We deserve to provide ourselves with genuine pleasure and to do so without shame or restriction, especially Black folks.

-Sherronda J. Brown

Editor’s Note: May is Mental Health Awareness Month and National Masturbation Month. This is also the month that we celebrate Mother’s Day. At BYP, we will be exploring these topics alongside the theme of Imagination and the Arts, and we are interested in publishing works that address these topics and the things surrounding them.

Science tells us that masturbation is healthy—for our bodies and our minds. Benefits include reduced stress and improved sleep. Masturbation can also help to relieve menstrual cramps and muscle tension, ameliorate headaches, or even clear a stuffy nose. Getting to know our own bodies and how they respond to certain touch can greatly improve sexual experiences with other people and help to promote positive relationships with our bodies.

But many of us are raised being taught quite the opposite in our sexually repressed society dominated by puritanical Christian values. In fact, masturbation is largely conceived of as being harmful or detrimental to us in varying ways.

RELATED: Masturbation as resistance, because I deserve to cum

Historians seem to agree that anti-masturbation rhetoric began to go mainstream in the U.S. with the anonymous publishing of snake oil salesman John Marten’s 1712 pamphlet, Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self Pollution. This is likely the very first text to argue that the biblical figure Onan was punished for the sin of masturbation or “spilling his seed,” even though his true offense, according the Jewish law, was that he declined to procreate with his late brother’s wife.

Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also.

Genesis 38:8-10, New International Version (NIV)

Marten not only railed against the act of masturbation as a sin, but he also argued that the act was the cause of many ailments and deformities. He even included anecdotes in later editions, like the sad cautionary tale of a girl who began masturbating at 14, became a hysterical harlot, and then died at age 19 from an infected clitoris.

Frightened parents were encouraged to purchase anti-masturbation medicines from the publishers. Once Marten’s ideology took hold, he was able to sell expensive remedies to cure or at least lessen the effects of the various illnesses which he argued without proof appeared as a result of masturbation.

The myth that masturbation is a form of self-abuse or pollution has caused generations of needless shame for a natural and healthy sexual act. For Black folks, who have endured hundreds of years of dehumanizing anti-Black rhetoric and beliefs about the inherent sexual deviance of our race, the subject of masturbation and shame can be even more complicated.

Misogynoir in particular can have an impact on how Black womxn and girls conceive of masturbation. We often struggle to straddle the line between Black patriarchal/paternalistic and white supremacist ideals that our bodies and sexualities do not belong to us, and the pervasive “fast tail girl” and “hoe”/”thot” labels. Our sexualities are never conceived of as something we might take part in for ourselves and in healthy, responsible ways.

Meanwhile, persistent beliefs about the sexual aggressiveness and virility of Black men and boys can certainly have a lasting impact on how they view the act of masturbation. Shame is often a lingering presence even as some Black men find comfort and pride in accepted social myths about their sexual prowess.

Furthermore, in a cisnormative society where the fluidity of gender is often not acknowledged, genders outside of the female-male binary and how a non-normative gender identity might impact one’s experiences with self-pleasure are certainly not considered in mainstream conversations about masturbation. The same is true of marginalized sexualities. Queer folks raised in a queerphobic environment might have a sort of secondary shame about masturbation because they feel desire for and may masturbate to fantasies about the “wrong” gender(s).

But those of us who have a desire for sexual activity and release deserve to masturbate. We deserve to provide ourselves with genuine pleasure and to do so without shame or restriction, especially Black folks.

Every day we are told by a white supremacist world, in so many ways, that we don’t have the right to pleasure, or joy, or rest, or to feel good about our bodies. Every day, marginalized genders and sexualities especially, are told that our sex is wrong, is ugly, is sinful, is deviant, and therefore should not be regarded as appropriate or authentic. Neither should it be nourished, not by our hand or anyone else’s.

