A professional essayist, erotic story writer, and scholar, Dr. Carol Queen is the brains behind National Masturbation Month. She works as a staff sexologist at Good Vibrations in San Francisco and as co-director of the Center for Sex and Culture, which she runs with her partner, Dr. Robert Lawrence. She and Lawrence helped create the international Masturbate-A-Thon, which raises money for AIDS- and safe-sex-related charities. And she'll be coming to Brookline for the Good Vibrations-sponsored Independent Erotic Film Festival at the Coolidge Corner next week (www.coolidge.org/node/2360).Toread more about Queen and her work, go towww.carolqueen.com.
I know that you created National Masturbation Month in response to the firing of the surgeon general Jocelyn Elders in 1994 over remarks she made about masturbation being a healthy part of human sexuality. Where do you think our culture stands 15 years later as it applies to complex sex stuff? Is masturbation less taboo than it was when you came up with the holiday idea? Well, I think in some ways masturbation is less taboo in that it's a little bit easier to see cultural evidence of discussion of it now. [We've kept track of] really famous people of any stripe — either people who were sex educators and really devoted their attentions to masturbation awareness at least in part, or pop stars, musicians, writers, commentators — anybody who had nice things, solid, neutral things to say. Using it in a comedy routine was acceptable. Using it to make fun [of] or humiliate someone was not. I hear masturbation referenced on a pretty regular basis on TV. What National Masturbation Month desired to do — which is make it more acceptable — ... has borne fruit. That said, I think the culture wars are still in full swing. I think there are plenty of people in this culture that think sex and experimentation is wrong. Hence, there are plenty of people who are feeling guilty about it. Even if someone doesn't think it's a bad idea.
Well, you know, James Dobson apparently doesn't think it's a bad idea. He said he didn't think God had anything against it or something like that. Which isn't what all the Christians say. Dobson may be doing some interesting interpretation, which I would actually probably agree with it, if analyzing The Good Book was not above my pay grade.
One thing that seems so weird about it is that everybody knows that everyone masturbates, but yet we're still all so uncomfortable talking about it. That's because masturbation doesn't have anything to do with partnering behavior. And our culture really enforces that partnering is something you're supposed to do. Despite the thing about what gender you're supposed to do it with, our culture wants people to get together. The whole idea that sexuality is about cementing a potential, if not an actual, partner is not acknowledged as a bias in our culture.
Why do you think that is? Some is left over from socio-biology and getting people to reproduce, but of course most of us today pair up not to reproduce but to have a companion and a sex partner. We've pretty successfully separated from reproduction, at least in the sex act. We've one-upped nature in that respect. But there are some biases about what this business of sex is about. That's why promiscuity is controversial. It's not about prevention of disease. You can prevent a disease if you know what you're doing. Sex for pleasures' sake or some other reason versus getting together with someone you might buy a house with. Promiscuity and masturbation have that in common — they're more overtly sexual with no other reason. Of course, promiscuity might involve getting someone to like you or buy you a drink. Masturbation, about making your menstrual cramps back off, getting rid of headache. People do it as a relief, and maybe there's also a bit of an old-fashioned American "tough it up, you don't need a release."
So was there any culture clash at the Masturbate-A-Thon in London? London was more successful than ours in every way. The first thing I want to clarify is that the Good Vibrations staff came up with the Masturbate-A-Thon. My partner Robert and I brought it into a group event. It was a "do it by yourself" [at first]. Get sponsors, send in pledge money. That's the kind of Masturbate-A-Thon that we ran in London. The difference was that the kind of people that came really did take it seriously — it was being sponsored by their equivalent to Planned Parenthood, Marie Stopes International. She was like their Margaret Sanger. People in London loved their Marie Stopes and were willing to do this. We don't think this is non-outrageous. We know it's a little edgy — that's okay. We want to get attention about this. We got press from all over the continent, all over the world, some of them flying in, sending their bureau people in, from New Zealand, South Africa — that came into the Masturbate-A-Thon. I did seven hours of press. In the US, we're all using the term wank cause it's cute — when you say wank in the UK, it's like saying fuck on the airwaves in the US. But yet, the press, from frisky radio to TV to mainstream newspapers, came and covered this event, and it was interesting to see the seriousness with which it was taken. The United States doesn't do that — the US is more puritanical than the UK in this way.