Before this article even starts, it is important to note that masturbation is a very personal thing.
Literally, and figuratively.
The only person who can evaluate whether or not masturbation is right for anyone (to do it or not, how frequently, in what way, etc.), is that person. No one else. Many factors come into play while examining one’s relationship with masturbation, including cultural and religious values, information received from your parents, peers, and the mainstream narrative.
Many people wonder about how to know when it may be an issue. So it’s important that they do their own research, and remember that due to the subjectivity of sexual attitudes, there is no black or white answer about what is right or wrong.
The only deciding factor is whether they think there could be a problem. As a sex-positive clinician, it’s very easy for me to go on and on about the benefits of masturbation.
If someone has never wondered whether masturbation is an issue for them or not, then it’s likely that it isn’t. Those who wonder, have a sometimes quiet and sometimes loud inner voice that speaks up every so often. This article is for them, to help them in their own assessment.
Various studies report about the prevalence of people seeking treatment for compulsive masturbation, but the majority of research notes that men seek treatment more frequently than women.
However, it is not clear if women are less likely to engage in excessive or compulsive masturbation, or if they are less likely to recognize, disclose, or seek treatment, due to a confluence of other variables related to attitudes about female sexuality, masturbation, shame, or lack of more obvious symptoms.
One of the more common effects of compulsive masturbation is a delayed ability or inability to achieve an orgasm with a partner.
Given that many women struggle to experience an orgasm with their partner to begin with (e.g., following trauma or betrayal, lack of understanding of their own pleasure template, fear to communicate their needs to a partner, overvaluing their partner’s pleasure, etc.), they may not have the same alarm bells that many men experience to tell them that masturbation may be excessive because it impacts their pleasure potential with a partner.
Masturbation is only a problem if anyone person deems it to be for themselves.
For those who have ever wondered if masturbation is something at which they might take a closer look, here are several indicators to consider if it may be taking up a role that’s too large in their life, causing negative consequences, and a starting point if they have found themselves questioning or re-evaluating their relationship with self-pleasure.
1. Inability to Stop
One of the most telling indicators that masturbation may be compulsive is that someone has tried to stop, slow down, or curtail their process for a designated period of time, and found that they were unable to do so.
It preoccupies their mind, and the amount of time they spend thinking about or engaging in masturbation is all-consuming and makes it difficult for them to navigate other areas of their life successfully.
They forget to complete tasks, make less time to be social with friends, family or their partner, or start neglecting other areas of life because most of their waking (and maybe even sleeping) time is spent organizing themselves around masturbation.
3. Lack of Satisfaction
They need more and more to feel satisfied. When masturbation becomes compulsive, what once felt satisfying now barely wets their whistle.
This can happen in terms of frequency of masturbation, or intensity. What once turned them on easily, may now not register any arousal, prompting them to seek out more intense or taboo fantasies, or visual prompts.
4. Withdrawal Symptoms
They are irritable, anxious, or depressed, or have difficulty in sleeping if they do not masturbate. This can be an indicator they are experiencing withdrawal symptoms or have been using masturbation excessively to cope with underlying stress.
Healthy masturbation is about pleasure and play. Compulsive masturbation means that the practice of self-pleasure has been co-opted by the brain and masturbation is now being inadvertently (or sometimes intentionally) used for the purpose of coping or self-regulating, at the expense of other coping strategies being employed or effective.
5. Decreased Libido
They notice a decrease of arousal or sexual anxiety with real-life partners. They used to be able to have an orgasm with other people but now find themselves unable or disinterested.
This can often be something people experience for a myriad of other reasons throughout their life as well such as boredom, other life stressors, trauma, changes in libido, depression, medical conditions, resentment toward their partner, lack of connection, side effects from medication, etc.
Barring none of these extraneous variables is at play, repeatedly preferring masturbation over a partner may be a sign that its importance has usurped relational intimacy, and that may lead to other long-term problems, such as infidelity (loneliness is a risk factor for infidelity), separation, or divorce.
6. Disruption in Relationship
Their partner feels alienated, cheated on, or betrayed. Again, this is not to say that their relationship with masturbation is objectively problematic. Rather, if it eradicates the bond between two partners, and is causing relational friction, they may decide that the disruption to their relationship is a negative consequence of masturbation.
If their partner repeatedly feels snubbed, related to masturbation or other things, they may start to disengage for good. Alternatively, they may feel resentful of their partner’s bids for connection, or requests that infringe on self-pleasure time.
