by Dan Drake, LMFT, LCPP, CCPS-S, CSAT-S
Yes, I said it. Masturbation. It’s one of those things most of us rarely talk about publically but most of us have done or continue to do privately. Exploring our sexuality is a normal part of our development, and masturbation is a typical part of this journey.
If masturbation is so common, why is it so hard to talk about? If it is a normal part of sexual development, how come we can’t talk about it openly with our friends and family? There are perhaps as many answers to this question as there are people on earth, but the simple answer is this: Masturbation is typically a solitary behavior. Many people learn to masturbate when they are at an awkward, insecure phase of development. Consequently, it becomes a behavior that’s done in secret. Add to this a family, community, or faith tradition that labels masturbation as bad, and we can come to view masturbation as shameful. Even our over-sexualized society stigmatizes masturbation. Ever found yourself laughing uncomfortably when someone brings up the word in conversation? Are you painfully aware of how many times I’ve written the word “masturbation” so far (9. But who’s counting)?
Without going into masturbation being good or bad, right or wrong, I wanted to focus on a few warning signs where masturbation might be swinging into unhealthy territory:
- You masturbate to the point of self-injury. There is no magical number of times in a week or amount of time masturbating that is the optimal amount, but if you are masturbating to the point where you are harming yourself, chances are you are doing it compulsively.
- You feel the need to masturbate successively. If you’re simply needing a physiological release, once should suffice. 3, 4, 10 times successively most likely indicates you are using masturbation to medicate emotions or escape. At the very least, this should be a clue to check in with yourself and see how you’re using masturbation.
- It is interfering with your relationships or your work. Are you single and use masturbation as a way of avoiding intimacy or putting yourself out there romantically? Are you married or in a committed relationship and find masturbation preferable to engaging your partner for sex? Have your partners expressed concern about your masturbation habits? Have your behaviors impacted your ability to function at work? For some, it can feel far less threatening to turn to masturbation rather than intimacy, connection, coping with work stress, or facing fears of rejection or abandonment. If used in this way, masturbation can sidetrack relational intimacy.
- Masturbation negatively impacts your relationship with yourself. When you masturbate, are you MORE in touch with your body, your sensations, and your spirituality, or do you feel more numb, lonely, and spiritually disconnected? If you feel less connected after masturbating, you might want to take a look at what role masturbation is playing for you.
- You feel shame about it. Whether the shame is surfacing because of your religious beliefs, societal messages, or family views, shame can be extremely damaging. Shame frequently leads to even further secrecy and maintaining a double life where you look good on the outside but don’t feel so good on the inside. It is really important to talk to someone about this shame, since it typically deepens over time.
- You have tried to cut down or stop masturbating but you continue anyway. One main criterion that a behavior has become addictive is loss of control over the activity. If you have made repeated unsuccessful attempts to stop, or if your behaviors have escalated in the amount of time spent, the frequency, or the intensity of the behaviors, it’d be a good idea to talk to a professional who can help.
- You have become obsessed or preoccupied with masturbation. If you have become preoccupied with thoughts about when and how you will be able to masturbate, there’s a good chance it might be a problematic behavior for you.
These 7 signs are by no means exhaustive, but my hope is to provide a few indicators where masturbation might have moved into an unhealthy place for you. So now what? If you identified with one or more of these warning signs, I would encourage you to reflect on your use of masturbation and what it means to you. If you have a safe person who you can trust, talk to them about it. If you feel like you might be masturbating compulsively, or even addicted, it’s really important to talk to a professional who can help. Addictive behaviors don’t get better on their own, so talk to someone who has been professionally trained to deal with sex addiction or compulsive sexual behaviors. I am available to answer any questions and/or to help link you to someone who might be able to help you.
And for any of you who were wondering how many times I used the word “masturbation” in this article? Wait for it . . . . 34. And not ashamed of it!