One of the “fuzziest” concepts in the entire field of human sexuality is autoeroticism (known in some circles as autosexuality). Despite the term’s familiarity, there’s little consensus on what it actually means. Does autoeroticism denote a lifestyle preference, or general sexual orientation? Or does it allude to nothing more than the simple practice of masturbation—which is, after all, universally engaged in by heterosexuals, homosexuals, and bisexuals alike?
Additionally, in employing the term autoerotic, is it relevant to consider what the self-stimulating individual is thinking of, or who they’re fantasizing about, during the act? And in attempting to distinguish among the various manifestations of such sexual expression, is it reasonable to eliminate from discussion asexuals, who (at least as strictly defined) are totally lacking in sexual interest—even though that non-sexual designation has at times been used interchangeably with autoeroticism?
This post will attempt to clarify the different degrees and dimensions of autoeroticism. Hopefully, in doing so, it will help readers better grasp the intriguing dynamics of related sexual behaviors that, though not without their similarities, yet derive from different impulses, motives, and personality characteristics. In brief, autoeroticism isn’t a one-dimensional phenomenon. To be adequately understood, its different manifestations must be understood. Moreover, it cannot be overemphasized that very few individuals do not—to whatever degree—exhibit certain autoerotic elements in their sexuality.
So, to begin, what precisely is autoeroticism? Viewed literally, autoerotic individuals are attracted primarily—sometimes exclusively—to their own bodies. But appreciated more generally, autoeroticism involves a whole range of sexual behaviors and attitudes. Many individuals fitting this designation might self-stimulate only when other alternatives aren’t feasible. Some might find themselves turned on both by themselves and others. Others might be aroused (or arousable) solely by themselves—whether through sight or touch. Obviously, the more “pure” the autoerotic, the less they’d require sexual fantasies of another to become physically turned on.
Note that in this context we’re really not talking about the self-centered admiration, vanity, or egotism of a narcissistic personality. No, by itself autoeroticism doesn’t indicate a personality disturbance. It merely refers to a particular sexual practice, preference, or orientation. It can be broadly described as narcissistic only in that it depicts a form of self-love, not necessarily mental or emotional (although that certainly could be the case), but definitely physical. As the original Narcissus of Greek mythology became enamored of his own image (as reflected in a pool of water), so can pronounced autoerotics be physically attracted to—or titillated by—themselves.
Which explains why, for the individual farther out on the autoerotic continuum, “mirror sex” can be every bit as exciting—even more exciting—than what we might call “partner sex.” For having chosen themselves as their partner, their sexual gratification doesn’t rely on anyone else’s presence. And in making romantic or sexual love to themselves, they can be perceived as having become their own “other”—able to perceive themselves as the preferred sex object. In this respect, mirror sex might be seen as representing the ultimate in self-objectification. For now fantasy and reality are fused—or rather, there’s no need for fantasy since, paradoxically, reality has become almost indistinguishable from it. In effect, the potential frustration of not having sex with another (whether male or female) is happily resolved through their imaging themselves as that other.
And moving farther out still on the autoeroticism spectrum, at some point autoeroticism merges with autoromance, especially if the individual has developed a strong, loving emotional connection to self. This “self bond” has the power to be exceptionally stable and enduring. For if over time the highly gratifying—and frequently orgasmic—experience of self-love remains “intimately” tied to self-stimulation, such self-love would, in fact, constitute a lifelong romance (and one with very little fear of abandonment!).
It’s curious that though there are countless books on masturbation, there’s very little (at least from a scholarly perspective) written on the varied psychological dynamics of autoeroticism. And that's why much of my preparatory research for this piece has needed to focus on Internet forums on the subject, as well as my own professional experience as a psychologist. My hypothesis for this peculiar neglect is that the act of masturbation is rarely understood as about actual self-love—a romantic/sexual attraction to self culminating in the act of making love, even passionate love, to one’s physical being. Rather, this solo act is typically (though not always) regarded in the narrowest sense: as about alleviating tension (sexual or otherwise), or as providing oneself with a momentary sensory pleasure that’s simple, uncomplicated, and, well, free. In such instances, masturbation probably warrants being viewed as an expression of autoeroticism only in a limited way—though, granted, such self-stimulating impulses may in fact represent its most common form.
