As we brace for 2019 and stack up our resolutions, Broadly is focusing on finding motivation for the hard tasks that await us—like getting out of bed. So, throughout January, we're rolling out Getting Out of Bed, a series of stories about all things related to rest and resilience. Read more here.
I started masturbating when I was five years old. Like most people whose bones haven’t fused yet, I didn’t realize what I was doing—I just knew it felt good. I also knew it fixed things: It gave me something to do when I was bored, calmed me down when I was anxious, made sad things—like my friend moving away or my parents getting divorced—seem less sad. I started doing it all the time. Now, 20-odd years later, I can’t get out of bed without getting off.
If I had to guess, I’d say 360 out of 365 days of my year start with an orgasm. Sometimes, that orgasm comes from sex, but most days, it’s self-supplied. Even if my partner is asleep right next to me, I’ll rub one out before he wakes up or while he’s in the shower.
It’s not that I don’t want him or sex—I’m definitely still interested in both even after I cum—it’s that morning masturbation has come to play a very important and specific role in my life. It wakes me up, boosts my mood, and soothes my stress enough that I can kick the covers off and be a functional human being. Without it, I’m D.O.A. I feel anxious, depressed, and exhausted. My brain doesn’t work. I’m a complete zombie until the 32 oz. coffee kicks in.
I’m not alone. Rebecca, a 28-year-old chef I met in a private, sex-positive Facebook group whose last name has been left out for privacy, tells me she also masturbates every morning.
“It’s a must,” she says. “It gives me that urge to jump out of bed and start my day. It’s like I’m releasing my tired energy.” She fares better than I do if she can’t, but she says it makes the rest of her day a lot easier.
Neither my partners nor myself have ever viewed this habit as a problem—more of a feature—but I’ve always struggled to understand why I do it. Why are coffee, hot showers, or exercise some people's personal alarm clocks while mine is three-to-five-minute of clitoral bliss?
To find out, I reached out to somatic psychologist and sex therapist Holly Richmond. She explained that when it comes to morning routines, masturbation is really no different than any other other regimen. She has clients of all genders who masturbate first thing in the morning in order to feel sane, collected, and functional, she says. It’s just talked about less than crunches or coffee.
“We have a tendency to glaze over sex and pleasure as wellness activities, which is unfortunate because they’re just as, if not more, healthy for you than most other morning pick-me-ups,” she says. “It’s a healthy ritual like any other, only instead of breaking a sweat or perking yourself up with caffeine, you’re doing it with pleasure.”
And there are many reasons why someone would pick orgasm over coffee.
“Half the reason I do it is so I can contain myself around straight boys, and the other half is that it genuinely regulates my mood,” musician and visual artist Daniel Crook tells me. “Anyone who’s seen me before I’ve gotten off in the morning can confirm I am not the same person afterwards.”
Charlie McGuire, a barista living in Silverlake, California says he does it because he often wakes up depressed and anxious, but watching porn and masturbating snaps him out if it. “The first thing I feel when I wake up is a mixture of panic and exhaustion,” he says. “But getting off calms me down and wakes me up at the same time. It’s much better than an alarm clock.”
This, Richmond explains, is because masturbation releases a cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters that put you in the sort of energized, upbeat, and focused headspace that makes mornings more bearable. Oxytocin, endorphins, and dopamine released during orgasm improve mood, soothe anxiety, lower self-doubt, increase focus, and contribute to feelings of enthusiasm. At the same time, epinephrine (adrenaline) acts like a shot of espresso for your nervous system, perking you up. Even if you don’t end up coming, fooling around with yourself often has the meditative effects of connecting your mind and body, increasing your confidence, and grounding you for the day. It also gets your blood moving.
In fact, according to clinical sexologist Shannon Chavez, the small amount of cardio required to writhe in pleasure pumps oxygen-rich blood to your muscles and nerves, which releases stress and tension in the exact same way exercise does.
“The breathing patterns, movement in the body, and physical stimulation masturbation provides wakes up the nervous system,” she says. “Just like exercise, this can increase your productivity throughout the day by making you feel good and increasing focus and concentration.”
Together, the one-two punch of hormones and physical activity can also enhance your cognition, which is crucial for jumpstarting your brain when you're tired at work. But, if masturbation is such an effective AM energizer, why doesn’t everyone get the urge to do it in the morning? More importantly, why do people like me have to?
Chavez believes it’s all a matter of habit. “Some people have simply developed a morning habit of masturbation,” she says. “These routines are determined by sexual conditioning, hormone levels, and mental state.” In other words, there’s a good chance my fellow morning masturbators and I are comatose until we cum because we’ve trained our bodies to wake up that way through the power of positive reinforcement.
Differences in people’s daily and monthly testosterone cycles may also explain why some people are more motivated to masturbate in the morning than others. For some, testosterone peaks in the morning (this is usually the case with cis men). For others, it peaks at night, or in the middle of the day (as is common with cis women). Some people even experience multiple peaks throughout a 24-hour period. According to Richmond, these peaks can be influenced by things like stress, medication, and mood, and can change over time. However, if your routine is consistent, your hormone levels tend to be, too.
The penis, clitoris, labia, and vagina all have erectile tissue that engorges when testosterone is high, which is usually during the REM stage of sleep (this spike in blood flow can also increase vaginal lubrication). If you wake up during or near REM, you’re more likely to wake up with an erection, which usually makes you horny. Morning wood is the direct result of this reaction. Clits and vaginas often experience the exact same phenomenon—it’s just harder to see.
All that said, hormones and engorged erectile tissue don’t necessarily dictate behavior. “Even if your testosterone is high in the morning, or you have an erection, it doesn’t mean you have to masturbate to get out of bed, or even at all,” says Richmond. “There are no universals when it comes to sexuality.”
Unfortunately, there’s not, in my experience, a lot of open conversation about the urge to masturbate in the morning—save for some concerned-sounding Quora posts. This lack of discourse can make the habit feel a little abnormal, but Richmond says the lack of discussion about this type of masturbation shouldn’t be cause for shame or concern.
“Because it’s a sexual thing, masturbation is easy to pathologize, especially if it feels necessary,” she says. “However, we wouldn’t pathologize someone who says they have to exercise, meditate, or drink coffee to feel functional. I don’t think it makes sense to problematize a behavior that functions almost exactly like those things. Something’s really only a problem if it’s derailing your life.”
That couldn’t be further from the case in my situation, so I’m going to continue giving my body what it’s telling me it needs: enthusiastic, life-giving clit acrobatics at the crack of dawn.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.