There is a long history of women finding themselves at the center of controversy, losing jobs and careers, and being shamed personally and publicly when they speak openly about sexuality, particularly when their views include women having pleasurable sexual experiences. This was the case for Joycelyn Elders, the second woman, second person of color, and first African American to serve as Surgeon General in the United States. In 1995, she was forced to resign from her position because of a statement she made in regards to masturbation.
Elders was invited to speak at a United Nations conference on AIDS in 1994 and was asked if she believed it was appropriate to promote masturbation as a means of preventing young people from engaging in riskier forms of sexual activity. She responded, "As per your specific question in regard to masturbation, I think that is something that is a part of human sexuality and it's a part of something that perhaps should be taught. But we've not even taught our children the very basics. And I feel that we have tried ignorance for a very long time and it's time we try education.”
President Bill Clinton did not agree with her views on masturbation and she was forced to resign (one must wonder how he would have responded had Elders had a view on extramarital affairs or the abuse of power). After her firing, the staff of sex-positive adult toy company and sex education platform Good Vibrations decided to mark May as National Masturbation Month.
“[We] struggled to make sense of this senseless situation,” said Good Vibrations staff sexologist Dr. Carol Queen in an interview with Salon.com. “[We] 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.”
More than twenty years later, we still celebrate Masturbation Month. While this holiday of sorts could be reduced simply to sex, the history of the month reminds us that reproductive health, pleasure, and sexual freedom are tied to power and control. When we advocate for sex positivity, we also advocate for legal abortions, access to birth control, and the basic human right of adequate and equitable healthcare. So when you take a moment to explore your own body and find joy this month, remember the women like Joycelyn Elders who fought and sacrificed to normalize basic, healthy human sexuality.
Looking for tips on how to get comfortable with your body and the benefits of masturbation? Check out our blog here.