These days, just about any activity you can think of has its own novelty holiday. According to nationaldaycalendar.com, May 8 is World Red Cross Day, National Have a Coke Day and National Coconut Cream Pie Day, to name a few.
National Masturbation Month, a 31-day celebration of self-love, is well known in certain circles, thanks to the likes of nationally syndicated columnist and host of the Savage Love podcast, Dan Savage, and to promotions by sex toy companies. But did you know that the monthlong ode to solo sex was actually born in San Francisco?
Recently, the longtime sex educator, author and pleasure activist Carol Queen—who is the staff sexologist at SF sex shop Good Vibrations, director and co-founder of the evolving Center for Sex and Culture, and who literally holds a Ph.D. in the art and science of lovemaking—kindly reminded us that the celebratory season of pleasing one’s self has its roots in the same city that birthed the Summer of Love.
As Queen tells it, the concept was conceived by a committee that Good Vibrations staff convened after Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders was forced to resign from her office in 1994 for her outspoken views on sex education and pleasuring one’s self—she said that kids should be taught solo sex is acceptable, as masturbation could help curb the spread of AIDS.
While conservatives were shocked by Elders’ statements, the sex-positive peeps at Good Vibrations were incensed by the former surgeon general’s ousting.
“It was was an outrage to us—an outrage,” Queen said. So the staff at Good Vibrations came up with National Masturbation Month as a way to stick it the prudes, launching the playful and cheeky campaign in 1995. They chose May because it not only gave the group enough time to react to the situation, but also for its potential for wordplay and the month’s associations with sexual awakenings.
“Why May? Well, it’s alliterative,” Queen said. “Also it’s the merry, merry month of May!”
From there, the month grew into an annual campaign for Good Vibrations to spread awareness about solo sex and shut down some of the shame and stigma associated with masturbation. To promote the holiday, the team came up with a Masturbation Hall of Fame, studded with sex-positive celebrities, like Madonna and Dennis Rodman. Another year, Good Vibes worked with Savage to publish extraordinary masturbation stories. Good Vibes also held charitable Masturbate-a-Thons to raise funds for safer sex and sexual health organizations.
“It's like the walk-a-thon [...] except that you don't have to leave the comfort and privacy of your home,” Queen said, explaining that participants could solicit pledges based upon time spent loving themselves or the number of climaxes they achieved (both of which were self-reported).
“And at the end of the day, your feet don't hurt—unless you do something pretty unusual,” Queen quipped.
When a Canadian sex-toy store picked up the campaign, the holiday went international. As Queen remembers it, the shop—called Come as You Are—convinced local policemen and firefighters in Toronto to participate, and one of the city’s newspapers wrote it up as a novel piece of news.
“I was like, ‘Y'all it's working. It's working. It is working,’” Queen recalled.
In recent years, Good Vibration hasn’t hyped up National Masturbation Month as much due to the pandemic. Still, Queen said, spotlighting self-pleasure is as important as ever, given how profoundly important matters of bodily autonomy— such as trans rights and reproductive rights—are at the fore of our national political dialogue once again. Although she doesn’t think that masturbation is a panacea to end the culture wars, she does think it can be a powerful political statement in an ideologically divided nation.
“Masturbation Month continues to be something that allows us to talk about something that plenty of people don't want us to talk about. And when we do that, and we do that publicly with other people, [...] a weight is lifted,” Queen said. “When people start making that wrong, it takes away the part of our agency that I don't know that we get back in other ways.”Ultimately, Queen hopes that people can both enjoy the month of awareness and deeply contemplate it. “I hope Masturbation Month in the future is seen as one of the strategies that got sexuality out in the world as a topic that people could consider seriously and have fun around,” Queen added. “It's serious as can be, and it's a pleasure and a delight.”