MSP Question & Answer: Is It Wrong to Masturbate? I Feel Guilty.

Question:
I grew up in a very catholic family, and it has been drilled into my head’s wiring that masturbation is wrong. Being in my 30s now, you would think I would be over this by now….but the feeling still remains. Do I masturbate….well sure…..doesn’t everyone? (From what I have read over the years….although very few admit it) So yes, I do….however, through the last few years of married life I feel that this old engraved “rule” still shows its face. I always say to myself “I have to stop this…it is wrong to do….it is affecting our sex life…etc” .

Answer:
You are correct that pretty much “everyone” – well, not everyone, but at least the vast majority – of women and men have masturbated at least once in their lives. Most people have even masturbated more than once (hey, a lot of us find it fun, enjoyable, relaxing and/or a good way to learn about one’s body). In fact, as far as research goes, studies often show that somewhere around 95-98% of men report that they have masturbated. Some people say “and the rest are lying” but I don’t think that’s true. I believe that some men, like some women, do not experience sexual desire (some of these women or  men may identify as asexual). There are also men and women who may experience sexual desire but who, for any number of reasons, choose not to masturbate. Some choose not to masturbate due to religious- or family-influenced guilt or shame. Others choose not to masturbate simply because it does not interest them and they may prefer partner sex, or else they may have taken a vow.

As for women, consistent numbers are harder to come by. In part, it depends on when in a woman’s life you ask her if she has masturbated or self-pleasured herself. Whereas most males tend to begin masturbating within about a year or two of puberty, females tend to begin masturbation (or experiencing orgasm) at different ages throughout the lifespan. If you ask American women college students if they have ever masturbated, one might find figures in the range of 44-80% depending on various factors (probably lower figures if you ask in a face-to-face interview, higher figures if you ask in an anonymous survey; also probably lower if you ask college freshmen and higher if you ask college seniors, who have typically engaged in more sexual encounters - and a wider range – than younger college students).

Whether one feels that masturbation is “right” or “wrong” is a personal value. However, we do know that some men and women experience shame and guilt over masturbation – a behavior that is entirely common not only in adulthood but throughout life. Others experience no shame, and lots of fun and excitement about their masturbation. As in, YAY for masturbation!!!! (See Betty Dodson’s Sex for One or The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex for particularly sex positive views on masturbation and self-pleasuring).

Some researchers have asked parents and caregivers about their childrens’ behavior and found that most parents/caregivers report that their children do, in fact, touch their genitals. Whether these children are experiencing sexual arousal, or whether it is “curiosity touching”, or just “habit”, is anyone’s guess. We don’t know. But if you have ever cared for young children at home or in a school or day care setting, you probably know how common it is. As children we are curious about our bodies and as adolescents and adults we continue to explore them in varied ways.

Masturbation is also not something that one only does when one is feeling lonely or doesn’t have a partner or is single. We know from research that quite a lot of coupled and married people continue to masturbate. In fact, some research suggests that coupled women and men may be more likely to masturbate. They may be so regularly involved in sex that they find it enjoyable to “supplement” with a little self-touching. Also, many married/coupled women and men enjoy masturbating with their partner, or in front of their partner, or if one person is too tired for sex one night, they might say “not tonight dear, can you take care of it yourself?” No harm there!

There is much more I can say about masturbation – and I will (another day) – but as a peak into what else we know, would it surprise you to learn that frequent ejaculation when a man is younger (20s, 30s) – whether through masturbation or partner sex – has even been associated with a lower risk for prostate cancer as one ages? So  yes, masturbation and partner sex may even be good for us – not just emotionally, but physically too.

To learn more about masturbation and various perspectives on the topic (religious, cultural, political, sociological, even comical!) – check out The Big Book of Masturbation by Martha Cornog.

About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at www.sexualhealth.indiana.edu.