A sexologist tells us how to break down the stigma around masturbation
May is International Masturbation Month.
“Shame is rooted in the belief that a person, by virtue of who they are, is bad. That’s not helpful or positive. It’s not incentivizing,” says Dr. Laura Deitsch, also known as Dr. Shameless, who helps guide people on their sexual journeys. She is the resident sexologist of Vibrant, which is a platform for adult products (their proceeds go to Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains).
And shame over masturbation is something shared among all people, men and women, even though 60 to 80 percent of women admit to masturbating as do 95 percent of men. For something so common, normal, and downright healthy, why is it so stigmatized?
Masturbation, just like sex, has several health benefits, as it follows the same sexual response cycle that you would experience with a partner. Sex, partnered or not, releases stress, boosts your immune system, brightens your mood, and calms your nerves. Happiness and a close bond (again, with a partner or yourself and your body) can result from having an orgasm. What’s more interesting is that when having an orgasm, 95 percent of the brain mimics the brain of someone who has taken heroin; the region of the brain behind the left eye shuts down during an orgasm, which is also the part of the brain that allows us to maintain control. When that region shuts off, we lose control — which is why we feel so relaxed afterwards.
When a person experiences shame or guilt around sexuality, they deprive themselves not only of health benefits, but of their right to experience pleasure, engage with their bodies, and better understand their bodies’ wants and needs.
So why do people feel shameful about masturbating?
For many people, their shame and guilt stem from religion. Ally, a 25-year-old cis woman, tells me that she “100 percent saw masturbation negatively.” She says that after trying to masturbate a few times when she was younger, she felt an “immense level of guilt.” She blames this on her Catholic upbringing, which made her feel “as if God was watching” her — which “is incredibly disturbing” for her to look back on.
“Masturbation is observed in utero, so it's certainly natural, says Dr. Deitsch. “The stigma around it comes from manipulation during the 1980s of the religious right in an effort to link certain social ideas and political outcomes. Religion also plays a somewhat supporting role in the stigma surviving all this time. Myths about masturbation persist but could be easily put to rest with education and positive attitudes.
Moreover, sex education curriculum greatly lacks comprehensive information in the United States.
Dr. Deitsch explains that, “States with more ‘real’ sex education have lower teen pregnancy rates, lower incidences of STDs, and more youth using contraceptives when starting intercourse. Sadly, in states with more conservative values and politics, these curricula are scorned in favor of abstinence-only style programs and the outcomes speak for themselves.” Abstinence only programs also instill fear in any type of sexual encounter — masturbation is rarely, if ever, discussed in a classroom. Sex as a means of pleasure is not in the curriculum. It’s still taught as the main reason for reproduction, and abstinence is given as the only way to avoid any unplanned pregnancies or unwanted STIs.
“Sex education can teach masturbation as a normal part of development, as a part of learning about self, and about communication. It also opens the door for greater reliance on finding one’s own pleasure as opposed to seeking it elsewhere,” explains Dr. Deitsch.
Unbound, a sex toy company, recently looked into certain importation laws on sex toy companies. Almost half — approximately 45 percent — of the world’s countries had some type of importation ban on sex toys. These laws are implemented to protect their citizens from indecency and “obscene materials.” Unbound’s research states that these laws and bans are negating possible pathways to discovering your body or sexuality through masturbation — accessibility is important.
Not only is sex education missing non-judgmental discussions about self-pleasure, but entire countries are opting to keep their citizens in the dark about self-discovery.
How can someone recover from guilt?
A way to recover from shame in relation to masturbation is to identify the source of the shame, says Dr. Deitsch, and “question its intention and relevance, overlay these ideas against what you believe and know to be true for you today, then determine the original purpose of those shameful ideas.”
Dr. Deitsch works with her patients by identifying the origin of shame and deconstructing it. “Shame is like old underwear — you think it’s fine and don’t look at it too hard until someone points out how ragged it looks and how much better the new ones are,” she says. Some people may want to seek therapy, while others may rely on literature, and some people may just want to dive in and figure it all out themselves.
When a person begins to experiment with masturbation, they can also explore potential ways that sex with a partner can make them feel the most comfortable and excited. “Try different positions, different tools or toys, different times of day, and different fantasies scrolling through your mind,” says Dr. Deitsch. And as always, she says “Don’t forget the lube!” — an important item to make penetrative partner sex and solo sex more comfortable.
“Sex education has been a political football for years in the U.S.” says Dr. Deitsch. Religion, family, society, and education all create a wall of misunderstanding when it comes to the topic of sex, and specifically, solo sex. Pleasure, especially for women, is incredibly taboo for the larger public. With May being International Masturbation Month, we want to encourage, and applaud, the power of pleasure, intimacy, and solo-love. Explore masturbation for the sake of becoming closer and more in tune with your body and the beauty of what it can do.