In my experience, the start of a semester spawns more resolutions than New Year’s Eve. Gaggles of students convene in the dining halls and discuss how they will achieve a better work-life balance: they will mention eating breakfast, procrastinating less, sleeping eight full hours a night, and perhaps even learning to use that mystery machine in the Israel Fitness Center. One thing they won’t mention: masturbation.
Throughout my seasoned eavesdropping career, among close friends and strangers, I’ve never heard anyone frame masturbation as an empowering, joyful, and relieving act of self-care. This is a critical oversight for students who are navigating the newfound independence, intensive social climate, and natural anxiety that comes with life at Yale. We should all be touching ourselves and talking about touching ourselves more often.
I believe solo sex is a radical act of self-love. The late sex educator Betty Dodson referred to masturbation as “the ongoing love affair that each of us has with ourselves throughout our lifetime” That definition has always felt compelling to me, albeit a bit overly romantic.
Masturbation provides a distinctive way to befriend your body and explore your sexuality. There is an intrinsic beauty to pursuing yourself as the sole object of your sexual desire. There is also a significant sense of power. We rarely permit ourselves to lust after our own bodies — that type of unbridled confidence or self-absorption is largely viewed as unacceptable — but when we do, there is often a noticeable shift in the way we connect with our physicality. We become more comfortable with ourselves and more intimately aware of our sexual needs.
Furthermore, learning the ins and outs of our erogenous zones is integral to articulating what we want in a sexual partnership. When so much of sex education is centered around how to say no, verbalizing what gives you pleasure can be difficult. Masturbating means taking a foundational step towards knowing and subsequently stating your needs.
Discovering your particular preferences in bed is especially valuable if you engage in hookup culture on campus. When you don’t have the opportunity to cultivate positive sex practices with a particular partner over time, being able to concisely and confidently ask for what you want can make or break a sexual experience. If you want that one-off Woads guy to bring you to orgasm and not just leave a sweat stain on your sheets, solo sex is the answer. It is the best and safest way to enhance your sexual communication.
Masturbation doesn’t just improve sex, though, it improves our quality of life. Masturbation has been scientifically demonstrated to increase happiness, lower stress, and enhance sleep. Dr. Richard A. Rawson, a UCLA psychiatry professor, found that orgasms significantly increase the dopamine levels in your brain. For the average person, this level of dopamine surpasses that of eating a cheeseburger, playing video games, drinking, or using nicotine.
For certain individuals, masturbation can also improve sleep as it releases the perfect cocktail of chemicals: oxytocin, the cuddle hormone; serotonin, a mood stabilizer; and vasopressin, a hormone that works with melatonin to promote sleep. Masturbation also inhibits cortisol production, curbing stress levels.
Despite scientific and sociological experts concretizing masturbation’s benefits, it remains taboo. TENGA, a global sex toy company that aims to dismantle the stigma surrounding masturbation, puts together an annual Self-Pleasure Report to provide quantitative data on solo sex. In 2020, the company synthesized data from over 5,000 survey respondents and found that 88% of US men between 18-54 and 80% of US women have masturbated. However, only one in five respondents agreed that it is important to discuss masturbation with close friends and partners. This speaks to the unflagging stigmatization of masturbation.
This stigmatization is rooted in pervasive religious teachings, philosophical conjectures, and early psychological theories. In the Christian church, masturbation has been framed as an unnatural sin since the 4th century. While masturbation’s reputation has morphed over time, it has remained bounded by an unbudging negative perception.
In the 18th century, against the backdrop of the Age of Enlightenment, influential thinkers fervently frowned upon solo sex. Rosseau referred to masturbation as an unnatural act equivalent to “mental rape,” and Kant declared solo sex as a force of moral corruption. Through the 1900s, churches encouraged parents to prevent their children from masturbating. Masturbation is also considered haram in Islam.
In early psychology and psychoanalysis, prominent 20th-century actors such as Sigmund Freud and G. Stanley Hall spoke negatively of masturbation. Freud linked solo sex with neurotic disorders, especially neurasthenia. Hall, the founder of the American Journal of Psychology, contended that the spread of masturbation was a major cause of “sexual perversion.”
While the taboo surrounding masturbation has been slowly eroding at the hands of science and social empowerment, it is still present. The lack of explicit solo-sex education most of us receive as young adults feed into a widespread distortion that masturbation is a private, often shameful act, requiring maximal secrecy. The absence of glorified masturbation scenes in pop culture furthers the notion that solo sex is in some way perverse or irregular, and the rare portrayal of a quick jerk-off into a sock does little to illustrate masturbation’s self-care potential.
Today, there is ample evidence to confirm that masturbation is a healthy and praiseworthy act –– we ought to treat it like one. Open dialogues with those you’re close to or sexually involved with are necessary to combat stigmas. After all, whether you are single, in an on-campus relationship, or doing long distance, masturbation is likely a part of your life—why shouldn’t it be a shame-free part of your self-care routine?
While I recognize that everyone comes from a different background with different comfort levels surrounding intimacy and privacy, I hope students can repurpose their fear or embarrassment of discussing solo sex into a productive curiosity. Masturbation provides a safe, ubiquitous sexual experience that can illuminate new ways to derive pleasure and help mitigate the stresses of young adulthood. It is both a powerful tool and teacher—but only if you’re a willing student.