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Masturbation: What You May Not Know About Solo Sex

It's perfectly normal, even if you're coupled, with a few caveats.

Not everyone masturbates, but if you do, no matter what your age or relationship situation, it’s perfectly fine and normal.

Masturbation is our original sexuality. It’s one of the first ways children learn to experience pleasure. Left to themselves, children are enthusiastic masturbators. Why not? It’s such fun. Kids stop masturbating (or more often retreat into secrecy) largely because adults admonish them that it’s shameful or a sin. What I told my kids: It’s enjoyable and perfectly normal, like going to the bathroom. But like bathroom activities, it’s best done in private.

No Harm

Masturbation causes neither physical nor psychological harm. Forget everything you ever heard about hair on the palms, mental health problems, or anything else. The main issue is the guilt many people feel after a youth spent hearing that it’s evil or perverted. It isn’t. Every sex expert agrees: Masturbation is normal and healthy and key to sex therapy for a variety of sex problems, notably helping pre-orgasmic women learn how to experience orgasm and helping men learn ejaculatory control.

Regular masturbation—by hand or with a vibrator—is extremely unlikely to damage the genitals. 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.

Masturbation does not use you up sexually, even if you do it more than once a day. At birth, you’re not granted some predetermined number of orgasms, and once you run through them, that’s it. There is no limit to the number of orgasms people can experience. There may be a limit to the number you want, but you can have as many as your body desires.

In men, masturbation does not use up your sperm or semen. The testicles are always making sperm and the prostate gland and men’s other reproductive glands are always making seminal fluid. The only way men run short on sperm is if they become sterile. The only way men run out of semen is if they have their prostates removed, and even then they can still masturbate to orgasm.

Some women fear that masturbation with a vibrator might “ruin” them for sex without the intense stimulation vibrators provide. Relax. 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 female body respond to erotic stimulation no matter what its source: fingers, tongue, penis, or vibrator. Vibrators produce the most intense sensations, so most women reach orgasm faster that way than with other stimulation. But using a vibrator, even frequently, does not change your body’s ability to respond to other types of erotic stimulation.

Some women fear that they might become “addicted” to their vibrators. No way. Over time, some women become particularly fond of vibrator stimulation. That’s a personal preference, not an addiction. In fact, far from ruining women for sex that does not include them, vibrators actually help women respond to other forms of erotic stimulation because vibrators allow them to experience the full range of their sexual responsiveness. Greater sexual self-knowledge learned with a vibrator usually helps women respond to other types of sexual stimulation.

More Accepted

Available evidence suggests that solo sex is more socially acceptable than it was a generation or two ago, or at least that people are more willing to admit to it. German researchers surveyed university students in 1966 and 1996.

 

At age 15, did you masturbate?

1966: Women, 20 percent. Men, 50 percent.

1996: Women, 60 percent. Men, 80 percent.

 

At age 19, did you masturbate?

1966: Women, 30 percent. Men, 85 percent.

1996: Women, 85 percent. Men, 95 percent.

 

The researchers concluded, “Masturbation is losing its stigma.” And that was twenty years ago. There’s every reason to believe that solo sex is even less stigmatized than it was before the millennium.

But I’m in a Couple

When people become involved in 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 see your favorite band live once you’ve heard their recordings. While both masturbation and partner sex are sexual, the two experiences are quite different—just as the same music at home and in concert halls produces different entertainment experiences. As wonderful as partner sex can be, it also involves responsibilities. You have to be sensitive to your lover, provide that person with pleasure, and communicate what turns you on, not to mention that you probably have to make some erotic compromises. But in masturbation, there’s no one else to attend to, no one making any demands, no one to please except yourself—and at times, or quite often, 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. We all do it for years, maybe for decades, before meeting long-term lovers. Why give up apple pie once you’ve discovered peach? 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 fulfilling sex with anyone else until you learn to have great sex with yourself. Which is why sex therapy often involves solo sex homework.

The German researchers mentioned earlier also asked about masturbation in the context of relationships. Again, over the three decades, masturbation became more acceptable. In the 1966 study, 72 percent of the men and 43 percent of the women admitted that they enjoyed solo sex while in a committed relationship. By the 1996 study the figures had increased to 92 and 71 percent.

Danger Signs

Masturbation is healthy and enjoyable, but like many other pleasures—alcohol, other drugs, gambling, computer games, etc.—it may cause problems if it becomes an obsession that interferes with school, work, family, or other obligations. If you have difficulty reconciling solo sex with the rest of your life, I suggest consulting a sex therapist.

Masturbation may also cause relationship problems. The two members of the couple may attach different meanings to it. For men, masturbation is often simply an enjoyable way to relax, a form of self-comfort. But some women see their male partners’ masturbation as “infidelity.” I would urge couples check in with each other about what masturbation means to them. Note to women threatened by lovers’ masturbation: If you tell him you disapprove, it’s highly unlikely that he’ll stop. He’ll just do it in secret and lie about it. Is that what you want? My advice: Accept his solo sex. It's no reflection on you or on your relationship. It's simply a way men self-soothe.

It's also possible that frequent masturbation might reduce one’s 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 for one partner to ask the other to schedule masturbation around the couple maintaining their mutually negotiated sexual frequency. You might schedule partner sex in advance, and not masturbate that day or for a day or two before. If you’d rather diddle yourself than make love with your honey, consider sex therapy. But it’s unreasonable for one member of a couple to demand that the other stop masturbating entirely.

People have every right to masturbate. There’s nothing wrong with it at any age or in the context of a relationship.

To find a sex therapist near you, visit the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, the Society for Sex Therapy and Research, or the American Board of Sexology.

 Reference:

Dekker, A. and G Schmidt. “Patterns of Masturbatory Behavior: Changes from the 1960s to the 1990s,” Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality (2002) 14:35.

 

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

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