The Masturbation Challenge

Of all the aspects of sexuality that are confusing, troubling, and therefore seldom brought out into the light to examine, masturbation might just top the list. Try mentioning the word aloud in a social setting and notice the reaction, both in listeners and within your own body and mind. It’s a loaded subject, fraught with centuries of religious imprecations, misunderstood morality, and guilty self-loathing. It’s one of the reasons that we have Kellogg’s Corn Flakes today. John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of the corn flake, called masturbation “self-pollution” and “abominable,” and he believed eating his corn flakes would reduce one’s desire for sex. The minister Sylvester Graham developed Graham crackers for the same reason.

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But masturbation is something that we apparently still have a lot of interest in. A Google search on “masturbation” yields some 94 million choices. One such choice reveals that May has been dubbed “Masturbation Month,” something that the purveyor of sex toys, Good Vibrations, began promoting back in the’90s when the then U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, was brave enough to publicly suggest that children should be taught that masturbation is a natural part of human sexuality, for which she was promptly fired.


Another click will take you to the Reddit forum called NoFap, on which men challenge themselves and each other to abstain from masturbating to porn in an effort to “reboot” their sexual desire for a partner, others, or maybe just their self-esteem. The prevalent belief there is that the brain becomes hijacked by porn, and lessens desire for social and sexual contact, and that abstinence will reinvigorate one’s sense of masculinity and sense of well-being. 

There is scant evidence, other than anecdotal evidence, that confirms this viewpoint. Also prevalent in this view is that self-pleasuring is not “real sex.” One neuroscientist, Dr. Nicole Prause, who has thoroughly researched the subject and how it affects the brain has attempted to bust this myth. “Every doctor and psychologist I spoke with informed me that ‘there’s no evidence’ to link masturbation to sexual performance, although ejaculating now may it more difficult to ejaculate again immediately,” she says. 

In fact, she notes that numerous studies show that masturbation has overwhelmingly positive effects including improved mood, overcoming sleeplessness. In addition, studies show that ejaculation increases fertility, and frequent ejaculation can lead to less risk of erectile dysfunction in later life. 

Masturbation Isn’t the Problem

The contrast between these two viewpoints brings me to what I’ve learned in my practice of relationship therapy — excessive use of porn and masturbation is a symptom, not the problem in couple’s sexual relations. Think about it. Masturbation for men and women is easy. It’s all about you. If you are watching porn, it never says no. It never has a headache or requires sensitivity to a partner’s level of comfort or their turn-ons. You don’t need to set a date on the calendar to engage in it, it can start or stop anytime you want it to. And it seems to have a lot of benefits including releasing tension and helping someone sleep. For women if they are using sex toys stimulating their clitoris the same things apply in addition to the fact that they never have to worry about it staying hard or getting in the right position. On the other hand, relationships are hard, especially around issues of intimacy, which requires open and honest communication and negotiation. 

In my practice as a sex therapist, I find that these two things can coexist in a healthy way if someone is willing to do the work. It’s true that in masturbation a man’s penis can get used to his hand, or women may become used to her hand or sex toy, habituating the body to you and not your partner. But to get to the point where one’s sexual attention can also be balanced with the relationship, one may have to overcome some barriers. It’s a truism in the sex-therapy world that it is easier to talk with a stranger about sex than it is with our own partner. Why? Because the stakes are much higher. We fear that if we reveal our fantasies or what feels good to us, we may offend or create more distance between ourselves and our partner. 

Mostly I find that fear to be unfounded. 

Healthy Sexual Conversations

I facilitate such conversations in a therapeutic situation and encourage couples to make time for open conversations about sex at home. Ideally such conversations should have taken place in the beginning of the relationship, but too often they only come about when the relationship reaches a crisis point. 

I stress that it takes a sort of maturity and ability to listen to one’s partner non-judgmentally, to not take things personally, and to keep reactivity out of the discussion. The goal is to get a glimpse of the partner’s inner sexual world through their eyes. 

  • What satisfies you? What would you like me to do more of?
  • During the act of making love, can we tell each other what we like, whether something needs to be harder or softer, where touching feels the best? 
  • Can you talk openly about your concerns and fears about things such as penis size, stamina, or ejaculate? 
  • Are you willing to take the vulnerable step of sharing the kind of visual porn or erotic literature (what some women call “cliterature”) that most turns either of you on? There is now even a website ( where each partner can separately enter the kinds of sexual things they like, and the site will report back to them the ones they share in common. 
  • Can you make time for conversations about your sexual fantasies and desires, set aside time for sexual exploration? The famous psychotherapist Ester Perel makes the point that many people regularly make appointments for having affairs, so why not do this with your partner?
  • Can you consider that even though your partner may be interested in viewing other people having sex, that this is not cheating or a reason to think the partner is more interested in someone else? Rather it is adding to or exploring their sexual interests and may signal a desire to explore the possibility of adding variety to your sex life. I remind the couple that she or he has chosen the other as the partner, and that within this there are many ways that exploring sexuality can enhance that bond. 

One thing said by the late sex therapist, Jack Morin, is that whether one is struggling with the issue of masturbation and porn use, one’s sexual identity, or other sexual pathologies perceived at pathological, going to war with these things is not the way to go. Trying to abstain from some form of sexual expression often leads to an increasein the behavior, what many members of the NoFap forum refer to as “relapsing,” implying that returning to masturbation is a moral failure, reinforcing the belief that it is some sort of pathological “sexual addiction,” terminology that is increasingly understood to be invalid, and a misnomer. 

The reality is that if one is relying excessively on masturbation as a sexual release, especially if they are in a relationship, then it may be time to search for a balance between self-pleasuring and relational sex, and a good way to begin the search is to find the time and space to have these vulnerable and frank conversations.


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