If someone finds themselves using masturbation as a form of revenge against a partner, this can be a risk factor for compulsivity to develop, as it can act as an accelerant in the departure from masturbation as a form of pleasure and masturbation as a form of coping. If that is happening, and there is no way to find resolve together, it will be up to them to decide whether to prioritize masturbation or the relationship.
7. Physical Effects
They have incurred a medical issue or physical injury as a result of overdoing it. While there are many physical and medical benefits of masturbation, in some instances, too much can lead to physical or medical complications.
For example, women can find themselves a higher risk for urinary tract infections, and experience physiological desensitization from too much or exclusive use of a vibrator, which can lead to some temporary numbness or difficulty reaching orgasm otherwise.
Men can begin to experience delayed ejaculation, erectile dysfunction, and in some rare instances, refractory ejaculation, which can lead to infertility if left unaddressed. Research is not conclusive on whether excessive masturbation can lead to prostate cancer, but there have been some studies that note a correlation.
8. Blurring of Boundaries
There can be negative legal or financial consequences that result from excessive masturbation. In some cases, people find themselves blurring boundaries in their lives when masturbation becomes all-consuming, even if it goes against their own value system.
For instance, masturbating at work or accessing pornography on work-issued computers or tablets can violate company policies and lead to termination and loss of income and one’s professional reputation. Others find themselves spending money on payment-focused porn sites, fantasy play, or extortion, and find their savings rapidly depleting.
In even more extreme cases, some people have found themselves attracted to inappropriate images (i.e. of children) and in possession of child pornography, when they were not previously aroused by this imagery, which can result in legal consequences in many countries.
9. Careless Parenting
One of the most insidious effects of compulsive masturbation is neglecting one’s role as a parent. This can occur because masturbation is taking up so much of their bandwidth that they no longer make time to engage with their children, leaving them to feel unimportant or unwanted.
Carelessness with pornographic materials or masturbating within sight or earshot can expose children to sexually provocative images, sensations, and emotions that they are not developmentally equipped to understand, and it can be scary, confusing, and overwhelming for children to process.
This is considered a type of covert sexual abuse and can leave devastating and lasting impacts on the developing mind of a child.
10. Dishonesty due to Guilt and Shame
They often find themselves lying about, hiding, or minimizing their masturbatory thoughts and behaviours, and keeping secrets about it. They may feel guilt, shame, or fear about its role in their life and might fear the fact that others will judge them or ask them to stop when they are not yet ready. They can be sneaky about it and get angry if someone (usually a partner) asks about it.
They feel bad about themselves after an orgasm, and feel despair, hopelessness, or deep shame when they think about their relationship to sexuality. They may jump right back into a new cycle of masturbatory thoughts or behaviour as a way to cope with those feelings, in the hope that next time they will feel differently, but often do not feel relieved.
If, after reading through this article, you feel like masturbation could be a problem for you, take a deep breath because you are not alone, you are not a bad person, and there is help. A Certified Sex Therapist or Certified Sex Addiction Therapist can help you talk through your observations and develop a plan for a return to a hot and healthy sex life.
Some people like to test themselves and go without masturbation for 30, 60, or 90 days and to see if they still feel autonomous in their sexual choices. If you choose to do so, organize your thoughts and feelings during this time, and perhaps write down when you have the urge so you can start recognizing the patterns. Create a list of alternative hobbies, and practice other activities to reduce the likelihood of using masturbation as an exclusive coping strategy by learning new methods of getting your needs met.
Lastly, get support. Sitting with the fear or shame around sexuality can be wildly isolating, which is a risk factor for excessive masturbation to continue, or get worse. Build a community around you. Intentionally socialize with others in non-sexual ways.
This can mean reaching out to a trusted friend, family member, or partner, a therapist, a member of your religious community or even a support group such as Sex Addicts Anonymous, which offers online and in-person meetings.
Developing non-sexual intimacy with others can give you a road back to a liberated relationship with sexual pleasure, whether by yourself or with a partner.
Dr Kate Balestrieri is a Licensed Psychologist, Certified Sex Therapist, Certified Sex Addiction Therapist, PACT Trained Therapist and Ambassador and the Co-founder of Triune Therapy Group in Los Angeles, California.
She is the Founder & CEO of Modern Intimacy, a new platform bringing together experts to discuss mental health, relationships, and sexuality from all over the world.
Follow her on IG @drkatebalestrieri and @themodernintimacy and check out the upcoming Modern Intimacy channel on YouTube.