“Hey, don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love.”
— From the movie Annie Hall
Over the years many parents and other professionals have asked for my “healthy sex” opinion about teenage masturbation. Here are my thoughts:
Masturbation is a normal, natural human sexual behavior. Studies have found that humans of both sexes and all ages engage in it on a frequent basis, although there is variation. While generally positive, problems occur when masturbation becomes compulsive, physically harmful, shapes sexual interests and arousal patterns in destructive ways, consistently shifts sexual energy away from an existing intimate relationship, or strongly conflicts with faith-based ideals.
Like eating alone, masturbation doesn’t by nature interfere with the ability to enjoy a meal (sex ) with a partner. Some people develop a style of masturbation that negatively affects their ability to have mutually satisfying sex relations with a partner. Examples include: a female who develops a habit of crossing her legs to trigger her orgasm, a young man who conditions himself to need extremely intense penile stimulation to ejaculate, and a person who comes to require contact with porn imagery to climax. In these cases, it is the technique and focus of the masturbation that are problematic and not the fact of sexually stimulating one’s own body.
The increased physical awareness and comfort with sexual touch that are learned in healthy self-pleasuring can provide a foundation for satisfying sexual experiences with a partner. Studies show that women who are more comfortable with masturbation are more likely to be orgasmic with a partner. They are better prepared to know and speak up about what they like in partnered sex. And, it is through exercises in self-pleasuring that a man can learn to delay ejaculation with a partner, increasing pleasure for both of himself and his partner. Similarly, healthy masturbation can help young people learn about their bodies and sexual responses in ways that help prepare them for positive sexual involvement.
Self-touch provides opportunities for teens to mentally rehearse sexual initiation and activity, tune into sensual pleasure, envision positive experiences, imagine loving and being loved in sex, etc. And healthy, non-compulsive masturbation can be a socially responsible, physically safe way for an adolescent to respond to his or her own natural, hormonally-driven needs for sexual stimulation and release.
Publicly advocating in favor of teen masturbation is risky and complicated (just ask Jocelyn Elders who was fired from her position as US Surgeon General in the mid-1990s for saying that masturbation “is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught”). As we know, all too well from our work, masturbation can become compulsive and lead to addictive processes, and social isolation. Stopping masturbation can be a critical part of a successful sexual recovery process.
Whether one’s masturbation becomes helpful or harmful depends on many factors such as frequency and circumstances of the behavior, unmet emotional needs, backgrounds, developing sexual interests, etc. More specifically, whether or not masturbation is a benign, toxic, or helpful activity, depends in large part on what a person is thinking about or looking at when they do it. Thus, for some teens, their experiences with self-pleasuring do facilitate rewarding, intimate and pleasurable sex with a partner, AND for other teens (such as those who are masturbating exclusively to porn images or using sex as a primary way to medicate stress), their masturbation routines can lead to isolated, driven, self-centered, exploitive and unrealistic sexual experiences.
As with evaluating any sexual behavior, it would be wise for teens to ask themselves: Under what circumstances am I engaging in this behavior? How is it impacting me? What is it reinforcing? Where is it taking me? How might I change it to be more positive?
Masturbation is a powerful conditioning process. I agree with Naomi Wolf when she writes in the NY times about how “Pavlovian” the whole process of sexual release is. She says, “An orgasm is one of the biggest reinforcers imaginable. If you associate orgasm with your wife, a kiss, a scent, a body, that is what, over time, will turn you on; if you open your focus to an endless stream of ever-more-transgressive images of cybersex slaves, that is what it will take to turn you on.”
Today’s teens don’t need to be told to masturbate or not to masturbate. They need accurate information that helps them make wise decisions for themselves about self-pleasuring, They need resources that reveal the dangers of commercially-driven masturbation products, such as porn. And, they need resources that can help them develop a mindful, intimacy-consistent, psychologically healthy, socially responsible, deeply rewarding, guilt-free approach to all forms of sexual expression.
I think it is great that people are beginning to discuss the topic of masturbation more openly. It’s critical that everyone in our society — adults and young people — learn to make distinctions about the types of and circumstances surrounding self-stimulation. We need to move away from black and white stances that perpetuate sexual ignorance, fear and shame. We need to overcome our own embarrassment about the topic and be able to provide realistic advice and responsible guidance.
© 2012, 2014 by Wendy Maltz