Why Masturbating Is Still An Excellent Idea If You’re Coupled Up

Photographed by Amanda Picotte.
I was dozing in bed a few Saturdays ago when my husband took our dog out for an early-morning walk. Alone, the mood struck and I masturbated. I had a quick, decent orgasm, followed by a rush of guilt. It wasn’t the act itself (I’m well aware that EVERYONE DOES IT). But because I’m coupled up, masturbating sometimes feels like it did when I was in high school — sneaky and shameful, and something I shouldn’t be doing, at least not when I have easy access to my husband.
Before you troll me for being a sexually repressed bad feminist, hear me out. I’m in my mid-30s, and like many millennials I’m still trying to shake off the shackles of a half-baked sexual education; mine was largely informed by romance novels pilfered from my mom and the old adage that “nice girls wait.” So when it comes to talking to my partner about self-pleasure, I don’t really. It’s more like: “I know you masturbate; you know I masturbate, but let’s agree never to discuss it, and we can forget about that one time I left porn up on the laptop.” (My bad.) “There’s a lot of secrecy around this in couples,” says Robin Milhausen, a sexuality professor from the University of Guelph. “Most people have no idea how often their partner, regardless of gender, is engaging in masturbation.”
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And we are definitely engaging in it, some of us way more during COVID-19. In fact, judging from sex toy sales, masturbation is getting some of us through the pandemic single-handedly. A study by Indiana University's Kinsey Institute found that 33% of men and 20% of women are masturbating more often since quarantine started. Another 24% of women are masturbating less, which is no surprise since many women have less solo time to get ’er done because we’re taking on even more emotional and domestic labor.
Then again, there’s always been different sexual rulebooks for men and women. I grew up watching male leads in movies bone everything (apple pies included) while women were slut-shamed for sleeping with sexy and sensitive dance instructors in the Catskills. So I learned to downplay my libido, at least outwardly. Only recently have women been encouraged to own our sexuality, including our under-the-sheets solo activity. (Although we are still very rarely shown how to do that in non-heteronormative ways.)

I grew up watching males leads in movies bone everything (apple pies included) while women were slut-shamed for sleeping with sexy and sensitive dance instructors in the Catskills. So I learned to downplay my libido, at least outwardly.

“The pleasure gap is one of the biggest gender gaps,” says Alexandra Fine, a sexologist and co-creator of Dame Products, a line of sex toys geared toward people with vulvas. That gap applies to masturbation, but also to sex. Studies have shown that, in heterosexual relationships, women orgasm way less than men during sex. (Lesbians have more orgasms than straight or bisexual women.) This discrepancy comes down to a lot of factors — from partners' lack of knowledge about our anatomy to anxiety — but it’s also indicative of “who feels entitled to pleasure and why,” says Fine. “Women are much more likely to think of sex as for someone else’s pleasure. It’s so much a part of the female sexual narrative.”
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Milhausen thinks we’ve, ahem, come a long way, but agrees self-pleasure is among the final holdouts of our sexual revolution. “Masturbation is the last bastion of gendered difference [in sexuality] with men doing it far more often than women.” (Interestingly, her research has found that women seem to derive more pleasure from getting themselves off than men do, but that’s a different story.)
It doesn’t help that the self-pleasure industry feels marketed toward men — although feminist porn sites and companies like Dame are making inroads. Changing the sexual scripts we learn at a young age also requires some mental rewiring on our part. Masturbating but not wanting to have sex one day doesn’t make you a bad partner. And getting turned on by a sexy passage in a book and whipping out your vibrator when your significant other is out for a 10K run isn’t something to feel guilty about.
Besides, women are already drowning in guilt about everything — especially when it comes to taking time for ourselves, sexual or otherwise. “We need to start with encouraging women to have more leisure time and to take more time for ourselves... and the sex thing will fall into alignment,” says Milhausen. “But until women have five minutes to have a shower or to go for a walk, or to read a book or to talk to a friend, I’m not going to ask her to go and schedule the time to masturbate.”
Fine, for her part, says she has no problem getting off solo with her husband beside her. “I masturbate next to him frequently,” she says. “Sometimes it’s blossomed into something else. And sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes I don’t want it to…We’ve been doing that for years and it doesn’t even cross my mind. It’s like when you start peeing in front of each other. The first time is really weird and then it’s fine.”
I’m not sure I’d get off while my guy watches MLB replays on his iPad beside me (go Jays!), but I will say that I recently excused myself to the bedroom for some me time, and he didn’t care at all. It turns out our let’s-not-talk-about-masturbation might have been my own hang-up all along.
And I know what I'll be doing the next time he takes the dog to the park.

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