Masturbation is one of life’s miracles.
Like all miracles, it can be misused—which we’ll discuss in a little while. First, let’s give thanks for masturbation. Our genitalia are located just right, our arms are the right length, our imagination is sufficient to arouse us, and with only a small investment of time and attention, pleasure is available almost instantly—on- demand, as we now say.
And not just pleasure: comfort, autonomy, exploration, and for many people, easier sleep. All without adding a single calorie or costing a single penny.
So what could go wrong?
Plenty, almost all of it unnecessary.
Some people feel guilty. Some people feel shame. Others are concerned about their fantasies. Some people believe they’re being unfaithful to their mate. Some are terrified of getting “caught”—and some still recall a terrible childhood moment when that actually happened. Some people are baffled by the ease with which they enjoy it, in contrast to the sexual difficulties they have with a partner.
Guilt and shame about masturbation are distributed equally among men and women, although the details may differ. Shame about pornography is far more common with men. Shame about using sex toys is far more common with women.
Strangely enough, many people do not want their partner to masturbate. “If my mate wants sexual satisfaction, they can come straight to me,” I often hear. I hear this as much from young people as I do from everyone else. People who feel insecure about their mate using porn or vibrators help create a terrible cycle of conflict, secrecy, and alienation, which very few people seem to understand.
This includes many marriage counselors and psychologists. Many professionals have a rigid idea of “normal sex,” which excludes both porn and sex toys. “A healthy person, or someone in love, shouldn’t need those things,” is the typical rationale. This is just another version of how the therapy industry misunderstands and fears sexuality.
LIMITATIONS OF THE THERAPY INDUSTRY
An amazing number of therapists don’t actually realize the wide range of sexual fantasies that ordinary people have—including, of course, stuff that people don’t really want to do in real life. Similarly, many therapists believe that a healthy woman in love should climax from intercourse alone. They didn’t get the memo about the importance of the clitoris, and how it’s typically miles away from a woman’s vaginal opening.
It’s been half a century since social psychologist Shere Hite documented what tens of millions of people already knew: most people have their strongest orgasm from masturbation rather than from partner sex (not that orgasm is the goal of sex, of course). We should not be surprised about this; masturbation is sex without performance anxiety, without dealing with the latest marital quarrel, without concerns about a partner’s satisfaction or judgments.
A study in the latest Journal of Sexual Medicine confirms this by looking at the opposite phenomenon: across many countries, male sexual dysfunction (problems with erection or orgasm) is typically lower during masturbation than with partner sex. Activists often cite this pattern to show that masturbating to porn damages male eroticism, when it’s clearly quite typical.
So how does this great engine of pleasure and self-affirmation get some people into trouble? Aside from guilt, shame, and secrecy, there’s also compulsivity and impulsivity. Some people (almost always men) report doing it longer than they plan to. People of both genders report doing it in places and situations where it’s ill-advised. Some people rub themselves sore but keep doing it anyway—saying they just can’t help themselves.
Some people masturbate as a way of avoiding sexual contact with a partner. Others masturbate even though they know it will decrease their interest when their partner approaches them for sex.
Some women who are afraid of becoming dependent on vibrators consciously try to masturbate less. Some men who are disturbed by their relationship with porn decide to swear off masturbation. There are several movements supporting such men: no-fap, religious groups, sex addiction groups, anti-porn activists.
Predictably, people fighting human trafficking have created a narrative that ties it to porn use—without any evidence whatsoever that the creation of porn involves such coercion.
In addition to Anti-Porn Awareness Week, we now have No-Nut November growing like a cancer on social media. The idea is for young men to abstain from orgasm (“nut”) and therefore masturbation for a month. You can see it, for example, on reddit. Both movements depend on negative views of sexuality and outright lies about the medical and psychological impact of both porn viewing and masturbation.
I’m sympathetic toward anyone who feels out of control. Of course, feeling out of control doesn’t mean a person is out of control—a point about which the sex/porn addiction movement seems completely clueless. The same is true for the no-fap and no-nut movements. I’m also sympathetic toward anyone who feels that their sexuality is a destructive force, or who feels they have to hide it. Therapy is an excellent tool for reducing the self-loathing behind such beliefs.
VIOLENCE, DEPRESSION, ANXIETY…
Guilt- and shame-ridden sexuality is a proven engine of violence (domestic and otherwise), depression, anxiety, and isolation. That’s the antithesis of the celebration, comfort, and affirmation provided by guilt- and shame-free masturbation.
How people navigate all the social, cultural, religious, and familial messages about masturbation is a key determinant of a happy life and of enthusiasm about intimacy and relationships. And for that, we should be grateful.
Masturbation? Despite the obstacles, I think it’s here to stay.
Like this piece? You’ll love my video quickies on desire, “foreplay,” infidelity, consent, sexual identity, and much more, at www.youtube.com/c/DrMartyKlein1/videos