By Rachel Gelman
May is Masturbation Month! Now everyone knows that this is the time of year when the Masturbation Fairy delivers sex toys to all the good men and women of the world! It’s a time for giving to yourself instead of to others. A time for goodwill and cheer for your genitals. Well, maybe not, but the month of May has somehow been declared the month of masturbation and I can barely contain my excitement! As Woody Allen once said “Masturbation is sex with someone I love,” and I couldn’t agree more. Yet, I often have many patients ask me “How do I masturbate?” or “Why is masturbation so frowned upon?” Great questions! I happen to have many personal anecdotes and opinions, but in the name of science I decided to dig deeper and investigate.
For you history buffs, Masturbation Month was started by one of my favorite local establishments, Good Vibrations. They created it in 1995 in response to the termination of former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders after she recommended masturbation be included in sex education curriculum. The people at Good Vibrations hoped that increasing awareness of masturbation would give the activity an image boost and help make it less taboo. It is twenty-one years later and I’d say we still have work to do!
Which is where this post comes in. Luckily, I work walking distance from a Good Vibrations and I thought where better to get inspiration on self-love than go to the place that started the whole celebration? If you live near one and have never been I highly recommend it. It is like the Williams-Sonoma of sex shops: clean, high-end and sophisticated. They even have fun (penis shaped) cake molds! Since it is so close to our San Francisco location, I often suggest patients check it out, as they have everything from vibrators to lingerie, and the staff is very helpful. They even informed me that there was going to be a party for a new book on masturbation! Of course I attended and purchased several books to be used as resources for this post, including the latest by sexologist Carol Queen, Phd, as well as the new release, The Ultimate Guide to Solo Sex by Jenny Block. Aside from meeting awesome people and talking about sex, going into an adult entertainment store or visiting one online is a great way to get ideas about masturbation without actually masturbating. However, with so many sex toy options one can get overwhelmed. So, I reached out to a local vibrator startup Lioness to get their insight on sex toys.
I spoke with CEO, Liz Klinger, who founded Lioness with fellow UC Berkeley team of engineers and folks who are passionate about improving everyone’s sexual health and destigmatizing female sexuality. They have developed the first vibrator that can give you feedback so you can learn more about your own body and, if you’d like, share what you learn with your partner as another way to communicate what you like.
The vibrator has embedded sensors that track vaginal contractions, temperature, and positioning of the product that let you better understand your body’s reaction to using it over time. So it’s safe to say she knows a thing or two about sex toys. I asked her, “What should one look for when it comes to buying a vibrator?” She said it depends on what kind of experience they’re looking for:
- Are they looking for something to use by themselves, with a partner, or either?
- Do they want to explore internal stimulation, external stimulation, both, or either?
- How strong or weak of a sensation do they like?
For first time buyers she recommends looking for something with a “good range of vibration, perhaps on the stronger (or “rumbly”) side, opposed to weaker (sometimes called “buzzy”) so you can see what works for you. It’s often better to go with stronger because it’s easier to dampen the vibration with cloth or towels if you want something lighter. If you go with buzzy and don’t like it, you’ll end up with the most useless paper weight ever sitting in your drawer (trust me on this one)…” Klinger also recommends visiting a sex shop in person as the items are often out of their packaging and on display. That way one can see and feel the different variations in vibration or textures of the item before purchasing it. There are also events called Passion Parties which are basically tupperware style parties but for sex toys, in the event you want to check out vibrators in the privacy of your own home!
She also discussed the importance of the material of the product. I was unaware, yet not surprised, to find out that vibrators don’t have the same regulations as other products. Ensuring that the sex toy your purchase is made of body safe material is important! Several companies, including Lioness, have self-regulated to ensure their product is made out of safe materials. If you aren’t sure what to look for safe bets are materials like silicone, stainless steel, or glass.
