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7 Myths About Masturbation—and the Truth About Solo Sex

Not everyone does it—but coupled or not, everyone has a right to.

Surely you know that it won’t cause insanity or grow hair on your palms. But judging by the questions I’ve received from people of all ages on my site, GreatSexAfter40.com, many folks wonder about masturbation.

Myth # 1: Ninety-eight percent of people masturbate—and the other 2 percent are lying.

Truth: Masturbation is common but not as universal as the myth suggests. According to a recent survey of a representative sample of 5,865 Americans aged 14 to 94 by researchers at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute, depending on age, 67 to 94 percent of men have masturbated at least once, and 43 to 67 percent have done it in the past month, with younger folks doing it more often than elders. Among women, 43 to 85 percent have masturbated, with 21 to 43 percent having enjoyed it in the past month. Because masturbation is still stigmatized, even in anonymous surveys some won't admit it, so it’s likely that actual rates are somewhat higher. But clearly, masturbation is not universal. If you do it, that’s fine, and if you don’t, that’s fine, too.

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Myth #2: Masturbation can damage the genitals.

Truth: Men stroking their penises or women rubbing their clitorises or using vibrators is extremely unlikely to damage the genitals. The biological purpose of life is to reproduce life, so genitals have evolved over eons to be tough, resilient organs. Your biggest risk is a little chafing of tender genital skin during extended sessions. The solution: A lubricant. Try saliva, vegetable oil, or a commercial lube.

Myth #3. Masturbation causes mental health problems.

Truth: It causes only one, guilt, usually the result of a youth spent hearing that it’s unnatural, perverted, and sure to send you to hell. If your religion vilifies masturbation, that’s between you and God. But every sexuality expert agrees: Masturbation is normal, healthy, and doesn’t cause physical or mental health problems.

That said, it’s possible that obsessive masturbation—several times a day—might interfere with school, work, or other life necessities. Like other innocent diversions—TV, golf, ice-cream—masturbation can cause problems if it becomes a major focus of your life. If you have difficulty reconciling your masturbation with the rest of your life, I suggest consulting a sex therapist. To find one near you, visit the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, or the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, or the American Board of Sexology.

Myth #4: Masturbation can sexually use you up.

Truth: At birth, you’re not given some predetermined number of orgasms, and once you run through them, that’s it. There’s no limit on the number of orgasms people can physically experience. There may be a limit on the number you want, or can enjoy comfortably, but there’s no limit on the number of orgasms you can have, so masturbation can’t use them up. Nor does masturbation use up men’s sperm or semen. In normal, healthy men, the testicles are always making sperm and the prostate is always making seminal fluid.

Myth #5: Vibrators ruin women for sex without them.

Does driving ruin you for walking? No, it just gets you there faster. The same is true for sex with and without vibrators. The vulva, clitoris, nipples, and other parts of the body respond to erotic stimulation no matter where it comes from: fingers, tongues, penises, or vibrators. Vibrators produce the most intense sensations, so most women reach orgasm faster. But using vibrators—even frequently—does not change women’s ability to respond to other types of sexual stimulation.

Vibrators actually help women respond to other erotic stimulation. They allow women to experience the full range of their sexual responsiveness, and to become more comfortable with their erotic selves. Greater self-knowledge learned with a vibrator usually helps women respond to other types of sexual play.

Myth #6. Women can become addicted to vibrators.

Truth: No. Over time, some women become particularly fond of vibrator stimulation and enjoy it during both solo and partner sex. It’s a personal preference, not an “addiction.” And if women need vibrators to have orgasms, that's fine. Some do. There's nothing wrong with incorporating vibes into partner sex. Many couples who try it never go back.

Myth #7: If you’re in a committed relationship, it’s wrong to masturbate.

Masturbation is our original sexuality. It’s one of the first ways children learn to experience physical pleasure. Left to themselves, children are enthusiastic masturbators. Why not? It’s such fun. Kids stop masturbating (or  do it in secret) largely because the adults in their lives make them feel ashamed of it.

When people enter sexual relationships, some think it’s wrong to continue masturbating, that it should no longer be necessary. That’s like saying there’s no reason to go to the movies once you have Netflix. While both masturbation and partner sex are sexual, the two experiences are different—just as the big and small screens produce different entertainment experiences.

As wonderful as partner sex can be, it also involves responsibilities. You have to be sensitive to your lover, provide the person with pleasure, communicate what turns you on, and make sexual compromises to keep your lover happy. But while masturbating, there’s no one else to attend to, no one making any demands, no one to please except yourself—and that can feel wonderful, even if you’re in a fabulous relationship.

In addition to being our original sexuality, masturbation is how the vast majority of people learn what turns them on. Why give up chocolate cake once you’ve discovered apple pie? Partner sex doesn’t replace masturbation. The two are complementary.

Many psychologists say you can’t love another person until you learn to love yourself. By the same token, you can’t have great sex with anyone else until you learn to experience it solo. In sex therapy for several common problems—premature ejaculation in men and arousal and orgasm difficulties in women—masturbation is a fundamental part of treatment.

Now, masturbation may cause relationship problems. The two lovers may attach different meanings to it. For most men, masturbation is simply an enjoyable way to relax, a form of self-soothing. But some women see men’s masturbation as infidelity. Lovers should check in with each other about what masturbation means to them. But I personally believe that everyone has a right to solo sex, and that spouses have no right to prohibit it.

It's also possible that frequent masturbation might reduce interest in partner sex. Lovers in committed relationships need to work out sexual frequencies they can both live with comfortably—and work their masturbation around it. It's reasonable to curtail masturbation in the interest of maintaining agreed-upon sexual frequency. You might schedule partner sex in advance, and not masturbate for a day or so beforehand. But if you’d rather play solo than make love with your honey, consider sex therapy.

Reference:

Herbenick, D. et al. “Sexual Behavior in the United States: Results from a National Probability Sample of Men and Women Ages 145-94,” Journal of Sexual Medicine (2010) 7(Suppl 5):255.

 

San Francisco journalist Michael Castleman, M.A., has written about sexuality for 36 years. more...

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