When Does Masturbation Become A Problem?

We will review how to tell if your frequency of masturbating has become problematic, the negative effects of over-masturbation, and how you can make changes in your life to be more mindful of the act of masturbating. As a therapist who supports people with sexual challenges, I talk to people often about masturbation. No matter the gender or sexual orientation, masturbation is an uncomfortable topic and people have different ideas about what masturbation is. People often feel shame and guilt around their masturbation practices and have come to me with a belief that their masturbatory behaviors are a problem. They will also bring concerns from their partner when their behaviors are discovered. It can be hard for many to know when masturbation becomes a problem and sometimes it is only in the context of one’s relationship. 

What is masturbation?

To ensure we are on the same page, let’s first define masturbation. For some people, this includes stimulating their genitals with their hand or a sex toy, while for others they rub their body against a surface or object (e.g., bed, pillow, shower head) to stimulate their genitals. This is done repetitively to build arousal until orgasm and ejaculation (women too). People masturbate for pleasure and relaxation. Many masturbate in the morning or evening. Men often masturbate in the morning due to having an erection when they wake up. This is because men get a hefty dose of testosterone overnight. Many like to masturbate before bed because it creates a feeling of relaxation making it easier to get to sleep. 

When is masturbation a problem?

Clients who come to me asking if their masturbatory practices are a problem tend to have concerns about frequency (too much), where they do it, what they think about or watch while doing it, their partner expresses concern, potential performance issues when sexual, and concern about a drive/strong urge to do it. Ultimately, any behavior is a problem when it impairs daily functioning. You might feel “driven” to do it even when there could be consequences. Perhaps feeling like you “need to do it” is bothersome to you. Some people complain that they struggle to get work done because they feel such strong urges to masturbate or are distracted by sexual fantasies. 

In general, masturbation is a healthy way to connect with your body and enjoy the natural chemicals released as part of orgasm (if that is your goal). Many often view pornography and masturbation as going together. Some may not view masturbation as the issue, rather the pornography and its content as a problem. Many people can find a middle ground by learning how to masturbate without pornography. Yes, it is actually possible without any visual stimuli! Our practice helps people create a deeper connection with their body and have better orgasms through learning mindful masturbation as part of sensate focus therapy.

How much is too much masturbation?

There isn’t a specific number or cut-off when masturbation becomes a problem. If the frequency is causing stress in your life, relationship issues, or physical harm to your body, then there may be a problem. Examples of how it may cause stress or impact your life include: being late to work, meetings, or other obligations, and lying or purposely not telling a partner about the behavior. The frequent friction, and use of objects, or lubes can cause irritation, discomfort, or abrasions that can be harmful to genitalia. Hurting yourself is an indication that it is too much. Damaging your body could cause longer-term consequences. If you are looking for pain as part of arousal, the BDSM world has many options that won’t result in potentially long-term physical issues.  I have met with people who masturbate in the morning and evening every day, but it doesn’t impact their lives negatively in any way. Just because they are masturbating every day twice, doesn’t necessarily mean it is a problem. Frequency can change over time and depend on what is going on in your life. 

Where you masturbate can be a problem for you…and others

Clients have reported that they masturbate at work. They do it in the bathroom or at their desk. Your employer and coworkers might take exception to this practice should they find out unintentionally, it will cause a multitude of problems. Others report masturbating in their car or other places where someone could see them. On the one hand, it can feel exciting to potentially get caught, on the other hand, it is illegal in many states. It could be quite upsetting to someone who comes upon you doing it too. It is also a good idea, if using pornography, to be sure that it is hidden and not in places where younger kids could come across it. Ultimately, there are fewer potential consequences of doing it privately.

Are the things that arouse me bad?

People can feel deep shame and guilt over what they are aroused too. The things that are most arousing to people are often the things that they deem as being taboo. A study by Dr. Justin Lehmiller of over 4,000 people’s sexual fantasies found that taboo topics are quite common, because there is added excitement about the forbidden nature of it. Our cultures, childhood, and religion can all send direct and indirect messages about sex, sexual thoughts, and sexual behaviors. We internalize negative messages creating shame and guilt. Ultimately, thoughts are not facts. If you watch or fantasize about something, it doesn’t mean you want to go do it in real life. We might fantasize about a different gender, but it doesn’t mean we want a relationship or to act it out in real life. We might think about fantasies that may not be entirely consensual, but this doesn’t mean you will go out and rape someone. Our fantasies and realities are often separate and that is OK as well as normal. That said, there could be conflicting religious, moral, or other beliefs that may conflict making it a challenge for it to feel resolved. It may be beneficial to talk with a professional or a religious leader to help address deeper, complex issues. 

