As part of my efforts to normalize masturbation and remove the deep shame and stigma around creative self-pleasure for men, I get to talk to a lot of men (and women). Masturbation is a topic they have strong feelings and opinions about but rarely discuss. It’s always a bit awkward at first, but once people get going it’s hard to stop the conversation. Over time, however, one theme continually resurfaced in my talks with men:
While most men are not particularly ashamed of masturbating, they are very worried about what their wives and girlfriends think – and for good reason!
A number of men described how women broke up with them after finding them masturbating to porn or magazines. Others described how their wives entered couple’s therapy to address their ‘porn addiction’ or ‘sex addiction.’ A therapist friend mentioned that about 80% of all of the heterosexual couples that see her do so for the first time because the female partner thinks the man has a sex problem.
The idea that some women might be contributing to male shame when it comes to masturbation had, strangely, never occurred to me because I’m surrounded by women who have no problem with my masturbation, porn consumption, etc. So it’s hardly an issue with all women. But could it be that a big part of addressing this major issue for men is better educating women about male masturbation? If more women better understand the broad spectrum of motivations to masturbate and the benefits of masturbation, would men be able to more easily shed the shame and fear and, ironically, become the attentive, creative lovers their partners seek?
If we can recast masturbation not only as fantasy fulfillment but also as an important part of understanding ourselves and becoming a more expansive lover, maybe women wouldn’t be put off by a man who masturbates three times a day?
When I sat down with Carol Queen, one of the world’s most prominent sexologists (and recent author of ‘The Sex and Pleasure Book: Good Vibrations Guide to Great Sex for Everyone‘), to talk about why many women feel threatened by male masturbation, our conversation was illuminating.
“It’s ironic that we speak to so many women at Good Vibrations who worry about partners who’ll be jealous of their vibrators, because there are in fact a lot of women who can’t afford their partners space to explore their sexuality,” notes Queen. “I think it’s a mix of women believing that men don’t need to explore their sexuality the way women do, and never having been exposed to much in-depth information about male sexuality. Male sexuality can seem ubiquitous to women, but that isn’t the same as delving into those issues all of us share that are influenced by shame and silencing of sexual diversity and deep understanding.”
She went on to suggest that there are three core cultural threads intersecting to create a powerful psychological Gordian knot: the important role ‘being desired’ plays in many relationships, the dominance of monogamy in our culture as the only acceptable relationship model, and the deeply destabilizing affect that ‘body culture’ in fashion and media has on women.
The interplay between these three powerful cultural memes, when combined with the perceived dynamics behind male masturbation, trigger profound insecurity and a deep sense of betrayal.
So let’s look at some of these issues, as understanding them not only helps you understand how your partner might feel, but it sets the foundation for a constructive conversation.
To Be Desired
For many, being desired is a powerful erotic trigger and critical sign of intimacy. Being the central focus of attention and the sole object of desire is actually the primary source of attraction for many. Now that would be fine if it ended there, but what happens is that many of these women then see masturbation as compromising this critical feeling, as their partner is actively desiring something/someone else. To see or sense their partner is focusing on another object of desire with the same type of connection that sparks the erotic and emotional connection they have, not only compromises their connection but betrays it.
“The need to be desired is probably linked to the way some women freak out when their male partners can’t get erections on demand,” adds Queen. “It feels like the cock is the barometer of desirability. It’s fucked up, but there it is.”
It is not until you understand how, for many women, being the object of your desire is not only the primary source of attraction but also the primary manifestation of intimacy that you can understand how transferring your desire (in any way) to another object or person is experienced as betrayal.
So while masturbating might be what triggers the sense of betrayal, it is really a deeper sense of loss which drives the feeling.
Closely tied to the issue of desire is the issue of monogamy: the belief that one can love only one person at a time and any other expression of interest or love, by definition, compromises the quality of the monogamous connection. This is so deeply engrained in our culture you’ll often find little resistance to that statement, but the absurdity of this position is revealed when it comes to masturbation.
Many women feel that masturbating is akin to cheating, as ANY expression of sexual interest outside of the monogamous bond is a violation of their singular connection.
If we could expand our understanding of a healthy, committed relationship to embrace the idea that each partner might have interests that are difficult, undesirable and to some degree impossible to share within that relationship, there would be far less disharmony and stress. Similarly, while every man who masturbates knows that it in no way compromises his feelings for his partner, most lack both the understanding and communication skills to recast the behavior in a non-threatening way. This is a real issue and the emotional weight for many women is significant, so learning how to address the matter may be critical for the long term health of the relationship.
