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.

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