May is National Masturbation month. I know this is a strange association but masturbation brings me back to my first sex-positive role model, Judy Blume. Judy Blume is an American author who wrote honest, realistic books of what it is like to be an adolescent. Her books, written in the 1970’s, captures the awkwardness of the puberty: the body changes, expectations, confusion and sexual awakening. She wrote frankly about sexuality. All written for youth! This was the time when adults did not discuss bodies, or sex or use words like masturbation. Maybe much like today, but actually worse. This was when I came into my own.
I first discovered the word “Masturbation” in her book Deenie. It was a profound life altering revelation to me. Here it was written, about something that I did, something I have had done for years, something that I was punished for and was never given a name or word or understanding all. All I knew was that it felt good, that I didn’t want to stop, and that it was bad.
I don’t have a first memory of masturbating, so I like to imagine I started in the womb, where I was safe from judgement and life was about floating and pleasure. Later, I learned that what I did was something to be shamed. When I was in First grade, I masturbated in class. I was called into a meeting with the teacher, the principal, the counselor and my parents. I was terrified but no one named it. No one said anything but that I needed to do this in private and stop. I was six, surrounded by 5 adults and not one person explained to me what I was experiencing.
One night, sometime afterwards, I excitedly told my mother that I figured out how to do this in bed at night. She called what I did “mañosa” which in Spanish literally means “cunning” “bad habits” “spoiled” but can also mean “crafty with her hands” . And so I learned that this “doing something with my hands” was to be silenced, hidden and punished. When my mother would catch me, I was often hit and punished.
When I was eleven I read Deenie (published in 1973) and there it was, spelled out so clearly. I remember feeling relief then anger then sadness. I went to my father and asked him why he never told me what I was doing and his answer was that it was something “mostly boys do and not girls”. He thought I would grow out of it. I didn’t. I haven’t. When I asked my mother, she just said that I needed to stop.
The truth is that it took me a long time to grasped the concept that what I was doing was sexual. When I had my first orgasm given by another person, my partner was surprised at how easy it was. He used the word “orgasm” and again a wave of shame and disgust overcame me. So THAT is what I had been doing since I was a toddler. That is why sometimes I had thoughts of pretty girls or boys when I did that. I had absolutely no connection between sex, orgasm, masturbation and intimacy. It was just something that I shouldn’t be doing and had to be silent about.
Judy Blume was probably the first young adult author to speak out loud about sex positivity. She allowed her characters to figure out their bodies and discover the awkwardness that sexuality presents. Masturbation, Scoliosis (Deenie), menstruation (Hi God, It’s Me Margaret) , spontaneous erections, wet dreams (Then Again, Maybe I Won’t), Divorce (It’s Not The End of the World), first sexual encounters (Forever) are all discussed in a frank and authentic voices. She was the sex educator of my generation, and for her I owe her a lot. Reclaiming my voice and body has been a long process of forgiveness and letting go. Learning words and a new language of self-love and acceptance. Thank you Judy for teaching me that masturbation was a normal thing that girls do too.