Is masturbation healthy or not?

Is masturbation good for you? Is it bad for you? Is it “natural?” Can it be helpful for someone in recovery from porn addiction and/or porn-induced sexual dysfunction?

These are some of the questions I hear often and encourage people to ask when they come to me for help with their porn-induced problems. Of the people I work with who are at least in their 30’s or who for other reasons didn’t encounter Internet porn in adulthood usually have masturbated for years to fantasy and perhaps print images, stories, etc.–largely without developing significant problems. But of those who are in their 20’s or late teens, many have never or hardly ever masturbated without Internet pornography, so they think of porn and masturbation as two parts of the same whole experience. Once they realize that pornography use has harmed them, they often swear off both porn and masturbation for good, but is that the right approach?

First, let’s get the “natural” argument out of the way. I don’t put much stock in that word. It’s more of a marketing tool at this point rather than containing any real meaning. Even if we do take that word seriously, very little about what humans eat, where we live, what we wear, what we drink, and how we spend our time could be called natural, but natural does not equal good and unnatural does not equal bad. As for masturbation, there are written and pictorial accounts of masturbation dating back thousands of years.

Depiction of masturbation on an ancient Grecian vase. Probably not accurate to scale.

On the other hand, some modern-day isolated cultures seem to completely lack masturbatory behavior and even a word for the act(1). My point is that whether masturbation is natural or not doesn’t matter. What matters is what impact masturbation will have on your life.

So what does the research show? Well, it’s not actually very favorable for masturbation. According to studies such as “The Relative Health Benefits of Different Sexual Activities,” (2, 3) frequent penile-vaginal intercourse is associated with a variety of benefits, such as longer life expectancy, lower instance of depression, lower stress level, better blood pressure values, improved testosterone levels, and more. Most other forms of sexual conduct have generally neutral correlations, while frequent masturbation tends to be correlated with worse outcomes on many of these values.

But what about the plethora of pop articles written on the myriad benefits of masturbation? Well, many of the claims therein are either unfounded, meaningless, or better accessed with actual sex. (4, 5) Some of these claims are as silly as masturbation “improves heart health” because heart rate goes up during masturbation and heart exercise is good.

Come on, this is really a stretch. We may as well just take a brisk walk.

Now, I’m not saying that all masturbation is harmful, and it’s certainly more likely to become harmful when paired with Internet pornography use. Demonstrably, the rates of youthful sexual dysfunction only spiked to unprecedented rates after the turn of this millennium and the widespread introduction of net-connected devices to the general population, even though masturbation has been common throughout human history. But I’m here to seek honest understanding, not to make up health benefits of masturbation in order to justify it for myself. And while the masturbation benefits I usually see touted fall more into this category, I have seen that it really can be helpful in some circumstances.

After working with hundreds of people in recovery from porn addiction and porn-induced sexual dysfunctions, these are the instances in which I might recommend pornfree masturbation.

  • When someone in addiction recovery has repeatedly relapsed, among other measures it may be helpful to focus first and foremost on becoming pornfree, while still allowing themselves pornfree masturbation. Having this sexual outlet can make porn abstinence easier, and once they have a more stable foundation of being pornfree, they can then experiment with complete abstinence if they want to. This works because I primarily consult with Internet porn addicts, not masturbation addicts. I wouldn’t tell an alcoholic to drink wine in lieu of whiskey, but most of my clients are addicted to porn, not actually to masturbation. However, there are masturbation addicts out there, and this measure would probably not help them.
  • One helpful function of masturbation for sexual development is that it allows one to explore in fantasy what and whom they find arousing. This is part of how one can explore and develop their own sexual identity.  For those who have never or hardly ever masturbated without pornography, they never got the chance. Instead, pornography shaped their sexual template. As they leave porn behind, these people can find that many of the things that aroused them in porn don’t actually do much for them in real life. It can benefit these people to try masturbating to their own internally generated fantasies (staying away from memories of porn and porn-inspired fantasies, of course). These experiences can act as a stepping stone between porn use and real intimacy.
  • After a full recovery (or for people without porn problems), one may find that their quality of life is better with occasional sexual release, either because they’re frustrated by pent-up sexual energy or because they find that their sex drive goes into hibernation after too long completely abstinent. If not in a sexual relationship, then pornfree masturbation can fulfill that purpose.

If you do decide to masturbate at some point along your recovery, there are several points you should be well aware of.

  • If you are able, I suggest having a period of complete abstinence when you first quit porn. 30 days or more would be best. This will allow you time to regain neurological and physical sensitivity. If this will be the longest period of your adult life without sexual contact or orgasm, then you’ll also learn a lot about yourself and practice valuable self-control. If you’d rather quit just porn first, then I still recommend taking 30 day of complete abstinence at some point.
  • Use lubrication and relatively gentle physical stimulation. Many people have developed overly rough masturbation habits over the years to the point where they may be physically desensitized and not able to full enjoy real sex. You want the sensations of masturbation to be as similar to real sex as possible. To this end, masturbation toys that better emulate vaginal sex may be beneficial. Avoid vibrators and prone masturbation.
  • If you find it difficult to maintain an erection or reach orgasm, don’t try to force it. Give yourself another week or two and then try again. Don’t climax without a full erection. Watch the video below for reasons not to masturbate prone or with a partial erection.

  • When you fantasize, avoid thinking about memories of porn and fantasies that are inspired by pornography. Instead, imagine real memories of intimacy or realistic first-person encounters of the kind that you would like to enjoy in the future. Restrict yourself to visualizing a single scenario, rather than cycling through many fantasies as you might do with pornography.
  • At least at first, try masturbating without any fantasy at all, just enjoying the physical sensations. This may sound impossible to many longtime porn users, but it should be relatively easy once you’re fully recovered. This is a good test of your physical recovery; if you can do this, then there’s no physical reason that you wouldn’t be capable of sex as well. If you cannot do this, try it again every once in awhile to gauge your physical recovery.

If you’re not in recovery from porn-induced problems and are just curious about the effects of masturbation on you, try going without masturbation for 30 days. It won’t hurt you. Think of it as a fun challenge. You may make some interesting discoveries and reasons to alter your masturbation habits. If you’re not able to go for 30 days, take it as a warning sign that you may have less control over your behavior than you thought. And at least most of the time you masturbate, do so simply to your own fantasy or to the physical sensations, rather than using porn or other erotic materials.