Is Masturbation Addiction Real? What Experts Want You to Know

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Masturbation can be a healthy part of your solo or partnered sex life. But are there times it's a problem? Here's what therapists want you to know about compulsive masturbation.

Is masturbation addiction real?

Masturbation is a healthy way to explore your body and experience solo pleasure. Although there are plenty of healthy reasons to masturbate, is there a limit or line that crosses over to addiction?

There is some controversy over whether or not a masturbation addiction is even possible. Here’s what experts want you to know.

So is masturbation really an addiction?

When talking about “masturbation addiction,” people are actually referring to excessive or compulsive masturbation. But there is no conclusive evidence that masturbating is addictive, says clinical sexologist Joe Kort, director of The Center for Relationship and Sexual Health in Royal Oak, Michigan. “I never use the term addiction unless I am referring to an external chemical that one is taking from outside the body and can be addictive.”

Neither does psychologist Laurie Mintz, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Florida. “Calling anything sexual an addiction—such as masturbation addiction, porn addiction—is one of the most controversial topics in the field, with strong feelings on both sides,” says Mintz, author of Becoming Cliterate. (Here are other sex myths you might still believe.)

However, Judith Golden, a sex therapist in Toronto, Canada, does use the term in her practice because she says it’s a word people relate to and understand.

“There are cravings to repeat an activity that is pleasurable, and that often gives shame afterward, and yet that will be repeated even after a determination to stop,” Golden says. “I don’t think compulsion covers this.”

No diagnosis for “masturbation addiction”

That said, “masturbation addiction” is not a diagnosable mental health condition. There is no official clinical diagnosis, and it’s not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the definitive guide for diagnosing mental health conditions.

Plus, the American Association of Sex Therapists, Counselors, and Educators, one of the major sexuality organizations in the country that provides certification in sex therapy, does not recognize masturbation as addictive. The association has taken an explicit stance against using this word, according to Mintz.

Instead, the term “compulsive masturbation” or “compulsive sexual behavior” is preferable.

“Yes, it can be compulsive such as a form of OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder], and there can be other psychological factors as well, including impulse control disorders,” Kort says.

Compulsive masturbation may be considered as a hypersexuality disorder or part of compulsive sexual behavior, although those aren’t included in the DSM-5 as specific conditions either. (Here are other sex facts you don’t know.)

young man in bed with hand under blanket and tablet in handEstradaanton/Getty Images

What are signs masturbation is a problem?

Masturbation frequency in itself is not a cause for concern, according to Mintz. However, if you find yourself saying yes to some or all of the following questions, that’s a sign you may have a problem with masturbation, Mintz says.

  • Do you skip social events to stay home and masturbate?
  • Do you miss work to stay home and masturbate?
  • Is masturbation interfering with your ability to form or maintain new relationships?
  • Is your home, work, school, or personal life suffering because of masturbation?
  • Are you late to meetings, do you cancel events, or leave social appointments early to masturbate?
  • Do you masturbate in public or inappropriate places?
  • When you feel negative emotions—such as anger, anxiety, stress, or sadness—is your only or predominantly go-to response to masturbate for comfort?
  • Do you feel guilty, distressed, or upset after masturbating?
  • Do you find it difficult to stop thinking about masturbation?

Compulsive masturbation can interfere with your partnered sex life

Kort never uses the term frequent in regard to masturbation because it’s too subjective. “Who decides?” he says.

Compulsive masturbating, however, is a cause for concern if you want to be sexual with someone else, but your preference for masturbation is getting in the way. (Here’s why you can’t orgasm during sex.)

“Some people are asexual or ‘gray-sexual’ [rarely experience sexual attraction] and prefer masturbation over people, which is fine,” Kort says. But if you’re masturbating instead of, rather than in addition to, being with a partner—and you want to be with a partner—Kort would encourage taking a break or lessening the behavior.

“My experience working with couples is that sexual activity with the masturbator’s partner becomes very infrequent,” Golden says. “When masturbating, the person is in control of the activity and can plan whatever they want. And being with a partner is more difficult where they have to take the person they are with into account.”

