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Just in case I might have forgotten that May is National Masturbation Month, this e-mail from Betty Dodson arrived in my in-box: "Hey Tristan, do you know any gal who would be willing to masturbate for me with or without her face showing? I'd love to have someone like you who enjoys anal penetration along with her style of clit stimulation. She can be anonymous." Now lest you think that the seventysomething solo-pleasure guru (bettydodson.com) is on the hunt for a new plaything, understand that she has a higher purpose: "I need to show different styles of women jilling off for my next teaching video about women's orgasm."
Betty's got the right idea. In all the panic of the (newly lifted) moratorium on porn production, no one suggested that directors should consider shooting stars spanking the monkey during the crisis. After all, some of us didn't stop having the safest sexthat is, whacking offwhile watching them fuck on film, so why should they? In fact, independent filmmakers Joani Blank, Jack Hafferkamp, and Marianna Beck have chronicled a diversity of solo strokers in their new video, Orgasm! Faces of Ecstasy ($34.95, libidomag.com), which shows everything from turn-on to climax of 22 people, ages 22 to 68, with one twistit's all shot from the neck up. That special butt girl Dodson's searching for doesn't necessarily have to show her face, but whether from the waist up or down, indie pornographers aren't the only ones with masturbation on their minds.
The sex-positive, women-centered store Good Vibrations (goodvibes.com) started the first National Masturbation Month nine years ago, the same year former surgeon general Joycelyn Elders was fired by President Clinton for saying that masturbation should be discussed as part of young people's sex education (apparently, the left and the right agree on this: George W. called masturbation education "pathetic"). Her courage is forever honored by the codification of a new slang term in an already crowded lexicon ("Joycelyn Eldering" at worldwidewank.com) and by the credit she's given as one of the major inspirations for National Masturbation Month.
The centerpiece of the month is the annual Masturbate-A-Thon, where participants receive pledges for each minute they touch themselves; the final time tally is based on the honor system, and funds are donated to local feminist and sex-positive organizations. This private and horizontal spin on the dance-athon is as much an exercise in consciousness-raising as it is a fundraiser. Other stores around the country now sponsor similar events and receive donations from participants in six different countries. The at-home-athon has evolved into public masturbate-athons, and this year, HBO's Real Sex documented the pleasure-fest at New York's Toys in Babeland (babeland.com).
Declared a sin, an illness, and a crime at various points in time, masturbation has had a long and strange history. For example, in the 19th century, Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister and avid vegetarian, linked nearly every health problem to masturbation, and believed that vegetarianism could calm the fire in the body that led to sickness. Graham invented the graham cracker as a dietary supplement to quench (and squelch) the sex drive, which makes me rethink the whole "s'mores are an innocent campfire snack" thing. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, a follower of Graham's theories, connected most ailments to the stomach and bowels, and believed that spicy or sweet food and any meat increased passion and therefore illness. He prescribed a bland, high-fiber vegetarian diet, regular enemas, and complete sexual abstinence to his patients at the Battle Creek Sanitarium. That's where he accidentally invented an early version of cornflakes, which he believed could "cure" people of masturbating (and if that didn't work, he recommended circumcision without anesthesia). In 1906, his brother Will Keith Kellogg added sugar (which, in his brother's system, was a masturbator's delight) to the recipe, and marketed it to the masses as a breakfast food.
We've come a long way since Dr. Kellogg, seen by some historians as an anti-sex enema fetishist, fed us breakfast to keep our hands out of our pants. We know now that masturbation actually has health benefits; it can reduce stress, help you fall asleep, give you a good cardio workout, release hormones that can alleviate depression, let you get to know your body, and help you become a better lover. A 2004 study shows that masturbation can help prevent prostate cancer in men. It tops the list of safe sex activities, and it need not be only a solo adventure: Mutual masturbation is a great way for couples to teach each other how they like to be pleasured or to have a unique sexual exchange. It's this form of sexuality that National Masturbation Month wants us to practice, celebrate, and harness for a good cause.
Ironically, when you Google "Masturbate-A-Thon," a paid ad pops up that reads: "Overcoming Masturbation: learn all the facts and information" and links to a commercial site (herballove.com) that details the alleged consequences of "excessive masturbating" including hair loss, problems with concentration and memory, premature ejaculation, testicular pain, and death. This site's pushing herbal supplements instead of graham crackers, but the sex-negative rhetoric is familiar. A piece on how buttering one's bagel can lead to blurred vision contains animated text that shakes and blurs as you read it, and another section asks, "Do you over masturbate?" The longest time recorded by a participant in the Masturbate-A-Thon is six hours and 15 minutes, raising the obvious question, one I get asked a lot at my lectures and classes: How much is too much?