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Masturbation is important, even if you're in a relationship

By Lea Rose Emery

There’s a long-running, destructive joke that appears again and again in popular culture. A (grumpy) wife or girlfriend discovers that her (male) partner is masturbating. Maybe they’re even — gasp — watching actual, human porn. The woman is shocked, horrified, while the man splutters awkwardly and it all leads up to some lame joke about men loving porn and women being grossed out. Boys will be boys, amirite?

This is problematic on so many levels. Firstly, it’s deeply sexist — suggesting that all men are masturbation machines and that women not only don’t masturbate, but they’re also disgusted by it. But there’s another major issue with this lazy joke that rears its ugly head over and over again — it suggests that masturbation is off-limits within a relationship, that it shouldn’t happen at all or, if it does, it needs to be kept secret. WTF? If you’re someone who likes masturbating (not everyone is that sexual, which is fair enough), then masturbation is so important, whether you’re in a relationship or not.

It’s time to embrace masturbation. It’s not dirty, it’s not cheating, and it doesn’t mean that you’re disappointed in your sex life. Here’s why you (and your partner) both should have permission to keep it up — and embrace it.

Masturbation should never be a source of shame 

On the most basic level, masturbation should not be a source of shame. Your sexual arousal, your wants, and your needs are not shameful or wrong or embarrassing. So many of us grow up with internalized awkwardness or guilt around our sexuality. We might get it from our religion, from our parents, or just from society, but it’s incredibly destructive.

As adults, we learn that we can embrace our sexuality — and that’s a journey your partner should help you on. If your partner makes you feel like your desire — and the fact that you pay attention to that desire — is something inappropriate or that you should be blamed for it, then you have to have a larger conversation about your relationship, your autonomy, and your sexuality.

Your own sexuality is separate from your partner's 

Fun fact: you and your partner’s sexuality are not the same things. Of course, they impact each other and shape each other — your sex life is where they overlap. But that doesn't mean that they stop existing as separate entities. You’re autonomous beings and, in the same way that you keep having your own emotions, thoughts, and feelings, your sexuality still rumbles along independently.

Plus, one of the best ways to understand ourselves sexually is through masturbation. Without any pressure or expectations, we can find out what works for us, what we enjoy, and what doesn’t give us the right sensations. Whether you’re sexually inexperienced or just constantly rediscovering yourself, nothing beats flying solo for learning about yourself and, ultimately, improving your sex life.

Masturbation can be a great form of self-care 

For some people (myself included) masturbation is a little re-set moment, a cathartic clear all. For others, it’s an indulgent, elaborate experience. For some, it’s almost mindful. Whatever masturbation is to you, that’s great — and totally necessary. Although there’s clearly a carnal aspect to masturbation — and sometimes it can feel like little more than scratching an itch — it can also be a powerful form of self-care. You need those little spaces in your life and in your day that are just about you and your needs — and taking the time to actually tend to those needs can be a good reminder to listen and be kind to yourself more generally.

You can set your own boundaries, if you want to

While I think watching porn is totally healthy in a relationship, some couples might want to set boundaries around masturbation — and I’m not going to tell you how to live your life. If the thought of your partner masturbating to the image of someone else really bothers you, that’s a conversation you can have (though I haven’t met anyone who doesn't have the occasional fantasy/dream/masturbation session about someone other than their partner, so make sure neither of you is being hypocritical).

And if masturbation habits are for some reason impeding your relationship, affecting your sex life, or getting in between the two of you, that’s also something you can talk about. Sometimes people do revert to masturbation and retreat from their own sex lives, but that’s usually a sign of larger problems in the relationship. So you can find a healthy way to incorporate masturbation, with boundaries that work for you and make your relationship stronger.

The idea that women don’t masturbate or that male partners are constantly going at it and hiding it from their other halves is reductive, sexist, heteronormative, and just so out of date. Masturbation is healthy in a relationship — it makes you stronger, happier individuals and therefore a stronger couple. Plus, you never know what might bubble up in a masturbation session that could improve your sex life. Of course, talk about it if anything your partner is doing is making you uncomfortable or vice versa. Talk about your sex life if it's struggling. But remember, you have a powerful, individual sexuality of your own — and it’s important to pay attention to that.

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