A close emotional cousin of the monogamy issue is something I call ‘inclusion.’
Many women don’t feel threatened by masturbation, per se, as much as they do by the feeling of exclusion from a deeply intimate and sexual experience of their partner.
They want to be included, they want to feel connected and informed and trusted. When they feel that something is happening outside of the trust network, it feels not only threatening, but secretive, deceptive and dishonest. Why else would you be so cagey and afraid to talk about it?
Despite the fact that women have been railing against the uniform portrayal of beauty throughout media, women continue to consume and internalize the message. In the bright light of photo-shopped fashion models, we are all deeply flawed. And while this might not be something the women in your life will openly or honestly discuss,
the psychological toll that body culture takes on women is so far beyond the experience of men that it is difficult for men to even understand, let alone empathize with. The hyper-sexualization that women experience in almost every aspect of their lives creates a profoundly destabilizing and ever-present questioning of their identity.
So when they see their partner stroking to an 18-year-old hard-body, it seems to validate all of the insecurities created and exploited by the image-makers around them. They are not that image and it’s exactly what you seem to want. And by extension, you don’t really want or desire them (see above). And this, of course, extends beyond the 18 year old example to any situation where the man is fantasizing about and focusing his desire on someone who is not like their partner. But the standard porn meme and the primary consumption of porn involves young hard bodies performing sexual acrobatics that are beyond the capabilities of most of us, and this dovetails with and reinforces fears fueled by media.
It is important to address these issues with your partner. For by exposing the underlying concerns, you not only diffuse a highly charged issue, you show that you can tactfully navigate complex topics. And this sets the foundation to address and resolve far more important issues than your masturbation habits.
Is Masturbation Really so Important?
If you sense that your partner has issues with any aspect of your masturbation, it is important to understand what their concerns are and how you can mitigate them. And the reason extends far beyond the importance of the personal pleasure associated with masturbation: this issue — the fear, stigma and shame associated with male sexual fantasies and solo sex — is directly linked to increased risk of health-related problems, increased relationship stress, increased personal stress, problems with sexual performance and extends its reach into rigid social mores around sex and gender. It is not only a barrier to your own personal sexual growth, but it also limits the reach of your potential as a person, the potential of your relationship and your potential to positively affect those around you. It cuts to the core of who we are as people and how we feel about our most basic needs. And this is not new-age musing: there is strong evidence that shows masturbation dramatically reduces the risk of prostate cancer, prevents erectile dysfunction and incontinence as you age by strengthening pelvic muscles, reduces stress, boosts the immune system, elevates mood, helps manage premature ejaculation, improves sleep and improves ability to orgasm. That alone justifies the effort to reposition masturbation and sexual fantasy in the eyes of your partner. But the real reason to address the issue is tied to something more nebulous but far more meaningful: embracing the totality of your sexuality is a critical part of understanding and accepting who you are. And that is the bedrock of confidence, clarity and empathy.
This article is an excerpt from the book, ‘Better Than the Hand: How Masturbation is the Key to Better Sex & Healthier Living.’
Magnus Sullivan has been at the forefront of technological and cultural shifts for more than 20 years. In 1993 Magnus founded eLine, one of the first system integration firms in San Francisco, bringing some of the biggest brands in the world online. One of his first clients was the storied progressive adult toy reseller, Good Vibrations. This was his first foray into the world of adult and he never looked back, partnering with the powerhouse, Game Link, to help create one of the most formidable companies in the online adult market. He has created two of the most awarded and recognized movies in the adult industry (‘An Open Invitation’ and ‘Marriage 2.0', which won The Feminist Porn Awards coveted ‘Movie of the Year’ award in 2016) and recently launched www.manshop.com, a reseller of sex toys for men, and www.betterthanthehand.com, a sex positive blog that promotes male masturbation and discusses the various social issues associated with it. Sullivan has written extensively about the need to expand and enhance content production in the adult industry and is also the author of ‘Better Than The Hand: How Masturbation is the Key to Better Sex and Healthier Living’. He is a fourth-generation SF-native, lives with his wife and children in the San Francisco Bay Area and enjoys kite boarding, skiing, triathlon, cooking, reading, writing and just about everything else that engages his mind and his body.34 Articles