Masturbation is a complex topic. Far more complex than mainstream conversations about it tend to acknowledge. I asked a few Black queer folks to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with masturbation and shame because I am interested in how a queer identity has informed their personal stories regarding self-pleasure. I am also interested in how race, gender, religion, and other factors have influenced their understanding of this personal act. Most of all, I want queer Black folks to have the space and opportunity to talk openly about the pleasure we bring to our own bodies, without pretext or shame, in a world that tells us that we deserve none. Here is what they had to say. Their responses have been lightly edited for clarity.  

RELATED: We can’t talk about sexual health if we never talk openly about se

JeCorey | cis gay man, 34

The concept of purity and guilt was different for men when it came to masturbation as I was growing up in the 90’s. It often shifted between something to be mocked, which caused many of us to hide this habit, and later something we playfully acknowledged as casually as eating.

As a gay kid growing up during a time where internet was fairly limited, my introduction to pornography was, of course, very heterocentric. Male/Female pairs and women who I knew even back then were in same-sex scenes for the sake of the straight male gaze. I spent far too long thinking this was it. That this was all we had and there was nothing for me.

I did eventually find out gay porn existed, but straight porn was still so taboo that I seemed to accept the fact that I wouldn’t have access to it. Thus my fantasy scenarios, whether erotic or simply romantic, were always male/female and I would be in the woman’s body.

That stuck with me well into my teens when I finally stopped, looked at my content, and felt a sort of guilt. Despite identifying as gay, why was I still looking at hetero scenes? The internet is better. I have the means to seek out this fabled “gay porn” that the kids at school used to joke about.

Emerald | cis pansexual woman, 30

I don’t remember how old I was the first time I masturbated, but I do remember when I was maybe 10 or 11 and trying to pray the desire to masturbate away.

I had a fairly religious upbringing, a church 2 or more times a week kind of upbringing, and while I was already quietly questioning Christianity, my fear of going against God (and my grandmother) often overruled. I had learned in church that impure thoughts were not of God—fornication, masturbation, premarital sex, queerness, were not of God. And so I felt extreme guilt each time I touched myself.

A few times a week I’d do it and then beg for forgiveness, sometimes with so much vigor I’d begin to cry. I’d ask for the urge to be removed from me but it always remained.

Sometimes I’d even use my desires to barter with God, making deals that seem so ridiculous now: “I promise to stop doing it if I pass my test tomorrow,” “[…]if my mom lets me go to the concert,” “[…]if my dad comes back home.” I broke a shit ton of verbal contracts before I stopped calling myself a Christian. I was in high school when I stopped needing to repent, but it wasn’t until my 20s that I was absolved of the shame entirely.

TaLynn | woman, she/they, 44

I was in college when I decided to be honest about masturbation. I’d masturbated for years but never admitted to it. My friends would say derogatory things about it, and I was quietly complicit in my silence, all the while knowing I was allowing the spread of misinformation.

My only goal was to avoid ridicule, as I was weird enough. One day a friend made a comment like, “Only ugly people masturbate,” and rather than laughing and pretending to agree, I said, “Then call me ugly.”

There were only three of us in the room, but the silence was stark. Then came the follow-up question, “You masturbate?”

“Yeah,” I replied. Then came the bravado to mask the awkwardness, “I mean, who’s gonna know best how to get me off if not me?”

Again, there was silence. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been a big deal, but it was. And that was the day that the jokes about masturbation being an act of desperation died and the conversation around masturbation and sex changed for me. We started talking about what we enjoyed and how to have fun with our sexuality. It gave us a space of sexual freedom – not absolute but some.

Since then, my masturbation game has done nothing but level up as I explored the many ways I find pleasure outside of direct genital stimulation. There are many and it is beautiful.

Donnie | nonbinary pansexual, 28

I masturbate anywhere from 2 to 20-something times per week, depending on the week. It can be my coping mechanism, it can be a celebratory tool, a way to relax or express joy or gratitude to myself.

