I remember it vividly: I was a second year undergrad travelling with some of my best ‘gal pals’ in Vienna and we were all sharing a room in a hostel. The lights were out and we were exchanging life stories and dirty little secrets (as you do). As was inevitable the topic eventually got on to sex and, feeling a bit bold from our previous confessions, I came out with the following:
“Sometimes Mr. Peaches and I just masturbate instead of having sex”
Unlike all of the other stories we had shared this one was met with a palpable silence. After the uncomfortable pause one of my friends spoke up:
Them: W-why would you do that?
Me: What do you mean?
Them: I just don’t understand why anyone would do that when they already have someone to have sex with. That’s wrong. You don’t need it. You’re in a relationship.
I was flustered. At that age I still wasn’t fully secure in my sexuality. Still hadn’t fully conquered my vaginismus so I just blurted something out.
“Well we, uhm, we do it for each other. Y’know? As a show”
That was a lie.
Yes, Mr. Peaches and I did sometimes masturbate to turn each other on but the type of masturbation I had admitted to was the ‘lazy day’ masturbation; the kind where you’re either not physically or emotionally up for the ‘full romp’ and so you just agree to your own thing. Primarily to fulfill your own sexual desire.
However my blatant lie went down depressingly well.
“Oh, well that’s okay then. I mean if you’re doing it for each other then that’s fine. That’s normal”.
The judgement had been made: My desire to masturbate instead of engage in full PiV intercourse with my partner was only ‘normal’ if it was seen within the context of my partner’s pleasure not my own.
At the time I was deeply ashamed. The sexual confidence, which I was already struggling to foster within myself, had been dashed and I was deemed ‘not normal’.
But now I only have one thing to say about my friend’s response: Bollocks to that!
While my friend didn’t mean to offend (and was sincerely bemused) it’s time that we acknowledge that there are many reasons why people may masturbate instead of engaging in a more elaborate sex act with their partner. They could be struggling with a medical condition for which masturbation is a real relief, they could have incompatible sex drives and masturbation provides an outlet that they’re both happy with, or (as with Mr. Peaches and I) there could be some days where the act of guilt-free self-pleasure is what’s best for the situation at hand.[i]
Even if there’s no clear reason couples that chose to masturbate shouldn’t be judged for their choices and they certainly shouldn’t have to justify what they’re doing to others.
The pleasure gained from masturbating shouldn’t have to be framed in terms of a partner’s pleasure either. Some couples masturbate together as a mutual act whereas others chose to do it solo (or partake in both of these methods). But in either of these situations one’s own pleasure is ultimately at the foreground in some way or another and that is 100% fine. Part of what makes masturbation so great is that it helps create a space where an individual can feel confident in their own sexual pleasure and well-being. It doing this it cultivates self-love, teaches you how to find your own pleasure and even has some very real health benefits.[ii] These are things that should never need to be reframed in regards to another person’s pleasure. They are enough on their own.
Now, yes, as with all things masturbation can become a hindrance in a relationship if abused. However, most current research suggests that masturbation (whether mutual or solo) is actually a healthy part of a relationship. Multiple studies suggest that the frequency of masturbation does not have any negative impact on the frequency of sexual intercourse.[iii] In fact Plinkerton found that pleasure motivates sexual activity, meaning that masturbation can lead to an increase in sexual desire.[iv] Meanwhile, a study in the Journal of Sex Education found that married women who masturbated to reach orgasm reported more orgasms, higher self-esteem and greater marital and sexual satisfaction than those who didn’t.[v]
This isn’t to say that masturbation is the be-all and end-all to sexual happiness, however it does afford a certain amount of autonomy that tends to have benefit effects on all other forms of sexual activity.
The fact that my friend felt baffled that this autonomy was something I still found necessary, even in a happy long-term relationship, is not really her fault. Instead it’s indicative of the huge social stigma that we still put on people who openly admit to masturbating, especially in a relationship. But I’m here to say that this reaction is absolutely ridiculous. It leeches off of a lot of old assumptions that masturbation is unhealthy, that masturbation is symptomatic on an unsatisfied relationship and (in terms of gender) that women who chose to express their desires through self-pleasure are broken. Hopefully this article has debunked a lot of those stigmas but, if not, the public are also doing a pretty good job of debunking them too.
In a survey of 2000 women the Cosmopolitan found that 65.1% of respondent stated that being in a relationship did not affect their masturbation habits.[vi] Meanwhile a 2013 survey done by Bondara found that only 1% of women and 2% of men agreed with the statement ‘masturbation is not appropriate when you are in a relationship’. The vast majority (74% of women and 65% of men) strongly disagreed with the statement showing just how much the tides have turned in the recent years.[vii]
So if you ever find yourself in the situation I was in then please don’t hang your head in shame and don’t ever let anyone make you feel like you’re lacking because you enjoy a varied sex life. The bottom line is that masturbation is an amazing tool and should never be null-and-voided because someone else gets to explore your body too. Or, as Woody Allen once famously said, ‘Don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love’.
[i] There’s also a very heteronormative assumption within this whole issue that excludes masturbation itself (outside of being ‘a show’) as a valid form of sex, which it very well may be for both queer and non-queer individuals.
[iii] Breanna Fahs, Performing Sex: The Making and Unmaking of Women’s Erotic Lives, 2011, p. 156.
[iv] Shaun Best, Leisure Studies: Themes and Perspectives, 2009, p. 18.
[v] David Hurlburt and Karen Whittaker, “The Role of Masturbation in Marital and Sexual Satisfaction: A Comparative Study of Female Masturbators and Nonmasturbators,” Journal of Sex Education and Therapy 17, no. 4 (1991).
A huge thanks to Delidah for the amazing picture used in this article. I can’t get over how lovely it looks.