So now you have your vibrator, dildo or maybe you just want to stick with your fingers, either way you may ask: how does one learn to masturbate? Luckily, like with all things in the modern age, there’s an app for that. No really, there is an app that teaches women how to masturbate. It is called HappyPlayTime and it is designed to eliminate the stigma surrounding female masturbation. I played with it, and I mainly learned that I suck at technology. If you have better luck please let me know. Since modern technology failed me, I went old school: the local library where I checked out several books and research papers on the topic. The first thing most of my resources recommended right off the bat was to get to know your anatomy! Hooray!! Awhile back, I actually wrote posts on the male and female anatomy that you are welcome to check out, or if you are brave, you can google search: vagina or penis anatomy. So, why bother learning the anatomy for masturbation? Well, if you don’t know your body, how can you expect to pleasure it?
So you know the parts of your body, now what? How do I do this correctly? Guess what? There is no “right way” to masturbate! You can use one finger or the whole hand. You can touch your clitoris or your nipples or both. When they say play with yourself, they really do mean play! Have fun! Author Jenny Block agrees, and when I was lucky enough to speak with her at her book launch, she recommended that a person shouldn’t even focus on achieving orgasm and just try to enjoy themselves and just experience pleasure for pleasure’s sake. When the end-goal of orgasm is taken off the table, the task is less stressful and less likely to feel like you are doing something wrong. Masturbation does not have to equal an orgasm. Can masturbation help you learn how to orgasm? Of course. It can be the best way for a person to learn what feels good for them without the pressure of another person in the mix. It is truly all about you. In Carol Queen’s book THE Sex and Pleasure Book, she talks about the importance of “getting] to know your whole body” during masturbation and how “your skin is an erotic organ, so explore it. Your mind is too-fantasy is a crucial part of many people’s erotic experience…” I can see this part being important for people who have pelvic pain and can not tolerate penetrative sex or consider touching their genitals. They can still experience pleasure by exploring areas outside of the pelvis! This is where a sex therapist or sexologist becomes an excellent resource as they can help guide an individual through the process, as everyone’s experience and perception of sexual activity is different. Furthermore, since masturbation is typically a solo act, it removes having to worry how your partner is feeling. Are they having fun? Does this feel good to them? You only need to ask yourself. And you only need to share what you learn with your partner if you want to. The fact that masturbation is sex without a partner means that it is the safest form of sex around. There is no chance of unplanned pregnancy or STIs. It can also improve your mood or help you fall asleep. It is like the swiss army knife of sex acts: multiple functions in one!
So why is it so taboo?
Most of the research would say it’s because no one talks about it. I mean, when was the last time you asked your friend about his or her last round of solo sex? Maybe Dr. Elders was on to something when she wanted to include it in sex education. If it was talked about in schools, then maybe we would feel more comfortable talking about it with our peers. (Or maybe I am a sex-positive optimist.) Other than the fact that the topic of masturbation is so hush hush, there is the fact that masturbation is often taught as being wrong, sinful or harmful. Many folks believed that masturbation caused blindness or hairy palms. It is safe to say that no amount of pleasure is worth that risk! Even though those rumors were dispelled, some of the guilt or shame surrounding masturbation persists. Now for women, female masturbation and sexuality in general continues to be something that is even more repressed. For example, vibrators were first invented as a way to “treat” hysteria, a disease that commonly plagued women. Somehow a woman needing sexual pleasure was considered a disease that needed to be cured. One might argue that the days of hysteria are far behind us, but the need to shield the masses from thoughts of sex continue. Klinger reports that advertising for her company is challenging due to rules about selling items that are “sexually explicit,” however I believe I see those ads for Viagra daily. For the full story check out the article here
Now, feminist rantings aside, it is fair to say there is a lot to know and say about masturbation! So, tell me what you think?! How will you celebrate this May?
Please consider the following books if you want to learn more:
Disclaimer: Most of these books have chapters on the importance of doing kegels to help improve your orgasm or increase awareness of your pelvis. Kegels can sometimes do more harm than good, so I recommend checking out our blog post here to learn more. If you are not sure if you should be doing kegels ask your pelvic floor physical therapist before adding them to your exercise routine!
The Big Book of Masturbation- Martha Cornog
THE Sex and Pleasure Book- Carol Queen, PhD with Shar Rednour
Sex for One- Betty Dodson, PhD
Getting Off: A woman’s Guide to Masturbation
The Ultimate Guide to Solo Sex- Jenny Block