The Ethics of Masturbation

Where do solo activities fit in a relationship?

Posted May 03, 2018

Most couples are monogamous, meaning that they aren’t supposed to have sex with others. But does this ban on sex with other people also extend to sex with oneself? 

As with everything else in human relationships, you get a lot of answers to this question. Some people will quote research studies to support their position that masturbation is either good or bad for relationships. Personally, I believe that the science is much stronger on the side of masturbation having a neutral or positive effect on a couple’s relationship and sex life if it is done reasonably and respectfully. Even so, that is at the level of group averages. As individuals, we need to decide what works for us in our relationship at any given time in our life.

To that end, let’s think through how masturbation can fit within a relationship and how to keep it a neutral or positive. For the sake of simplicity and to avoid over-complicating an already nuanced topic, I am not going to talk about porn, sex toys, or fantasies about other people here.

Copyright 123RF
Source: Copyright 123RF

When two people get together in a monogamous relationship, there is a stated or unstated expectation that in exchange for not having sex with other people, the partners will generally be sexually available to each other. This doesn’t mean always and at a moment’s notice, but with some generally good intent. Some people worry that masturbation will use up some of that finite sexual energy and that there will therefore be less available for their partner. While this may be somewhat true, there are also some people for whom sexual activity begets more sexual interest. Therefore, if you are worried that your partner’s masturbation may be taking away from your shared sexual experiences, you may want to talk to them about this to see if it is actually true for them.

There are also many couples who have large differences in their desired sexual frequency. These desire discrepancies can create a situation in which the higher-desire partner often feels denied and the lower-desire partner often feels hounded—nobody is having a good time there. For these folks, masturbation can take some of the edge off of the discrepancy so that both partners enjoy their shared activities more.

Whether there is a large desire discrepancy or not, denying your partner the right to masturbate means that all of the partner's sexual needs must be met with you. While this can feel like an honor, it can also become a burden and breed resentment for both partners.

The solution to this problem, or perhaps the way to prevent it in the first place, is to have an honest and open discussion about masturbation. How do you each feel about your own and your partner’s masturbation? Are there some situations that are more or less acceptable? Do you want to get an offer for sex first? Do you want to know about your partner’s masturbation or do you prefer a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy?

Copyright 123RF
Source: Copyright 123RF

Unfortunately, many couples don’t have these conversations, which is a set up for possibly unhappy discoveries with potentially terrible timing. It is probably better to intentionally choose a time to bring it up. Doing anything in secret also then adds to the potential upset: “Not only are you doing this thing, but also you’re hiding it from me!” So one potentially difficult fact has now become two. Given the number of men and women who masturbate at least sometimes, it is almost certainly worth having a direct conversation about where masturbation fits into your sex life. If this conversation feels really uncomfortable, then you may want to reflect on why that is and think about ways to make it easier to have it. Despite the flood of sexual images we are all exposed to, there are still many people who have a hard time discussing sex, which can make it much harder to have a good sex life.

There are also situations in which masturbation is used as an avoidance of issues in the couple’s relationship or sex life (e.g., it’s easier to masturbate than to face potential performance problems with one’s wife or there is so much anger in the relationship that neither partner wants to have sex together). In these cases, the masturbation is a symptom of other problems, although it can maintain those problems by making it easier to avoid addressing them. For example, it’s easier to get one’s sexual needs met alone than to do the harder work of addressing these other problems so that you can have sex together. I’m not sure that I would say that this sort of avoidance masturbation is unethical, but it is a way to take the easier path in the moment, at the cost of a less satisfying outcome later. If your partner isn’t aware that this is what you’re doing, they may be hurt that they aren’t being given the opportunity to address the problem directly. Of course, with that opportunity perhaps comes some responsibility to handle the revelation well and to work with good intent to address it. (Easier said than done.)

If someone is masturbating in problematic ways—however that gets defined—then it is almost always worth looking at what is behind the masturbation, either in the individual or in the couple. Focusing just on limiting the masturbation itself may distract you from these other issues and therefore undermine creating better, sustainable solutions.

There are some who would make the case that masturbation is a personal matter and no one has the right to limit someone else. And there are those who would say that engaging in non-monogomous sexual activity, even if just by yourself, is cheating. You and your partner will probably be better off for having a direct discussion about it and coming to some sort of mutual agreement.