Going Solo: The Basics of Masturbation

Self-love. Solo sex. ‘Bating. Ménage à moi. Jacking off, jilling off, whacking off. Paddling the pink canoe, pocket pinball, teasing the kitty, testing the plumbing, fingerbating, jerkin’ the gherkin, spanking the monkey, soaking the whisker biscuit, surfing the channel. No matter what you call it—or how goofy what you call it is—masturbation is one of the few things that almost everyone does, has done or will do. About as many people masturbate as people who play video games, and there are more people who masturbate than people who have computers at home or who own cars. In surveys and studies, as many as 95 percent of all people report that they masturbate or have done so. 

Most of us, if not all, masturbated before we can even remember: infants and very young children commonly touch their own genitals and other body parts, and from what we can tell, do so seeking comfort and pleasure. That early stimulus and that early kind of sexuality is very different from adolescent or adult sexuality, but while motives and execution may differ, it’s masturbation all the same. Masturbation is, most plainly put, doing things to sexually stimulate yourself, and most often by engaging with your own genitals in some way.

There’s nothing wrong with masturbation, and it’s even clearly good for you in some ways. Most doctors and medical organizations, counselors, sex therapists, and sex educators agree: for our sense of well-being, relaxation, and health; our sexuality with or without partners, developing a means for sexual communication, getting familiar with our own sexual response cycle and preferences, and finding out where all our parts are, how they work and some of what we like and how we like it, masturbation is the bomb.

Masturbation will not:

  • Cause blindness, headaches, or vision problems
  • Cause hair to grow on your palms (but wouldn't that be a cool trick?) or give you zits
  • Make your genitals shrink or grow, or change their sensitivity, color, texture, or appearance (beyond temporary changes often brought on by sexual arousal and/or sensation like erection, deeper color and heightened sensitivity)
  • Stunt your general growth or the development of your sexual organs, or make you more or less fertile
  • Become addictive (some people are or become sexually compulsive, and that can include masturbation, but that's not the same thing as addiction)
  • Cause injury or harm (when done safely—obviously, sticking a penis in a vacuum hose, or using an electric vibrator in a bathtub isn’t real swift and would likely cause injury)
  • Change the size or shape of your genitals
  • Release “stored up” sperm or sexual fluids. No one needs to masturbate or have sex with partners in order to get rid of “excess” semen or sperm: unused cells of the body are absorbed by the body all by itself, and our fluids release themselves as needed without our help.

Masturbation can:

  • Help relieve menstrual cramps and muscle tension
  • Be a source of physical and emotional relaxation
  • Increase circulation
  • Increase the ability or ease to be orgasmic (and is almost always the way people first learn to experience orgasm, rather than with a partner)
  • Be self-care
  • Enhance sex with partners and help build important knowledge for clear sexual communication
  • Help alleviate depression or anxiety by releasing endorphins
  • Help improve sexual self-esteem and body image

How Do You Masturbate?

How any one person masturbates is based on their mood, and on their individual psychological, emotional, and physiological makeup and life history. All these variables affect what arouses people, brings about orgasm, and sexually satisfies them. So, while for one person, rubbing their penis or clitoris briskly with their hands or fingers with little lead-up may get them off, another may like to read a book while using a sex toy, and another still may enjoy a long soak in the tub followed by a slow and gentle self-massage. What a given person likes also can differ from day to day, month to month and year to year. Ways of masturbating that "work" for someone for a while sometimes stop feeling so amazing or resulting in orgasm: when that happens, you usually just need to mix it up a little or try some new things.

Masturbation is not always just about genitals. Plenty of people also incorporate touching or stimulating other parts of their bodies: breasts, nipples or chests, thighs, hands or feet, parts of their faces—you name it, somebody’s touched it while masturbating. Some people experiment with certain sexual practices alone, rather than with (or before sharing with) partners, by using new sex toys or certain types of role-play or sexual fantasy.

For many people, it’s common to combine activities like the above, rather than just doing one thing, or stimulating one particular area. You may also find it takes a while to find what really works for you, or that something that was satisfying once isn’t so satisfying anymore, and want to mix it up a bit.

What’s a good way to get started with masturbation? Find a space where you feel safe and comfortable, and where you don’t have to worry about being walked in on or interrupted. While some people do approach masturbation in a perfunctory way (and that’s okay), the truth is that it’s like any sort of sex: it’s usually far more compelling and enjoyable when you’re aroused and going all-in. So, while you certainly can masturbate any time you'd like, it usually feels a lot more intense and more satisfying for people when they're turned on before they start and/or while they're doing it and when they're totally focused on the sexual experience.

