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When self-pleasure isn’t pleasurable: exploring masturbation anxiety.

How does masturbation affect mental health and is masturbation anxiety a thing? Despite its proven benefits, masturbation isn’t everyone’s go-to way of feeling better.

By Giada | 22 January 2022
Nails that dig into an arm and leaves slight marks on the skin
Photography by Steph Wilson

Why do we still have mixed feeling about self-pleasure? And to what extent does masturbation affect our mental health? Despite being an activity most of us indulge in, with proven health benefits, it still carries the weight of stigma on its shoulders, largely caused by its purely hedonistic nature. What’s so wrong with pleasure for pleasure’s sake?

If masturbation ever feels and goes wrong, it is still mostly due to how it is portrayed in social discourse. One of the most common negative feelings is guilt. For a number of cultural, religious and moral reasons, self-pleasure is seen as dirty, dangerous and something to be ashamed of, even more so when practiced by women.

3 ways in which masturbation can go wrong

If you ever questioned it, don’t: masturbation is healthy, natural and one of the best ways we know to unwind, get in touch with our desires and explore our pleasure. There are no real drawbacks, only benefits. For some of us however, things can take a different turn and end up affecting our mental health in unexpected ways. Anxiety, discomfort or more unpleasant emotions might arise: here is how to recognise and understand them.

1. Masturbation guilt

A series of norms and rules, whether personal, cultural or religious, directly influence the way we experience sex and pleasure. Masturbation is forbidden by a number of religions. A number of studies have shown a direct link between religious beliefs and masturbation guilt, whether afterwards or even during masturbation itself. Not to mention the clear double standards.

Just like most double standards, sexual double standards are very much gender-related. Along the lines of: “while men are expected to be active, domineering and initiate sex, women should be submissive and passive.” This causes a number of negative effects on both sides: for men, they include anxiety, depression and erectile dysfunction; for women, this involves a distinct lack of physical and mental pleasure.

2. Masturbation anxiety

Panic attacks are another possible effects of masturbation caused be overwhelming anxiety. There are a number of deeper personal dynamics why this might occur, including PTSDs and other past trauma.

While this might be a consequence of negative sexual experiences, it might also be the result of the weight of personal expectations in terms of how our bodies should look and act. Performance anxiety might also come into play: remember, orgasm pressure is a thing.

3. Masturbation addiction

Just like anything that makes us feel good, masturbation might become addictive, compulsive and eventually toxic, so much so that it might influence our mood, daily life and relationships. Just like any dependency, it might take a toll on our mental health. Things might even become pathological if we are unable to quit despite all the negativity it may bring.

How to overcome the negative to embrace pleasure

Sex isn’t a war to be fought. Whatever happens to you, it’s not anyone business to explain how you ought to feel and behave. But if masturbation is something you’d like to be more comfortable with and dedicate more time to, here’s a few things you might find helpful.

  • Try to have open conversations about it. Talk to someone you trust, or consider talking to a sex therapist to clear up your thoughts around masturbation.
  • Involve your partner. Exploring masturbation with one or more partners can ease the stress if doing it alone; it might even make non-solo encounters more fun. Consider bringing a toy as your +1. 
  • Learn to manage your feelings. How does masturbation make you feel? What makes you do it and why? Understanding what triggers your anxiety or sense of guilt can be a good way to discover where they come from and overcome them. As with most things, deconstruction is key.

While all feelings are legitimate, whether positive or negative, if you feel a strong need or desire to reclaim your self-pleasure and find a balance, consider taking a more mindful approach in order to enjoy your own body without any of the masturbation anxiety or guilt. Naturally, serenely, at your own pace and in your own way.

Sources & Papers:

Can Masturbatory Guilt Lead to Severe Psychopathology: A Case Series

The Relation Between Religiousness and Masturbatory Guilt: The Role of the Sexual Double Standard, Tamara te Winkel

Masturbatory guilt and sexual dysfunction

Online Porn Addiction: What We Know and What We Don’t—A Systematic Review

Amanda Denes (2012) Pillow Talk: Exploring Disclosures After Sexual Activity

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