What role does masturbation play in a relationship?

Everyone is different when it comes to how they feel about masturbating. I have worked with couples married for decades and they don’t know if their partner masturbates. They have never talked about it. For many, it is a source of embarrassment and shame. Childhood often is the source of distorted formulations about what it means to masturbate. Some are told they will “go to hell” or “will poke an eye out.” Others are told “That’s what single people do.” (McCarthy & McCarthy, 1998). Another related concern is worrying that if someone masturbates too much, they won’t be able to be sexual with their partner when it is initiated. If masturbating often, one might need to consider the refractory period. This is the time after orgasm before one can be sexual again. For women, this is much shorter than for men and varies with age. The older one is, the longer the refractory period may be due to the lowering of testosterone age one age (McCarthy & McCarthy, 1998). It is important to talk about sex, including masturbation, with your partner. Sometimes, these conversations may end with one having concerns about the other’s behavior. Perhaps even questioning the issues already discussed above. We don’t get to control our partner’s behavior nor should we feel like we are giving up something important to us. This can lead to lying and sneaking around, which can cause more significant relationship issues. Honesty and communication are paramount to healthy sexual behavior. Should a couple reach an impasse in their discussion, it may be helpful to seek a professional to assist (McCarthy & McCarthy, 1998). 

Why do I think about masturbating so much?

Some people feel a strong urge or are compelled to masturbate. They can be distracted by their urges making it difficult to focus on everyday tasks or to be productive in their day. The urge may also include sexual fantasies. If these thoughts are so intrusive that they make it difficult to engage in daily functioning tasks, then there may be an underlying issue worth addressing with a professional. One client I worked with said he struggled to focus on his work because he “couldn’t stop thinking about sexual fantasies.” He sometimes fell behind on tasks and was spoken to a few times by his boss. This created frustration and guilt.  Another individual said she masturbated daily and thought it was too much, but upon further discussion, she felt compelled to do it because it stopped repetitive sexual thoughts in her head. She didn’t like feeling as though her thoughts controlled her day rather than her controlling her thoughts and subsequently her behaviors. Sometimes various mental health or neurological issues can cause these intrusive thoughts. OCD, ADHD, trauma, or general compulsive tendencies can create a strong compelling desire that is distracting making it hard to ignore. People will then masturbate to make the thoughts stop rather than for general arousal or pleasure. There are many treatment options available to address this (Braun-Harvey & Vigorito, 2016).

Masturbation is a problem if it impairs your daily functioning or creates a problem in the context of your relationship. Masturbation is meant to be a fun, pleasurable, and relaxing activity you do alone or with others. It is important to utilize your whole body as a sexual organ rather than being genital-focused. Mindful masturbation as part of sensate focus therapy can help you untangle the need for visual stimuli and have better orgasms. Challenging negative feelings and thoughts about masturbation will allow you to feel more sexual health, which is an important part of your overall health. Talking to your partner about your masturbatory behaviors is an important part of a sexual connection. It is also a fun thing to do together. Should you reach an impasse about if a behavior is a problem, a sex therapist can help. We also have an article about using mindfulness to help manage compulsive masturbation. It is important to be your authentic self no matter what your relationship status is. If you would like to learn more about this topic, here are some book ideas:

Book Recommendations

Better Sex Through Mindfulness by Lori Brotto, Ph.D

Come as You Are by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D

Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How it Can Help Improve Your Sex Life by Justin Lehmiller, Ph.D


Braun-Harvey, D & Vigorito, M. (2016). Treating Out of Control Sexual Behavior: Rethinking Sex Addiction. New York, New York. 

McCarthy, B & McCarthy E. (1998). Male Sexual Awareness: Increasing Sexual Satisfaction. Carrol & Graf Publishers Inc: New York, New York.

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