May is International Masturbation Month and was started in 1995 to combat the social stigma against masturbation. Yet, the controversy surrounding masturbation is not a new one and can be traced back through antiquity. To kick off May, the month devoted to self-love, we’ll be discussing masturbation throughout history.

Excavations of ancient cultures have uncovered paintings, depictions, and statues showing men and women masturbating in various positions and with various objects. While masturbation was often depicted by humans, the gods were not above masturbating. In fact, the gods were often the originators of this practice. The Egyptian god Atum was said to have created the universe by masturbating it into existence; the ebb and flow of the Nile River were attributed to the rhythms of his ejaculation. From then on, Egyptian pharaohs would masturbate into the Nile River periodically. In the ancient Greek culture, Hermes took pity on his son Pan (the satyr) for not being able to seduce another demi-god. Hermes, therefore, taught his son to masturbate, who in turn, taught the shepherds to do the same.

Most of the terms for masturbation tend to be humorous, and the more familiar euphemisms are products of recent invention. Such terms include jerking or jacking off and have been around for about one hundred years or so. However, recent euphemisms such as chocking the chicken, beating the meat, and spanking the monkey tell a different story. These euphemisms, which tend to include a violent action against something, are how we verbalize self-pleasure. Why do we describe a pleasurable activity with something violent and aggressive? There are a few theories. One theory might be that anger and aggression, historically, have been the only acceptable, emotional outlet for men. Another theory is that to masturbate means one is not able to seduce another or engage in sexual behavior with another; therefore, one must be embarrassed about masturbating. It is this embarrassment that led to the creation of International Masturbation to fight the notions that one should be embarrassed about masturbating.

Masturbation is the first sexual behavior for most individuals, and is for many, their sexual debut. In a recent study conducted on sexual behaviors, researchers found that men and women masturbate between 1 and 3 times per week (NSSHB, 2010). These numbers represent individuals across all demographic characteristics (race, gender, sex, age); and even includes individuals who are in relationships, too. Masturbation is a safe and healthy sexual behavior and should be considered normal and natural. Aside from the pleasure that can be derived from masturbation, what we learn from it will help us in future sexual encounters. Masturbating gives us a chance to learn about our bodies, to learn what feels good and what does not. Knowing how our bodies respond to touch and stimulation alone helps us have better sexual experiences with a partner. If you know what feels good and what does not, you can more easily and more confidently tell your partner.