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Key Events in the History of Masturbation

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Updated March 25, 2014

Telling Lies in 1712

Publication of the First Influential Anti-Masturbation Tract
The war on masturbation began in proper somewhere around 1712 when an anonymous doctor published a text entitled: Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self Pollution, and all its Frightful Consequences… The text warned against the dangers of defiling your own body, and offered a series of cures (that could be purchased). According to historian Thomas Laqueur’s Solitary Sex, one can trace much of hysteria and misinformation surrounding masturbation to this first work of fiction masquerading as medicine.


Sinful Inventions in the Early 1900s

Corn Flakes, Graham Crackers, and Other Anti-Masturbatory Devices
The late 1800s to the early 1900s were dark days for masturbation. During this time both Corn Flakes and Graham Crackers were developed in an effort to curb masturbatory impulses in young boys (which were seen as leading to poor health, mental illness, and all manner of evil). Between 1856 and 1932 the U.S. Patent Office approved 33 patents for “anti-masturbation” devices. These torture devices developed by physicians and moralistic inventors alike ranged from spiked rings to male chastity belts to electrifying devices that would be sufficient for “burning the flesh” causing “great physical pain, and possible mutilation.”


Reporting the Facts in the 1940s & 1950s

The Kinsey Reports
The release of Alfred Kinsey’s two groundbreaking surveys of human sexual behavior (Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, published in 1948 and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, published in 1953) forever changed the way sexuality and masturbation were talked about in popular culture. The old joke that 98% of people masturbate and the other 2% are liars originated with the publication of data that showed masturbation to be a widespread, and likely the most common sexual behavior on the planet.

Breaking Free in 1974

Betty Dodson Publishes Liberating Masturbation
In 1974 Betty Dodson, considered by many to be the Grandmother of Masturbation, published Liberating Masturbation: A Meditation on Self Love . This book, which was later expanded and released as Sex for One was possibly the first, and certainly the clearest call to action for women to masturbate. Dodson considered masturbation, giving yourself pleasure entirely on your own terms, a radical act for women, but also an act of deep love, that could transform women’s lives. Her books, which are equally powerful and relevant for men, have done just that. Through her BodySex workshops, videos, books, and speaking engagements, Dodson continues to be one of the most outspoken advocates and activists for the virtues of self love.


Selling Sex Sweetly in 1977

Joani Blank opens Good Vibrations
In 1977, Joani Blank was annoyed with the fact that there was no where in the San Francisco Bay area where she could go to buy sex toys or books related to sex and feel comfortable. She had written two sex education books, and in looking for a place to distribute the books, and wanting to offer an alternative to the traditional adult bookstore, she opened Good Vibrations.

Good Vibrations set the standard for sex education and activist retailing. They believed that selling sex toys wasn’t just a fun way to make a living, it was a political act that could promote healthy sexuality (and in particular more masturbation). They have inspired dozens of sex stores across North America who now follow the mantra of the “clean, well-lit, sex store” where people will not be embarrassed to talk about masturbation or sexual pleasure, and may even be encouraged to explore the joys of solo and partner sex.


Speaking the Truth in 1994

Surgeon General Dr. Jocelyn Elder Fired for Comments on Masturbation
In December of 1994, then Surgeon General Jocelyn Elder answered a question at a World AIDS Day event in New York City. The question was about the possibility of masturbation being included in comprehensive sex education in schools.

As quoted in White House transcripts, Dr. Elder replied, “I think that is something that is a part of human sexuality and it's a part of something that perhaps should be taught.” While she was in no way suggesting the explicit teaching of masturbation techniques, she was acknowledging, rightly so, that masturbation is part of sexuality, and therefore should be a part of a comprehensive sexual health curriculum. She continued on that day saying "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." For her courage and strength of character to say what was right and needed to be said, she was promptly fired by then president Bill Clinton.
 

Making a Month of it in 1995

National Masturbation Month is Proclaimed in May
It's not recognized by the government, or really any public institution, but in 1995, in response to the firing of Surgeon General Jocelyn Elder for her comments on masturbation, Good Vibrations got together with like minded sex-positive sex stores, and created Masturbation Month, a month dedicated to honoring the most common and still frequently derided sexual practice on the planet. The month usually culminates in the Masturbate-a-Thon, a fundraising event where people ask for pledges (dollar amount per minute) and on a specific day try to masturbate as long as the possibly can. Tens of thousands of dollars have been raised by participating stores (mostly Good Vibrations, Babeland, and Come As You Are) for sexual health organizations across North America.

An annual online Masturbate-A-Thon has been organized by the Center for Sex and Culture for several years. While some consider Masturbation Month to be just another commercial exploitation the result of all the commercialism is more discussion of masturbation in the mainstream media, which hopefully will add to mainstream acceptance.

One Handed History in 2003

Publication of Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation
Historian, and author of the seminal Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, Thomas Laqueur published his long awaited research on the culture history of masturbation in 2003. While it was received with the predictable giggles from the mainstream media, and some raised eyebrows from academia, the work is exhaustive and compelling. While the book is about much more than just masturbation, it is an important moment in masturbation history as it elevates the subject matter to “legitimate” through its seriousness and academic rigor.
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