When I was a virginal teenager, pining for boys who weren’t interested in a poetry-writing, zine-making, skateboarding nerd like me, I imagined I’d have a lover someday, a husband even, and we’d make out all the time. I assumed that once I was sexually active, I would give up masturbating, which I’d done for as long as I could remember. Why wouldn’t I? I’d have a cute, sensitive, funny partner, after all, one who read Anne Sexton and wore Airwalks and listened to Bikini Kill, and he would provide me with every pleasure I required.
Of course, I was wrong — and not only about the Airwalks.
At age 40, I am happily married, and it turns out, masturbation and sex are individual yet harmonious planets in the same universe. I masturbate now for all kinds of reasons, not only when I feel aroused and I want to satisfy that arousal but also to relax or for comfort. I sometimes masturbate to help me fall asleep. Occasionally, masturbation zings better than an afternoon cup of coffee.
A friend of mine, let’s call her Nikki, says the orgasms you give yourself are different from the ones you receive from a lover. I agree — and I like and need both kinds. My marriage is, shall I say, fairly lively, even with three kids and the kind of exhaustion they inflict on us; in fact, I would venture to say that our marriage is lively precisely because of masturbation. It has taught us so much: about mystery, vulnerability, play, and respect, which are all essential to a healthy and vibrant sex life.
The sex-positive rhetoric around masturbation is that it’s a tool for understanding what your body likes, sexually, so that you can become comfortable being sexual with someone else. The reasoning goes something like: “Touch yourself to know how you want to be touched by another.” I’m sure that’s effective, but it also suggests that masturbation is merely research — a practice round for sex with another’s body, rather than being its own pleasure ritual for your body, a ritual that you may or may not invite others to witness or participate in.
In my experience, masturbation in the context of a long-term relationship has many other functions, too. Masturbation doesn’t merely prepare one for sex, or, later, replace it, though it can support or rejuvenate one’s romantic life. In some cases, it can compensate for a couple’s uneven sex drive. Mostly, though, it offers its own delights: If you find yourself — miraculously — alone in the house for the first time in weeks, it’s a quick and free thrill (and, look, it beats cleaning the toilet), and it will calm your nerves at 3 a.m. It’s a connection to your body that asks for nothing in return.
“Since becoming a parent, it plays an important role in giving me a space of fantasy and privacy. It connects me to other aspects of my self, other times in my life, other versions of myself.”
When I asked some friends what role masturbation plays in their long-term relationships, a few reported that it’s part of their sexual and mental self-care. One friend, I’ll call her Michelle, said she uses it to gauge her desires as they change, to stay in tune with what she’s hot for. She uses it to explore a new sexual interest or fantasy. It’s also a way to manage stress. She called it a “palate cleanser” and said, “Sometimes I just want to feel good in my body and I don’t want to worry about someone else’s body or needs.” Another pal, let’s name her Rita, uses masturbation to stay connected to her desires. “Since becoming a parent, it plays an important role in giving me a space of fantasy and privacy,” she said. “It connects me to other aspects of my self, other times in my life, other versions of myself.”
A third friend, I’ll call her Maxine, said, “For me, a woman raised in the ’80s and ’90s, in a culture that objectified and sexualized thin women who were born with a certain kind of vulva (contained, neat), it has been absolutely essential to develop a relationship with my body where I feel desirable and feel pleasure and that everything is exactly as it should be.”
Most of my friends reported that although they broached the subject of masturbation rarely with their partners, when they did, it was with acceptance and good humor. Michelle said that in her previous, less healthy relationships, her masturbating had been a secret. David Ley, Ph.D., sex therapist and author of Ethical Porn for Dicks: A Responsible Man’s Guide to Viewing Pleasure, advises people in relationships to be more open about it. “If you’ve never talked with your partner to dialogue about how masturbation or pornography use is a part of your sexuality personally,” he said, “then they are going to feel like it’s … something that they're being left out of.”
“What I do by myself, no one else can do for me. And the reverse is also true: What I get from sex with my partner is not something I can produce for myself, by myself.”
Ley encourages people to first have conversations with themselves around masturbation. Ask yourself how you feel about self-pleasure. “If you have conflicts about masturbation,” Ley says, “I think it’s valuable and healthy to explore why.” Ley says that if your partner’s masturbation bothers you, it’s worth digging into the feelings behind that. “What do you think it means? Do you think it means they don’t want you? Do you think it means they want something other than you? Do you think it means you’re not enough? All of these important issues are buried in there.”
I was curious how many of my friends had also integrated masturbation into the sex life they share with their partners. Maxine said that she and her husband feel it’s separate from their sex life. “Masturbation isn’t an escape from sex or filling in for something lacking in our sex life, which has been really good lately. Nonetheless, we both agree that sometimes it’s nice to not consider your partner’s needs and just ‘knock it out’ as my husband said.” Likewise, both Michelle and Rita know their partners masturbate, but it’s never something they do together. For them, masturbation is appealing because it’s done alone. Rita told me, “What I do by myself, no one else can do for me. And the reverse is also true: What I get from sex with my partner is not something I can produce for myself, by myself.” The separation is erotic.
Or, as Ley told me: “Masturbation is oftentimes the place where we get to learn about our personal sexuality, where we get to encounter and discover the things that turn us on, whether or not they're the things that are supposed to turn us on. … Particularly with a long-term partner, masturbation can be a place where we find novelty that we can bring back to our relationship.” I love this idea, as if you’ve returned from a place you jetted off to alone with a souvenir: a bottle of wine from Napa or some new phrase you learned while vacationing in France.
In these moments, I’m both the subject and the object, simultaneously creating and satisfying my own desire, and I’m asking to be recognized.
A few of my friends who have been in past relationships with other women and trans people told me that it was more common to masturbate with their partners as part of the sex act. Michelle said that mutual masturbation was more common in her shared sexual experiences in queer relationships because sex was not narrowly defined as penetration. There was more freedom outside the bounds of a heteronormative structures. This interested me, a cis woman in a heterosexual marriage, especially as I began to think about the ways my sex life has changed over the last decade, once I became a mother.
Christian Toscano, a midwife in Los Angeles, California, told me that, in her experience working with pregnant women and shepherding them into a new phase of life called parenthood, “everybody is underpleased.” She says that straight women in particular aren’t talking about, and aren’t in touch with, what turns them on. “Women’s default culturally is to be a caregiver, a receptacle for everyone else’s feelings, and they internalize that.” Toscano urges us to get in touch with what feels good. To discover our own bodies.
Having children has shaped my life, my marriage, and my body. For me, masturbation has been key to maintaining an understanding of my ever-shifting corporeal self, a body that has been both cut open and dilated to 10 centimeters to bring forth life; that has let down breastmilk during an orgasm; that has been too tired from sleepless nights to f*ck, let alone make love; that has a hard time tuning out the unique stresses of raising children in the 21st century. In this era, I have masturbated to get off alone, and I have also shared it with my husband. It’s intimate, perhaps the most intimate act of all, and only he has been invited to see that. In these moments, I’m both the subject and the object, simultaneously creating and satisfying my own desire, and I’m asking to be recognized. Fragile and powerful, Here I am.