Sex Life of the American Male

How new technology, new mores, and current events impact male sexuality.

Male Masturbation

Male sexuality builds on masturbation, but we know surprisingly little about it.

In mid-February I was co-facilitating a focus group consisting of single mothers parenting teenage sons; the topic of our discussion was teenage sexuality.  All participants were strangers to each other.  These women agreed on the importance of educating their sons about condoms, and more than half had already done so; the remaining participants were waiting for “the right time” to broach the topic.  At this point, Pam (a pseudonym) asked about masturbation.  Most of the assemblage (but certainly not all) responded with a knowing laugh, and all acknowledged their sons were engaged in the behavior.  I asked how many had addressed masturbation with their children, and a consensus quickly formed that this was too uncomfortable a topic in which to engage with their sons.  Still, Pam had taken a decidedly distinct tactic.

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“I know he’s masturbating.  I don’t know what he’s using.  Maybe soap.  Maybe his own saliva.  I have no idea…Why shouldn’t he enjoy the experience?  After all, I would rather him masturbate than engage in sex at this point in his life…I put a small bottle of lubricant…the type you find in the sex section of the pharmacy…in his bedroom.  I put a little sticky note on it telling him to let me know when he needs more in the future…Masturbation should be enjoyable, shouldn’t it?”

The other mothers responded with a silence that was assaultive, and the good humor and camaraderie that had been present till that moment were gone.  My co-facilitator and I quickly engaged in reparative work.

“It seems,” I said, “that for most of this group talking about sexual behavior with their children is an uncomfortable experience.  But all agree it is still their role to guide their sons through the sexual landmines we know exist, including sexual infections, unwanted pregnancy, and “no” meaning “no.”  Teaching about sexual safety is a parent’s duty, but, when it comes to sexual pleasure, there seems to be a markedly different opinion.  That is something children must discover on their own.  Am I correct as to this hypothesis?”

Some of the mothers described a belief that offering a son a lubricant for masturbation seemed a boundary violation.  Others remarked that the act signified acceptance and even approval of masturbation.  And some confessed conflicted thoughts as to their role in inculcating a balanced approach to sexual activity, one premised on both responsibility and pleasure. 

Masturbation, in spite of the efforts of sex therapists and educators to “normalize,” destigmatize, and promote the behavior as one supportive of a healthy sex life, remains a controversial and misunderstood topic.

Male sexuality is built on masturbation.  Research repeatedly and consistently finds males masturbate throughout their lives and that this activity comprises a large portion of their sexual repertoire.  Still, we have a very limited understanding of the act.  In aggregate, most research on masturbation utilizes only three questions:

  • Do you masturbate?
  • How often do you masturbate?
  • Do you feel guilty about masturbating?

While these questions offer an opening into our knowledge of masturbation, they are not sufficient for an act so intimately tied to male sex and sexuality.  The next several postings will attempt to clarify what we know (and don’t know) about male masturbation, a topic that that continues to distress many people, including not only the aforementioned mothers of the focus group but also males themselves and their often-bewildered romantic partners.

Michael Shelton is a writer, therapist, and educator focused on male sex and sexuality issues.

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