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I liked masturbating, but then I felt really gross about it. What now?

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Csherenow asks:

I'm 13 years old. I've had an interest in sex since I was 10. So when I heard about masturbation for women, I was all for it. When I tried it, it felt great. But afterwards, I felt sick to look at my self in the mirror. I was disgusted by what I had done. Whenever I went back to school, I felt like everyone knew what I had done. I know they don't, but it still feels like it. It felt so good, though! Should I try again or just give up for the time being?

Heather Corinna replies:

When it comes to sex with and for only yourself -- masturbation -- it should be just like sex with a partner when it comes to if you do it or not. If it's something you want to do and feel comfortable doing, then you can choose to do it. If it's not something you want or don't feel comfortable with, you certainly don't have to masturbate. How you do it goes the same way: there's no way of masturbating that feels just right, physically or emotionally, for everyone, so what you do, again, just like with partnered sex, gets to be only what you want to do. Masturbation, like all kinds of sex, should always be optional.

While most people will masturbate at least sometimes, a minority of people choose never to do so, and most people choose to do it sometimes, but not other times. So, aside of the fact that it should be a choice, not an obligation or requirement, there are no shoulds here. There's just what you do or don't want to do, and what does or doesn't feel good to you uniquely: physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, the whole enchilada.

As to when most people first masturbate, most -- probably including you -- masturbated before they even remember, usually long before their teen years. Infants and small children usually masturbate frequently, something adults who have cared for them full-time know. Before I worked in sex education, I was an early childhood and Kindergarten teacher. I've told people in the past that at naptime, I often had to circle the cots to gently remind most of my small students, at one time or another, that while it was totally okay to be touching themselves, that was something we do at home, in private, not in the middle of the classroom.

As teens or adults we won't usually remember masturbating as small children, just like we won't remember most of our infancy or early childhood, like our first steps or the giddy joy of hurling peas at our parents from high-chairs, but it probably was something that you did, and also something the folks you're worrying about knowing you tried masturbating now also did.

People of all ages also have sexualities, even though they're not the same from one stage of life to another -- the sexuality we have as toddlers, for instance, is a very different kind of sexuality than we have in our 20s -- and from person to person, as they are through all of life. So, again, when you're feeling funny about other people in this regard, it can help to remember that this isn't something super-unique about you: this is something about all people in one way or another. You having an interest in sex and sexuality, or in exploring yours now isn't unusual.

But people can't know we masturbate or have masturbated unless they see us doing that or we tell someone we do. It doesn't leave some kind of kick me note on our back we can't see, or make us look different in any way. Some neon sign doesn't hover over our heads after we masturbate that tells everyone else we did. It gets to be as private as we want it to be, and unless we tell our friends or schoolmates, or masturbate with someone else, they can't know.

Once more with feeling: most people -- and from what we know, this has been the case throughout all of history, for people of all genders -- do masturbate or at least have masturbated. While some people never do or haven't yet, people who never, ever masturbate in their whole lives are very, very rare. And if by masturbation we mean "touch oneself in order to experience pleasure," and don't just mean touching our genitals -- which it probably shouldn't, since sexuality isn't just about our genitals, but about our whole selves -- it's entirely likely that EVERYONE has masturbated, and probably does pretty often in one way or another.

Whether you choose to masturbate again or not, I think it'd be good to consider why you felt disgusted and ashamed about it. That's because whether we masturbate or not, I don't think it serves any of us well to feel like there's something wrong with doing things for ourselves that are about self-care or pleasure that don't do anyone any harm, including ourselves. And masturbation, so long as we're not masturbating in ways which can cause us illness or injury -- like not washing our hands first or afterward, or using things to masturbate with that are sharp or unsanitary -- is certainly one of those things.

I think it can help to think about the host of other things you and other people probably do that are about pleasure, self-care or both. Like enjoying a beautiful sunset or sunrise, or taking a walk or a swim on a gorgeous day. Like appreciating how it feels to rub sore muscles, take a long bath or shower; like getting a haircut that's about more than just getting the hair out of your eyes. Like wearing clothes that feel good on your skin, or that make you feel good about yourself. Like how it feels to eat not just what we need to to stay healthy and keep living, but what tastes good to us and pleases our other senses, or listening to music you enjoy. Like having scents around you that smell good to you or arranging your room in a way that makes you feel at home; spending a fun day with your friends or a day that's only for and by yourself to recharge. Like getting organized or taking a break from organizing, whichever feels more like what you need to feel good and to tend to your own needs.

All of those things are about self-care, pleasure or both, and chances are that most of them make very few people feel ashamed or disgusting. Masturbation is about self-care and pleasure, too.

The only difference between those things and masturbation is that those things tend to be considered socially acceptable by most, if not all people, while some people don't think masturbation (or other kinds of sex) is. There's really nothing to back those attitudes up when people have them, save fear, self-loathing, or shame about bodies and sexualities.

People, historically, have often been afraid of things that feel powerful, things they can't completely control; things that can make people feel more powerful or less so, and things that can make people feel afraid of themselves because they feel or seem so big. And societies, made of people, have been the same way about some things sometimes, whether we're talking about a large group of people who have their own culture that's different from another one, a grassroots political movement, Lady Gaga, teenagers or sex.

