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We need to talk about masturbation, says the former surgeon general—here’s how to do it with every person in your life

Mary Grace Garis

Mary Grace GarisMay 21, 2020

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Photo: Getty Images/Lucy Lambriex

“We know that 80-plus percent of women masturbate, 90-plus percent of men masturbate, and, I always say, the rest lie,” former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, MD, said during a recent virtual “fireside chat” facilitated by sexual wellness company We-Vibe. The last bit makes me smile. Dr. Elders has been an outspoken masturbation advocate since 1994, when she suggested masturbation education could increase adherence to safe sex practices, leading then-President Bill Clinton to ask for her resignation. Masturbation Month, now in its 25th year, was created in honor of Dr. Elders, who still crusades for advancements in sexual education and notes that while we’ve come a long way, we still haven’t… climaxed.

It’s been decades since Dr. Elders stepped down, and indeed we’ve made strides as a society to not only normalize talking about sex but to also celebrate women’s pleasure. It’s a concept now regularly depicted in film and song lyrics, supported by investment dollars in femtech products, and backed up by all the sex toys available for all the people who want to buy them.

And yet despite previously held stigma against sex and pleasure easing, many still have a hard time talking about self-pleasure. Dr. Elders says it’s so important that we keep the conversation going strong, address masturbation and “just openly talk about it.” But, uh, how exactly do we broach the topic with all the people in our circle? According to sexologist Jess O’Reilly, PhD, host of the @SexWithDrJess podcast, a great blanket strategy is to begin by talking broadly about pleasure, so that sexual pleasure just becomes a facet of a bigger conversation.

“Make space for expressions of pleasure involving other activities in your life—eating, drinking, cooking, dancing, hiking, exercising, playing sports, painting, or anything else you do with your body,” Dr. O’Reilly says. “We tend to stifle expressions of pleasure. When we eat, we’re told to do so silently. We’re told to close our mouths. We disallow mmms and ahhhs. I think food is a great place to begin to open up verbal and non-verbal expressions of pleasure.” By breaking down those nonsexual pleasure walls, further normalizing and opening up about masturbation will become naturally easier.

But that’s just a general way in. Below, get sexpert-informed tips for best practices about how to talk about masturbation with all the people in your life, from your friends and your partner, to your roommates and your kids.

How to talk about masturbation with peers

If you’re feeling shy, internet communities can help you find your voice. There’s a sisterhood in the comments section of sex toys, secret Facebook groups for women’s sexual health, and no shortage of sex educators on Instagram who can give you a safe space to talk about masturbation.

“If I’ve learned one thing from running a sex-toy company, it’s that people want to talk about sex,” says Alexandra Fine, sexologist, CEO and co-founder of Dame Products, and Well+Good Changemaker. “Our online community, including our Instagram and Dame Labs Facebook group, is full of people who are looking to connect with each other about sex. The Dame team posts questions sometimes, but people also go out of their way to engage with each other over a common experience.”

“Try to approach the conversation with a relaxed tone, the way you would any other topic because they’ll be more likely to open up if they sense you’re ready to listen.” —Alexandra Fine, Dame Products CEO

You can also, of course, connect IRL with peers. Just keep an open mind to different perspectives, assumptions, feelings, and values about masturbation. “Some people tense up, while others are open books, and some need to giggle through it,” says Fine. “Meeting people where they’re at helps to create space for more open conversations. Remember that people also tend to match the energy of who they’re talking to; if you’re nervous, they will be too. Try to approach the conversation with a relaxed tone, the way you would any other topic, because they’ll be more likely to open up if they sense you’re ready to listen.”

How to talk about masturbation with your partner

“When talking to your partners about self-pleasure, ask questions and be open to different perspectives,” Dr. O’Reilly says. “You can ask them what they enjoy or simply open up a conversation about the messaging you received about self-pleasure growing up.”

And if you’re nervous about communicating your need to sneak in some me-time for self-pleasure in quarantine, consider now the perfect time to open that discussion with your S.O. Try kicking off the conversation by deemphasizing your partner and refocusing on your personal desires.

“Be open with your partner about when and why you masturbate and how it’s not a substitution for them.” —Sadie Allison, PhD, sexologist

“One common thing I hear is that partners can sometimes feel threatened when their partner chooses to masturbate over having [partnered] sex,” says Sadie Allison, PhD, sexologist and founder of GoLove CBD lube. “It’s important to be open with one another and explain how different the two acts are. Masturbation is not about replacing a partner, but it does provide tangible benefits that are worthy of conversation. Be open with your partner about when and why you masturbate and how it’s not a substitution for them.”

How to talk about masturbation with roommates

Dr. Allison points out that sometimes having a roommate—especially one you don’t know particularly well—can make masturbation difficult because you may not feel able to completely relax, even in your own home. To navigate this issue, first gauge the situation holistically, taking your roommate and living arrangement into account.

“If you have truly separate spaces, you might not need to bring the topic up at all,” says Dr. Allison. “That said, there might be a moment where it makes sense to discuss the fact that masturbation is an important part of your health routine—the same way that showering or eating breakfast is—and to find a way to ensure that you’re able to use the space to your needs.”

So, if you have doors that don’t lock, thin walls, or even share the same room, talking about masturbation from a perspective of it being a healthy habit may help you defuse any issue you have with being open about it.

How to talk about masturbation with your children

As Dr. Elders has preached for decades, healthy, responsible sex education at a young age is an important foundation for healthy sexuality in life—and masturbation is absolutely a component of that. “We are sexual beings from the time we’re born until the time we die,” Dr. Elders says. “We all want to be healthy, and we want our sexual lives to be healthy.” That begins with allowing young children to understand that touching themselves is nothing to be ashamed of but something to practice within the scope of certain boundaries.

“If you’re talking to young kids about self-pleasure, you might begin with an affirmation that it’s perfectly normal to touch yourself,” Dr. O’Reilly says. “Acknowledge that it can feel good and also set boundaries between activities in which you engage in public versus private. [For instance,] ‘rubbing like that can feel good, but just like we go to the bathroom with the door closed, that’s also a private activity you can take to your bedroom.’

As long as we keep speaking up about self-pleasure, we can set a good foundation for positive sexuality, self-esteem, and, of course, good health. So if you’re getting in alone time anyway, feel free to celebrate Masturbation Month… vocally with everyone you know and tactilely with the vibrator of your choosing.

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