By Mike[Mike has been JackinWorld's Assistant Editor since 1997. He has two grown children, a daughter and a son.]
I am neither a medical doctor nor a psychological counselor, but I have about 50 years of life experience, a college education, and the family experience of having raised a daughter and a son. I have masturbated probably between 3 and 5 times a week since I discovered it on my own as a child. I didn't masturbate as much after I was married. Still, it has enriched a pleasurable sexual relationship with my wife. This essay presents my own opinions about the question of masturbation's addictive nature, based upon my experiences. It has also been reviewed by a colleague who is a licensed psychologist, runs a successful sexual counseling practice, and is an established member of the American Society of Sex Education Counselors and Therapists (ASSECT).
Okay, so you've discovered this really nifty thing to do with the equipment between your legs, and it gives you some of the most intense feelings of pleasure you've ever felt. In fact, it's been so pleasurable you have begun to do it a lot a whole lot. And now you might be wondering what you've gotten yourself into. You might have read somebody's comment about how addictive masturbation is. Or, you might have noticed how similar the desire to masturbate is to what you understand addiction to be. In short, you want to know if this practice is going to take control of your life and hurt you. Honestly, I think the answer is, "It depends" one of those wishy-washy, yes-and-no, weasel answers. But it really does depend on a number of factors in your life, on how you experience masturbation, and what kinds of consequences masturbation has for you. To answer the question well, we need to review some knowledge about addiction.
First, consider the dictionary definition of the word. Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Edition, gives two:
1. The quality or state of being addicted [to an activity or thing] (such as, being "addicted to reading")
2. Compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (such as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal.
Broadly persistent, compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful.
In the second definition the phrase, "characterized by tolerance," means that over time the body builds a resistance to a substance such as alcohol, so that increased amounts are needed to get what feels like the same effect. Let's see how these definitions apply to what you and I know about masturbation.
The first definition seems to be a lighter, more general use of the word "addiction" much as we might say, "I just love to read (or masturbate)." The second definition is heavier and gets more to the heart of the concern that masturbation could be addictive. My experience has been that masturbation feels so good it can feel quite compelling. Since I discovered it, my desire to masturbate persisted, even in the face of strong discouragement from my mother when I was a boy. During adolescence, I think I was obsessed with it. As I grew older, the practice took its place among other very satisfying interests in my life. From what I have read at JackinWorld, I think my growth into adulthood is similar to that of many other men.
When I have masturbated frequently, it has taken longer to achieve subsequent orgasms, and their intensity has seemed to diminish. This seems like it might be "tolerance," except for the fact that when my masturbation frequency decreases, the old intensity returns. I have never believed masturbation to be harmful to me. At times, for one reason or another, I have gone a long time without masturbating; I don't remember having any strong physical signs of withdrawal during these times but when I resumed, the intensity of the orgasm was both astonishing and highly satisfying.
So, when I try to fit my experience of masturbation to the definition of addiction, it seems to fit only slightly. Yes, masturbation is compelling. However, I don't get strong physical reactions if I abstain, even though it feels really great when I resume. The intensity of feeling seems to lessen the more frequently I masturbate, but it comes right back if I decrease the frequency. This doesn't sound as though my body is building a tolerance to masturbation the way it might to alcohol, nicotine, or heroin. By now I'm ready to say I don't think I can become addicted to masturbation but I can become obsessed with it, just as I could become obsessed with many other kinds of behavior. Obsessive behavior is characterized by excessive repetition of some act. [Editor's Note: The repeated up-and-down movement of the hand isn't necessarily the "repetition of some act"!]
Next, let's look at some other ideas that seem to apply both to obsession and addiction. Substances and behaviors can be addictive/obsessive to some people and not to others. And there are degrees of addiction/obsession.