Many people fantasize before or during masturbation. Most people have fantasies about what they’d like to do alone or with someone else sexually, and that’s as fine a place to start as any. Another route to fantasy can be memories of previous sexual experiences. If that's not you, if you don’t tend to feel or experience sexual desire about others or about yourself, or are not in the mood for that kind of fantasy, by all means, start with whatever elicits your own sexual curiosity or desire.  Some people use sexual or other kinds of media to provide fantasy fodder for masturbation.

While, no, you can’t really kiss yourself, you can massage your lips with your fingers, for instance, or run your hands over the sensitive areas of your neck, nipples, legs, or arms. Remember, your whole body is full of nerve endings and sensory receptors: the genitals aren’t the only sexual or sensitive spaces you’ve got, not by a long shot. Take your time: When you’re masturbating, you are your own lover, so treat yourself, and your body, just the way you’d like a lover to treat you. You don't need to make it a quickie unless you want to.

When and if you do want to move the action to your genitals, keep in mind that this is all about you—what feels good to you, what you want—not about what you’ve seen or heard works for someone else, or about what you think you should do for sex with partners later. So, while a lot of people might enjoy stroking the penis with their hands, others might find that rubbing their groin up against something feels good at a given time. Some people want to incorporate vaginal stimulation into their masturbation, others like to keep things limited to their external clitoris or other parts of the vulva. Because you don’t have to negotiate with anyone about anything you do when you masturbate, what you do is 100 percent your call and entirely and only about what you want and enjoy.

Here are some common ways people masturbate with their genitals:

People may and do stimulate the penis, scrotum, perineum, and/or anus:

  • With hands and fingers (usually with a lubricant or lotion), such as by stroking, rubbing, or slapping the shaft and base of the penis
  • By using something to surround the penis, such as a sex toy made for that purpose, or household objects like fruit skins, socks, or warm towels, or with suction, such as with a penis pump
  • With vibration or pulsation to the penis, scrotum, anus, or general genital area, either via vibrators or small vibrating objects, by sitting or leaning on larger vibrating items, or with water
  • With vibration, massage, or entry of the anus with hands or objects

People may and do may stimulate the entire vulva, or some portions, including the clitoris, inner or outer labia, the vaginal opening or canal and/or the perineum or anus:

  • With fingers, rubbing, pinching, massaging, or tapping the external genitals (such as the clitoris or labia) and/or inside the internal genitals, such as the vagina or rectum
  • With general stimulus to the whole genital area, such as by squeezing thighs together rhythmically, by “humping” a pillow, or by sitting or leaning on a vibrating object, such as a washing machine
  • With objects or items for vibration, such as by applying a water source (like a shower or water jet), vibrator, or massager to the clitoris or vulva as a whole
  • With objects for vaginal or anal entry (and usually with lubricant), such as dildos or other safe and similar objects

If you're interested in exploring sex toys, but under the age or without the economic means to purchase them, you can check out this piece on DIY toys.

Keeping It Safe

While masturbation is legit the safest sex there is, there are still a couple safety issues to bear in mind.

Genital tissue is pretty delicate. So, anything that might cut, scrape, or burn you, or anything that might cause electrocution or create very harsh suction is something you should avoid to prevent injury. A good rule of thumb is that if it looks like it might hurt you, it probably will, and if anything starts to hurt when you do it, instead of feeling good, stop. Pain is usually the bodies way of telling us to change something up or stop doing something altogether.

Bacteria are a concern with masturbation. Washing your hands before you masturbate is always a good idea; our hands pick up loads of germs during a normal day, and these can cause genital infections. In regard to toys or objects used during masturbation, if they can’t be boiled to sanitize them, it’s always best to cover them up with a condom or other latex barrier to avoid bacterial infections.

Oh, hey.

Even though people usually masturbate seeking pleasure, it isn't always that pleasurable or even interesting sometimes.

That can be for a lot of reasons.

When you're new to it, or when a way of masturbating has gotten old and you need to find new ways of doing it that work for you, it can take a while, sometimes weeks, months or even longer, to really find out what you like and how to make things that feel good happen. If you're doing it like it's a chore you have to do, or the way you play a video game you play all the time, instead of putting the kinds of things around it people often do with sex they enjoy with partners -- like only doing it when you're excited about it, doing things besides just genital touching, really getting into your own sexyness, doing it in a space that feels right -- that often makes it less enjoyable and satisfying. If you're trying to do what you think should feel good, instead of experimenting a lot to find out what you yourself actually like, that can keep you from finding your own grooves. Try and keep a balance of copying what you have seen or heard about with just trying things that come from your own head or what your body is responding to. If you're having trouble actually doing the things that feel good to masturbate -- like trouble reaching something, or difficulty because of disability -- that can obviously create problems! You may need to get creative with adaptations. And if you feel shame or guilt around it, it can also really impact how it feels. You may need to go through some emotional processing about it. We're always happy to try and help with any of these kinds of situations or more in our direct services, including referring you out to outside information or resources, if you want.

