In most cases, masturbation is healthy and awesome. But if youre like Theo, you might have a serious problem
Theo, 47, has a successful job, a daughter, and many healthy friendships. From the outside, it appear as though he has a fairly conventional life. But for most of his life, he had a problem: he masturbated. A lot.
“There were times it would be every day, for only 15-20 minutes, and other times I would masturbate for eight, 10, or 12 hours,” he says. And when he started, he could not stop.
"For me, it was a maladaptive coping mechanism," he says. "[It was] much akin to someone going to a bar and wanting to get that edge off with a drink, and then five or six drinks later, they have a problem. But everything else [in my life was] in control.”
Eventually, Theo went to therapy and discovered what he had already suspected: he had a problem with out-of-control porn use. But acknowledging that he had an issue was only the first step to getting his life back.
In itself, getting off on a regular basis is hardly a problem. In fact, for the vast majority of men, masturbation isn't just enjoyable — it's healthy. Studies have suggested that regular masturbation can improve your immune system, reduce your cancer risk, and boost your performance in bed.
Four Reasons to Masturbate:
But for a small percentage of men (one sexual health organization puts the number at 3 to 5 percent of the general population, though specific numbers are hard to come by), masturbation can cross the line from a healthy habit to a compulsive behavior.
While the term "sex addiction" is often used to describe such behavior, it’s important to note one thing: sex addiction is a hotly debated topic in the medical and mental health community, to the point that many experts question whether it’s even a legitimate disorder.
It isn't in the American Psychiatric Association (APA)'s Diagnostic Statistical Manual for Psychiatric Disorders, a.k.a. the DSM-V, nor is it a term used by the American Association of Sexual Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT), an organization devoted to promoting sexual health.
In a statement on its website, AASECT says it "does not find sufficient empirical evidence to support the classification of sex addiction or porn addiction as a mental health disorder."
But that doesn't mean that compulsive masturbation or sexual activity doesn't cause significant duress to those who struggle with it. That's why AASECT prefers to use to the term "out of control sexual behavior," which includes compulsively watching online porn, hiring sex workers, having numerous extramarital affairs, etc.
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There are a few reasons why the term "sex addiction" has caused so much controversy. Often, people use the label as a way to excuse bad behavior or gloss over a deeper emotional issue that needs exploring. (Remember Anthony Weiner going to sex addiction rehab after he was caught sexting for the umpteenth time?)
"Many times, clients have come in describing themselves as 'sex addict,' and what I discover is that they are feeling guilty for watching porn two times a week when they promised their partner they wouldn't.
Or they are having an affair and are feeling ashamed and unable to end it because they have developed an emotional attachment to the lover," says Sari Cooper LCSW, CST, the founder and director of the Center for Love and Sex in New York City.
Just as an eating disorder is usually about much more than food, the root of a compulsive sexual behavior is often about sex at all. Usually, there are underlying psychological issues. Theo, for instance, was sexually abused as a child, and says he has been struggling with out-of-control porn use ever since.
"Because I experienced something traumatic that sexually activated me at a young age, watching porn and masturbating became a go-to for managing stress or anxiety and dealing with my feelings," he says.
So how do you know if you’ve crossed the line from simply enjoying your own company, to having an out-of-control sexual behavior?
Well, there's good news: just because you like to get off (a lot) doesn't necessarily mean that you have a problem, says Cooper. It's possible that you could have an unusually high libido. The difference between having an unusually high libido and having a compulsion is whether you use masturbation as an escape or a coping mechanism, rather than just for an overall good time.
There is no magic number for how many times a day you must masturbate to be diagnosed with a compulsive sexual disorder."While the sex addiction industry sets some sort of number... the out-of-control sexual behavior model [is defined as] a person's internal sense of their own agency not being clearly understandable to the individual," says Cooper (basically, if your sexual behavior makes you feel helpless or out of control).
Additionally, if your masturbation habits are “taking time away from family, work and responsibilities," or if you're "at risk for job loss, financial ruin, criminal charges and/or sexually transmitted infections," then that might mean you have a problem, says Cooper.
But it doesn't have to be extreme as that. Theo, for instance, knew he had a problem when masturbation became his sole outlet for managing stress and anxiety. A workaholic, he used porn as a way to unwind and escape from daily stressors. At his lowest point, he was masturbating for 12 hours a day, which didn't leave much time to connect with real-life women.
"I realized my behavior was dulling and deadening the quality of life and the vibrancy of intimacy. I wasn't really able to connect with partners and be present in life," says Theo. "There were large gaps of time that were lost. I didn't have the same energy."
Fortunately, compulsive sexual behaviors are treatable. The key is acknowledging you have a problem, communicating about it, and getting to the root of the behavior.
Cooper suggests consulting a mental health expert or seeking a certified sex therapist for a basic assessment. If you're looking for a support system, there are also 12-step programs for out-of-control sexual behaviors. Avoid any expensive rehabilitation programs that claim to "cure" sex or porn addiction.
Theo, who has been in therapy for years, says the first thing to do is start a dialogue with your loved ones. Be prepared to face confusion or judgment, at least at first. "There's a huge stigma applied to porn, because so many people watch it, so talking about abusing porn with other people can be difficult because they get defensive," he says.
Nonetheless, it's important to "talk to people who are valuable in your life, so you're not living in denial, shame, guilt, or awkwardness."
*Last name has been withheld to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.