I am returning to this topic because it is one that comes up repeatedly in sex addiction counseling. Masturbation to pornographic images or fantasies is not necessarily an unhealthy thing on its own. But for sex addicts the uncontrollable acting out of particular sexual fantasies and the act of masturbating while having specific sexual fantasies are very similar processes.
If the addict’s preferred acting out behavior is visiting prostitutes, going to sexual massage parlors, anonymous sexual hook-ups, cyber sex, porn, serial seduction or more likely some combination of behaviors, the fantasies that accompany masturbation will likely mirror those activities.
Sex addicts have what therapists call an “arousal template,” the sexual scenario that they find most exciting. To the addict it is far more thrilling than any other sexual activity; it should really be called the hyper-arousal template. It may be any one of a myriad of sexual experiences, remembered or imagined, but that scenario is what they return to when they masturbate.
If not an exact repeat of the behavior, the masturbation fantasy will likely contain the essential elements of the arousal template, such as dominance, submission, multiple partners, the feeling of being intensely desired, or any of an array of specific sexual acts or fetishes.
Risks of masturbation during recovery
A great many sex addiction therapists believe that in the initial phase of recovery when the addict is trying to abstain from compulsive sexual behavior, that sexual activity should be avoided entirely, including masturbation. Even if masturbation is not part of the addict’s acting out scenario per se, it will most likely bring up fantasies of that activity which in turn could trigger the addict to relapse into the full-on behavior.
A sex addict who compulsively seeks sexual encounters with people he or she recruits from online sources such as personal ads may masturbate while thinking of these hook-up experiences. But this can bring up urges for more, which in turn may lead to the addict “taking a quick look” at the online ads or photos, and then to actual acting out.
When sex addicts use masturbation to “relieve the tension” in order to (theoretically) avoid their preferred sexually compulsive behavior, they may be perpetuating their problem.
In sex addiction counseling we often discourage using masturbation in this way. If it is a watered down version of the behavior the addict is trying to quit, it has the potential to simply prolong the process of withdrawal. The addict is trying to “kick” the habit of a compulsive sexual behavior, one that is secret, alienated and often surrounded with shame. And reliving that behavior in masturbation fantasies is like methadone maintenance for opiate addiction. It is not the same as getting sober.
Adding masturbation back into the program
When in the recovery of the sex addict, or in the process of sex addiction counseling, is it appropriate to allow for masturbation? Using masturbation in recovery depends on:
- The addict’s ability to masturbate without addictive fantasies. This is difficult for most sex addicts as they often find it hard to get aroused or to climax with different fantasies or no fantasies at all.
- The addict’s ability to masturbate to orgasm and avoid “edging.” Edging is the process of repeatedly bringing oneself to the edge of orgasm, pulling back and starting again as a way to prolong arousal.
- The addict’s ability to plan to masturbate rather than doing it when a sexual urge arises. The spur of the moment decision to masturbate may be due to urges or triggers that the addict should pay attention to and deal with in other ways than simply reacting sexually.
How masturbation can be useful in sex addiction counseling
Masturbation can be like a sexual laboratory. Here are some of the ways in which the addict can use masturbation to explore and learn about himself or herself.
- Psychological factors surrounding the act of masturbation. Arousal and orgasm may bring up ideas, voices from the past that have played a role in shaping the addict’s sexuality.
- Emotions or even “body memories” can crop up when masturbation is done without going off into the trance of addictive fantasies. These emotions and memories may relate to past traumatic experiences that the addict has never worked through.
- Some people in sex addiction counseling can experiment with changing their fantasies while masturbating. They can use masturbation to “stretch the envelope” i.e. to go to fantasies and images that are more in the healthy range for them, like thinking about the person they love. For some this will be a return to a more normal time in their life.
Some people have become free of sex addiction through years hard work in their sex addiction counseling program and have begun a new way of living. For these recovered addicts, masturbation is often neither compelling or triggering. It can then take its place as a normal kind of sexual activity.