Quarantine means time to make use of our hands

Sunday, December 6, 2020 - 4:47pm

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Illustration by Maggie Wiebe

“Can anyone else, like, not stop jerking off?”

Our respective Zoom boxes lit up in a staggered glow as my group of friends and I erupted into laughter. It was April, and we were enduring what would be the second month of a long, monotonous, 2020 thing called quarantine. That one endearing question had elicited possibly the first pang of hysterical joy I had experienced in weeks.

My friend’s inquiry was met with the muffled commentary of an agreeing crowd:

“Yeah, oh my god, I thought it was just me.”

“I can’t stop!”

“Yeah, what the hell, I’m doing it so much more often than usual.”

It turns out she wasn’t alone. 

In the months following that Zoom call, I continued to notice, on various forms of both traditional and social media, an enduring theme of solo sex as the favored quarantine activity; the premier pandemic antidote. 

Despite the arguably designated stages of quarantine trends, from whipped-coffee recipes and “Tiger King” marathons to the slew of controversial transitions to in-person schooling and University-outbreak-hysteria, one quarantine trend has carried consistent cultural relevance amid masks and marathons, vacation-shaming and TikTok-making: the “m” word.

Yes, masturbation.

I was unsurprised to find that most people I talked to about masturbation as the quarantine pastime met me with blushed faces. The act carries a significant, religiously-bound history of stigmatization. 

In a 2020 study by Planned Parenthood, researchers discussed how masturbation as a means of self-pleasure actually carries historical controversy: It was once associated with “pathological origins and negative physical and mental health consequences,” including a so-called “post-masturbation disease” popularized by 18th-century medical practitioners. In his 1711 editions of the "Treatise of Venereal Diseases", medical entrepreneur John Marten identified some of the symptoms of the “uncleanly” condition, which included “meager jaws and pale looks” and “legs without calves.”

The taboo nature of the act also carries a significant religious basis, specifically with ties to early Christian teachings. Even though the Bible makes no explicit references to masturbation, the act was heavily condemned by fathers of the early church, who considered it sinful due to its non-procreative nature. 

But, by the grace of some brave friends and an anonymous Google form, I was able to break through this sturdy, historically-constructed stigma against solo sex and hear about their experiences with mid-pandemic masturbation. 

My friends’ Google Form responses seemed to echo what I had initially heard in that mid-April-Zoom-call:

Friend 1: I was so bored in March that I masturbated mindlessly all hours of the day. I didn’t need a reason. It was literally mind-numbing.

Friend 2: (During quarantine, I masturbated) so so much!!! Like I was just bored and horny ALL THE TIME.

Friend 3: I definitely did it way more out of boredom, like, I had nothing else to do.

Through the Statement’s annual sex survey, I was able to quantify the wave of mid-pandemic masturbation sentiment I was gathering from friends. It seems as though we really are all making use of our hands while spending more time at home. 

The survey, which was sent to over 48,000 undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Michigan and received over 3,700 responses, included various questions on the frequency and motivations behind masturbation. 

Under the question, “On average, how often have you masturbated this semester,” students did, in fact, demonstrate increased rates of masturbation during these pandemic-stricken months, when compared to survey data from the Fall 2018 Semester, which had around 1,700 responses. 

The number of women who masturbated five to six times per week nearly doubled, from 2.7% in 2018 to 4.4% in 2020; for women who masturbated once or twice per week the rates increased from 22.3% in 2018 to 29.7% in 2020. The masturbation rates for men also increased in a similar manner as those for women.

When it came down to the reasons why people masturbate, 56.5% indicated “for pleasure,” 49.3% said for stress-relief and there was significant mention of boredom as a reason in the free-response section. Similarly, in the free-response section for the question, “How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your sexual activity?” multiple people mentioned increased masturbation as an effect. 

It doesn’t take an expert to deduce how this wave of self-pleasure during the pandemic came to be. The equation looks like this: More time at home + stressful circumstances + possibly less time spent with sexual partners = we make do with what we can do for ourselves, with something that’s proven to have multiple mental and physical health benefits.

Megan Fleming, a clinical psychologist at Cornell University specializing in sex and relationships, offers a more sophisticated explanation when she said, during times like these, “all of our nervous systems are on high alert for danger.”

“The good news is that masturbation can act as a reset button,” she said. “It tells your brain that things are OK, that you can breathe and relax.”

Masturbation holds the same position in public discourse that it has occupied for a while; it’s something we do behind closed doors, nothing more than a stress-reliever and, thus, a favorable way to pass time in quarantine. 

However, at the end of March, a public health guide issued by the New York City Health Department seemed to motivate a considerable shift in the ways we think about, discuss and culturally approach masturbation. The department’s guide read: “Have sex only with people close to you. You are your safest sex partner. Masturbation will not spread COVID-19.”