I’ve been masturbating probably since as young as 6 or 7 years old. It wasn’t successful but I was attempting. And I attempted for a long time. I was always confident in my sexuality knowing who I was attracted to. Being gay was not what felt taboo to me, masturbation was. I knew it was something I couldn’t talk about with other people so there was a certain shame.

All the way up to middle school, when I was experimenting more and trying to figure out how to climax, I carried that small shame which definitely affected me not being able to make myself climax for so long. But in friendships with other people with vaginas, I learned there was nothing wrong with what I was doing. That and studying my mom’s medical books extensively.

I didn’t make myself orgasm until I was 18 years old. Pretty late for someone who was masturbating for years. But the problem is that I was masturbating and wanting to look cute or please others which was not working for me. It needed to be private, I needed to let go of every porn I’d ever seen and truly do whatever my body asked for.

Watching porn early definitely stunted my sexuality. Instead of learning my body the natural way, I watched other people with vaginas do vapid things that were meant to be sexy but definitely didn’t feel good when I tried it. They look like they’re scrubbing dirty dishes as opposed to making themselves cum. Shutting off the porn helped. It taught me a lot about my wants and needs and set my sexuality on fire from then on. I got addicted to myself and masturbating for a period because I’d been holding back so much.

The power of making yourself orgasm on your terms is radical because self-love is radical. Especially as a Black femme. My happiness, my pleasure my joys are constantly being tested on a daily basis. Holding space for myself and my joy is important. I believe pleasure can be political. I’m someone who has done sex work and someone who has dated other sex workers, and there will always be politics around sex for me. I dated a woman in the porn industry and seeing how it really goes down truly changed my perspective. I stopped watching porn for years to connect back to my body and because I found it kind of gross. But then I realized the porn I watch is my choice. That’s what makes it radical.

It’s harder when you are queer because mainstream porn wasn’t made for me anyway so I’ve got to dig a bit deeper. But also being willing to pay queer sex workers for their specialized queer porn opens up more options and I don’t have to stifle myself. For me I like to see “myself,” so to speak, in porn. So I want to see brown and Black femmes who are fat and curvy having fun. Porn and masturbation isn’t always political but for me it’s a mixture or radical, magical and sexy. 

Robert | bisexual man, 41

I once had the pleasure of meeting Joycelyn Elders, one of my personal icons and the first Black Surgeon General of the United States. I am old enough to remember when she was forced to resign by President Bill Clinton. She dared to advocate that masturbation be discussed with teens as a part of a comprehensive sex education.

This Black woman was demonized because she had the audacity to privilege the human body with all of its urges and yearnings over religious indoctrination. The audacity to teach teens that they were responsible for their own pleasure, that the foray into the erotic world begins with SELF.

We know that what we desire and how we express that desire are inherently political, but perhaps what we don’t fully understand is how those deeply entrenched political views influence even our thoughts about self-pleasure, self-desire, and self-regard.

The first time I masturbated, it occurred quite by accident and with a boy in my neighborhood. “I can make it spit,” he gleefully sputtered. I wanted to make it spit, too. Boys can be so joyfully competitive in that way. Admittedly, I was a little confused about the mechanics of it, but he helped me out. Outside of my wet dreams, it had never occurred to me that my body could become so aroused or so aroused in the presence of another. But he assured me that everything was okay. How he understood these things is beyond me, for we were the same age. And yet I believed him.

Later, after I’d already become sexually active, one day my mother quietly and nonchalantly told me that it was ok to masturbate. If my mother was ok with it, it must be normal, I thought. Because of these two experiences, I don’t think I’ve ever been ashamed of masturbating.

How can one be ashamed of what feels good and comes naturally? And yet some of us are ashamed. But I will not be governed shame when another choice awaits

The choice to commune with myself, to honor my erotic, is one I make almost daily, like a small prayer or meditation. The choice to touch myself is the most intimate way I affirm my queer self in this world.