Another way of comprehending all this is to view those who are markedly autoerotic as deriving sufficient sexual satisfaction through masturbation, whereas others (even those who might masturbate more frequently than autoerotics) might clearly experience greater pleasure through partner sex—that is, if it were as convenient or available. And this isn’t to imply that non-autoerotics receive higher levels of stimulation through partner sex. Because most of us are naturally more connected, sensitive, or attuned to our own bodies than any “outsider” could possibly be, we’re all ideally synchronized to sexually arouse ourselves. We can choose not only the best time and place for self-stimulation, but also the most titillating touch, movement (including pace or progression), and position. Nor do we have to concern ourselves with—or be made anxious by—anybody else’s reactions to us. And finally, we can take as much (or as little) time for our self-pleasuring as we like.
In the end, autoeroticism is best viewed as a more or less natural expression of our sexuality. And this is hardly anything to be ashamed of. In a sense, we’re all deviants—or, much more realistically, none of us is. Despite society’s uneasiness or discomfort with it, autoerotic expression is an altogether normal outlet for sexual feelings common to us all.
Nonetheless, the great majority of individuals (regardless of how many autoerotic tendencies they might exhibit) show a decided preference for partner sex. For at a deeper level such encounters are more emotionally satisfying. They’re warmer, more personal, and intimate—in a word, more fulfilling. On the other hand, those who are predominantly autoerotic seem more or less capable of having this same pleasing experience in solitude, since their pleasurably intense sexual relationship with self feels equally intimate and gratifying.
It’s also safe to assume that when only marginally autoerotic individuals masturbate, most of them routinely imagine having sex with another (or others!). Or they facilitate the process of turning themselves on by using various erotic or pornographic materials. But for “classic” autosexuals—that is, those at the farthest reaches of the autoerotic continuum—the only supplemental stimulus they might require would be either a sexually provocative photo of themselves, or the mirror nearest them. As I pointed out earlier, libidinally self-contained as they are, fantasy and reality are barely separable. Their undraped bodies are catalyst enough to afford them the basis for full sexual arousal, since their self-directed (vs. other-directed) sex drive provides them with sufficient incitement ... and excitement. And if they do entertain a fantasy of another, that partner might be an imaginary extension of themselves: a doppleganger, "body-double," or clone.
As one internet forum writer on the subject professed: “I'm an autosexual. I'm in love with myself to the point where I would date it and sleep with it. [Note, incidentally, the author’s self-objectification.] Another commenter put it this way: “Though I am a male I do not consider myself gay since I am in no way attracted to other men. While I have some romantic attraction to females, I do not consider myself extremely attracted to women so I guess hetero- doesn't work for me either. Nope, I am just autosexual. This does not mean I am a raging narcissist ... but when it comes to the erotic, nobody can attract me like myself (yes, I do have a lot of mirrors) and definitely prefer masturbation (which I consider making love to myself) to any sort of intercourse.”
As already suggested, most autoerotics (or autosexuals) are not so by natural inclination, but out of necessity, or expedience. So, in a sense, these individuals are best seen as only peripherally autoerotic. Consider, for instance, these two forum postings:
- Being a heterosexual male, I have been unable to find a female partner for years and have just accepted the fact that I will be autosexual for the rest of my life.
- Unwilling to risk STDS, yet having not given up completely on life [‘s sensual pleasures], she has been an autosexual since her divorce.
On the contrary, however, there are many unqualifiedly autoerotic individuals. And because of their awareness that society in general frowns upon their sexual orientation, they regularly must wrestle with the inner conflict inextricably tied to their core sense of self. Here’s just one touching example of such emotional ambivalence:
"The thought of intimacy and sex mostly grosses me out. But I feel really attracted to myself, even in love ... Because most people see [autosexuality] as a shallow thing consisting only of masturbation, [I think another term for my eroticism]—namely, autoromanticism—better describes the nature of my sexuality ... Other people do not give me the same deep emotional connection as I seem to have with myself. I think if someone cured me of this I would fall in an even deeper black hole of emptiness. I just can't imagine "losing" the only romantic love I've ever felt. Even though it feels like a curse."
To conclude, many of my self-help posts for Psychology Today center on how we can learn to be more self-accepting (note link), even when our limitations, personality traits, or behavioral tendencies may have impelled us to judge ourselves negatively—or led us to feel uncomfortable around others. The practice of autoeroticism—whether it’s narrowly focused on tension-reducing masturbation, has become a personal preference, or reflects some essential part of our inborn identity—is just one more area in which we can practice greater self-acceptance. For whether or not our self-love is predominantly erotic, the healthy love of self is still our surest route to happiness and well-being.
© 2013 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All rights reserved.