No longer an idea met with blushed faces, the “m-word” was now formally delineated and even encouraged via a government-issued advisory document. 

And suddenly, something once so severely stigmatized was catapulted into the public narrative. Major news sources like The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune were not only reporting on the benefits of mid-pandemic solo sex but were also highlighting the booming sale of sex toys and increased pornography viewership that they attributed to increased rates of self-pleasure.

In the weeks following the New York City Health Department’s “Safer Sex and COVID-19” guide, the Chicago Tribune published a piece in direct response titled, “‘Masturbation will not spread COVID-19’: Solo sex is best option for pleasure during quarantine, especially if you live alone.” 

In the piece, they declared that quarantine “doesn’t mean sexual pleasure is over — it just looks different, like engaging in more masturbation.”

The article went on to quote a Los Angeles Times report stating that there has been a 30% to 100% increase in sex toy sales since the onset of the pandemic. The consumers had spoken: We’re masturbating more!

The New York Times joined this conversation in the following weeks with their piece “Sellers of Sex Toys Capitalized on All That Alone Time,” which highlighted the massive spike in sales sex toy companies were seeing. Among the more notable trends include the 200% increase in sales both We-Vibe and Womanizer were seen since April 2019.

All the while, Pornhub, the world’s leading free pornography site, cashed in on this quarantine masturbation craze with its launch of #StayHomeHub in March. Italian citizens were their initial audience as Italy was the first European nation to be affected by the virus.

A media study distributed by the U.S. National Library of Medicine noted Pornhub’s tactful offer, stating that the platform, “... made headlines worldwide … because it gave quarantined Italians free premium access to the platform for one month. The offer was so positively received that Pornhub immediately expanded it to Spain and France and eventually the whole world.”

At the end of March, Pornhub narrowed in on the same “You are your safest sex partner” narrative the New York City Health Department first introduced to us. 

The platform tweeted: “Stay home and help flatten the curve! Since COVID-19 continues to impact us all, Pornhub has decided to extend Free Pornhub Premium worldwide until April 23rd. So enjoy, stay home, and stay safe … #StayHomehub.”

Over the course of a few weeks, sex toy sales, porn viewership and Pornhub ratings in particular shifted from symptoms of “sinful practice” that we previously refused to acknowledge on mainstream platforms to favorable, commercialized prevention methods against COVID-19. Now, we’re not just masturbating behind closed doors, we’re masturbating and flattening the curve behind closed doors.

So, what kind of effect might this shift have on the public discourse surrounding masturbation? In a post-COVID world, will news outlets continue to report on and distribute information surrounding the ways we’re pleasuring ourselves? Will the destigmatization of masturbation prove to be an enduring cultural byproduct of the pandemic? 

Laurie Mintz, a psychologist and University of Florida professor, expressed in the same Los Angeles Times report that, yes, change is coming:

“People are scared,” Mintz said. “People are lonely, and I think there’s been enough talk [about the topic that] it’s destigmatizing sex toys and masturbation — finally — and that could be one of the very few positive outcomes of all this.”

In a phone interview with The Daily, Hollis Griffin, an associate professor in the LSA Department of Communication and Media, felt more unsure about any prospective change. 

“I think it’s hard to say what kind of effect (increased news media coverage of masturbation) will have,” he said. “I think we're living through something so bizarre and once in a lifetime … we’re all inhabiting these spaces in new ways, that the once normal (like masturbation) is feeling abnormal in some way.”

He said he thinks there’s a playful irony in the focus masturbation has been receiving in the mainstream media in recent months.

“And there is a way in which (news media coverage surrounding masturbation) occurring around the pandemic is … kind of funny if only because it's a scary time,” he said. “People are getting sick; people are dying. There’s no end in sight. And, if anything, I think conversation about masturbation has levity.”

One might also wonder the ways this public narrative around mid-pandemic masturbation might very well affect our perception of sexuality. Will buying a vibrator become as commonplace as buying a toothbrush? Will checking in on your friends involve asking if they’ve engaged in self-pleasure recently? Will World Mental Health Day be followed by a “World Sexual Health Day”?

What’s interesting about concepts like these is that they remain merely theoretical. We’re still enduring this pandemic, this generation-defining event. So, ultimately, the lasting socio-cultural and even sexual effects remain to be seen. 

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, San Diego sexologist Jill McDevitt poses her own theory: 

“... I think (the pandemic is) going to show us that sexuality is a need. It’s not frivolous; it’s not silly or inappropriate. It’s a human need. And here we are going back to basics as humans right now with just the necessities. And this is proving to be a necessity.”

However you might predict the narrative around masturbation changing once we finally enter a post-pandemic world, I only leave you with this: Stay home, save lives and stay vibing in the meantime.