“Hey, don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love.”
— From the movie Annie Hall
Sexual self-pleasuring is a normal, natural, and healthy sexual activity. We may know it by an endless variety of colorful slang terms, such as jacking off, jilling off, spanking the monkey, flicking the bean, saucing the taco, and choking the chicken – but these nicknames have limited value in describing what it is and how it is done.
People engage in many styles of self-pleasuring. It typically involves manually stimulating one’s own genitals in ways that arouse sexual sensations and feels good. Types of touch include stroking, patting, tugging, rubbing, and more. It’s a behavior done in private or in the presence of a partner. People like to touch themselves dressed or undressed. A wide variety of aids, such as vibrators, dildos, sex toys, massagers, and shower sprayers, may assist. Individuals self-pleasure by tuning into bodily sensations as well as mental imagery. Self-pleasuring may take a brief amount of time or last for extended periods of time. And it doesn’t have to culminate in orgasm to feel good.
A common, beneficial practice
Studies report that the vast majority of human beings of various ages and genders engage in some form of sexual self-pleasuring. Men report masturbating more frequently than women. Common reasons people give for self-pleasuring are that it is fun, enjoyable, and helps them reduce stress and relieve tension.
Self-pleasuring plays an important role in healthy sexual development and self-care. It’s an activity that increases physical awareness and comfort with sexual touch – two factors that can provide a foundation for satisfying sexual experiences with a partner. Masturbation teaches us about our bodies and sexual responses. It provides us opportunities to mentally rehearse initiating sex with a partner. It helps us learn to block out the world and focus on pleasurable sensations. It can even help us develop new sexual fantasies.
Life stages and sexual circumstances change. You can have a sexual partner at one point in your life and not at another. You may be separated from a lover or prefer a single lifestyle. You may have different degrees of sexual interest and desire than a partner. In all these situations and more, self-pleasuring can play an active role in our ability to care for ourselves. It gives us a private, safe, and socially responsible way to respond to our natural, hormonally-driven needs for sexual stimulation and release.
Anyone can benefit from self-pleasuring. Studies show that women who are experienced in self-pleasuring are more reliably and easily orgasmic on their own and with a partner than women who don’t self-pleasure. Self-touch allows girls and women to become aware of and comfortable with their bodies, their genitals, and the types of stimulation they find pleasing and effective in building arousal. In my work as a sex therapist, one of the first questions I used to ask adult women who complained of an inability to orgasm was how much experience they had with self-pleasuring. Nearly all the time, the answer was “none” or “limited.” Impressively, most often these women were able to become orgasmic after following a progressive, months-long program of “at-home” exercises that centered around learning how to explore and arouse themselves.
Women who self-pleasure are more likely to be orgasmic in sex with a partner because it helps them understand and speak up about what they like and need in partnered sex. One study found that women who masturbated reported happier relationships than women who did not. It is not surprising that sex therapists often suggest a woman try self-stimulating before, during, or after intercourse or other sex play with a partner to help achieve orgasms with a partner. While partners can learn how a woman likes to be touched genitally, there may be times when it’s easiest and most effective for the woman to take a more active hand in her own pleasure.
Boys and men also benefit from the learning acquired through self-stimulation. It enables them to identify what types of stimulation they enjoy most and how their bodies respond to different types and pressures of erotic touch. This knowledge can be critical for males who want to gain more control over their sexual response and to extend the time it takes for them to climax. Lasting longer can heighten sexual pleasure for men themselves as well as for their partner. As with women, sex therapy techniques that treat male sexual problems such as premature ejaculation (coming quickly), erectile difficulty (getting and maintaining an erection), and delayed ejaculation (difficulty climaxing), consist of progressive exercises that build awareness and new skills through self-touch.
Couples also benefit when both partners feel comfortable with self-touching. Mutual masturbation practices such as self-pleasuring in each other’s presence and being affectionate with each other during or after one partner masturbates offer healthy alternatives to standard sexual practices. Self-pleasuring alone and with a partner provides novelty and variety. These practices come in handy as a way to maintain closeness and sexual release satisfaction during times when intercourse or other types of direct interaction are not possible or desired. For example, self-pleasuring can be enjoyed during periods of recovery post-pregnancy, post-surgery, and times of separation.
Many wild and crazy myths surround sexual self-pleasuring. Historically, masturbation has been associated with causing blindness, hairy palms, erectile difficulty and dysfunction, penis shrinkage or curvature, infertility, mental illness, marital dissatisfaction, and physical weakness. None of these are true.
Masturbation is a subject riddled with old negative social and religious messages and misinformation. In some religious circles, masturbation is still referenced as “a taboo,” “a perversion,” “a sin of self-abuse” and “morally bad.” These kinds of pervasive, negative cultural messages can leave people feeling guilt, shame, and fear about the behavior. Fortunately, in recent years societal views about masturbation have shifted towards greater acceptance. As a client once told me, “If God didn’t want us to masturbate, he wouldn’t have made our hands able to touch our genitals.”
A few healthy precautions
Self-pleasuring is like other enjoyable human behaviors such as eating, drinking, and sunbathing. It has natural limits and societal boundaries that need to be honored to avoid negative consequences. We can harm ourselves when we do any of these highly pleasurable activities too much, too intensely, and for too long. And, you wouldn’t want to be caught masturbating in a public place, for example. From time to time, you may want to ask yourself questions such as: Under what circumstances am I self-pleasuring? How is it impacting me and my life? What is it reinforcing sexually and how do I feel about that?
People often become concerned about their masturbation when it
- Leaves them feeling bad about themselves
- Feels compulsive or out of control
- Is causing physical harm (such as chafing, soreness, swelling) or injury
- Feels tied to unwanted sexual fantasies or upsetting explicit materials
- Interferes with daily life and meeting responsibilities at work, school, or in the family
- Is preferred over sex with a partner or future partner
- Creates problems in an intimate relationship
- Has become dependent on a product or device (such as pornography or a sex toy)
- Is desensitizing their genitals and reducing sexual responsiveness
- Conflicts with spiritual goals and beliefs
Everyone can benefit from this natural, normal, self-pleasuring human activity. With accurate information, you can make wise decisions about how, when, and under what circumstances to enjoy it. You can overcome harmful messages and move beyond unnecessary feelings of guilt. Accurate information enables us to develop a psychologically healthy, socially responsible, deeply rewarding, guilt-free approach to all forms of sexual expression.
© 2022 by Wendy Maltz. All rights reserved.