The biggest issue here is familiarity with your own hand, timing, and duration for pleasure, according to Kort. “With others, you have to negotiate and get used to another person’s touch, and if you are masturbating, you are getting used to sex with yourself alone,” he says.

“You can still masturbate even when you are sexual with a partner during or away from a partner,”  he adds. “But the issue is getting used to another person, not just yourself.”

Other issues with compulsive masturbation

Although Kort says the biggest potential side effect of compulsive masturbation is getting used to your own touch and timing, some people might also masturbate to the point of scarring or chafing.

“This can sometimes be a sign of hypersexuality from childhood sexual abuse or other sexual traumas,” Kort says. 

A note about masturbation stigmas

Additionally, some people feel guilty about masturbation because it conflicts with their cultural or religious values. In this case, the problem is usually more about the guilt than the masturbation, says Mintz.

“The person is engaging in a natural, healthy behavior, but one they’ve been told is wrong, so they feel a conflict between their beliefs and their behavior.”

That’s part of the reason why calling it an addiction is shaming, she adds. “It may create guilt in people who are engaging in masturbation, which is a healthy and normative human behavior.”

What are the signs of healthy masturbation habits?

If you need a reminder that masturbation is healthy and OK, this is it.

“There is no normal or number or frequency,” Kort says. “It is perfectly natural and normal to masturbate,” he says. The overwhelming majority of people engage in this behavior. (To really relax, you may want to spend your alone time in the bath.)

Mintz agrees, adding that “too much” masturbation is hard to define. Again, the question is more about how it’s affecting your life.

Don’t forget that masturbation is a way to self-soothe and has psychological (stress reduction), and sexual (learning the stimulation you like) health benefits, according to Mintz. (Here are the affordable adult sex toys worth trying.)

Why might someone develop compulsive masturbation?

Mintz notes that experts don’t know all of the causes of compulsive sexual behaviors. “We do know that individuals who are depressed, lonely, lacking in social support, and have social anxiety—particularly around romantic and sexual relationships—are most likely to develop such compulsive behaviors,” Mintz says.

It’s key to look at the underlying psychological issues, says psychoanalyst Paul Joannides, author of The Guide To Getting It On. “For instance, are there feelings of deadness, emptiness, anger, or depression that the sensation from being able to orgasm help with? If so, then you need to deal with those underlying issues,” says Joannides, who served on the editorial board of the Journal of Sexual Medicine and the American Journal of Sexuality Education. Otherwise, it’s like treating the fever and not the infection that’s causing it, he adds.

Sometimes people are at greater risk of compulsive masturbation if they experienced childhood sexual abuse or have problems with intimacy, according to Kort.

Compulsive masturbation may be related to neurological issues, too. One study in PLoS One suggests that people with compulsive sexual behavior showed greater connections between certain brain structures like those in drug reward circuits. This means they may be more inclined toward compulsive sexual behaviors, like masturbation, because of their neurobiology.

How to stop compulsive masturbation

If compulsive masturbation is obsessive and affects other areas of your life, you may want to seek treatment options like therapy and support groups. They may help someone dealing with compulsive masturbation. Look for specialists in out-of-control sexual behavior, sex addiction, or hypersexual behaviors.

According to Kort, the most important thing for intervention is not to blame masturbation as the problem. That is an issue and distraction. “Find a good therapist to help determine what is driving the compulsive masturbation,” Kort says. “That is what needs treatment,” he says.

Bottom line

Whether you use the phrase addiction or compulsion, it is possible to treat or overcome unwanted behavior related to masturbation and improve your quality of life.

Remember that masturbation is healthy, unless it’s causing distress or problems in other areas of your life.

Next, check out how to improve your sex life in just one day.

Sources
Medically reviewed by Tia Jackson-Bey, MD, on March 22, 2021

Emily DiNuzzo
Emily DiNuzzo is an associate editor at The Healthy and a former assistant staff writer at Reader's Digest. Her work has appeared online at the Food Network and Well + Good and in print at Westchester Magazine, and more. When she's not writing about food and health with a cuppa by her side, you can find her lifting heavy things at the gym, listening to murder mystery podcasts, and liking one too many astrology memes.