have improved. But generations of students still have terrible sex education, so it’s like the consciousness-raising has to start all over again every few years.

Has Masturbation Month ever courted controversy?

One could say that the whole notion courts controversy, though there’s been surprisingly little ruckus. The Masturbate-a-Thon, I suppose, has been the most controversial thing, even before the live-action version was developed. But partly that’s because it’s so cheeky. We didn’t want to depart very far from this position of a serious message delivered with a light touch, because bringing real controversy down would also include broadcasting the message that there was something wrong with masturbation. This, of course, is the message we don’t want to encourage. But drawing out the snarling anti-masturbation dogs, then pointing and laughing, is really quite tempting.

Actually, when an entity — a media outlet or pundit, say — finds us too controversial, one of their strategies is often just silence. Coverage of International Masturbation Month in the U.S. has been way scantier than in many other countries, and often less substantive. When we did a Masturbate-a-Thon in London in 2006, we got tons more press than we get for the events in the U.S. It’s one way, I think, that this country continues to live its prudish, Puritan history.

Tell me about this Masturbate-a-Thon.

So there are two sorts of Masturbate-a-Thon: One is the kind Good Vibrations’ brainstormers came up with in 1999, in which a participant got pledges for their involvement, masturbated — presumably privately, or maybe with a partner — and then remitted those pledges to Good Vibes so they could be passed on to nonprofits who dealt with sexual health. Good Vibes was always trying to cook up new Masturbation Month angles, and this one got lots and lots of attention; it went on for many years.

The Live Masturbate-a-Thon was a riff on this. For about a decade I would wake up agonizingly early during Masturbation Month season to talk to shock jocks and drive-time radio folks. They all wanted to come be Masturbate-a-Thon judges! I’d have to explain that there was nothing to see — it was just as private a practice as usual. The whole thing was about asking people to sponsor you — it was supposed to make it easier to talk about self-love. Finally my partner Robert and I said, “Well, we could host a live one.” Good Vibrations would never do that, but they gave their blessing to our version, and we ran with it as a Center for Sex & Culture benefit event. This year, on May 31, we’ll hold the 13th one, I believe.

Will masturbation ever be truly rid of its taboo and shame?

Yes, if we have anything to say about it. But some greatly improved sex education would surely hurry the process along. And of course Betty Dodson is still doing her thing, and a more significant ambassador for masturbation has never been born.

What’s the wildest thing you’ve observed at a Masturbate-a-Thon?

I’m pretty tempted to say “the exhibitionist who oils himself up, brings all his toys, and stands right in front of the camera” — we used to live-webcast the events, though we no longer do — because he would want me to call him out!

But really my two favorite Masturbate-a-Thon memories are these: At our San Francisco event at CSC, we opened the door a few years ago to a guy who wanted to compete for the Longest Time Spent Masturbating trophy. He had just flown in from Japan, he was sponsored by the Tenga line of men’s sex toys — and he brought them all along! — and he was wearing like a Nascar suit with Tenga’s logo. And he totally won that title! Nine hours and 58 minutes! People ask the secret to this sort of feat: It’s lube. And not moving too fast and friction-y. That’s great for your three minutes before bed, but it’s not what winners do.

And at the London Masturbate-a-Thon, a lovely matron who’d come down on the train from Coventry came out disappointed that she had not had 50 orgasms, which had been her goal, and said, “I guess I shouldn’t have made love this morning before I came down here!” Then she proceeded to work out how many calories she’d burned and how large a Cadbury’s bar she deserved.

Oh, and the friend of a friend who brought his violin along and played lovely music for the masturbators, sans pants. Classical music just gives masturbation so much more gravitas! We had opera singers one time, too.

Doesn’t masturbation become an entirely different thing when done in front of other people?

Well, not entirely. Our arms still generally extend just about the right distance. But of course exhibitionism, or sometimes just pure exhilarating terror, becomes a really central part of the experience. At a Masturbate-a-Thon there are people who relish being in a room with other people — and it is an amazing and, for some people, really healing experience — while others close their eyes and just try to go to their own private zone.

What is your favorite slang term for masturbation?

Good Vibrations held a contest years ago and solicited euphemisms. For political impact, of course I like “firing the Surgeon General.” But my very favorite term has to be “tossing the pink salad.” So evocative. Though I should really add that some of our salads aren’t so much pink as crimson.

Alright, say some readers are inspired to … commemorate Masturbation Month. Any particular words of advice?

Lube! Gather your necessities, whether toys or porn or a water bottle and snacks, and make yourself a comfy space where you’re not likely to be interrupted. Then indulge — or explore, if you aren’t really accustomed to self-pleasuring — and remember that all over the world, lots of other people are also engaging in solo sex, perhaps the most fundamental element of our sexualities. Take your time, and try to make the experience one that honors your pleasure and masturbation itself.

The May 31st event in San Francisco is open to the public, so that’s an option, of course. There’s usually one in Copenhagen, and sometimes they hold one in Montreal and Philadelphia. Who’s “they”? The international pro-masturbation cabal!

If you’re moved to get pledges beforehand, you’re really in the spirit of the thing! The Center for Sex & Culture is still very happy to take these donations. Like a walk-a-thon, the point of the Masturbate-a-Thon is to raise funds and talk about the issue the funds are being raised for. So raise the profile of masturbation, and come for a cause!

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...