Sexuality is a charged topic for both adults and some children. Messages about what behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate are woven into the fabric of our cultural traditions, moral codes of conduct, and family systems. Negative messages cause a great deal of harm, mainly when the message contains sexual shaming. Masturbation is one of these topics.
Masturbation is extremely common, yet because it is private, we don’t talk about it with our children or a spouse. According to research, self-stimulation is a normal activity experienced by nearly all people starting at very young ages and can be observed in utero (Yang et al., 2005). Masturbation (like any behavior) can be both healthy and problematic; it is also experienced differently based on age. It well understood that nearly all males and most females will, at some point in their lifetime, masturbate.
When is it Healthy?
Nearly all professionals agree age-appropriate stages of self-stimulation is healthy. For example, exploring one’s body and how it responds sexually is a beneficial aspect of maturation. Men and women can learn what an orgasm is, so they are better equipped to educate their spouse on what types of sexual touch they enjoy. Also, individuals can use masturbation to self-sooth as a coping mechanism for mood regulation. For many people who (for whatever reason) are not in an intimate relationship, masturbation can be a healthy outlet to release sexual tension. Many relationships do not have an equal balance of libido. For some “higher libido” partners, masturbation can offer a method to balance sexual needs.
When is it Not Healthy?
Behaviors become problematic when they negatively impact, work, school, or one’s social life. Like all sexual behaviors, masturbation may conflict with religious values. In a recent study from students at Brigham Young University, researchers reported the perception of pornography (a common corollary with masturbation) is the primary predictor of negative outcomes, not the pornography use itself (Leonhardt, Willoughby, Young-Peterse, 2018). It is important to inventory what our values are and why we have them. It can be helpful to challenge what we believe, while still honoring our values and the values of others. In many situations, individuals with strict religious tenets regarding masturbation find themselves in harmful shame cycles leading to increased rates of depression, compulsivity, or suicidal ideation (Beagan & Hattie, 2015). Researchers don’t diminish the value of traditional moral values. However, they do suggest creating a healthy relationship with our values within the normal range of human experiences.
Myths about Masturbation
We tell stories and create myths to justify attitudes about sexuality. Some common myths include masturbation causes homosexuality, is an addiction, leads to infidelity, will lower sexual desire, create hypersexuality, may cause you to go blind, and causes cancer in men. These things are not true. However, there are things that do occur. For example, a partner may feel betrayed when they learn their spouse masturbates. Couples can contract what cheating is, and what betrayal is. Feelings of betrayal are especially common when erotic material is involved. People engage in negatively impacting habit-forming behaviors with all sorts of things, including masturbation. Also, some coping mechanisms prevent healthy attachment in relationships.
Talking about Masturbation to our Children
It’s helpful for parents to have discussions with their children about masturbation in age-appropriate ways. For example, 5-year-old children don’t typically need to learn about orgasm mechanics, but talking about what “feels good” is more appropriate. Also, shaming a child by saying, “don’t touch that,” could be replaced with useful comments such as “that feels good, maybe you should do that in private.”. Children without parental guidance will learn about masturbation from friends or erotic material. Pornography doesn’t typically represent healthy sexual education. It is also beneficial to create safety for children, so as they begin to explore their sexuality (in person or with others), they feel safe to engage a parent about their experiences. Normalizing sexual desire, response, and anxieties create wellbeing for developing children. Lastly, it’s helpful to remember that not all children have the same sexual interests, levels of desire, or attractions at the same age as other children. It’s important to meet our children where they are at.
Talking about Masturbation to a Partner
An important aspect of contracting between couples includes the topic of masturbation. As a part of healthy sexual practices, discussing what is acceptable (or not) is essential. While there are many options, some couples will incorporate self-pleasuring behaviors into their relationship as a method to balance sex-drive differences. Often one partner may feel betrayal if they learn their spouse masturbates. When couples talk openly with each other about their feelings and attitudes regarding sexuality, it usually removes the stress in these situations. A good place to start is becoming aware of your own sexual biases and perspectives. Some couples find it helpful to discuss these feelings with a competent therapist. It’s important to remember masturbation doesn’t constitute cheating. Marriage isn’t the antidote for fulfilling all sexual needs. Many married people masturbate. Much of the time, masturbation creates better sexual experiences for couples.
Talking about Masturbation to Church Leaders
In many faith traditions, ecclesiastical leaders counsel parishioners regarding sexual behavior. Not all religions have sex-positive perspectives. In many cases, such leaders have no training regarding sexuality, trauma, or psychological situations. A lack of training can be problematic. This doesn’t suggest the support of an ecclesiastical leader cannot be helpful. Individuals seeking counsel from their church leader should remember boundaries are essential. It’s okay to tell a church leader what questions or statements are inappropriate or feel uncomfortable. This is especially true for parents whose children may be questioned regarding their sexual behavior, to communicate what forms of communication are acceptable and what is not.
Leonhardt, N. D., Willoughby, B. J., & Young-Petersen, B. (2018). Damaged goods: Perception of pornography addiction as a mediator between religiosity and relationship anxiety surrounding pornography use. The Journal of Sex Research, 55(3), 357-368.
Beagan, B. L., & Hattie, B. (2015). Religion, spirituality, and LGBTQ identity integration. Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling, 9(2), 92-117.Yang, M. L., Fullwood, E., Goldstein, J., & Mink, J. W. (2005). Masturbation in infancy and early childhood presenting as a movement disorder: 12 cases and a review of the literature. Pediatrics, 116(6), 1427-1432.