Many people first got to know Jessamyn Stanley in 2012 when she started documenting her body-positive yoga practice on social media, revolutionizing what lots of folks incorrectly understood yoga to be: a fitness class reserved for thin white women. Describing herself as a “fat, Black, femme” teacher of yoga, Stanley proves that it does not belong to one demographic — especially not when cultural appropriation is involved. She empowers her students (and Instagram followers) to use meditation and yoga to challenge what they’ve been told about their bodies’ abilities. Stanley’s work to defy these kinds of stereotypes inspired the launch of The Underbelly, a new app providing accessible online classes for anyone who wants to study yoga outside of a studio setting with Jessamyn.
But the Every Body Yoga author doesn’t suggest the Indian discipline is the only practice to help us accept our shapes and sizes. Stanley is an outspoken advocate for sexual liberation, and especially supports masturbation being used to help manage mental and physical health, as well as improve body image. Currently working on a new podcast about polyamory that delves into conversations about masturbation and other “sticky” subjects, as she puts it, Stanley spoke with O.school about the role self-pleasure plays in her own life and why it’s vital to overcome the stigma attached to making ourselves feel good.
O.school: In an interview with Prevention, you said, “Masturbation has been one of my foolproof sleep aids and stress relievers since childhood, and it’s only been within the last few years that I’ve stopped making myself feel bad about it.” How did you overcome the shame you felt about masturbation? What is your advice to people who want to stop feeling bad about self-pleasure?
Jessamyn Stanley: Honestly, the internet has been huge in helping me feel better about it. Seeking out sex positive influencers and websites — and resources like O.school, to be honest, that actually glorify masturbation. More than masturbation specifically, they glorify self-care and really knowing your body, and loving it as a tool for powerful change. That’s been really monumental for me because I grew up in a household where we did not talk about [masturbation]. It was definitely a source of great shame for me — like, it’s not an appropriate topic to even bring up, even in romantic relationships. For me, [the change] started on Tumblr and has grown into people I follow on Instagram, so the internet has been really helpful.
In addition to that, just talking about it — I know that talking about it is the hard part, and it feels like [a subject] that you still want to shy away from. You can’t talk to everyone about it, obviously ...If you start talking about it in random conversations, it can clam people up really quickly because they’re so uncomfortable. But usually you have at least one friend who is chill to talk to you about it, and probably wants to talk with you about it.... It doesn’t have to be like, let me tell you what kind of vibrator I’m using or what’s your technique? But just letting it come up naturally in conversation is really helpful.
So much of this work is about us encouraging each other — the people that you’re most comfortable with — so that we can create a ripple effect and everyone can feel the benefits [of masturbation]. I do think it’s helpful to find those conversations outside of the context of a romantic or sexual relationship. Because if you tie the relationship you have with another person to the relationship you have with yourself, it can create not the best results.
O.school: What is one of the most harmful things you were told about masturbation growing up? What is one of the most empowering things you’ve heard about masturbation since?
JS: I don’t want to quote somebody and have my aunts turning in their graves like, “Bitch, I never said that!” [laughs] But I feel like there was definitely an undertone of, “You’re dirty if you masturbate. You’re not a good girl.” I was definitely raised to be a “good girl” — and the implication was that you’re impure, that only fast girls masturbate. As an adolescent, I 100% could have been categorized as a fast girl: It means that I’m a bad person that I have these urges.
But something that’s been really empowering for me as an adult is understanding masturbation as part of an overall self care routine. I do think it’s different if you’re assigned female at birth (AFAB). If you are raised to see your body as a sexual device for other people, which is what I do think people who are AFAB are taught to believe, then you don’t think that you’re supposed to take care of your body. You think that your body is in service to others. So, for me, it’s been helpful to understand what a lot of people who are assigned male at birth are taught to believe — that if you masturbate, it’s going to make you feel good, and then you can go on with your day.
And that’s why people do it, ultimately — it’s this buildup of energy inside of yourself that you just need to release. Then you can think more clearly, you can move more freely. You’re not going to not check the gears on your bike or not mow the lawn of your house or not do the dishes. It’s an overall maintenance thing for the body. It’s more than something that feels good; it feels good for a reason — because our bodies need it.
O.school: For you, do meditation and masturbation intersect? Do you set intentions or have a routine?
JS: I don’t specifically blend meditation and masturbation together… but there have definitely been times when I’ve been practicing yoga and, at the end of my practice, I’m so overwhelmed by sexual energy that I do end up masturbating, and that will be the precursor to meditation. But other than those situations, I don’t have a practice around linking the two and just maintain both practices...
In terms of a masturbation routine — I don’t want to say it’s hard for me to masturbate, but I definitely have to have certain tools at hand to get off. I’m really into sex toys and there are specific products I have been using for years that I really swear by. I always have them on hand when I’m travelling and set them up next to the bed to make it special. At home, I have two of the same vibrator — one in each night stand because you never know what angle you’ll be reaching from. [laughs] And one of them also has a short right now — anyway, point is, always have the tools that are necessary. Sometimes I can get off with my hand in an emergency situation, and that’s great — but other times, I need to get in and get out. I don’t have time to be here all day. [laughs]
O.school: What was it like to buy your first sex toy?
JS: I’m so glad we’re talking about this — it was so exciting but definitely nerve-racking. I live in North Carolina and I’m from North Carolina, and growing up in the Bible Belt, there is definitely a stigma around sex toy stores. If you live in New York or LA or even Atlanta, the options are so vast. Here, there are just very few. I don’t remember the name of the store, but it was a very small store with a very little selection. I was 18, being like, I can buy cigarettes and I’m gonna be at the sex toy store. I remember getting this 7-inch plastic blue vibrator, and I wore that shit out. For years, I kept this vibrator… it only cost $20 or under. You can get bang for your buck with that! It would be years before I got another one, and it was only because that one broke — and I went back to the same store and got the exact same vibrator again, and I, once again, used it for years. ...When I find the right tool for me, I’m like, I’m good.
O.school: In your experience, do yoga and masturbation have any similar mental health benefits?
JS: For sure. They both just clear the path; they clear the way. It’s like sweeping out the cobwebs. The physical practice of yoga is really meant to get you tired enough to meditate — all of the postures are so you can peel away the layers, peel away the bullshit, and tune into the truth of our existence. That, in a lot of ways, is really what masturbation offers me.
O.school: Do you think masturbation can improve body image? If so, how?
JS: I think masturbation is key for [positive] body image. So much of having a good relationship with your body is really loving your body. If you can’t love it and really care about it and really want to worship it… you won’t understand [that love] when it’s coming from someone else. Masturbating is a really beautiful way to fall in love with yourself, and get into the depth of a relationship that is going to last literally your entire life [because] a relationship with another person truly might not. It can be so transformative for body image.
O.school: One of our contributors recently wrote a piece called “Masturbation and the Black Girl,” where she discusses the experiences of other Black women embracing self-pleasure in an unequal world. Has your experience as a Black woman similarly informed your perspective on masturbation?
JS: It’s hard for me to differentiate between being a Black woman and being a Southern woman in this particular instance — the idea of a pious, sweet woman who serves her man and goes to church on Sunday and makes food for her children… But as a Black woman in a body that has been so thoroughly exoticized and fetishized, it feels like an act of rebellion to own my body sexually — not as an object for somebody else or as something that is held up to anyone else’s standards. A huge part of my self-love journey and my masturbation journey is definitely tied to my identity as a Black woman.