Masturbation and solo sex

On The Other Hand: Remembering That Masturbation Isn’t Mandatory

Published: MAY 31, 2016 | Updated: MAY 9, 2022
Just like any other sex act, masturbation is not everyone's cup of tea.

A while back I got an email asking me for toy advice. In it, the writer mentioned their feelings on masturbation:


“I don't masturbate. And no, this is not an ‘I'm too embarrassed to admit it’ situation… I've read books, gotten advice, etc. but I just don't get it.

My antennae went up. They were asking if a certain toy would make masturbation better, but I suspected that a toy wasn’t the answer at all. I suspected that they just weren’t into masturbation and no one had ever told them that that was OK. It's a totally plausible scenario right now given masturbation’s reputation, especially among the open-minded and sex positive, as the Best Thing Ever©, something that is celebrated as a simultaneous provider of pleasure, education and numerous health benefits.

I took a shot and opened my response as follows:


“So, the thing I can't entirely tell is if you want to be masturbating ... I think you do (?), but if you don't do it and don't really have interest in it, that's cool too. There's a lot of masturbation! orgasm! clitoris! wooooo!!!’ hype in the world.

Bingo! My reader wrote back:

“That's so freeing! Usually when people find out they go through these stages: 1. Disbelief. I must be embarrassed to admit it. After all, everybody poops and masturbates. 2. Fix mode. They have an idea or a toy that will make masturbation my favorite pastime. So, I'm very excited that you did neither. So, if that's OK, then maybe I'm going to let masturbation go and just continue to have sex, which is something I do like to do.


When we think about pressure to engage in sexual activities, we usually think about one partner pressuring another. The idea of someone feeling pressure to engage in solo sexual exploration may sound a bit odd but as we stand here, at the end of Masturbation May, and look at the countless memes, tweets and posts flying around, it's easy to see where people might have gotten the impression that masturbation is not just a healthy activity that we are all free to explore if we so desire, but a mandatory measure of one’s health, sexual openness and - let’s face it - general coolness. Amidst all this, it's easy to feel like masturbation is an inherent part of our humanity, that ALL people do it, and that to not do it is a sign of repression.

A few years back, I got into an argument with a sex educator who insisted that of course I masturbated furiously as a child. ALL children do - at least until they are stopped by sexually repressed parents. The things is, I really didn’t. To this day I find it necessary to qualify that with “I don’t know why, I just didn’t.” Even I have bought into the notion that lacking that “natural” instinct means that something was clearly wrong with me. If I, someone who has been writing and teaching about sex for years, can fall victim to this kind of insecurity, imagine what can happen to people whose lives don’t include constant open sexual dialogue!

Masturbation May was started 20 years ago by the folks at Good Vibrations in response to the firing of Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders after she publicly spoke in support of masturbation. At a time when a completely benign (and actually, really astute) reference to masturbation had just outraged the country, devoting an entire month to the open discussion of it was a revolutionary act, and the fact that we still celebrate it every year is not only very cool, but also a vital part of continuing to move forward. It is still important to send people the message that masturbation is a healthy activity, that our bodies are our own and that our pleasure is ours to control. However, somewhere along the line something got lost in translation. “We shouldn’t be embarrassed by masturbation and people should be free to do it” started to be read by some as “Masturbation is the best thing ever and everyone should do it!!” Some people even go so far as to tell folks that if you are not masturbating YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG!!!


Because, you know, sex positivity and stuff.

How did we get here? It’s actually pretty understandable. So many folks have spent their lives not being allowed to talk about sex. So, discovering people who talk about it openly and spaces that encourage frank sexual dialogue can cause even the best of us to go a bit “kid in a candy store” and start mistaking sex enthusiasm for sex positivity. The passion applied to “you can’t tell people sex is wrong” can grow and unintentionally morph into adamant (and loud) feelings that “all sex is good and right always!” For a lot of us, the pendulum needed to swing the other way to get everyone talking and casting off the shackles of sexual repression. Even so, it's important to remember to bring it to a healthy center; to normalize sexual behavior rather than sensationalize it; to support behaviors and activities rather than promote and venerate them; to create safe spaces without a smirk and a wink; to say “these behaviors (masturbation included) are all options and we support you in your choice,” rather than “do all the sex things!!!!”.

How to be sex positive and support sexual freedom without veering into “you should be doing the sex things!” territory? That is the question. Ay, there’s the rub (all pun intended). Fortunately, I think the answer here is a lot more obvious than we think. All we have to do is remember that masturbation is a sex act and, as such, it’s subject to the same rules and expectations as all other sex acts. Chief among those rules? It’s not for everyone.



That’s right folks, just like any other sex act, masturbation is not everyone’s cup of tea. I can hear you now “But the learning! The exploration! THE ORGASMS!!!” I know, masturbation has a lot of benefits and I sure as heck love it. But you know what else I love that has a lot of benefits? Kale. Not everyone’s into that either. It’s OK. (Somewhere out there, someone with a Hitachi in one hand and a Vitamix in the other just screamed out in anguish)

If masturbation isn’t your thing, that’s cool. If someone tells you masturbation’s not their thing, listen to them instead of telling them why they are wrong or gasping and shuddering like a fish out of water. There should be no shame either way.


Let go of the machismo that gets assigned to sex - more isn’t necessarily better. Stop saying stuff like “I’m a sexual person!” as if sexuality was something that needed to be earned with a certain amount of activity (like one of those 10th-coffee-free punch cards). Understand that for some people, sex is fun, for other people sex is scary, and for others still, sex is mundane. Not one of them is wrong. Allow everyone their experience as long as it's not hurting anyone else. Because, in the end, isn’t that what sex positivity is really about?

May has come and so should you. If you want. It’s cool either way.

JoEllen Notte

JoEllen is a writer, speaker, researcher and mental health advocate whose work explores the impact of depression on sex and relationships. Since 2012 she has written about sex, mental health, and how none of us are broken on her award-winning site The Redhead Bedhead. JoEllen has led workshops nationwide on sexual communication, navigating consent, having casual sex kindly, and dating as an introvert. She has toured sex shops, spoken at length on dildos, and...

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