Can Masturbation Really Become an Addiction?
Let’s say you’re in a social setting with friends and you suddenly blurt out, “Hey, can we talk about masturbation? I have some questions.” You’d probably get a bunch of blank stares—a “deer-in-the-headlights” kind of experience—awkward to say the least! But people do have questions about masturbation—Is it a healthy outlet or does it get in the way of my happiness? Is it good for my relationships or not? Is it morally wrong or completely neutral? What does it do psychologically and biologically, good or bad? Does it prevent prostate cancer or increase my cancer risk? And the list goes on and on.
The thing I want to talk about in this discussion is whether or not masturbation can really become an addiction. You might be wondering, “Why does it matter?” After years of working online with struggling people all over the world, I can tell you that many arrive at the place where masturbation gets in the way of their happiness and relationships—it just “isn’t working for them anymore.” And the process they describe sounds very similar to someone who’s trying to stop drinking, smoking or doing drugs. It goes something like this—
“I started masturbating when I was a kid. First it was curiosity and then it was just a way to get a quick pleasure rush. Then I found myself doing it to cope with feeling stressed or bored or to deal with my social anxiety. A lot of times I did it after looking at porn or I just did it in the shower or restroom. Pretty soon I was doing it all the time and I couldn’t resist the urge. I tried to get it under control, but it just sort of took over. Now I feel like a total slave to it, like I can’t give it up even if I want to.”
I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like an addiction. But how is that possible? This isn’t like a liquid you drink, a pill you pop or something you inject into your veins. How can it be addictive? To answer that question we have to look at the underlying biology of masturbation. What’s happening in the brain and the rest of the body? It can really be summed up with two words—“self-sex.” When reading that term, you may feel a little defensive or assume I’m going to launch into some kind of moral or religious tirade. All I want to do is take a logical, scientific look at the issue.
When two people in a healthy, long-term committed relationship come together for sexual intimacy, an amazing process takes place in the brain and body: powerful neurochemicals like dopamine, norepinephrine, Oxycontin and serotonin are released. The body’s natural morphine or “endorphins” flood the system. These internal chemicals give the couple intense feelings of pleasure, a heightened focus and closing out of the world, an emotional bonding and sense of “oneness,” a psychological and biological state of renewal, and many more remarkable benefits. As they reach sexual climax, the same internal chemicals release at even higher levels, and the couple emerges from the experience refreshed, renewed, unified, and better able to go out and face the challenges of the world.
As you can see, from a psychological and biological standpoint, sexual intimacy between a committed couple is incredibly powerful and brings a host of positive outcomes. It’s very much an “us” focus, while still benefiting each individual.
Let’s take this sexual process out of the committed relationship, and move it into the world of the “one.” With masturbation, the same powerful neuorchemicals are released in the brain and body. There are feelings of pleasure, escape from the world, and a powerful, although temporary soothing of feelings of stress, boredom, burnout and other negative emotions.
It’s interesting to note that street drug use triggers the brain into releasing its own neurochemicals and endorphins, bringing the temporary high, rush and relief the drug-user craves. Masturbation triggers the brain into releasing many of the same neurochemicals and endorphins, and like street drugs, can be used for self-medication and escape from the stress and pressures of life.
Once they start the practice, many find themselves turning to masturbation more and more as their “drug-of-choice” to cope with life. Then, desiring to enhance the masturbation experience—to increase the intensity—many start combining it with pornography, sexual fantasy, strip clubs, massage parlors, fetishes and other stimuli. This really creates problems because in the brain, these practices become powerfully linked to the neurochemical and endorphin release of masturbation. It’s what we call “masturbatory conditioning.” If you want to lock an image, activity or habit into your brain, then all you have to do is combine it with masturbation and the two will be inseparably connected.
For many decades, psychology wanted to limit “addiction” to substances we take into your bodies, like alcohol and drugs. But now with advances in brain imaging technology, we clearly see that “behaviors” can have the same effect. For example, we now know that addictions can be formed around activities like gambling and texting. And as this brief article has discussed, powerful addictions can be built around sexual images, thoughts and behaviors, especially when they include masturbation.
The great news is, just as someone can recover from a substance abuse addiction, they can also fully recover from a masturbation addiction and any other related sexual addiction. It takes time, consistent effort, and use of the right principles and tools, but anyone can get solidly on the path that leads to freedom from unwanted behaviors.