And often enough with things that elicit those kinds of scared feelings, a lot of people have taken their own fear and put it on other people. Sometimes that's done maliciously, with the intent to use fear to manipulate, exploit, control or oppress people, like when sex or sexuality has been used to try and keep women in their place by shaming women who choose to engage in sex outside of marriage, or to control men by presenting their sexuality as dangerous just because they're men. Sometimes that kind of control is framed as being done for someone else's own good, even though there's nothing good about seeking to control someone else dishonestly, against their will and for one's own agenda.

(Also, happy people are way tougher to control than unhappy people, so things that have been about people feeling good and enjoying themselves have often been things folks looking to control people have targeted.)

Other times it's not malicious, or about anyone trying to intentionally control someone else, it's just that people get so freaked out and don't deal with it well that it leaks out all over everybody else.

Whichever way any of that goes, that fear or desire to control isn't about sexuality or masturbation being bad or dirty or disgusting or shameful: it's about people presenting those things that way or having been convinced that they are by someone else presenting them that way. Of course, sometimes, too, if and when people don't have or haven't had a real choice, or feel like they do, in their sexuality or how they express it or enact it, they can understandably feel gross about it, since it shouldn't be anything anyone is forced to do or do a certain way, or made to feel must only be okay in ways one person or group of people say are okay, rather than ways that really feel okay to them as individuals.

There's nothing wrong with enjoying your body and your sexuality in ways you yourself want, like and feel good about, ways that don't hurt you or anyone else, and there are also real benefits to exploring aspects of your own body and sexuality that way. Feeling shame about good things or neutral things doesn't benefit us: it only tends to make us more unhappy, more unhealthy, and make things that could be positive negative. Life is hard enough, and full of enough bad stuff we can't make good: no one needs to be making good stuff, or benign stuff, things that help get us through hard times and can help us manage stress, into something bad or icky.

Again, our sexuality is just one part of who we are, just like our intellect, our spirituality, our family or the ways our whole bodies work and what they need, like the kinds of foods that make us feel best or the amount of sleep we find we need. It's not automatically bad or good just like those things aren't. Just like those things, we can do them or use them in ways that can hurt ourselves or others, but we also can do or use them for good: the bad/good here is all about our choices.

The same goes for our genitals. Sometimes people feel ashamed about masturbation or other kinds of sex when they involve genitals because they feel ashamed about genitals, or have gotten the message that, for some reason, our genitals are radically different from the rest of our bodies, or somehow gross while the rest of our bodies and their parts are not. But our genitals are body parts just like our small and large intestines, our noses or eyes, our shins or elbows. And just like bending your elbow is okay to do, or having your intestines help you digest food, or using your eyes to look at something you find beautiful, engaging your genitals in sexual pleasure is okay. We know that's clearly part of what they're for. There aren't good body parts or bad ones, nice ones or gross ones: our bodies are all okay.

It might help to make a list of why you think you felt so worried about other people knowing (even though they couldn't have) you masturbated, and why you think you felt disgusted and unable to look at yourself.

Sometimes when we take stock of this kind of thing, right away, we can see things on our list which, in the light of day, look really ridiculous and we can let go of those ideas easily. We probably also will find some things that we can't ditch so fast, things we need to think or talk more about, figure out our feelings about, or get more education around before we can feel more comfortable.

Sexuality is complex, so our feelings about it can also be. And a lot of us get negative messages about sexuality, masturbation or our bodies growing up and will need to unpack and reframe them for ourselves over time. As well, sometimes conflicted feelings about masturbation in our teens or twenties, specifically, can also have to do with tough feelings about our transition from being kids to becoming adults, something that can always be heavy, whether it's about sexuality or something else entirely (if you've already gotten your first period, you might have struggled with, or still be struggling with, similarly uncomfortable feelings about that). But that sexual transition can be a big one. Like I said earlier, even though we have sexuality even as infants, it's not the same as sexualities we'll have later. Growing into an adult sexuality can certainly feel weird and uncomfortable sometimes, and be something that takes a while to become more comfortable with gradually.

I hope you also know that no one -- including you! -- should expect yourself to be totally adjusted with your sexuality so early in life. That's a lot to expect of someone who is 30, let alone 13. Just like everyone else, you get to have a process over time to get cozy with your own sexuality as it develops and to figure out how you want, and don't want, to explore and express it.

Once you've read this and thought more about all of this, maybe made that list and looked at it, I'd say to just go with how you feel in your guts.

Maybe you don't feel right enough about all of this just yet to masturbate again soon. If so, that's okay: you have a lifetime. Or, maybe you feel just fine and you just needed some support in this being okay, and want to go do it again, feeling better about it. That's good, too. It is totally up to you, and you won't hurt yourself in any way if you don't masturbate again soon just like you won't if you do.

I'm going to leave you some extra links that can give you more to think about, paired with the reminder that when it comes to masturbation, you get to do what you want to do: this is about your own private sex life, all by yourself, all about yourself.

You get to masturbate only if and when you want, and how you want, and that way of tending to yourself, should you choose to, isn't disgusting or anything to be ashamed of. It's just one of many things most people do and have done to feel good in a way that doesn't hurt anyone and one of the few things where you also don't need anyone else's permission, just your own.

written 22 Jun 2012 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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