Is Masturbation OK in Recovery From Sexually Addictive Behaviors?

Masturbation  can present a problem for people with sexually addictive behaviors.

I would not encourage anyone to see masturbation as inherently bad or a problem, and yet there are some people who would see any sexual activity outside of marital sex, even masturbation as wrong.  If you hold such a view on religious or other  grounds, then you may see masturbation as wrong no matter what.

But since I do not hold such a view I distinguish between those situations in which masturbation is harmless and those in which it can complicate things for someone attempting to recover from sex addiction.

When is masturbation counter-productive?

In the early months (or maybe years) of recovery I believe it is a good idea for sex addicts to abstain from masturbation, regardless of whether compulsive masturbation is one of their sexually addictive behaviors or not.  Here are some situations where Masturbation can reinforce addictive patterns.

  • Masturbation can itself be a compulsion, meaning that it is being used to excess and as a drug.  For some sex addicts masturbation is their primary sexually addictive behavior.  Often it is done in conjunction with porn use but sometimes it is done using fantasy alone.  Compulsive masturbation often starts early in life and continues into adulthood.  The addict will often develop a pattern of masturbating numerous times per day.  In order to be free of this compulsion and lead a more normal sex and relationship life in recovery, the addict will need to “kick” the habit and allow their brain chemistry to return to normal functioning.  This means total abstinence for a period of time during treatment and recovery.
  • Masturbation can be part of a pattern of other sexually addictive behaviors.  Masturbation often accompanies other sexually addictive behaviors built around fantasy such as compulsive cybersex, sexual chat,  voyeurism, and exhibitionism.  The masturbation may be done at the time of the other behavior or it may be done later using the stimulus of the memory of the event.  In this case the behavior of masturbating is tied to whatever pattern of addictive acting out behavior exists and provides the sexual gratification for which the other behavior is the stimulus.  At least initially, the addict cannot quit one behavior without quitting both.
  • Masturbation in early recovery can prevent the process of withdrawal and lead to relapse.  Since the addict’s “arousal template” as it is called, is one of addictive sexual acting out of one type or another, it is likely that any form of sexual stimulation, at least in the beginning of recovery, can lead back to cravings and urges for the addict’s preferred sexually addictive behaviors.  Even if the addict has never masturbated compulsively, masturbating in recovery can bring on cravings for other behaviors, behaviors like anonymous sex, prostitutes, etc.   I takes a long time in treatment for the unhealthy urges and fantasies to subside or at least be less powerful.  Instead of allowing the addictive pattern to weaken, masturbation may be like taking small amounts of the drug, thus prolonging the process of withdrawal.

When is masturbation a useful part of recovery?

After a sex addict has established a period of abstinence from all sexually addictive behaviors, it is possible that masturbation can be engaged in in a normal way that does not threaten their sexual sobriety.  This is very much a subjective and individual decision to be arrived at by the addict and their sponsor or counselor.

  • Masturbation can become a more healthy activity that is not a compulsion and is not tied to another sexually addictive behavior.   It may be that the addict will find it a useful way to explore and check in with the fantasies that have driven their addiction and the memories or traumatic events that have shaped their sexuality in the past.
  • Sometimes addicts can actively change the content of their masturbation fantasies to experiment with different and healthier mental stimuli.  Some addicts masturbate while thinking about their spouse or partner.
  • Or addicts may simply be able to enjoy occasional masturbation as a positive, private experience that is different from their relational sex but is not part of a compulsion or an addictive pattern.

But many times masturbation loses it’s charm for sex addicts once they have given up their sexually addictive behaviors and no longer crave the hyper-arousal that their addictive fantasies provided.