Do It Better

Why It’s Totally OK (And Healthy) to Masturbate in a Relationship

| 05/07/2019

Since May is masturbation month, it only makes sense that we would pay homage to the holy act of self-love. In fact, it makes sense to do that every month.

Masturbation is often shrouded in shame and deemed a baser, less-important sexual activity than actual intercourse (wrong).Many also think that engaging in masturbation is cheating on your partner (wrong, again). While there are countless masturbation myths, one that’s particularly harmful is the idea that if you’re in a happy, healthy relationship, you shouldn’t “need” or “want” to masturbate…

…as if your sexual partner were some magical unicorn who could fulfill all your sexual needs on a dime. Again, wrong. Not only is it unreasonable to expect one person to satisfy every single sexual whim you may have, the very notion takes away from the beauty of masturbation. “It’s a natural biological craving. A way to love and honor yourself,” says Dr. Cynthia L. Dougherty Ph.D., a neuropsychologist and relationship coach.

Intercourse, hand jobs, oral sex, anal sex, self-pleasure – anything else you want to add here is fine – are all independent sex acts. None of them is better than any other, despite what the sexual hierarchy tries to tell you. There is no reason why you should give up your self-love sessions, or feel lower self-esteem because of them, just because you’re happily coupled or throupled (or whatever kind of relationship you’re in).

Here is what you need to know.

We’re a society built on shame

Have you ever heard the religious nonsense that if you masturbate you’ll grow hair on your palms? We wish this were a joke, but this is legitimately something that some kids from conservative Christian backgrounds have been told.

“From a young age, many of us are taught not to masturbate. For many, there is a shame associated with it, either from religious upbringing or through scolding from parents. This makes the action feel wrong to many people, or at least something that’s not OK to do in front of a partner,” explains Daniel Saynt, founder of The New Society for Wellness (NSFW), a sex-positive members-only club that hosts sexual education workshops.

When we’re taught that masturbation is dirty and wrong, and the only true “good sex” is between a cis-man and cis-woman in a heterosexual marriage, we’re going to wind up with some pretty whacked-out ideas about what is and is not “normal.”

Masturbating in relationships is normal

First of all, nearly half of men and women all masturbate while they’re in relationships. So we’re talking about something that’s not only OK, but very common.

Masturbating when you’re in a relationship doesn’t mean you don’t enjoy sex with your partner. In fact, studies have shown that people most often think about their partner during masturbation sessions. Sure, we have fantasies outside of our relationships, but by and large, people are imagining past encounters with the person they love, or things they want to try with that person.

Studies have shown that not only is masturbation good for your physical and mental health, but it can actually make you want more partnered sex, not less. “Any actions in your relationship that increase physical bonds are healthy,” Saynt says. “You want to be connected to your partner. You want to share in experiences that bring you closer.” In other words, masturbation can improve your sex life in multiple ways.

Masturbation can bring you more pleasure during partnered sex

“Masturbation is a great way to explore each other and learn what makes you and your partner come,” Saynt explains. Your partner is not a mind reader and neither are you!

Mutual masturbation opens a door through which you can explore each other’s sexual pleasure more fully. If you masturbate together, you get an up-close and personal chance to see how your partner likes to touch themselves. This is an excellent learning opportunity; who knows how to make you come better than you? Quite simply, showing your partner how you like to touch your own body shows them how they can make you happy and satisfied.

Masturbation (and all sex acts that lead to pleasure and orgasm) allows your brain to release endorphins and feel-good chemicals like oxytocin and dopamine. All of them help you feel closer to your partner. Masturbation is a beautiful, vulnerable, and raw act. Being able to share that with someone you love builds trust.

“Getting to a point where we’re comfortable talking to our partners about sex and satisfaction is important,” Saynt adds. “Don’t feel ashamed about your masturbation habits, and don’t settle for a partner who makes you feel shameful about sex.”

The health benefits of masturbation

Self-pleasure isn’t only about releasing sexual tension through orgasm or ejaculation. It’s also about self-care.

