created at: 2013-05-21
In my first month as a middle-school health education teacher, one of my seventh-grade students passed me a piece of paper with one word and a question mark:

Masturbation?

Welcome to National Masturbation Month.

Good Vibrations, a national sex-positive toy store with a location in our very own Coolidge Corner in Brookline, is to thank:

Good Vibrations founded National Masturbation Month in 1995 in the wake of the controversy surrounding the firing of former Clinton administration Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, who evoked conservative wrath when she opined that discussion of masturbation might have a place in sex education curricula. Realizing that one simple, sensible mention of solo pleasuring was enough to lose this prominent woman, the country’s first African-American surgeon general, her job, convinced Good Vibrations staff that this most basic and accessible form of sex needed a serious image boost.

Emma Cohen/Yisraela Tzviah and her collaborators decided that a great way to honor this moment would be to masturbate daily during the month of May and write about it. Check out the chronicle of their solo adventures on The M Blog.

This past Sunday, I had the pleasure of chatting with Emma about this work and her engagement with Judaism.

What’s Jewish about masturbation?
Well, for me, my relationship with Judaism is a very textual, experiential process. Like question-answer-question. Masturbation fits into that as a way to be with and know myself. At least in the context of what I’m doing this month, it’s an analysis. It’s an opportunity for me to set aside space to deal with whatever is going on with my sexual self right now.

On your website, you talk about tikkun olam (healing the world). Does that concept connect at all to this project for you?
I strive to incorporate tikkun olam into most of my practices. This project, of course, involves self-healing. If I want to be useful in the world, I need to be well. By making it public, I’m modeling that process. I don’t take it literally that Jews are a chosen people, but I think the idea of chosen-ness is a call to have a certain relationship with ourselves and to model good behavior. I see it as my role as a Jew to present my best self.

What messages or values do you get from Judaism that suggest that self-pleasuring can be spiritual and sacred?
I think about that really classic meditation book by Aryeh Kaplan. Masturbation can be a meditation, a sacred thing—even if it is really mundane and boring or kinky or whatever. It’s really a way to connect with the body, with abundance. Writing The M Blog, too, it can be about processing, like prayer.

Do you have any advice for Jewish young adults interested in doing some self-pleasuring?
If someone has never done that before and is totally freaked out or doesn’t know where to start, they may need or want some specific supportive instruction. I’d refer to a sex educator for that. I really want to emphasize that it’s OK to ask for help around getting in line with your own body.

Thanks for chatting, Emma!

If you do want to try some self-pleasuring, keep in mind there are many, many different ways to do it “right”—it just matters what you like the best. If you want to figure out how to choose a vibrator, you might check out our local Good Vibes store to ask the sex educator sales-folk there for guidance. Know your options. And remember (fictional, but Jewish) Uncle Andy’s advice that the best lube is lube.

In summary, I’ll tell you what I told my student years ago: You’re normal if you do, and you’re normal if you don’t.

And if we’d listened to Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders about including masturbation in sex-education curricula, I would have been able to explain further: Self-pleasure can be, for many people, a positive way to get to know their own bodies, feel good feelings, and explore their sexuality on their own terms and through their own reflections. And it comes with the added bonus of not having to worry about pregnancy or infections, as long as you clean your toys!