You Masturbate. Do You Enjoy It?

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The first National Masturbation Day was May 28, 1995. It honored Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, who President Bill Clinton fired in 1994 for suggesting masturbation be part of America’s school sex education curriculum.

As a sex therapist, I talk about masturbation with patients a lot. They’re often surprised at the details I ask about: not just how often, but for how long, where, and what they actually do. And how feel before, during and after it. And I ask two questions that no one ever expects: Why do you do it? And do you enjoy it?

People’s answers to these questions are often revealing. And what they reveal is that people masturbate for a wide range of reasons; they do a wide range of things; and their feelings about what they do are often complex.

Some people don’t actually enjoy the experience of masturbating. They feel guilty about doing it. Or they haven’t learned how to touch themselves in ways that feel good. Or they know how, but they refuse, because they judge their preferences as kinky—or worse.

You might think that all men who masturbate do it by stroking their penis. Nope—a substantial number masturbate by lying face down and rocking against a pillow, bed, or floor. Clinically, these guys tend to be psychologically primitive—they haven’t even developed to the point of using their hands to touch themselves directly.

You probably assume that everyone who masturbates enjoys it. Nope—many women, for example, feel inadequate because they need to use a vibrator to climax. Or they’re ashamed because they fantasize about the “wrong” thing to climax—whether it’s being forced (the single most popular fantasy for women), or being with someone who isn’t their beloved, or, if they’re straight, being with a woman. For these women, climax can be a bittersweet experience.

WHAT ABOUT THE MESS?

For men who ejaculate, masturbation also involves the question of disposal—where does the semen go, and how do they clean it up? Various patients have described ejaculating into a sock; stroking their penis wrapped in tissues; refusing to masturbate anywhere except the shower; and wearing latex gloves so they don’t accidentally touch the stuff. Predictably, guys who are anxious about semen often have sexual difficulties—which is how they end up in my office in the first place.

The ubiquity of pornography brings another complication into masturbation for many people. Some people get so fixated on the intense images onscreen that they focus way less on their genitalia. Their penis or vulva may not be a place where they experience pleasure while masturbating; their eyes are the primary site of stimulation, and their genitalia are essentially vehicles for orgasm.

There’s nothing terribly wrong with this, but it does explain why some people masturbate almost compulsively: they’re not getting much enjoyment out of the experience, and they’re just in it for the four seconds of orgasm, which isn’t very satisfying.

Masturbating more for the orgasm than for the genital pleasure also explains why some men lose their erection while they masturbate. While they (or their physicians) are typically concerned with their “ED,” I suggest that a penis getting very little attention has very little reason to stay hard. Stroking it while not really feeling the touch is like eating while reading your phone—you’re vaguely aware of how things taste, but since you’re not focused on the experience, you don’t get fully satisfied.

I often ask people about using sex toys. Many women report that they enjoy masturbating with a vibrator, but that they or their partner don’t want it to be part of partner sex. When encouraging couples to use a vibrator, I ask who holds (or would hold) it, and why. I say that when they use it together it’s their toy, not hers. I underline that it’s for additional pleasure, not to address anyone’s inadequacy. And whether people ask or not, I mention that no, you can’t get “addicted” to your vibrator.

Unfortunately, most couples don’t discuss masturbation with each other. Even worse, they won’t touch themselves while having sex with each other. This limits people’s sexual options, and can make even the most enjoyable sex frustrating. Even worse, it can create a sense of inadequacy in one or both partners, and a sense of responsibility—that it’s one person’s job to make sure the other person climaxes.

This is actually a common source of low desire—the pressure to “satisfy” the other person feels so great that consciously or unconsciously, people just back away from partner sex.

COMFORT, AUTONOMY, & LEARNING

Masturbation can a source of pleasure, comfort, autonomy, and self-knowledge. It isn’t just a substitute for sex, and it isn’t just for horny teenagers. It’s a legitimate form of pleasure that people can explore. And it’s a great way to learn more about our bodies sexually when we feel relaxed and don’t have to think about others’ needs.

Unfortunately, many people undermine these possibilities with unnecessary self-consciousness and self-criticism—as if they’re the only ones who masturbate, or as if their preferences reveal some dark truth about them. Life’s complicated enough without these self-inflicted struggles.

To celebrate National Masturbation Day, try a couple of new things and discover if you like them—or if you’re content with the good old ways you’ve been doing it for years.
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For video quickies on various sexual questions—from desire to waxing, infidelity, romance, “foreplay,” and more—see my YouTube channel, www.YouTube.com/c/DrMartyKlein1

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