Solo pleasure

A former sex columnist answers the most common masturbation questions and wonders why it's still taboo to talk about what we all do.

Published May 23, 2001 7:39PM (EDT)

For many years, I've been part of a nine-man social group. We meet twice a month, take turns making dinner and end up talking sports, politics, work, marriage, children, money, parents and -- of course -- sex.

Within the bounds of self-revelation comfort levels, I'm pretty well informed about the sexual issues in several of the marriages in our group. But I'm relatively unaware of my friends' masturbation habits. And I haven't discussed mine. If the subject comes up, which it rarely does, there is nervous laughter along with acknowledgment that we all indulge.

It's not hard to understand why it's easier to discuss partner sex than the solo variety. Our culture is obsessed with partner sex. Depictions of it are ubiquitous, in both positive images (movies, books, music) and negative (AIDS, STDs and controversy over sex education and federal funding for family planning). Masturbation is still largely in the closet. It occupies the position partner sex held in the 1950s -- it's simply not discussed.

In 1976, I helped found National Condom Week (from Valentine's Day to Washington's Birthday) to encourage men to participate in contraception. But it took until 1995 for the staff of Good Vibrations, the women-run clean, well-lighted sex toy emporium in San Francisco, to launch National Masturbation Month (May). This tongue-in-cheek event features a Masturbate-a-Thon. (Sign up friends and relatives to donate money for every minute you masturbate, and the money will go to nonprofit sex-education organizations.)

But don't look for any mayoral -- or God forbid, presidential -- proclamations endorsing National Masturbation Month. In our culture, it's OK for MTV to show bikini-clad college gals being rolled into whipped-cream-filled tortillas while being ogled by buff college guys in tight swimsuits with major bulges. But a few years ago, when Paul Reubens (aka Pee Wee Herman) got arrested in a porn theater for masturbating, the media depicted him as pathetic.

A recent Kaiser Foundation study showed that more than 90 percent of American parents support comprehensive school-based sex education. But in 1995, when former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders suggested that it include instruction in masturbation, faster than you could say "spank the monkey" she was forced to resign. Elders, now retired as a professor of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas School of Medicine, lectures nationally on preventive and adolescent health issues. But according to her lecture agent at the American Program Bureau in Newton, Mass., masturbation is not one of her current topics.

No surprise there. Publicly, America is simply not comfortable with masturbation. Privately, we have trouble keeping our hands out of our pants. In the original Kinsey sex survey (compiled in the late 1940s, several years before Playboy, the first of the "one-hand" newsstand magazines, first appeared), 94 percent of the men interviewed and 40 percent of the women admitted they'd masturbated to orgasm -- remarkably large proportions considering the prudishness of that time. Today, the Kinsey Institute declares that "the vast majority" of people masturbate: both sexes, all ages, single, married, divorced and widowed.

With the vast majority of Americans voting with their hands (or vibrators or shower massagers) in favor of masturbation, you might wonder what opponents of self-love have been doing since they encouraged Elders' resignation.

They've taken to the Web. A Google search on the word "masturbation" turned up 388,000 mentions, many unabashedly celebratory, but quite a few condemning. My favorite don't-do-it site is published by Americans for Purity, a group that does not identify itself with any address, phone number or About Us information. The URL suggests some connection to the U.S. Senate. Could this be true? Americans for Purity admits that 95 percent of Americans masturbate, then parrots the 19th century view that masturbation causes weakness, depression, forgetfulness, nearsightedness and crime. The site is so vituperatively over the top that I can't help thinking it's a joke. If it is, quite a few visitors take it seriously. Americans for Purity proudly publishes all the hate e-mail it has received.

Among organizations willing to identify themselves as opponents of masturbation, fundamentalist Christian groups are prominent. Basically, they view sex as moral only in the context of marriage. Masturbation is not husband-wife sex, so it's immoral, the sin of Onan, who wasted his seed and was struck dead for it.

With close to 400,000 Web sites -- and dozens of sex-education books and thousands of X-rated videos -- depicting or holding forth on masturbation, one might think that Americans would be well informed about one-handing it. But a zillion Web sites do not an open culture make. Questions about masturbation abound. I've seen them all during eight years of answering questions for the Playboy Advisor and, the sex toy company. In honor of National Masturbation Month (and with a tip of the hat to Dr. Elders), I humbly share the answers to the questions most frequently asked about solo sex.

