Is Healthy Masturbation Part of Sex Addiction Counseling?

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.

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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.