If you’re in a monogamous or polyfidelitous relationship, one of the biggest benefits of masturbation – avoiding sexually-transmitted infections – isn’t really worth considering. You’re not really at risk of contracting STIs. (Pandemics like coronavirus can also result in a lower risk of STDs, but as we’ve all discovered, they’re really not much fun.)

However, there are many other reasons that masturbation is good for you, even if you’re in a relationship. 

The obvious ones are that masturbating can help you relieve stress or get to sleep more easily. Your doctor or healthcare professional may also have told you that it can also help strengthen your pelvic floor muscles. The less-obvious benefits, however, are just as important for your physical and sexual health.

First, let’s talk about self-pleasure by vulva-havers (or as scientific research generally discusses, “female masturbation”).

It goes without saying that climaxing almost always makes you feel better and puts you in a better mood. One big reason for that is the release of endorphins that accompanies an orgasm. Endorphins can do more than make you feel good, though; they can help relieve pain. During a period, that effect also helps to ease menstrual cramps. It may also relieve the lower back pain that often accompanies pregnancy.

Put another way, you may not always feel like having sex during your period, but making yourself feel good can also make you feel better.

There’s another good argument for masturbation during menstruation: It can also be less painful for those who suffer with dysorgasmia, or painful orgasms, because of the additional lubrication. And no, those wives’ tales about masturbation leading to infertility aren’t true. They’re not medical advice, they’re just wives’ tales.

Then, there’s physical health. Studies claim that sexual activity can lower vulva owners’ blood pressure, meaning a lower risk of heart attack and disease. They also suggest that sexual activity can be considered significant aerobic exercise. The latter is probably more true for penetrative sex than self-pleasure, but it’s a good excuse to masturbate anyway.

OK, time to talk about penis-havers.

A study conducted at Harvard Medical School received a lot of attention from the media because of its eye-opening conclusion: frequent ejaculation appears to cause a lower risk of prostate cancer. What does “frequent” mean? 21 or more orgasms per month seem to lower the risk by one-third – and that’s a lot more climaxes than most people experience from penetrative sex. There’s also been research showing that masturbation may help support the immune system in penis owners.

And while we’re debunking myths, let’s take care of two more. Masturbation doesn’t cause or lead to erectile dysfunction; in fact, it may help boost the self-esteem of penis-havers who have trouble performing with their partner. Allowing sperm to “build up” doesn’t give you more energy, either.

When to take note of negative effects

As with almost all wonderful, sexually delicious things, there can sometimes be negative side effects.

Masturbation, thankfully, won’t normally cause any significant health problems. All that might occur is the chafing or bruising that can result from getting a little too enthusiastic.

Instead, the most dangerous possibility involves your sexual well-being. If you’re enjoying masturbation so often that other sex acts fall by the wayside, that can become a serious issue.

“You may be loving yourself to a point of negatively affecting a relationship if it limits intimacy between partners,” explains Dougherty. “If you masturbate frequently, you know your pleasure areas, making it difficult for sexual intercourse to measure up. Your partner may not satisfy you equally.”

For male-bodied people, masturbation with a “death grip” can sometimes lead to less sensation during partnered sex. Likewise, for female-bodied people, regularly using a powerful vibrator or other sex toys might make your clitoris less sensitive, while making your partner’s tongue or fingers feel less satisfying.

The keys to resolving these issues are self-awareness and communication with your partner. Don’t get freaked out. These are all reversible. If you notice your masturbation habits are impacting your relationship in a negative way, take a break and recalibrate.

There is nothing wrong with masturbating in a relationship, but it is critical that you find balance. Talk to your partner and open a dialogue. When we keep sexual discomforts or confusions to ourselves, we can’t find suitable answers. If you need help finding that balance, a sex therapist or educator may be able to provide guidance.

“Prioritize intimacy with your partner. If masturbation is taking away from this, consider the reasons why. If you are able to incorporate masturbation into partner play, make sure to still plan some days which are all about you,” Saynt says.

Sounds good to us!

Have Your Needs Met

Learn helpful tips to establish healthier communication in the on-demand workshop Couples Communication, led by Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC.

Swell in your inbox,
every week

2