The first time I attempted to masturbate, I was 13, and I didn’t do it right. I spent the next six months wracked with guilt. Through high school, that guilt morphed into embarrassment and sometimes even shame.
Now I look back and I wonder why something that is proven to reduce stress, ease menstrual cramps and muscle pain, improve your quality of sleep, and so much more, can be a source of negative feelings and carry an air of taboo around it.
Nicole McNichols, a UW psychology professor who teaches psychology of sexuality, mentioned how masturbation can even impact your confidence.
“There is some evidence that masturbation leads to higher levels of self-confidence and happiness,” McNichols said. “There is also evidence showing that people who masturbate have better sexual experiences with partners as well, since they benefit from understanding what leads to their own sexual pleasure.”
For centuries, we as a society have created stigmas around masturbation that can impact all genders in many negative ways. In her class, McNichols talks about how people can develop harmful misconceptions about masturbation.
“Many students in my class ask if masturbation will lead to sexual dysfunction or problems in relationships,” McNichols said. “Many have grown up in families or communities where masturbation is viewed as ‘dirty’ or ‘shameful.’”
While many people masturbate, it can often be a hard thing for them to talk about.
“It comes from a long history of misconceptions about the consequences of masturbation,” McNichols said.
Anthony Aguiluz, a therapist at Hall Health talked to me about the types of stigmas for people. For females, the stigmas surrounding masturbation stem from the long-standing stereotype that women are not sexual people in and of themselves, but rather objects for men to have sex with.
“[What] women or female-identified people [...] have been taught is that they are doing it for their husband and not for themselves,” Aguiluz said.
The idea that a woman's sexual pleasure can exist without the help of a person with male genitalia is still taboo. In some countries, women are still being circumcised to prevent clitoral stimulation, a major aspect of female sexual enjoyment. In the paper “Cultural Suppression of Female Sexuality,” the researchers suggest one reason for female suppressions is that “men regard women as men’s possessions and therefore seek to keep them to themselves. By suppressing female sexuality, men can keep women from wanting to have sex with other men.”
While we are progressing in many ways to accept female sexuality, there are still underlying currents within our society that keep these stigmas alive. Male masturbation, although more accepted within our culture, still has stigmas that can appear and impact male-identifying people.
There can be embarrassment around male masturbation because it can be seen as a type of failure, especially in the teenage years. Aguiluz talks about how society’s expectation of what being a man is allows stigma around masturbation to develop as people do not live up to those expectations.
“[If you are masturbating then] you are not ‘man’ enough to find someone to have sex with you,” Aguiluz said. This idea of not being “manly enough” because they do not have a partner to have sex with can cause a lot of embarrassment and shame for men.
These stigmas can be amplified and morphed when we look at the LGBTQIA+ community. If someone is struggling with their sexuality or gender, masturbation can be a very difficult thing to do and feel good about after.
These stigmas that impact our lives are created within the institutions that we grew up in. Schools, churches, and our families can all influence the way we view and experience masturbation.
If you went to schools like mine or had a family like mine, masturbation was never mentioned. Rather than openly discussing a way to safely experience sexual pleasure, they pushed the idea of abstinence as our only hope against STDs. This fueled our inability to talk about it.
If you attend a church that teaches that acting on sexual desires, even with just yourself, is sinful, and that sexual pleasure must wait until after marriage, then that could also greatly impact your relationship with masturbation.
These institutions allow unhealthy relationships with masturbation to form and grow.
“In some places, yes [we have made progress destigmatizing masturbation],” McNichols said. “[But] we still have a long way to go, and in some places, attitudes remain extremely negative.”
If we want to become a world with fewer stigmas around sex and masturbation, then open communication is key. If you are struggling with guilt about masturbation it is important to remember that it is completely natural, and even potentially beneficial.
Taking Dr. McNichols’s PSYCH 210 course on human sexuality, or, if you are female-identifying, visiting the website OMGYes can help you overcome your negative relationship with masturbation.
Regardless of where you grew up or what you’ve been told, masturbation is a healthy experience, and everyone should give it a try.
Reach writer Chamidae Ford at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @chamidae_ford
Like what you’re reading? Support high-quality student journalism by donating here.