Is masturbation harmful to physical health?

No. According to the Kinsey Institute, it causes no illnesses and does not "wear out" the genitals, change their sexual sensitivity or limit future ability to respond sexually. It does not change the genitals permanently in any way, neither enlarging nor shrinking the penis, nor altering the size, shape or color of the clitoris or vulva.

Both men's and women's genitals look fragile, but they are surprisingly tough and resilient little organs. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes perfect sense. The biological mission of life is to reproduce life. Evolution has endowed our reproductive organs, including the external genitals, with considerable hardiness to keep reproduction chugging along. It takes more than masturbation -- even frequent vigorous masturbation using unusual techniques -- to damage them.

The only time a man might be well advised not to masturbate for medical reasons is if he is subfertile and trying to conceive a child. In such cases, men are advised to forgo ejaculation for a few days before attempts at impregnation to build up the number of sperm in their semen.

The only time a woman might be well advised not to masturbate for medical reasons is if she is pregnant and has reason to be concerned about miscarriage or premature delivery -- orgasm might trigger labor. But for women with medically uncomplicated pregnancies, it's fine to masturbate, just as it's fine to enjoy partner sex.

Is masturbation harmful to mental health?

No, unless you've been indoctrinated that it's a sin, in which case you might experience anxiety. I hasten to mention that an excellent treatment for anxiety is ... guess what? No doubt you already know firsthand, as it were, that masturbation is calming. Many people say they do it as much for release of daily stress and tension as for specifically sexual gratification.

On the other hand, if you were raised in a faith that condemns masturbation, Michael Plaut, past president of the Society for Sex Therapy and Research, suggests that the physical gratification of solo sex might not be worth the anxiety generated by doing something you've been brought up to believe is sinful.

Can one masturbate too much?

There is no frequency that's inherently "too much." Plenty of folks masturbate daily, some even more frequently, while living happy, productive lives. The issue, according to licensed clinical sexologist Sandor Gardos, is not frequency but context. Ask yourself why you're masturbating. If you do it for personal communion, enjoyment and stress management, Gardos explains, there's nothing wrong with it. But if you find that masturbation interferes with things you need to accomplish -- notably work, school or maintaining relationship or family commitments -- then it might become too much of a good thing.

One reason many women enjoy vibrators is that they are timesavers. The intensity of the stimulation gets them off faster than using their hands, allowing them to masturbate frequently but not spend all day doing it. Men have a similar timesaving sex toy option -- vibrating plastic vaginas known as penis sleeves.

Does masturbation affect partner sex?

Yes, it improves it. A famous philosopher once advised: "Know thyself." History does not disclose the location of his hands when he uttered those words, but given the biblical definition of the word "know," one of them might well have been under his toga. To provide sexual pleasure to another person, it helps tremendously to know how to provide it to yourself, to know what turns you on -- and off -- and to experiment with the full range of possible genital caresses and pacing of stimulation. Masturbation is the best way to get to know yourself sexually.

In addition, Plaut explains, masturbation is a key element in sex therapy for a variety of problems that can ruin partner sex -- notably, inability or difficulty reaching orgasm in both sexes and involuntary (premature) ejaculation and erection difficulties in men. Sex therapy programs that include masturbation typically play major roles in resolving these problems.

Some people fear that masturbation might "use up" their libido or their lover's. It's true that after masturbating to orgasm, one enters what Masters and Johnson called the "resolution phase" of the sexual response cycle. It may take a while -- a few hours to a day or so -- to become interested in sex again, or for men to be able to raise another erection. If your honey has just masturbated before you waltz through the door hot to trot, you might have to wait to get it on. But apart from such timing issues, masturbation helps nurture libido. One good orgasm usually begets desire for another, often with a lover. These days, loss of libido and differences in degree of desire rank at or near the top of the nation's couple-sex issues. To the extent that masturbation nurtures libido, it helps resolve these problems.

The only way masturbation might detract from partner sex is if the person doing it used it as a total substitute for partner sex and never wanted sex de deux. But this is unlikely. By and large, the more sex you enjoy, the more you want. It's a case of "use it or lose it." Far from using masturbation as a substitute for partner sex, most people find that that it piques one's appetite for partner sex.

Many women ask: Now that we're in a committed relationship, why does he still feel the need to masturbate? Isn't it juvenile? Immature?

