One of the most common questions or concerns for the men I see in recovery for sex and porn addiction centers on masturbation. Can I masturbate during recovery? Will this set me back? How can I tell the difference between a “normal” act and an addictive one? To start, let’s review some working definitions on masturbation, addiction and compulsion:
Masturbation: erotic stimulation especially of one’s own genital organs commonly resulting in orgasm and achieved by manual or other bodily contact exclusive of sexual intercourse, by instrumental manipulation, occasionally by sexual fantasies, or by various combinations of these agencies
Addiction: the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.
Compulsion: a strong, usually irresistible impulse to perform an act, especially one that is irrational or contrary to one’s will.
If you look closely at the words alone, masturbation speaks to the physical act of self-stimulation while the latter reflects the uncontrollable, habitual, and irrational aspects of human behavior. So, how can a person in recovery personalize this so that they can make an informed, conscious decision? It depends.
What is ‘Healthy’ Masturbation?
Most articles on this subject pertain to the physical nature of masturbation and sexual health—desensitization, sexual dysfunction, to name a few. What I’m referencing here is more in line with the intent of the question from people in recovery—is masturbation healthy or is part of my addictive cycle? The answers to this question are subjective and depend on the intentionality of each person.
A female psychotherapist once described to me a generalized view in how her female clients viewed and used masturbation. Their use of masturbation was more of an inward driven act, feeling the sensations of the body, and less on external sensations. They tended to not use pornography or as much fantasy and were less concerned with getting away from feelings (i.e. stress) and instead were more clued in to what they were feeling physically. Now although this is a generalized view as I am sure there are women who do masturbate to porn to escape feelings, it does paint a “healthy” picture. The majority of men I see do not masturbate unless they use porn or fantasy, and are usually trying to avoid feelings or situations. The process is more external and less about the sensations of the body.
Another common description of healthy masturbation is “making love to oneself.” How often does a person who struggles with sexual compulsive behavior actually feel like that when they masturbate? Or are they merely channeling unmet feelings in a sexual way?
Self-awareness provides the recovering addict options where as acting out only offers the one-way road. For example, if feelings of stress are the impetus for the need to masturbate, rather than self-soothe what would be like instead to investigate the feeling of stress? Same goes for boredom, loneliness, and self-indulgence—all key contributors. Exploring one’s feelings rather than quickly acting them out both allows a way to sort out your inner experience and makes for a healthier you.