A French advertisement for anti-masturbation devices for men and women. Image via Wellcome Library

How to Know When You're Masturbating Too Much

A historian, a doctor, and a sex therapist talk about what we talk about when we talk about masturbation.

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Jul 11 2016, 3:15pm

A French advertisement for anti-masturbation devices for men and women. Image via Wellcome Library

In the fifth installment of his My Struggle series, Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard writes about the first time he masturbated. He was in a bathroom, face-to-face with a photo of a buxom, scantily clad woman on the beach. "I wrapped my fingers around my dick and jerked it up and down," the passage begins, ending with Knausgaard's triumphant conclusion that the process was "incredibly easy."

On one level, the fact that a guy who became a worldwide literary sensation through unflinchingly documenting his life in meticulous, sometimes excruciating detail waited until nearly the end of a six-book series to write about cranking his meat hog is flabbergasting—as is the fact that the tale was excerpted in the first nudity-free issue of Playboy. It makes perfect sense too, though, since there's an intense stigma associated with talking about hand-to-gland combat.

Though organizations from Reddit to the University of Indiana have tried to pin down what qualifies as a "normal" amount of masturbation, "it's hard to find good numbers on this sort of stuff," says Professor Thomas Laqueur of UC Berkeley. "A while ago, someone conducted a survey, and the things they had the most difficulty getting answers about were masturbation and responders' income."

Although I have met many people in my life that I'd label "masturbation experts," Laqueur is a true authority on the subject: In 2003, he wrote Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation. When we speak on the phone, he's just gotten home from walking his dog and had gotten a late start because he went to the opera the night before.

"Doing things by yourself is thought to be weird," he tells me. "Often people masturbate not because they can't find someone to have sex with, but out of abjection—they can't write, they can't sleep, or something else is off." He went on to note that "masturbating before you write is a constant trope in literature."

I ask Laqueur where the line is drawn when it comes to yanking it too often. "That's a really hard question," he admits. "It speaks to the roots of desire and the difference between humans and animals."

According to Laqueur, the concept of "too much masturbation" is relatively novel, since in ancient times the great thinkers were unconcerned with the subject. "It's not like Plato wasn't thinking about sex," he specifies. "He just wasn't thinking about that particular form of sex." And so the timeless art of self-pleasure cruised under the radar until the Enlightenment era.

This sea change in the discourse of diddling has roots in a 1712 tract written by an anonymous physician, who decried the practice of masturbation as a disease he termed "Onanism." This comes from the the biblical story of Onan, who, rather than marrying his dead brother's wife and raising his children as his own, chose to "spill his seed on the ground." (This was the Old Testament, so God ended up smiting him as punishment.)

Until then, people interpreted the story as a parable about why you shouldn't shirk your responsibilities. However, the anonymous physician interpreted the text as evidence that if you jacked off, God would punish you. "It was totally cynical," Laqueur tells me. "This guy said, 'How can I make some money? I can say masturbation causes illness!'"

An 1800s-era rendition of a man whose fortitude has succumbed to the "mental and bodily exhaustion of Onanism." Image via Wellcome Library

By mid-century, masturbation had become verboten throughout Europe. "Philosophers felt it was the rot of civilization, that it was a morally horrible, pathological, and dangerous thing," Laqueur claims. Immanuel Kant was a particularly harsh critic of the self-administered meat massage, framing the act as comparative to suicide. Laqueur says that, to Kant, "The whole point was that you couldn't use someone as an object. If you killed yourself, you were treating yourself as an object too, but you were slightly justified because you were despairing. Masturbators were just wantonly making up the conditions for treating themselves as objects, which made it worse."

Curiously, the rabid campaign to curb masturbation wasn't necessarily tied to sexuality. "In 18th-century Europe, there was more sex per capita than ever before," he says. The hand-wringing over rubbing one out was tied to "the moral outrage over someone checking out from the world," similar to the impulse that causes adults to fret over their kids playing video games or staring at their phones. "People thought that it produced the sort of person society ought not to produce."

As time wore on, society's attitudes toward masturbation remained unchanged. During the Civil War, "there were records of soldiers being institutionalized for what people called 'masturbatory madness,'" Laqueur explains. "It was the dark underside of the socially virtuous idea that you needed to develop your imagination and sense of self."

These days, we view choking the chicken with a much more liberal eye. This has a lot to do with the groundbreaking sex research of sexologist Alfred Kinsey, who conducted exhaustive studies of human sexuality at the University of Indiana. "The power of Kinsey's findings was the acknowledgement that masturbation was prevalent, and certainly not associated with any kind of disorders," says Dr. Eli Coleman, a professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota. Coleman once organized an academic conference on masturbation, and is an advocate for using it as a tool to help people come to terms with their own bodies and sexuality: "It's a healthy form of sexual expression."

Still, there are limits when it comes to pounding off, and those limits tend to involve blood. As the clinical director for the Center for Healthy Sex in Los Angeles, Alexandra Katehakis has heard her fair share of horror stories involving men with bloody and blistered penises, as well as women using their vibrators to the point where it burns their skin. According to her, if someone's at the point of self-sex self-harm, "it's not even about achieving orgasm—it's about a repetitive compulsive behavior." And such behaviors are potential red flags for issues like obsessive compulsive disorder, or childhood sexual abuse.

Katehakis also warns that, for men, excessively wanking it to porn can lead to an inability to get it up when it comes time for real-life sex. "We come across that pretty often," she says. "If young men in their twenties and thirties are struggling with erectile dysfunction, the first thing they should ask is, 'How much porn am I looking at?'"

And mind you, Katehakis isn't a vigilant anti-masturbation crusader—she's a licensed sex therapist. "Porn and masturbation should be a pleasurable part of a person's healthy sexuality," she declares, specifying that she just wants people of all genders to be safe when they jank it. That means making sure your masturbatory habits aren't interfering with your daily life, handling your equipment gently, and using lubrication.

One of the reasons people might not know safe masturbation techniques is that we're never encouraged to learn about them. "Adults are shamed about masturbation since day one," said Elise Franklin, an LA-based therapist who promotes pro-sex attitudes through her practice. "When you're two years old and your parents catch you touching yourself, they tell you, 'Don't do that!' When you're in school and take sex education, the topic is greeted with discomfort and giggles."

Regardless of the patina of indignity surrounding the subject, there is truly no such thing as too much masturbation. As Franklin puts it, the act of rubbing one out is not dissimilar to snowflake formation: "There's a thousand different styles and frequencies for masturbation, and none of them are wrong."

Follow Drew Millard on Twitter.

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