Are Sex and Masturbation the Same?

Both partnered sex and masturbation tend to lead to orgasms, so does that make them interchangeable?

If someone in a relationship masturbates, does that mean that they are dissatisfied with their partner?

These questions come up in my office, with sometimes strong opinions and hurt feelings. If someone has the belief that partnered sex and masturbation are indeed equivalent, then it makes sense that engaging in solo activities would be seen as some sort of a (negative) comment on their shared sex life. After all, why would you do this by yourself if you could do it with your partner?

This line of thought presumes that your partner is actually available and interested at the times that you are—they may not be. And while it can feel comforting to know that all of your partner’s sexual energy is directed towards you, this can be a double-edged sword if you then feel obligated to satisfy those desires every time or if your partner resentfully feels denied when you’re not in the mood. This dynamic can be especially problematic when the partners have significantly different sex drives which then almost guarantees that the lower desire partner will feel hounded and the higher desire partner will feel rejected.

But let’s take a look at whether sex and masturbation really are the same. While both can lead to sexual pleasure and release, does the end result necessarily define them? If so, is grabbing a slice of pizza on the run the same thing as sharing a romantic meal with your partner? After all, in both cases you satisfy your hunger, but good luck trying to convince your partner that the one can substitute for the other. If this interchangeability doesn’t apply to hunger, then why do some people think that it applies to sexual desire?

Masturbation presents an interesting contradiction—an extremely large percentage of people in committed relationships masturbate at least sometimes, yet too many couples don’t actually talk about it with each other. If you don’t know about your partner’s masturbation habits, let alone what they enjoy about it, then it’s easy to assume that sex and masturbation are the same for them. But is that assumption valid? If you are happy in your relationship and sex life, then perhaps it doesn’t matter that much what your partner does on their own time, but if your partner’s known or suspected masturbation makes you feel uncomfortable or if you feel the need to hide your own, then perhaps you would both be better off talking about it and replacing those assumptions with accurate information. For example, if finding evidence of your partner’s masturbation makes you doubt your attractiveness or sexual skills, then you probably would be better off finding out if that is actually why your partner masturbates occasionally—maybe they just enjoy taking a little time to enjoy themselves without feeling any responsibility for anyone else. Maybe they’re just bored, or tired, or stressed out. Maybe they’re just horny and impatient about it. You can’t know for sure unless you ask.

It may be worth spending some time thinking about how masturbation fits into your overall sex life and relationship, then talking with your partner about it. Some questions to consider:

·       What have you been taught about masturbation—by family, friends, and society?

·       How does being single versus in a relationship change how you feel about masturbation?

·       How do you each feel about masturbation—your own and each other’s?

·       Do you and your partner know about each of your solo activities—how often, where, when, why, and what you do? If not, why not?

·       How do you feel about these solo activities? Would you like to know more?

·       How is masturbation similar or different from partnered activities for each of you?

·       How does masturbation increase or decrease your interest in partnered activities?

·       What can you and your partner do in relation to masturbation to improve both of your overall sexual satisfactions?

The goal here is not to say that you should masturbate, nor that you shouldn’t, but rather you should feel good about the choice that you do make and that you and your partner have found a way to be on the same page about it. To do this requires some honest and open discussion. Masturbation, turn-ons, and sexual fantasies can feel extremely vulnerable and revealing, so these can be challenging conversations, but if you both persist and handle it well, your relationship overall will likely be better off for it.

This may be especially true in those situations where someone is using masturbation as a way to scratch their itch in order to avoid dealing with sexual or relationship problems with their partner, which I discussed in a previous post, The Ethics of Masturbation. While understandable, it’s probably better in the long run to deal with those problems directly. If someone frequently or always uses masturbation when they have a generally available and interested partner, then one must wonder why that is. What is it that they are avoiding? What sexual desire isn’t being met with their partner and what is holding them back from discussing it with them? Do they feel ashamed about it or are they worried about their partner’s reaction—or both?

The goal in all of this is to make masturbation, if you and your partner do it, a positive addition to your sex life and relationship.

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