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These Jewish Women Think You Should Masturbate

May is both Jewish American Heritage Month and National Masturbation Month, which is a great convergence, because Jewish women have played an integral role in advocating for and destigmatizing female masturbation throughout American history. May earned this lesser-known title in 1995 as a way to protest the firing of the first black Surgeon General, Jocelyn Elders. When asked about masturbation at the United Nation World Aids Day in 1994, Dr. Elders responded, “I think it is something that is part of human sexuality and a part of something that perhaps should be taught.” Dr. Elders was quickly fired.

In response, Joani Blank, the Jewish founder of the feminist sex toy store Good Vibrations in San Francisco, officially declared May “National Masturbation Month” in protest of Dr. Elder’s firing and to destigmatize masturbation.

To honor all the sex-positive women who have come before us, and to celebrate the ones who are infusing our country’s sexual conversations with joy and hope today, here are seven Jewish women who are celebrating your right to masturbate. Here’s to closing the pleasure gap in 2017!

Dr. Ruth Westheimer

Dr. Ruth Westheimer (1928 - )

Dr. Ruth is as close as it gets to being a household name when it comes to female sexual pleasure. Born Ruth Westheimer, she was sent to a Swiss orphanage at age ten in order to escape the Holocaust. She survived but the rest of her family did not. After serving as a Haganah sniper in Palestine (I KNOW!), Westheimer studied psychology at the Sorbonne before getting her masters in Sociology from Columbia. Westheimer gained fame as a sexual guru through guest starring on various radio shows and eventually landing her own show, Sexually Speaking in 1980. When it comes to female masturbation, the doctor is definitely in.

Anita Steckel

Anita Steckel (1930-2012)

Anita Steckel is an artist whose career began in the 1970s. Her subject matter consisted of a very deliberate and unapologetic co-mingling of the high and low brow. Recognizing that women’s role in society was rapidly changing, Steckel’s art sought to reimagine the female form, moving it from sexual object to that of a sexual being who celebrated their sexuality. In her paintings, women languished along the New York skyline, matching the viewer’s gaze with one of their own. In the 1970s, when the New York Times interviewed this rising artist about her choice of subject matter, she responded, “If the erect penis is not wholesome enough to go into museums, it should not be considered wholesome enough to go into women.” By celebrating sexuality, especially women’s sexuality, as a healthful part of life, Steckel’s work made the unapologetic statement that sex is a worthy topic to be discussed everywhere: at the dinner table, in the bedroom, and at the Met.

Joani Blank Cropped

Joani Blank (1937 - 2016)

If ever there was a Jewish woman who thought you should masturbate, it’s this one. The woman who designated May as National Masturbation Month, Joani Blank studied public health at UNC-Chapel Hill before moving to San Francisco and becoming a sex therapist for pre-orgasmic women. Struck by the lack of knowledge and level of inhibition she was encountering among women, and aware that most sex stores were poorly-lit and designed for male consumers, Blank opened Good Vibrations in 1977. This first woman-friendly sex store is well-lit, staffed by informed and friendly people, and home to the first clitoral-focused vibrator, the Butterfly. Blank passed away in 2016, leaving behind a rich legacy of sex-positivity and female-centered pleasure that we can celebrate each and every day (with a shame-free mindset and plenty of lube).

Judy Blume

Judy Blume (1938 - )

Oh, puberty. Why are you a thing? In 1970, the writer Judy Blume made lots of conversation parents angry with her accurate depiction of the many ambiguities, joys, and challenges of becoming a young woman in her books. Alongside her more child-friendly books, she gifted young women with Deenie, Tiger Eyes and Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret; drawing from her own experience, these books talked about eating disorders, divorce, acne, and masturbation as some of the many different aspects of growing up with a girl’s body. Although many of her books were banned throughout the country, children of all genders wrote to her, expressing their thanks for giving them a vocabulary with which to discuss their changing bodies, their nascent articulation of desire, and the strange process during which one “becomes a woman.”

Our Bodies, Ourselves Cover

Boston Women’s Health Collective (est. in 1969)

On our list of ground-breaking and revolutionary texts we have A Vindication of the Rights of Women, The Communist Manifesto, and…Our Bodies, Ourselves. Born from conversations among some new mothers (of the twelve women, nine were Jewish) in Boston in the late 1960s, Our Bodies Ourselves contained all of the medical and biological information about women’s bodies that had previously belonged only to their (male) physicians. By delving into these pages, women could learn about menstruation, the female orgasm, and how to do their own breast exams. When it comes to female bodies, knowledge is power, and when it comes to masturbating, knowing where different pleasures spots are located (and their correct names) is vital to being able to take ownership of what works for you, sexually speaking. Our Bodies Ourselves continues to be the definitive text when it comes to sexuality and anatomy: it has been translated into over 70 languages and revised to meet different culture’s needs and vocabulary while retaining the bodily knowledge vital to allowing women to have autonomy over all facets of their health.

Jaclyn Friedman

Jaclyn Friedman (1971 - )

Jaclyn Friedman is the sex-positive best friend that literally everyone needs. Whether she is writing one of her best-selling books, working in partnership with Jessica Valenti, or unscrewing the sexual narrative on her podcast Unscrewed, Friedman wants you to have the sex (partnered or unpartnered) that you want (and deserve!) to have. This sex begins with being open, listening to yourself, and respecting your own specific desires. Don’t worry, she has workbooks! Jaclyn first made waves as a student at Wesleyan, where the fact that she had been sexually assaulted went largely ignored by the administration. This led to an extensive, and award-winning, research project on college campus’ methods of handling sexual assault and educating students on their rights. Friedman soon realized that a world without rape would mean a world where female sexual power was discussed, supported, and celebrated. In her words, she is working towards a more joyful and pleasure-filled world because “real liberation includes sexual liberation.” (PRAISE.)

Alexandra Fine and Janet Lieberman

Janet Lieberman (1985 - ) and Alexandra Fine (1988 - )

These two millennial women changed the way women enjoy partnered and solo-sex by inventing the first hands-free vibrator Using Alexandra’s public health and sexuality background, Janet’s tech know-how, and a crowdfunding campaign, these women founded their company Dame in 2014, thus expanding the options for how young women encounter their pleasure. At a time when most young people are learning about sex via the internet and not in schools or at home, these sex-tech mavens, with their female-focused shame-free sex toy website, are shaping the way young people encounter their pleasure.

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"Nostalgia" from Anita Steckel's Giant Woman series
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"Nostalgia" from Anita Steckel's Giant Woman series. Housed at the Brooklyn Museum.
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How to cite this page

Book, Bella. "These Jewish Women Think You Should Masturbate." 30 May 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 18, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/these-jewish-women-think-you-should-masturbate>.

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