If it turns out that it isn't something you like, feel into, or want to do -- whether that's the case for a week or the case for years -- you certainly don't have to do it.  You can also have a satisfying sex life you like without masturbation. And if you're in a time where it feels like a drag, or like something that makes you feel less good about your body or sexuality, or feels like pressure, you probably want to step away for a bit. Don't let the idea that it can help with sex with partners get you hung up on this idea that you have to do it, or else you won't be able to have sex with someone else (nope), or sex with others will also necessarily suck (also nope). It's supposed to be for you and about what provides you pleasure, comfort or both. If it's not bringing those things to you, don't sweat it.  You can find and do other things that provide you pleasure and comfort instead.

Are masturbation and sex with a partner the same?

Masturbation all by yourself and any kind of sex with someone else aren’t interchangeable. They’re interrelated sometimes, but necessarily different, and one can’t usually substitute for the other (partnered sex especially can’t take the place of masturbation, because you have to consider and pay attention to the other person as much as you do yourself).

That’s why a lot of people who have current sex partners, with whom they’re even highly satisfied, still enjoy masturbation; it often fills different wants and needs altogether. (And it is absolutely fine to masturbate when you have a partner—if your partner has a problem with that, have a talk about it. Plenty of people even masturbate together as a part of partnered sex.) Often, masturbation can easily fulfill the physical needs and desires we have for sexual gratification.

Obviously, partnered sex also carries a whole bunch of risks, consequences, and complexities that solo sex doesn’t. But most of all, emotionally and intellectually, masturbation and partnered sex are pretty different. When masturbation just isn’t cutting the proverbial mustard, that’s likely either because we just haven’t found what works physically yet, or, more likely, because we’re craving more companionship and intimacy than just physical stimulation and our own company. When sexual partnership doesn’t feel right, but we want to be sexual, it’s likely because the privacy, safety, and self-centeredness (in the good way) of masturbation is more up our alley at a given time.

How much is too much?

It’s common, when you masturbating is or feels new to you, to perhaps want to spend a lot of time doing it, just like when you find a band you really love, and want to listen to their latest song over and over in an endless, hypnotic loop. For some, it might start to feel a little compulsive or out of control—like if you find yourself masturbating in places that aren’t all that private, or find that your masturbation habits are starting to interrupt or intrude upon other parts of your life.

Generally, it’s a pretty simple formula: Is masturbation keeping you from doing other things you enjoy, like being with friends or partners, participating in sports, hobbies, goals, or interests? Is it interfering with your responsibilities (schoolwork, family duties, chores, or a job)? Is it infringing upon your health (keeping you up nights, keeping you from eating properly), causing any sort of injury (such as sore, swollen, raw, blistered, or chafed skin), or creating emotional conflict or distress for you? If it’s doing any of those things, then it’s probably time to cut back or ask for help (a mental healthcare provider can help, or you can just talk to anyone you trust and respect with something sensitive and loaded like this). If it’s not, and it feels good to you, don’t sweat it. There's no "right" amount of masturbation just like there's no "right" amount of sex with partners: it's all about what just feels and is right for you.

Be Your Own First

We hear a whole lot about who should or shouldn't be our first sex partner. We’re often told it should be someone we love and who loves us back, someone committed to us long-term, perhaps even someone we plan to spend the rest of our lives with.

And I think it should be, and that person is YOU. You, all by yourself, have all of those qualities and abilities, more than any other person.

Claiming and recognizing yourself as your first and foremost sex partner -- be it literal, symbolic, or both -- is powerful. Your sexuality is yours, is totally about you, and it mostly comes from you, not from anything or anyone outside you. No one else is ever going to be able to get to know and understand your body well unless you do. Being your own partner equips you with tools that support a healthy sexuality and balanced sexual relationships for the rest of your life: the ability to determine when it’s the right time for you to have solo sex and when it’s right to take a partner. Getting to know your own body and sexual identity through self-evaluation, through masturbation, enables you to find out a great deal of what you like and dislike sexually and physically, to see and feel what your genitals and the rest of your body are like in a healthy state, to discover how your individual sexual response works, to explore your orientation and gender identity, to explore your fantasies, and to gauge your sexual expectations realistically. It’s something that supports your sexuality and sexual life feeling like it’s really yours.

That isn’t to say that if you haven’t started regularly masturbating before sexual partnership began for you that it’s too late, because it isn’t. It doesn’t mean that if masturbation doesn’t interest you, you’re immature or that you’ll necessarily have lousy partnered sex or that this is otherwise required. It's not. Rather, the point is simply that masturbation is a great way for a lot of people to explore their sexual selves in a very safe, open setting. It’s not called self-love for nothing, you know.

Excerpted and adapted from S.E.X. The All-You-Need-to-Know Sexuality Guide to Get You Through Your Teens and Twenties (Second Edition; DaCapo Press, 2016).

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