Woody Allen described masturbation as sex with someone you truly love. Like partner sex, masturbation involves genital fondling. But masturbation is fundamentally different from partner sex. Solo sex is its own special pleasure and shouldn't really be compared to partner sex. Masturbation is just about everyone's original sexuality. Men were masturbating long before they met their spouses. (Women, too.) It's fun, fulfilling and relaxing. So why stop when you move in together or say "I do"? Some people believe that masturbation should not be necessary for people who are coupled, that each spouse should meet all of the other's sexual needs. But according to sex and relationship expert Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle, this view is naive. Spouses cannot meet each other's needs for the self-pleasuring they have enjoyed all their lives, which is by definition a solo activity. In addition, masturbation comes in handy when you feel an erotic impulse but your spouse isn't there or isn't in the mood, or when you want an orgasm quickly without having to concern yourself with your partner's pleasure.

Masturbation is neither infantile nor immature, and it's definitely not just for singles. It's an inheritance from youth that stays good -- and often gets better -- in adulthood whether you're single or coupled.

A related question women often ask: Why is he so into porn?

Some women consider a mate's taste for pornography a form of infidelity or betrayal. That may be true, but most men who view porn by themselves use it to spice up their fantasies during masturbation. One's own fantasies can get old and stale, especially if one masturbates frequently. Porn provides substitute fantasies. To get some idea of how men feel about porn and masturbation, women should consider this: Have you ever felt sexually aroused by Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt or some other hunky movie star on the big screen? Have you ever fantasized sex with that person? Has that fantasy threatened or cheapened your relationship, betrayed your spouse or implied some deep dissatisfaction with him? Probably not. It's a mistake for a woman to infer that a man's enjoyment of or need for porn implies any dissatisfaction with her or the quality of the sex in the relationship. Usually, porn is simply fuel for his fantasies during masturbation.

Many men ask: She's so into her vibrator. Will it replace me?

Highly unlikely. See the previous answers. Masturbation rarely replaces partner sex. It's a sign of a robust sexual appetite, something many men think women lack.

Far from feeling threatened by vibrators and other sex toys, men would do well to welcome them into partner sex. True, they can do something you cannot -- provide extra-intense sensations. But so what? Is a carpenter less skilled because he uses power tools? When a woman feels sexually fulfilled, she's happy with her lover, even if he uses a power tool to help get the job done. Sex toys are not competition in bed for men; they are helpful companions. They're fun. And many women deeply appreciate a man who is willing to include vibrators and other toys in partner sex. (Don't forget to use some lubricant.)

Many parents ask: How should I deal with my child's masturbation?

My wife and I became aware of our son's frequent, enthusiastic masturbation when he was about 6. I confess that, at first, we felt some anxiety about discussing the subject with him. We took a few deep breaths, reviewed our beliefs and then talked with him from the heart. We did not discourage his masturbation or try to make him stop. Instead we explained that he'd discovered a wonderful source of God-given pleasure, one that would be available to him his entire life. We also explained that there was a time and place to enjoy this gift, that masturbation is a private pleasure, rather like going to the bathroom. We told him it was OK to masturbate in his room with the door closed but not OK to do it around anyone else, especially in public or in school. We also mentioned that different families have different feelings about masturbation and that some of his friends' parents might not view it as OK, even in private. But we assured him that as a private pleasure, his masturbation was fine with us. He spent a great deal of time in his room for a few days after that. Then he got on with his life.

A few years later, the same issue came up with our daughter. She was a little slower to embrace the distinction between the appropriateness of masturbation in private and its inappropriateness in public. During the summer when she was 5, we got a few phone calls from the director of her day camp. But after a few more discussions about where one may and may not seek such pleasure, she adjusted.

Finally, here's a suggestion from sex educator Betty Dodson, generally regarded in sex circles as the godmother of masturbation for her promotion of vibrators and her women's sexuality workshops and videos, which have taught thousands of women to love and enjoy their genitals. Dodson suggests that people in relationships consider masturbating in front of each other. Each of you, Dodson says, already knows the other does it in private. Watching your lover masturbating provides a unique opportunity to see what turns your lover on. And because masturbation is usually a very private pleasure, opening up and showing a lover your favorite techniques can deepen the level of trust and intimacy in your relationship, which, in turn, can add heat to partner sex.

By Michael Castleman

Michael Castleman is the author of "Sexual Solutions: For Men and the Women Who Love Them."

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