Take alcohol as an example. You may know people who drink responsibly. They can control their drinking so they always drink at appropriate times and places, and moderately so they don't become drunk and lose control of themselves inappropriately. You might know others who occasionally get drunk and lose control, even though most of the time they drink responsibly. And you might know a few unfortunate people who are addicted to alcohol. They are drunk more than they are sober, can't drive or hold a job, and have alienated their families because they cannot control their alcohol consumption. Alcohol is also destroying their bodies, and they are likely to die young because it attacks the liver and other organs.
The physical and psychological dynamics of addiction are at least partially understood, but we still don't understand completely why some people can control their use of a substance such as alcohol, where others have no control at all. There is much obsessive-compulsive behavior connected with addiction. You might have heard of Alcoholics Anonymous, the highly successful program that helps people deal with their alcohol addiction. Much of that program deals with controlling obsessive-compulsive behavior. So it is possible that if you have the genetic predisposition, and if early childhood experiences contributed to it, you could become obsessed with masturbation to the extent that it harms you. But I think the chance is slight.
Some people ask counselors or newspaper advice columnists if they are "addicted" to alcohol, drugs, sex, or whatever concerns them because they do a lot of it. And some people have written to JackinWorld to say they are worried about being addicted to masturbation because they do it so much. I think often they are referring to an obsession rather than addiction.
Whether obsession or addiction, one way you can answer questions like these is to see if you can stop for a while without suffering major physical symptoms, such as getting the shakes or becoming ill. (Humping the davenport, doorknob, or barbecue grill does not count! Nor does running around going berserk. Yes, it's stressful, but we're talking major physical symptoms here.)
Another way to answer questions such as these is to ask yourself to assess negative consequences. If you have been fired from your last three jobs because you missed work too much due to being hung over, you were arrested last week for drunk driving, and your wife just filed for divorce because last night you fell asleep on the front sidewalk and the neighbors complained, these are all strong suggestions that you are addicted to alcohol. If you were suspended from school yesterday for excessive tardiness (because you stayed home masturbating in the morning before going to school), or your parents had to come to the police station to pick you up because you were caught masturbating in a downtown park at noon, or you spurn sex with your partner because you prefer to masturbate exclusively, you are probably obsessed with masturbation.
Most of us, however, can control our behavior so that it is appropriate. We masturbate in private in bed at night, when we are home alone, or in a toilet stall or bathroom behind a locked door. In such cases, I can't see masturbation as an addiction or obsession compelling, perhaps, but not an immobilizing addiction or obsession. Even if you do it a lot a whole lot it still is not an addiction or obsession unless you find it having some major, harmful consequences in your life.
If you do find that masturbation is hurting you and you want to stop (or just cut down), you need to seek professional help near where you live. One way to find this kind of help is to call a local crisis hotline. These community services are listed in the blue pages of your telephone directory, along with government agencies and offices. They can refer you to an agency that can help you.
Masturbation plays a big role in a normal sex life. Some of us discover it as children because it starts to feel so good between our legs. Others are shown by our friends. We continue to masturbate because it feels so good. It gets us ready for mature sexual relationships when we reach adulthood, and it helps us take care of those raging hormonal urges and surges when we are teenagers. Masturbation can enhance mature sexual relationships where two partners use it either as a prelude to other sexual activity, or as the main fare. And it keeps us going when relationships falter, such as when a partner is ill or away. It is a great equalizer in a relationship where one partner needs more sexual activity than the other. All of these uses of masturbation were reported by mature JackinWorld readers in response to the Adult Masturbation Survey undertaken last year. (Read the results of the JackinWorld Adult Survey.)
So stroke on in the comfort and joy of knowing that you probably are not addicted to or obsessed with masturbation, no matter how compelling it may be to you or how often you do it. And now you have some guidelines to help assess whether you are developing an obsession, and if so, what you can do about it.
JackinWorld note: The The National Council on Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity lists compulsive masturbation as a possible symptom of sexual addiction. For more information on sexual addiction, see the Council's Web site at www.ncsac.org.
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